Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Service Jobs

Can Be Empowering.

A service job does not have to be degrading, it can actually be empowering. Any job can be empowering if you take pride in doing it well. But in order for a service job to be empowering, in order to do it well, you have to accept and embrace the fact that it's a service job. If you cannot embrace this fact and instead try to maintain a feeling of superiority with regard to the job or the customer, you cannot be empowered by the job, you will always be in some kind of inner conflict about the job, and you will never do it very well.

I think one of the reasons why good service is so rare, and by good service I mean sincerely friendly, helpful, courteous service, is that so many people cannot allow themselves to serve another person, they cannot embrace what in fact, a service job actually is: paying attention to the needs of someone else.

I think a secure person can pay attention to the needs of someone else and not feel degraded or defined by that role. An insecure person cannot put themselves in a service position without being reminded of their own feelings of insecurity and inferiority. These feelings are intolerable to them so they adopt a superficial "service personality" but inwardly feel contempt and superiority toward the customers. The result is bad or insincere fake-good service.

I understand this position. It's very difficult to serve another person sincerely, especially one who is rude or condescending or downright insulting. But that, nevertheless is what the job entails. The smug inwardly superior position is an adequate defense mechanism that does push away the bad feelings temporarily and does allow one to continue in the job. But ultimately, those feelings will keep surfacing over and over again.

As I see it, the best way out of this bind is to see that this is a job and a role, not "who you are". The customer is in the role of superior and you are in the role of server. It doesn't mean that the customer is literally superior to you or your better in any way. It doesn't mean that you are their superior either. It just means that in this job, those are the roles. If you can accept your role in this scenario, you can set your personal life and preferences aside, and simply play the role and do your job. You can do it well and you can take pride and power from doing that.

You can also, if you have feelings of insecurity or inferiority, learn to deal with them directly rather than acting them out on the customers. I would recommend starting with admitting to yourself that you feel this way. Honestly assess your sense of self-worth and start doing things that increase it. Develop skills that you value. Learn about things that you value. Find your natural talents and do things that bring them out. It won't happen overnight, but you can find value in yourself and what you do. Once you value who you are, you can be empowered by any job, even if that job is serving other people.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Some Words I Made Up

Feel free to start using them.

Pre-bound (noun): What you’re on when you start a relationship before the one you’re in is over. Sentence: Dude, I was still dating Susan when I met Cindy so I was totally on the pre-bound.

Sporn (noun or verb): Spam that is also porn. Sentence: Because Bob preferred sporn to plain old spam, its lifespan in his “in” box was slightly longer than usual.

Bloggy (adjective): In the mood to blog. Sentence: Wendy got all bloggy and headed for her computer as soon as she closed the door and began to think about what had to have been the worst blind date of her life.

Shakespeare (verb): To make up your own word. Sentence: Dude, I totally Shakespeared this blog post.

Pre-loaded (adjective): When you show up a bar already drunk. Sentence: Jim usually came in pre-loaded so bartenders had a hard time figuring out when to cut him off.

Spankst (noun): Inner conflict about whether or not to get kinky. Sentence: Lennie was filled with spankst as he realized that no amount of will power was going to stop him from reaching for the fly swatter.

You're Welcome.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Injuries And Practice Errors

And How They Relate To Each Other

Generally, when it comes to T’ai-Chi, it's been my experience that the kind of injuries I incur tell me where the mistakes in my practice are. From there I know much better how to address them. This can be applied to any practice. I apply it mostly to T’ai-Chi, but I also apply it to things like playing guitar, writing, biking, performing, even doing the dishes. The injuries I’m talking about don’t have to be major, they can be as minor as a sore knee or muscle, but the type of injury can point the way to practice errors and how best to correct them.

Joint problems typically point to what I call "Bone Level" issues, usually bad alignment. So if I do a T’ai-Chi form, play music, go on a hike, write, or go dancing and the result is a sore knee or neck, I know I need to work on my posture and alignment, especially in those areas. I know I’m on the right track if I adjust my posture and the joint soreness noticeably eases up.

Muscle problems like tears, tendonitis, strains, etc. point to what I call "Muscle Level" issues, typically using too much or too little strength. If I engage in any of the activities listed above and it’s my muscles or tendons that are sore, I may still check my posture because that’s still important, but my main focus will be on how much strength or muscular force I’m using to get the job done. Even if I’m looking at posture, I’ll be looking at it as it directly effects muscle use. Sometimes I find a connection between my muscle pains or injuries and my posture, but for me it’s almost always that I’m using too much or too little force in a given movement, whether it be a T’ai-Chi punch or washing a plate.

Energy problems like hyper-activity, fatigue, indigestion, depression, etc. point to what I call "Energy Level" issues, typically underlying emotional imbalances or lack of attention to overall energetic awareness. If I find myself depressed in my practice, that is, I feel some depression and my thoughts are often moving towards this particular practice and I feel a connection there, I will not be focused so much on posture and muscle use because there are no strains in those areas. Instead, because I will be suspecting some kind of strain at the energy level, the neural network of the nervous system and the brain, the basic highways of information in the body, I will be focused on doing Energy Level work. Things like opening and suspending my joints, connecting my movements to my breathing, feeling into the totality of my bodily being, gently opening blocks or tight spaces in my body, looking for emotional difficulties or conflicts, and generally connecting into a larger more inclusive sense of my physical self. This would also apply to feeling extra tired after a practice session. Or feeling unnecessarily wound up. Or having a bout of indigestion, which, in a very direct way, involves the energetic process of turning food into energy. Even if I was correcting posture or doing some muscle level work, I would be doing it in the context of how I could improve nerve flow, breathing, and the free flow of my emotions and intent.

Spiritual problems like egomania, self obsession, lack of regard for others point to what I call "Spirit Level" issues, mostly failure to surrender into Life and get over myself. To me things are spiritual if they relate to my relationship with existence, with the whole of Nature. The deeper I look into Nature the more in awe I am of the vastness and beauty of it and the more grateful I am just to be alive and conscious. I feel a part of everything and identify more with the everything than the part. If I develop some abilities, skills or prowess in one of my practices and start to attach my sense of self to the status these abilities bring me or to some exaggerated sense of entitlement or specialness, if it’s all about “me” and “my powers”, especially when it includes a disregard for other people who are mainly seen as “obstacles” in my path, then I know I’ve lost touch with my connection to “the everything” and am about to lose more than that. As I see it, at this point there is nothing to “work” on. The “I” that would be working is the problem in this realm. I’ve found that the best I can do in situations like this is just direct my attention where possible to the bigger picture, always the bigger picture, even it’s just the ever so slightly bigger picture. I have to return to my relationship to the everything and any movement in that direction reduces my self-importance and brings me closer to a kind of spiritual balance between the part and the everything.

I think it’s important to reiterate that I’m talking about injuries here or changes in the body noticed while practicing. I’m not talking about diseases or chronic conditions. That would be another discussion. I’m saying that the kind of injury or negative change I notice in my life gives me vital information about the mistakes I’m making in my practices and how I might correct them.

So my recipe for a good and healthy practice whether it’s washing the dishes or learning martial arts is to start with Bone Level Work. Learn the basics and align your bones. You can always tweak this, but getting a basic underpinning here is crucial. Skip this level and you will likely hurt your joints. 

Then proceed to Muscle Level Work. Learn how much strength to use in each movement, not too much or too little. Also smooth out the bumps in the road, relax and focus on flow. And again you can always keep working on this, but having an understanding of the appropriate use of strength is crucial. Skip this level and you will likely hurt your muscles. 

Then on to Energy Level Work. Learn to tie it all together, connect to your intent and breath, move as one whole being, integrate the principles beyond thinking. Again, you can always work on this, but being able to connect your good bone alignment and your strong and appropriate muscle strength with your nervous system's network of intent is crucial. Skip this level and your energy will be misspent and either dissipate you or get stuck inside you.

The final piece of my little map is Spirit Level Work. Surrendering into the whole of Life so it's not just "your" intent, but Life's intent that moves you. In my experience this comes of its own accord if I attend to the other levels. You can't force surrender, you can only be open to it. You can always look into this mirror of self-importance versus Life-importance but skipping it will lead to an exaggerated sense of power and "Me" and "Mine". Go too far and become too "one" with everything and your life here on Earth will start to unravel. Then it's back to Bone Level. 

These levels are artificial and don't actually exist. All is one after all. But using them as lenses to guide my own development has been helpful in breaking things down as well as preventing and understanding injuries. I go into more detail with each level, including training tips in my book "T'ai-Chi For Geniuses~A Practice Companion For The Genius In Everyone" but this, along with trusting your own "inner genius", is the essential message.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Which Medicine...

For Which Condition?

The way I look at it, anything can be medicinal or helpful, even radiation, if the right dosage is used for the right condition. When it comes to self-medicating, whether it’s with cannabis, chocolate, caffeine, alcohol, intellectualizing, aspirin, heroin, antacids, television, spiritual practices, jogging, martial arts or other self-induced endorphins, this gets tricky. On the one hand no one knows me better than I do, and on the other hand, we all hide things from ourselves. My blind spots can result in over or under-dosing, or treating the wrong condition with the wrong medicine.

It's a balancing act that can have harsh consequences...and I'm not just talking about the highly addictive trouble drugs... many people die while jogging and thousands of people die each year as a consequence of using aspirin.

Any time I medicate myself I am at risk...

But any time I let doctors or gurus or alternative medical professionals medicate me, I’m still self-medicating, I’m just doing so with the advice of others. And I am still at risk...there are financial and other positives and negatives no matter what I do.

If I expand my definition of “medication” beyond substances, to include any activity that changes my experience and mood, I see that I am making treatment, dose, and cost-benefit choices almost constantly, trying to find the right dose of the right “medicine” to treat the right “condition”.

Sometimes it’s easy to figure out and sometimes it’s not.

In time though, Nature offers clear and brutally honest feedback. Walt Whitman maintained that every exaggeration has its revenge in human physiology and I tend to agree. But what’s the difference between an “exaggeration” and the “correct dose of the right medicine for the right condition”? To find out I have to live and learn.

Sometimes I apply the wrong medicine, sometimes the wrong dose, sometimes both. Sometimes I get it just right…or at least I think I do.

Take cannabis for example. Over the years, this is what I’ve learned about it. With the right dose, it can be a great way to enjoy music or a movie, kick back after work, appreciate Nature, or open my mind to creative inspiration. With the wrong dose it can dull me or make me uncomfortably sensitive to all of these things. It is also, I think, the wrong medicine for dealing with uncomfortable feelings, particularly fear and anger related to addressing basic life issues like making a living, establishing intimate relationships, living independently, and finding one’s place in the world. It is a temporary postponement at best and a long numb detour at worst. I’m sure we’ve all met people who use cannabis as a way of not dealing with some of these basic life issues. And to be clear here, I’m not saying that cannabis has anything to do with avoiding feelings or issues. I’m saying that if I’m using cannabis to avoid my feelings or issues, it won’t do the job. It's the wrong medicine, I’ll need more and more of it, and it will be more and more injurious to my physical health and vitality. For me, the best medicine for dealing with feelings is feeling them, and the best medicine for dealing with issues is dealing with them directly.

So again, which medicine is a good fit and what’s the right dose? It’s an ongoing question…

This can be applied to anything I do. Take martial arts…I have to weigh these questions whenever I decide how much to train, how hard, how long and with what goal in mind. If any of these things are "off" for very long...injury surely follows and usually with a boatful of painful lessons attached. But it's my call. I have to prioritize in life whether I want to or not. I have to decide how much of which medicines to apply to which of my conditions, including the human one.

Sometimes it's worth it to take some damage to one part of my life in order to enjoy another more fully. I’ve certainly lost a girlfriend or two along the way due to my commitment to T’ai-Chi. My health has certainly suffered at times due to my commitment to Music and staying up late communing with my muse.

My teacher’s teacher Tchoung Ta-Tchen loved to tell stories about students whose spouses had made the ultimatum: T’ai-Chi or me! and the student had chosen T’ai-Chi. He would just grin ear to ear when he got to the part where the student had chosen T’ai-Chi over a relationship. At the time, it seemed very clear that the point of the story wasn’t that he thought marriage and home weren’t important, he was a traditional Chinese man for whom these things were extremely important, the point was that any spouse who would attempt to stop such an obviously beneficial practice is not someone you should be with. He was saying basically, you need more T’ai-Chi and a less controlling spouse, which is in essence recommending one medication over another, both of which have side-effects. I have chosen T’ai-Chi over a relationship a time or two, waiting for someone with whom this choice would not be an issue. And, since I found her, there have been times when I have adjusted my training or teaching schedule to make our marriage work better. I have also changed my dose of some other medications too, in order to improve the quality of my home or work life.

I think we all have to make calls like this all the time. I just like to make them consciously, and, if possible, with some thought. I try to be as objective as I can. I try to keep an open mind. I like to treat life like an ongoing experiment, seeing which “medications”, in the larger sense that I am using the word, match which of my “conditions”.

I have found over the course of my life that one sure sign that I’m using the wrong medicine is that I’m using more and more of it. I know this should seem obvious, but if I’m attached to the effects of some medicine or another, and I don’t want to look at the truth of what I’m doing, I can just not look at it. So now, no matter what I’m doing, I try to stay conscious of this. Am I increasing my dosage over time? What are the effects on the rest of my life? Is this really working? Life is an experiment, but how much am I filtering the evidence I’m getting? Is this the right medication? Is this the right dosage? How much is too much? How little is not enough? These are the big questions no matter what medicine I’m looking at…