“To see a world in a grain of sand” – The awesomeness of training with beginners (Guest post)

Last week a new woman started in my aikijujutsu class. We trained together all evening, and had a ball. But still, she kept saying, Sorry, you must be so bored! or Sorry, I feel really guilty for spoiling your training. It didn’t matter how many times I assured her I was having a great time.

And I understand why she felt that way. If I was in her position, I would surely be just as worried about my partner feeling bored.

But I was genuinely not bored in the slightest!

Brian Johns has an excellent article on the reasons to teach beginners in the martial arts. His main reasons are:

  1. To practise empathy and compassion – you were like that too once!
  2. To refine, expand and experiment with your teaching
  3. To challenge yourself – because beginners haven’t yet learned the “programmed” moves and responses of more experienced students

These points are spot on. I would add that there can also be an emotional richness and beauty in working with beginners. Something clicked in this lesson; and I suddenly realised that different partners are just gateways to different parts of the whole.

It’s like the famous story explains:

The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.

A king explains to them:

All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all the features you mentioned.

The black belt on the other side of the room can offer me plenty of things this beginner can’t – the opportunity to express and receive more power and intent; and an enjoyable sense of stress and risk. He or she can probably also show me more subtle and advanced aspects of the techniques.

But this new woman can offer me other valuable things, including exposure to her pure “beginner’s mind” (to cite the classic Zen Buddhist concept).

The martial arts are so complex and rich, we are never going to learn any more than a fraction of the whole anyway; so in that sense there is no rush.

Teaching her just one throw was fascinating; as every tiny movement within it needed attention and focus. It felt like slowing down time and learning the movement with a new intensity and attention to detail. Like an infinite fractal opening up . . .

I think of William Blake’s opening to Auguries of Innocence:

To see a world in a grain of sand.

An anonymous online writer explains this line as follows:

One can find vast truths in the smallest of things – or to put it in fashionable literary terms, he’s dealing with the microcosmic as representative of the universal. So, knowledge of the whole world can be gained from examining its smallest constituent part.

My Aikido teacher says: The older I get, the deeper I want to go into narrower topics. I could write a book – or three books – just about kamae! [combative stance].

Even as recently as a year or so ago, I admit I would have felt a sense of losing out by being partnered with this beginner all evening. I would still have helped her because it was the right thing to do; but with a sense of noble, slightly injured self-sacrifice.

Something’s changed. I think it’s a growing confidence that there is enough learning to go round; and that I can genuinely learn just as much about martial arts from training with the vulnerable as with the powerful; from the inexperienced as much as the expert.

This reflects the Ninjutsu historian and author Antony Cummins’ description of moving through phases of your own spiritual development. In the early stages, you may go through a phase of finding those who are less developed dull, and even beneath you in a sense. But in time, you move beyond this phase, and the world becomes fascinating.

So one partner is genuinely no better or more valuable or interesting than another. Antony Cummins writes:

[…] the martial path has no end; linear thought is a process of modern man. There is no end, you realise that you are no longer working towards an end goal but it’s the journey itself that is the fascinating aspect. (To Stand on a Stone pp.274-5).

So if you’re a beginner reading this – in any martial art or sport – have faith! It’s very likely that your teacher or training partner really is enjoying working with you as much as they say – and not just pretending, to spare your feelings!

Hang in there, and one day you’ll hopefully realise the truth of this for yourself – as you join another beginner in the exciting early stages of their own journey . . .

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Kai Morgan is a martial arts blogger. You can read more of her stories and articles at www.budo-inochi.com or follow her Facebook page: www.facebook.com/kaimorg

I’m playing co-ed soccer?!

If you asked me last year if I’d ever play co-ed  soccer I would have said HELL NO. Well, here I am, after accepting the tentacle of friendship, playing soccer. 

Wednesday night we had a pre-season friendly scrimmage (do we scrimmage in soccer?). I left buying my gear until the night before. I chose bright green cleats to go with our construction zone orange jerseys. I was nervous. I was sure I was “making a fool of myself” and forgetting to “act my age”.  

Where does that shit still even come from? I keep thinking those voices will go away but there they are, every time I try something new. 

The team is a mix of folks from various areas in our business and a couple friends. I was oddly comforted by not being the oldest person on the team. I felt my lack of skills and practice were enough of a liability, so I was happy to meet the gang and see we ranged in age from early 20s to 50s. 

Most players have recent soccer experience and I would put them in the “solid skills and know what they are doing” category. I’m neither but the few of us who don’t know the rules or strategy  were kindly coached through the game. 

I was happy to occasionally touch the ball, played defense somewhat adequately and had some sprint/hustle in me. 

Funny enough my best soccer knowledge is from my grade 6 teacher Bette Turner. I still remember how to throw in or kick, to keep my arms in check and be fierce. 

It was a lot of fun. I realize I’ve missed co-ed sports, something I played a lot in the military and haven’t in the 12 years since. 

a lovely group of sportsing humans


Thursday was a rude awakening. I was very sore. I had counted on baseline fitness of walking and cycling but that was clearly a mistake. After downing ibuprofen I walked VERY SLOWLY to work. I took some comfort in the admissions of my twenty something team mates who were also feeling stiff and tired. 

Something I didn’t expect was how good it felt to connect to people in this way. I’ve missed it and look forward to soccer and post game drinks on Thursday nights. 

There’s something about outdoor team sports that’s very invigorating and I’m glad I decided to give it a try. 😀

Silver spoons and the advantage of wealth, round 2: Training, time, and performance

Laser Master Championships 2013

Laser Master Championships 2013

When my partner Jeff was young he raced small sailboats, lasers, pretty competitively. But he never had a chance against some of his friends who made it all the way. Not for lack of talent. Instead, the dividing line was money. The wealthy kids had all the equipment, of course, but more than that they had time to train. There was no pressure to work and they could sail all summer.

Now that’s just part of the story but it was striking to watch those who never had to work make their way through university, keeping up in their sport along the way. And it’s true for lots of sports. I once complimented my son for making the provincial rugby team. He quickly pointed out that he wasn’t the best, just the best of those kids whose parents could afford the registration fees  and commit to all that driving. Smart kid.

What’s interesting though now is watching the same phenomena play out in mid-life!

We thought that once parents stopped supporting their kids that the playing field would level out a bit. Not so much. I wrote earlier this week about working part-time and early retirement. I approached the question from the perspective of health and overall well-being but you could also ask it from the point of view of sports performance. Each spring I struggle to balance end of term grading with the start of the cycling season. It’s tough. I’ve got a friend who is a tax accountant and she struggles too. Tax time is peak early season training time.

While we struggle, I’ve also got friends who post their “Retired Guys Rides” on Strava and Facebook. They’re time flexible. They can wait for the sunshine and warm weather. They can ride everyday if they want. Sometimes I’m jealous.

Some of these same people also go south in the winter and ride. Why not?

And the same is true for sailing. Some of the fastest masters class racers retire at 50 or 55 and spend their winters in warm places training. Competition is their full-time job. 55 and working full-time is pretty different than 55 and training full-time,

Is it fair? I don’t know. I do know that come spring I’m jealous other peoples’ weekday rides and their afternoon naps!

Hill yeah! Using hill training to run faster

Hill_running

Most runners want to run faster. But it’s easy to get stuck in a rut of moderately or easy paced runs when you’re adding distance.

The long Sunday run with friends is one of my favourite things of the week. But it’s not a speed workout. Nor should it be. The point of that one is to get the mileage in, keeping to a conversational pace.

But that’s not enough to get faster. Any running plan will tell you that you need to switch it up. There are a number of ways to do that. Tempo runs, where you run a shorter distance at a “comfortably hard” pace, help the body get used to a faster pace. The thing about tempo runs, according to this article, is to keep the pace consistent throughout.

Today though, I want to talk about hill training.  My running friend Julie and I have added one night a week of hill repeats to our Niagara Women’s Half Marathon training plan.  It’s not as if we live in a mountainous part of the world, so the hill we use is moderate in length and pitch.

It’s great for repeats because it’s adjacent to the park, has almost no traffic, and though tough, I can easily run up it in less than a minute. It’s a tough interval, and by the end of it I can’t breath. But I can make it.

We run up, not even trying to talk. Julie is usually up ahead of me (she’s good at making a strong burst at the beginning), so that keeps me going. Then we catch our breath on the way down, walking and chatting. Then when we get to the bottom, up we go again.

We did that four times. Then we went for a short run along the road, back into the park down a different hill, along the river, added one more hill repeat to make it five, and called it a night.

What I love about hill repeats is that the results are immediate. When we finished those four repeats and then broke away from the hill to run, we managed to maintain a dramatically faster pace than usual, and for quite a bit longer than I would usually be able to maintain it for.

Hills make me believe that a sub-60 minute 10K is an attainable goal because after I run a hill I can keep a pace that would have me cross the finish line in less than 60 minutes if I could maintain it for 10K.

Granted, I can’t (yet) keep that awesome pace for more than about a kilometre so far, but it’s only our second week of hills.

My training goals are a bit unfocused right now. I’ve got some speed goals (the sub-60 10K or at least a sub-30 5K), but at the same time I’m training for the Niagara Women’s Half marathon. That’s on June 5th. But I’m hitting a good mix of faster, slower, and hills.

Sunday remains the long, slow distance run at a conversational pace. We’re going out for 15K this week. Tuesdays are for the hills with Julie. I try to get out on my own for a 5K tempo run on Thursdays or Fridays.

Hill repeats aren’t the only way to get faster, but they’re a way. And I figure if we do enough of them, it won’t be nearly as daunting when I encounter a hill on a race course. And the more I adapt to hills, the easier the flats will seem.

So I say “hell yeah!” to hill training.

Here are some Runners’ World tips for getting the most out of hills.

 

Working hard or hardly working?: What’s the healthiest option?

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So I’ve been working half-time this semester, while recovering from the loss of my father and helping my partner recover from major surgery. The end of the month marks my return to full-time work. My experiment in working less has got me wondering why more senior academics don’t switch to half time, instead of early retiring. It’s certainly been easier to fit exercise in. I’ve walked the dog a fair bit. I’ve even read some fiction. Sleep wasn’t always easy but with only one class to teach, I had to time catch up.

Lest you think I’m returning to work just in time for summer, which academics have off anyway, let me tell you that my life isn’t like that.  It’s true friends and family outside academia wonder what I do once classes end. I  do a lot. A big part of my summer work is graduate student supervision. And my own writing and research, which is 40% of my job. And preparing two new classes for the fall. Like me most of the grad students’ time during the school year is taken up with undergrad teaching but come summer the pace picks up. First PhD defense of the summer was this Monday morning. It’s also academic conference season and I’ve spent the last few weekends at conferences. I wrote my questions for the defense on the flight home from San Diego.

I’ve been listing the cities and countries as Facebook status updates: San Francisco, Burlington (Vermont), San Diego, Austria, Calgary, Sweden, Scotland….

But I don’t win the “who is the busiest competition?” I wasn’t even close. The friend with the busiest schedule (he says he’s easily bored) listed no fewer than 4 workshops and conferences, 1 summer school, finishing grading for two courses, reviewing two tenure files, two doctoral defences in Paris,  7 overdue papers, and talks in Quebec, Paris, London, Cardiff, York, Warwick, Toronto, Calgary, Florence and Braga. He also planned to teach in two different summer schools.

Working less is something academics find hard to do. For me, it took the death of my father and both parents in law over the course of the past two years. It’s been a rough couple of years. During that same time period I also lost three of the family’s dogs. Not the same sort of loss but they took their toll too.  As well, two friends from high school died, both my age, one from cancer and the other from ALS. It got hard not to think about my own mortality and how I want to spend my time. Life really is very short. I teach a course on death and I’ve written about death but now it’s getting up close and personal.

So why not just retire early? I’m too young but I’ve got friends in other fields doing the count down. My stated plan is to retire at 68. I’m a fan of round numbers and I started work as a professor at 28. A forty year career sounds about right. And I’m only a three years past the halfway mark.

Financial considerations aside, the thing is I love my job. I feel like I’m still mid-career in terms of teaching and writing and books and papers and conferences and ideas. I’m very excited about what’s ahead and  I’d need two or three careers to get it all done. I met with a publisher recently at a conference and started enthusing about the three book projects I’d take on, if I had time to write books, which I don’t really!

You might think the health arguments would be in favour of early retirement. But they’re not, not at all. See Retire Early, Die Early. It turns out that for healthy workers, retiring even a year early raises the risk of mortality.

If you have the financial resources to assume a life of leisure, why not do so? Newly published research provides a stark and compelling answer: You will likely hasten your own death. That’s the conclusion of a research team led by Oregon State University’sChenkai Wu and Robert Stawski. They report that, in a large-scale longitudinal study, “early retirement was associated with increased mortality risk.” This held true for both healthy and less-than-healthy retirees, and was independent of a variety of socioeconomic and lifestyle-related factors. The longitudinal study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, featured 2,956 older Americans who participated in the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study. They were periodically surveyed from 1992 (when all were still working) to 2010 (when all were fully retired).

So how about the part-time option? Unlike most high achieving/earning jobs, professors can do this easily. According to my collective agreement I can switch to “reduced responsibility” at any time. Keep the exact job I’ve got and do it half-time. That’s rare.

What version of this appeals to me? Teach the fall term in Canada and then spend winter in Arizona, California, Australia, New Zealand, and other warm philosophically rewarding environments. That’s just my dream, I know. I can’t afford it but it’s fun to think about.

The healthiest version of all might be part-time year round. A study that just came out said three days a week work is ideal after the age of 40. Subjects were given cognitive assessments and “those participants who worked about 25 hours a week tended to achieve the best scores.”

“Work can be a double-edged sword, in that it can stimulate brain activity, but at the same time, long working hours and certain types of tasks can cause fatigue and stress which potentially damage cognitive functions,” the report said. Colin McKenzie, professor of economics at Keio University who took part in the research, said it would appear that working extremely long hours was more damaging than not working at all on brain function. The figures suggest that the cognitive ability of those working about 60 hours a week can be lower than those who are not employed.

I have thoughts about why more professors don’t do this. We love our research and for most of us we’d only give up teaching. So my job is 40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% service. When I switched to half-time this semester I really only cut back on undergraduate teaching.  By that math, I did 20% less, not 50% less.

If that’s what switching to half-time is like then it’s really half the pay for 20% less work. And that doesn’t feel quite right.

I know, I know. We could write fewer papers, go to fewer conferences, referee fewer papers, edit fewer journals, etc etc. But I think we don’t because really we love it.

A recent piece in the The Economist, Why do we work so hard?, really hit home.  The author argued we work so hard because work is, for those of us lucky enough to have certain kinds of jobs, the most rewarding thing in our lives.

Here is the alternative to the treadmill thesis. As professional life has evolved over the past generation, it has become much more pleasant. Software and information technology have eliminated much of the drudgery of the workplace. The duller sorts of labour have gone, performed by people in offshore service-centres or by machines. Offices in the rich world’s capitals are packed not with drones filing paperwork or adding up numbers but with clever people working collaboratively.

The pleasure lies partly in flow, in the process of losing oneself in a puzzle with a solution on which other people depend. The sense of purposeful immersion and exertion is the more appealing given the hands-on nature of the work: top professionals are the master craftsmen of the age, shaping high-quality, bespoke products from beginning to end. We design, fashion, smooth and improve, filing the rough edges and polishing the words, the numbers, the code or whatever is our chosen material. At the end of the day we can sit back and admire our work – the completed article, the sealed deal, the functioning app – in the way that artisans once did, and those earning a middling wage in the sprawling service-sector no longer do.

The fact that our jobs now follow us around is not necessarily a bad thing, either. Workers in cognitively demanding fields, thinking their way through tricky challenges, have always done so at odd hours. Academics in the midst of important research, or admen cooking up a new creative campaign, have always turned over the big questions in their heads while showering in the morning or gardening on a weekend afternoon. If more people find their brains constantly and profitably engaged, so much the better.

Smartphones do not just enable work to follow us around; they also make life easier. Tasks that might otherwise require you to stay late in the office can be taken home. Parents can enjoy dinner and bedtime with the children before turning back to the job at hand. Technology is also lowering the cost of the support staff that make long hours possible. No need to employ a full-time personal assistant to run the errands these days: there are apps to take care of the shopping, the laundry and the dinner, walk the dog, fix the car and mend the hole in the roof. All of these allow us to focus ever more of our time and energy on doing what our jobs require of us.

So I’m still mulling what the ideal life would be like! One thing I know for sure is that I love real honest to God vacations. Time in my canoe in Algonquin Park and time spent riding bikes and sleeping in tents really means a lot to me. When I’m working I’m happy to work hard but I also like my time off.

One last thought about work patterns and flexibility. I’ve  been thinking lots about how time consuming parenting teenagers can be. It feels pretty intense. Here’s the case for taking parental leave when your kids are teenagers.

How about you? Do you work too hard? Would you rather work less? If you could work less, would you? What’s your ideal retirement age? Any and all thoughts welcome! I know academics lead privileged lives and we’re very lucky to have such wonderful careers so feel free to broaden the discussion! 

Bring on all the big ideas! Balancing career and family, work and fun, what’s the best mix for you? Does thinking about death spur you to make different choices?

 

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How important is it to win? Would you cheat for it?

I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating. -- SophoclesHow important is it to win? For me, not very. But that’s likely because the chances of me winning any of the events I enter, even my chances of achieving an age-group win, are zero.

I’m just not even in range. I’d like to see progress: sub-30 5K, sub-60 10K, sub 2:30 half marathon.  I’d be thrilled to complete the Kincardine Women’s Triathlon in 1:00 even (last year I did it in 1:01:40). But winning? That’s not even a goal.

This isn’t true of everyone. I read a fascinating story on the weekend, which I’m sure lots of people are already familiar with, about Julie Miller, a Canadian Ironman competitor who appears to have wanted to win more than anything else. In “Swim, Bike, Cheat?” author Sarah Lyall strongly suggests that Miller cut the course in more than one event, claiming to have lost her timing chip.

At the Ironman event in Squamish BC, Suzanne Davis was mystified when Miller was announced as the age-group winner in the women’s 40-44 category. Davis had run a careful race, keeping a close eye out for rivals and asking anyone she passed or who passed her what age-group they were in. And yet when the medals were handed out, she was second — five minutes behind Miller. The third and fourth place women also had no idea where Miller had come from, not having seen her on the course.

This odd series of events eventually touched off an extraordinary feat of forensic detective work by a group of athletes who were convinced that Miller had committed what they consider the triathlon’s worst possible transgression. They believed she had deliberately cut the course and then lied about it.

Dissatisfied with the response of race officials, they methodically gathered evidence from the minutiae of her record: official race photographs, timing data, photographs from spectators along the routes, the accounts of other competitors and volunteers who saw, or did not see, Miller at various points. Much of it suggested that Miller simply could not have completed some segments of the race in the times she claimed, and all of it raised grave questions about the integrity of her results at Whistler and other races.

Miller, they concluded, was triathlon’s version of Rosie Ruiz, the runner who won the 1980 Boston Marathon in a stunningly fast time but was later found to have run only a fraction of the race. Just as Ruiz did back then, Miller has repeatedly insisted that she completed the course fairly, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Ulimately, Miller lost her title in that race and others:

Three weeks after winning Ironman Canada, Miller was disqualified from the race, her time erased, her first-place finish voided. Soon after, she was disqualified from two previous races that she had won. Officials are investigating her 2014 victory in China. Triathlon Canada has barred her from competing for the next two years, citing “repeated rule violations,” while Ironman has barred her indefinitely from its competitions.

“We can’t prove what happened on the course in Ironman Canada in 2015, or what her intent was,” the regional director for Ironman, Keats McGonigal, said in an interview. “People can make their own judgments and decisions. But what we can prove is that it would have been impossible for her to be at specific points at specific times and still get to the finish line when she did.”

The excellent article makes a fascinating case for Miller’s guilt, despite her repeated claims to the contrary. What this story raises for me and for some of my friends who commented on it when I posted it on social media is, “why?’

I’ve always been mystified by people who cheat. As an academic, it always astonishes me that anyone would want to take credit for work they’ve not done. Likewise, it’s hard to know what’s satisfying about winning a race that you didn’t actually win.

I get that there’s the fame and glory. But the fame and glory of being competitive in your age group is pretty limited. True, in the Miller case, the race in question would have qualified her for Kona, which is admittedly a big deal. But can you want it badly enough to cheat others more deserving out of the opportunity?

The other thing about the Miller case is that she’s no slouch. She’s not like me, aspiring to one day emerge from the bottom half into the top half.  She’s actually, by all accounts, quite competitive in her field. Many of her race results have now been called into question. But she’s pretty strong.

I know that some people think there’s no reason to compete at all (or do an event) if you’ve got no chance of winning or placing. Some even think it cheapens the events to have such a large number of non-competitive participants. See my post Why Participate If I’m Not Going to Win?

This is a good question. But clearly many, many people have all sorts of other reasons for entering events.  It helps us set training goals. It’s a fun thing to do. Even those of us who aren’t going to get a medal usually get an adrenaline rush on race day that makes us go faster.

Knowing I’m going to finish isn’t always satisfying enough.  I like to believe I’ll “finish well.” But finishing well is relative and means different things to different people. Like I said, in my own case, it means doing better than I did before. Or it could mean meeting a training goal that I’ve set for myself.

But what it could never mean (to me) is making everyone believe I hit a goal that I didn’t actually hit. What on earth could ever be rewarding about that?

One of the things we sometimes teach in our introduction to ethics and value theory course is a thought experiment by philosopher Robert Nozick called “The Experience Machine.” The experience machine is a machine that perfectly simulates any experience you program it to give you in a way that is totally indecipherable from reality. The question is: would you prefer the machine to real life?

He thinks the answer will be “no.” Why not? Because, for one thing, feeling good isn’t the only thing that has value to us. Real value is in actually doing things, not just believing we’re doing them. In other words, Nozick maintains, we value accomplishment.

Cheating is even one step removed from the experience machine.  You don’t even get to feel like you’ve actually won. You get the kudos, but they’re not for anything you’ve actually done.

I’m now tempted to talk about Plato’s Republic and the Ring of Gyges, but I think that’s enough philosophy for one post.

What do you think? How important is winning and, if it’s important, what matters about it? Could it matter so much that it would feel just as good if people thought you won (but you actually didn’t)? If you’re more of a finisher than a winner, what keeps you interested in taking part in events?

Showing a little (or a lot of) spring skin

Oh Canadian university campuses, you’re cute once the temperature hits 15 Celsius in the spring. Bye bye parkas, bye bye boots. Hello flip flops and sun dresses.

It’s true that Ontario didn’t really have spring. We went from too cold to run one week, to too hot to run in tights the next. Straight to shorts it is then.

But each spring there are two reminders I want to give the world when it comes to bodies, choices, and showing skin.

Guest blogger Carly  beat me to the first one when she posted this on Facebook,

this is your springtime reminder that even though everyone looks hella cute in the sunshine, hollering or whistling at people, commenting on their bodies, demanding smiles, or otherwise harassing them is shitty violent behaviour and probably misogyny. don’t. okay? okay.

Also, you can wear what you want. That’s my second reminder. There’s zero obligation to get your body into a certain kind of shape before wearing shorts, showing your arms, or whatever. Miniskirts aren’t for the young and skinny. Bikinis are for whoever wants to wear them. Enjoy!

Don’t judge. And if you can’t resist judging, then at the very least don’t share. No one needs to hear your views about what people shouldn’t wear in the summer heat.

It’s Canada. Summer is short. Enjoy!

 

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