“Yes, sir!” I chirped with a smirk when asked if we wanted to do another round of duck walks across the dojang. I have lower jump kicks and less forceful strikes than my male classmates, but 20 years of being a gym rat and yoga enthusiast makes me excel in conditioning exercises. I scurried across the floor with masochistic glee, silently thanking a thousand Buddha squats for my energy and agility.
The next day I had trouble walking down the stairs.
The day after that I could barely walk at all and ended up skipping class to soothe myself with frozen yogurt and an Epsom salt bath.
I always seem to step on the proverbial rake when I get cocky. I only get so far until I’m felled by my own blindness. Let’s not confuse cocky with confident. Confidence makes room for humility. Cockiness, however, is the asshole cousin of confidence. There’s a hint of malice to cockiness; it’s confidence at the expense of someone else. I’m awesome and you’re not. Most of us have probably been burned by someone else’s cockiness, perhaps a seemingly charming boss or friend or lover whose “confidence” soon decays to reveal poisonous spiteful arrogance.
So I’ll go back to class with confidence in my heart and a prescription-strength naproxen waiting for me at home. Hopefully my cockiness will be neatly packed away.
A ladybug on your shoulder.
A face-up penny on the ground.
A parking space in a crowded lot.
A text after a month of no contact.
I am one of those creative, dreamy people who is very susceptible to the seduction of magical thinking, especially at low points in my life. When dealing with a breakup, job disappointment, or other challenge I would turn inward, isolate myself even further, and drive myself mad searching for a solution. I would scour the internet seeking validation for what I hoped would be true, that I would find a secret phrase that would turn my luck around and take away the pain. Maybe things will go my way if I stand on my head and recite the right prayer three times while burning a rosemary candle. There are a lot of hurt, scared, angry people looking for answers and afraid that the answer will be “no.” Desperate hope can masquerade as optimism, and like Lenny in “Of Mice and Men,” desperate hope can suffocate the very thing it loves.
It was really just thinly veiled bargaining, a sad attempt to use reverse psychology on God.
When I went back to taekwondo magical thinking didn’t seem that appealing anymore. Maybe it was because I had something outside my little fortress of solitude to occupy my time. It helped break the spell of false promises or quick fixes and showed me that I had enough strength, courage, and creativity to fight my own battles without relying on Yahoo Answers.
I’m not as angry or anxious anymore. Now that I know how to fight I’m not looking for a fight. My partner and I went through a mini-breakup around Christmas. I was crushed but not as psychologically annihilated as I had been over breakups with much less significant partners. I hadn’t let my self-worth get dragged down into the mud with my broken heart. After two days of lying motionless on the couch watching “Dexter” on Netflix I picked myself up and went right back to taekwondo class. I didn’t force the issue, didn’t search for a magical love spell or breakup-makeup success story, and we ended up living happily ever after. He still doesn’t get out of having to go to long boring belt tests.
I do believe in the law of attraction although I can’t watch “The Secret” with a straight face. Positive thinking has resulted in positive outcomes. Good fortune is all about loosening the grip of fear. The “magic” of martial arts is that through physical and mental discipline you naturally begin to focus less on those things you can’t control. The “indomitable spirit” of taekwondo replaces good luck charms and rock-bottom wishes.
“Don’t practice ‘struggle’…or that’s what you’ll get good at,” my yoga teacher quipped lightly during class on Sunday. She continued discussing the finer points of mastering balancing half-moon while I remained fixated on that statement. As a swimmer I’ve learned not to fight the water. As a commuter I’ve learned not to get angry and fight the traffic. As a student of my own mind I’ve learned not to drag myself further into the strangely addictive combative misery my brain likes to create. As a yoga and martial arts practitioner I’ve learned to be mindful of my movement and forgiving of my mistakes.
How often, though, do we choose the path of most resistance? We ruminate over what we wished we’d said during an argument and collect imaginary artillery for the next encounter. We wear “busyness” like a badge of honor as we commiserate with coworkers about our seemingly bottomless workload. We berate ourselves for not having the most money or fanciest title or shiniest car.
Do we “struggle” against outside forces or are we bringing some of that on ourselves? Some legitimately bad things out of our control do happen; I’m not discounting that. I’m talking about the mini-choices we make each day: how we interpret something, how we emotionally respond, the new truths we create for ourselves. I have known people who took every comment as an insult and viewed every person as an adversary. They were miserable in body, mind, and spirit, and most of the conflict was created in their own minds. If it wasn’t for bad luck they wouldn’t have any luck at all.
Is your truth an everyday struggle? Has “struggle” become the norm? Claiming helplessness to the struggle and reacting from a place of panic is like being dragged in a buggy by wild horses with no reins. You think you’re in charge and you couldn’t be further from the truth.
And lest this post be misconstrued as a “humble brag” I am currently trapped in my dobok pants thanks to yanking, squirming, and–ahem–struggling against the increasingly tightening drawstring in an attempt to rush back into street clothes after class.
At least it’s still a fashionable time of year to wear white.
“I played for five years, and I was pretty good at it. I just had to put it aside and focus on other things,” I said wistfully to my brother as I reflected on my 5-year stint of studying classical guitar.
“That often happens with people who aren’t full-time musicians,” he replied sympathetically.
My brother, who IS a full-time musician, studies instruments like…well, like its his job. From the age of six to around 32 music was a constant part of my life. As my life began to dramatically change around 2010 it was put on the back burner and eventually disappeared. I hope the same fate isn’t in store for taekwondo. There’s always been a hint of sadness in my approach to music. I would hear a piece of music, perhaps a Beatles song or a Chopin etude, and I didn’t want to just hear it again. I wanted to feel it, breathe it, embody it. I had to play it or would be haunted by unrequited love. I loved music, but it also mocked me, always dangling ahead of me just out of reach. I had just enough talent to know that I didn’t have talent. It became more frustrating than fulfilling.
After the frantic excitement wore off I feared that taekwondo was another activity I was just getting out of my system, whether it was out of boredom, loneliness, or the alpha female need for a challenge. I’ve abandoned the Bible study group I learned and laughed with for a few years. I barely remember the names of the people I met in the running club I joined six or seven years ago(3 half-marathons and I’m all but retired from running). The MBA was just a race to the finish line.
This forces me to ask a hard question–is taekwondo a true passion and priority, or is it just another time-filler? Is it something I’m clinging to on the external plane to further ignore the needs and desires of the internal plane? Will it help me along my path of peace or is it just another distraction? The cool thing about taekwondo is that I CAN feel it, breathe it, and embody it. I have a more mature approach than I did to music: I’m curious but not obsessed. I see my limitations but don’t berate myself for them. I mentally high-five myself with each accomplishment rather than thinking, “yeah, but…” I may roll my eyes and grimace at my mistakes, but I forgive myself and keep moving. It speaks to my often-denied and often-ignored need for social interaction.
This is a passion I can share with other people through taking class together and teaching. Music can be a dangerous drug for a person who wavers between solitude and loneliness. In the leadership classes I teach for my job I encourage managers to incorporate the skills I’m sharing into their “daily management practice.” I should practice what I preach in taking my yoga “off the mat” and taekwondo outside the dojang. That’s the elusive Black Belt Mindset. Going to class is easy. Living the principles is a greater challenge.
I still have my beautiful custom-built cedar guitar. My eyes still close and my breath stops as my mind drifts knowingly along when I hear a Heitor Villa-Lobos prelude. Maybe I’ll dust it off and pick it up again someday. I know, however, that it doesn’t give me the all-encompassing feeling of relaxation and joy that I feel when I step into the dojang. It doesn’t make my heart smile the way taekwondo does.