Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Aging Gracefully...

In Martial Arts

Whether or not you train for or ever engage in actual hand-to-hand fighting, if you consider aging, chance, and gravity to be potential “opponents”, you will see that you have been in a “martial” situation 24 hours a day since the moment you were born. If you are reading this, Congratulations! You are winning. But make no mistake, you are going to lose this fight. We all die and we all “go down” and our luck always runs out. So aging, chance and gravity have already won. 

Now, do you want to make it a good fight or a weak fight?  Are you going to make it easy for gravity to wear down your joints? Are you going to make it easy for aging to take away your strength? Are you going to make it easy for the random flow of objects, people, and vehicles to injure you?

And if not, how do you deal with these very patient and very hard to hit opponents? It can be a tricky balance because sometimes the things that are necessary to achieve excellence in hand-to-hand fighting are also damaging to the body over time, which gives these other three more stealthy opponents an advantage. And sometimes focusing totally on the health or personal development aspects of martial arts and overlooking the actual fighting aspects can leave the body too soft to deal with life’s harder situations should they arise.

For me, martial arts are about dealing with change. A fist coming towards your face or a kick coming towards your groin is one kind of change and one that’s coming fast. Other changes come more slowly, like aging. We all have to decide in a sense, which kinds of change we want to focus on learning how to deal with. Whether we do this consciously or not, or whether our particular culture or family leanings come into or out of play, the main point is that we have to decide what kinds of changes we are going to learn how to deal with. And no matter where you put your energy, some other aspect of life can’t have that energy and will be affected.

If you decide to become a full contact fighter, there are consequences, positive and negative to your choice. If you want to be a strictly health and chi kung oriented martial artist, there will be consequences, positive and negative to that choice too. For me the question is not, “What is the best path?”, it is, “What is the best path for me?” How “martial” do I want to consider life to be? How much do I want to focus on the slow “enemies” of random daily chance, aging and gravity? How much do I want to focus on the medium speed changes of relationship and intimacy? How much on the faster speed changes of friendly martial arts training? How much on the much faster and riskier changes involved in combat type fighting?

These days, I’ve decided to put most of my energy into “fighting” aging, chance and gravity, since in my reckoning they are the most pressing “enemies” in my life. It’s just much more likely that I will have to deal with another year of aging, gravity and chance, than a fist coming full speed at my head or my wife leaving me. Everyone who lives long enough becomes very interested in balance. I’m doing the old guy in my future a favor and working on it now.

When I was younger, I put a lot more energy into martial side of T’ai-Chi and a lot more into working on developing relationship and communication skills. Of course these things are not mutually exclusive…but generally whatever I focused on took at least some energy from the others. When I pushed the physical training, I sometimes overdid it and my body and health paid the price.

Now, I should say here that “fighting” aging, chance and gravity isn’t really what I’m talking about here. At least not in the usual sense of the word “fight”. I’m not talking about pushing back hard with determination and a mind-over-matter mindset. I think a lot of people push way too hard against aging, chance and gravity. These opponents are sloooooow. They only seem fast when you ignore them for years. If you meet them at the speed they’re happening, which again is mostly very slooooooow, you can at least take away any advantages you might otherwise give them by using too much force.

By meeting them at the speed they’re happening, I mean adjusting your posture a little bit every day towards a better alignment with gravity. Gravity won’t just crush you overnight. You have years and years to correct your posture. Once you have even basic decent alignment, all of your joints will be happier and your muscles will be stronger and doing the work they’re adapted to be doing. You also have many years to develop physical strength, agility and the ability to match appropriate muscular force to the tasks at hand. In addition, developing a practice of watching what’s happening around you, not with paranoia but with awareness, the way our ancestors viewed the world for thousands of years, will yield positive and slowly growing results the more energy you put into it.

Likewise, paying attention to the health costs and benefits of doing what you do for a living, eating what you eat, indulging in what you are indulging in, listening to your own inner sense of rightness but also focusing on the results of each experiment, this too can come slowly over time and eventually synch up with the speed of aging, so that changes in the body are felt and dealt with more or less as they are happening.

These three “opponents” (time, chance and gravity) are not really opponents. Remember, they’ve already won. They can be stand-ins for the role of “opponent” to help with focusing, but it’s not even close to a fair fight. I’ve always thought that the best “robot” martial training device would be some kind an android thing that would always be just a little bit better than you are. The better you got, the better it got, but always just a bit better. I guess aging, gravity and chance are like that, like a carnival game. It’s not that I want or expect to win, I just want to see how well I can do before I lose.

One thing I can always get better at is doing the best I can with what I have. If I identify myself with this process rather than with attaining or maintaining a specific level of prowess, then aging can be more enjoyable and challenging, in a good way. It must be tough getting older if you have to carry the burden of "saving face" and never being seen to falter. I'd rather just be honest about the aging process and publicly acknowledge that what I'm doing is dealing with what I have, rather than pushing the river or hiding from it.

I think too many people give up doing things they love because they can't do them at the same level they did when they were young, instead of seeing that only the difficulty factor has increased. A lower score, but with a higher difficulty factor is still be respected in my book. I have heard it said that hard stylists who are still active in their later years have become soft stylists whether they admit it or not. There are many sneaky old guy (and old lady) ways of getting more bang for your buck. 

But of course we each have to find what works best for us...We are not born equal and while our limits, both physical and temperamental are no doubt farther out there than we think they are, they are still there.

Some of us can't afford injuries, some of us have past injuries that restrict us, some of us just don't have the same physical or temperamental gifts as others, but we all can push those limits, at least at some point in our training, to find out more or less where they are.

Personally, I really can't afford to get injured. I am self-employed with no “sick days” available and I have to teach almost daily in order to keep a roof over my head. People tell me I'd be good at skiing for instance, but I can't even afford a sprained ankle so I say, “Maybe in my next life...”

As of this writing, at 56, soon to be 57, I don't want an injury to tell me what I'm too old to do, so I'm careful with my edges. Every since I turned 40 or so, I’ve notice that injuries take longer and longer to heal, so I’m more and more careful as I get older. But that's just me. You might be different. I don't have a lot of athletic talent or ability. I've made the most of what I have but I'm not gifted with a very sturdy physique. My tendons in particular are on the soft side and are fairly easily injured. I also have a congenital low back condition that not only gives me some pain but restricts my freedom of motion. So I protect myself in subtle as well as obvious ways to reduce strain. I've tried to do my best with what I have and, considering where I started, I have come a long, long way. I hope to continue doing so for the rest of my life.

We all have to choose our fights in life and I recommend you choose carefully. Especially if you’d like to age gracefully. ;~) 

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