You Are Who You’ve Been Waiting For

Catching water reflections (3)

“You are who you’ve been waiting for,” the speaker said with joyful tears in her eyes as she addressed a group of leaders. My colleagues and I were hosting the final event for a program designed for talented leaders in our organization. Our last speaker was reminding them that the future of the organization was in their hands, and the time to act was now.

She had moved up through the ranks in the organization and discovered at one point that her success and her future rested squarely in her hands. New and a little unsure in one of her first leadership roles, she realized she had the opportunity to be the person she always aspired to be and that no one else was going to do the work for her. It was a scary but ultimately liberating feeling. She encouraged everyone in the room to not wait for anyone else to solve problems, make changes, or meet goals. We could all trust and believe in ourselves.

We’ve been told to dress for the professional role we want or “be” the person we want to date. I also recently heard the phrase “water your own grass” rather than always looking longingly over the fence at the metaphorical grass that is supposedly always greener.

That advice could also be ascribed to martial arts: Adopt a black belt mindset when you are a white belt. Develop the heart of a teacher while you are a student. Train your coaching eye while you are learning. Be the type of black belt you admire. Don’t wait for your next class. Begin now.

Sometimes it’s easier said than done to make that type of change when we are nagged by those pesky human emotions of doubt, fear, envy, anger, and attachment. Sometimes those feelings can be overwhelming, and it’s very tempting to be critical of yourself or of others. Sometimes I struggle deeply with those feelings although I choose not to share my pain with anyone–maybe denial is another one on the list, ha ha. It’s easy to blame other people or circumstances, and that doesn’t make you an inherently bad person. It’s just a natural part of being human.

…but…with a little self-compassion, patience, and practice (okay, a LOT of practice) you can begin to change your mindset from one of seeing the world as an adversary to seeing it as an ally. Focus on what you can do and control rather than what you can’t. Pause, observe without judgment, and find ways to get back on track when harmful emotions overtake you. Forgive yourself for not being perfect and doing what you “should” do or having what you “should” have. (I’m still working on that one.) You may not be able to change all the situations or people in your life, but you can immediately change your responses to them.

And isn’t that a wonderful feeling when it begins to take hold? Isn’t it awesome that the person who could change your life is looking out from the mirror at you? You don’t have to wait until the right person, opportunity, project, or amount of money comes along. Change and improvement can begin right now with you.

Water your own grass. Be the person you want to fall in love with. Wrap that proverbial black belt around your waist.

You are who you’ve been waiting for.

Can I Live Without Taekwondo?

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I haven’t been to taekwondo class in over a week. Not by choice–a sinus infection thanks to Texas allergies knocked me back pretty hard. I was thankfully able to attend a lovely banquet for the U.S. Taekwondo Grandmasters Society in Dallas last Saturday, but other than that my participation in the taekwondo world has been nil.

I haven’t done any forms at home, I haven’t mentally worked through my self defense techniques, I haven’t watched any training videos. My uniforms are all washed and neatly folded in a drawer, and my belt is coiled in my duffel bag, waiting for me. I didn’t do anything related to my practice. It seems like I can live without taekwondo. Or so I thought.

I talked to some of my classmates and instructors off and on for a few days, getting the gossip and funny stories about things that happened in class. By the end of the week communication dwindled to a trickle and finally to nothing. Having been burned several times in the past by giving my heart too freely, I’m pretty gun shy about pursuing communication with people who don’t appear to be very communicative. So I didn’t bother. I was too stubborn to reach out. Maybe I should have been the one to call, text, or even stop by, but I was too afraid of being rejected. Decades of hurt and mistrust overtook me and poisoned the relationships with people I love. Apparently they can live without me too.

Boredom set in, then an aching loneliness, then depression. I have cabin fever. Other than a ballet barre class yesterday I’ve been too tired and congested to exercise. I’ve hidden in my office during most of the workweek. I’ve been reading voraciously during all my time at home, taking full advantage of having a well-stocked library in my house. I’ve written in my journal a lot. I began mixing substances just to get the night over with, not really caring what effects they’d have on me.

To my horror I’m tempted to wrap my protective cocoon around me tighter and mutter, “Fuck all of you, I’m done,” when what I need the most is my familiar dojang and friends. But there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to go back at all. I’m safe at home with my books and my mood-altering substances. I’ve whittled myself down to 110 pounds and feel especially elated every time I step on the scale. I could get used to this. I’ve sunken into isolation before, and I’m very good at staying there. Maybe the relationships I thought were solid are just as superficial as all my other ones. Hiding in plain sight is easier than it sounds. Taekwondo is just an addiction that’s been masking my other addictions.

I’ve made the cruel discovery that not even taekwondo, what I thought was my saving grace, can fulfill whatever it is my heart is looking for. I was just clinging to it, like I had to other things or people, to make myself “happy.” I have to generate that within myself.

I can live without taekwondo, and taekwondo can certainly live without me. How arrogant of me to think that I’m an essential part of the school, part of the gang, one of the boys. I’m only a first degree black belt, just a student who plays dress up as teacher once in a while.

But I don’t like how I feel without taekwondo. I still need it. I’m heartbroken without it, yet I don’t like that I feel so vulnerable to admit it. I see how rapidly I declined without it in only a week. I’m angry that it has such a hold on me that I fall apart without its constant presence in my life. Will the spell be broken once I’m back in class?

Have Growing Partners, Not Growing Pains

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This is still too much commitment for me, but I like the idea.

I had this boyfriend who claimed at the very beginning and at the very end of our relationship that one doesn’t grow in isolation. I think he said them both as a means to convince me to (1) get together with him in the beginning and (2) not to walk away at the end…even though he technically broke up with me, but that’s a different story.

I recognized his point but disagree on the absoluteness of it. I’ve done most of my growth, and I’m talking the really hard, gut-wrenching, gritty, life-changing, come-to-Jesus stuff “in isolation,” other than with the guidance and confidentiality of one trusted mentor. It was my only option, or at least that was my thinking at the time. First of all, my destructive behaviors drove people away, so that took care of any crowdsourcing for help, and second of all, I wouldn’t allow anyone to see me at my worst. I had to face some really hard truths about myself, and I had to fight that battle alone.

But…when given the opportunity, having other people guide us, give us feedback, and share their journeys with us can be one of the best ways to grow. At the end of last Saturday’s sparring class my Chief Instructor reminded us that we couldn’t just go in to class with the singular mindset of fighting for ourselves. We had to be good partners, whether that was being mindful of safety, respecting the other person’s age or body capabilities, or knowing how to challenge them in just the right ways. He’s since reminded us in other classes that being a good partner is just as important as practicing our own skills.

I subscribe to that philosophy as well. At the beginning of that particular sparring class I had reminded a teenage green belt, who seemed dismayed at the prospect of having to spar little kids, that part of his job as an older student and one who was moving into higher ranks was not just working on his own practice. He needed to be able to look out for and mentor the younger, smaller students, which is a good challenge in itself. For me being a black belt has partially been figuring out what I don’t know (or one might see it as moving from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence), and just as importantly, if not more so, living up to the responsibility of sharing what I do know with other students.

I started taekwondo training as a means to heal in a number of ways and give my life some purpose. It was self-centered motivation, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Since then, though, I’ve learned (albeit a little slowly) the importance of community and the part I need to play not only for my own fulfillment but for others, in some cases, more for them than for me. My life is much richer and happier because of my taekwondo family. I’d like to think I’ve done some good for them as well. The desire to serve and to, as my Chief Instructor would say, “be a good partner,” is inherent. I wouldn’t be where I am without them.

Having a good partner, whether it’s in the dojang, the workplace, or the home, offers us a fresh perspective. They help us see our blind spots and the potential for greatness we haven’t yet recognized. Good partners push us just beyond what we think we can do and encourage us when we want to give up. They help us through the painful times and celebrate the good times. Being a good partner lets us share our wisdom and sometimes hard-learned lessons with others. It allows us to serve others and get outside our own self interests and agendas. It allows us to see our passions through another person’s eyes.

We can grow more quickly and more fully with the help of a good partner.

I don’t always practice what I preach or what my taekwondo instructors preach in my daily life, though. In fact, I veer towards the other end of the spectrum. I hate sharing my struggles (so that last post about my sort-of eating disorder was REALLY hard to write). I hate opening up my life to other people. I hate sharing my precious down time with anybody, even people I like. I think I want human interaction and connection, I’ve finally admitted that I need it to have a more fulfilling life, but damnit, I HATE asking for it.

I even hate sharing the good parts other than the insights I write about on this blog. It’s not a matter of wanting the glory for myself. I simply don’t know how to ask. It doesn’t occur to me. I was a loner as a child and learned to rely on myself for everything. That thought pattern has followed me well into adulthood, sometimes to my advantage because I’m very independent and autonomous but other times to my detriment. It’s easy to get tunnel vision without any feedback or an objective perspective.

I still have a hard time accepting the fact that I do need other people. They enrich my life in ways that I’m not able to do in isolation, try as I might. I’ve gotten better at it at work. During my yearly performance evaluation my boss remarked that I had a knack for building and maintaining relationships. It wasn’t always natural, but as I grew into my “caregiver” roles (first as a librarian and then as a leadership development consultant) I embraced human interaction and connection as my means of doing my work. I’m good at it, and I think I’ve helped a lot of people grow. I’ve been a good training partner.

I don’t do that in my personal life. I don’t seek out relationships. I’m not loyal. I’m not consistent. I don’t stick around. The urge to do my own thing, and more importantly stay off the social grid and viciously guard my free time, almost always wins out over the desire to spend time with other people. I have long-lasting acquaintances but very few long-lasting friendships. Frankly, I’m not a very good friend or partner, and there is a big part of me that couldn’t care less.

What would my personal life be like if I looked to family, friends, and coworkers as my “life training partners” just as I do with my taekwondo instructors and fellow students? What could I learn from them? What could they learn from me? Would it bring me as much fulfillment as taekwondo training does? What would I bring to others’ lives and experiences? Would it help me be less self-centered and keep me from sinking into tunnel vision thinking or depression? Would I really have to keep shouldering my burdens or even my triumphs alone?

Am I ready to share my journey instead of stubbornly growing in isolation? I’m not sure about that one. For now taekwondo is a good start.

My Favorite Posts From 2016

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2016 is almost over, much to the relief of just about everyone. Thank you all for reading and commenting on my blog. It’s been a busy writing year for me. I posted to the blog every month, am in heavy editing mode of my book, and most notably I started writing guest posts for the website BookMartialArts.com. You can read them by clicking here.

In other exciting news, I got my “Instructor” patch, so now I have to act like I know what I’m doing, at least when I’m wearing the particular uniform I sewed the patch on. I cut my coaching/refereeing teeth at two black belt tests and several tournaments. Some things remain the same: I still can’t get through self-defense and hapkido practice without giggling, I still can’t do a decent spin kick, I’m still going to physical therapy, and I’m still rank and disgusting after sparring class. At least I’m consistent.

Now I’d like to share with you my favorite posts from 2016:

1.A Black Belt Goes to Barre Class – I started taking a ballet barre class at my gym in February, loved it, and have kept it up ever since. My core and legs, on the other hand, are furious with me.

2. Love is Like Grape Soda – In my Valentine’s Day post I revel in the fact that for the first time in my life being single is (1) a choice and (2) a non-issue.

3. When You Know You’ve Found Your Tribe – A sub-par art museum event showed me the importance of sticking with my true community.

4. Why Do I Still Dread Sparring Class? – I still feel this way. Every. Single. Wednesday.

5. Getting Fat Shamed as a Size Four – One of my most popular posts and one that helped me get a very hurtful and embarrassing moment off my shoulders.

6. What I’ve Learned From Coaching Children and Business Leaders – There are more similarities than you’d think!

7. You Can Rest on Your Laurels, But Don’t Stay There Too Long  – Some insight from my musician brother showed me the importance of balancing the enjoyment of our past accomplishments with the challenges and possibilities of the future.

8. How the Olympics Rekindled My Love for My Sport…But Not the One You Think – Aw, I miss the summer Olympics, don’t you?

9. Black Belt: A Year in Review – I celebrated my one year anniversary as a first degree black belt, and I learned several things along the way.

10. Dealing With Uncertainty Like a Black Belt – Since change seems to be the constant in the workplace, you might as well put on your sparring gear and brave the fight.

11. Are You Driven by the Process or the Project? – What motivates you – the end or the means?

12. The Case for Getting Your Ass Kicked – We all need challenges.

13. Teaching Means You’re Learning for Two – Teaching, learning, and leading all go hand-in-hand.

14. How Eating a Bunch of Carbs Helped Me Stop Hating My Body – I finally had a body image breakthrough over the Thanksgiving weekend, of all times. I also sneak in my recipe for gnocchi.

 

 

 

Are You Driven By the Process or the Project?

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My mom is a prolific knitter. She always sewed, crocheted, did needlepoint, but ever since she retired she really took off with knitting. Mom loves it, and I have drawers full of pretty scarves, shawls, and gloves as a side benefit.

Recently she told me about the concept of being a “process knitter” versus a “project knitter” and determined that she is most definitely a process knitter. She likes choosing a new pattern (the more challenging, the better), hunting down the right yarn, selecting the needles, and working through the mathematical process of following the pattern and watching it gradually transform into a finished product. I suppose there’s a meditative aspect to it too. Once she finishes a project she’s ready to move on to the next one and begin the process again.

It made me wonder whether I am a process-driven martial artist or a project-driven one. Am I more stimulated by the long-term aspect of honing my skills over time or by the project, the higher belt rank at the end of a process? Am I driven by the journey or the destination? Both mindsets allow me to apply what I’ve learned, but the motivation is different.

From the beginning I was more process-driven. I wasn’t concerned about getting a black belt when I first returned to taekwondo, much less getting to the next color belt level. I just wanted to be there, learn new things, and practice. The emotional, mental, and physical benefits were almost immediate and addictive. I started this blog, in fact, because I was so enchanted by the process.

I’ve had my moments of being more project-driven, sometimes so much that I would lose long-term focus, especially during my red belt year. I just wanted to work on my testing requirements rather than the comprehensive whole of my practice. The six months before my black belt test I was definitely project-driven, but the Monday after the test I showed up to class with my same goofy, eager smile, ready to start over with a new process and learn new things. I don’t want to discount my short-term focus, though. It served me well when I needed to quickly learn and apply new techniques and polish my performance before tests.

Doing “black belt stuff” feels more process-driven since so much of it revolves around honing previously learned skills, although there’s a fair amount of new content to learn too. The waiting periods between promotion tests stretch out to years rather than months, so the black belt student has plenty of time to focus on details, refinement, and revision. This past year alone has given me a lot of time to think, experiment, and reflect on the improvements I’ve been able to make through my practice both as a student and as an assistant instructor (and become more aware of stubborn, long-term bad habits).

With other students I seem to be more project-driven. There’s nothing more fun for me than getting a student ready for an event (okay, hitting stuff with my hands is more fun, but helping students is a close second). Let’s get you ready for the tournament! Let’s get you ready for your red belt test! Hurry up and get bo dan so we can get you ready for your black belt test! I think I am more excited about the students who will be testing for their first degree black belts next year than I am about my own upcoming second dan test.

Perhaps there is a way to be motivated by both the process and the project over time. We may be able to see the forest AND the trees. I don’t want to devalue the finished product or project nor do I want to skim over the lessons I can learn along the way. I know I will become more project-driven as I get closer to my second dan test next year, but hopefully I will remain aware of the overall process of being a taekwondo black belt, regardless of where I am in the process.

Turning Lemons Into Limoncello

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Last week I took the second worst yoga class of my nineteen-year practice. Taking yoga at gyms rather than a traditional yoga studio has always been a crapshoot. I have had some incredible teachers over the years. I have also had some who weren’t great. Thankfully I learned enough from the incredible teachers to recognize the difference. Although it was a pitiful class, it offered a great learning experience in patience, self-reliance, and making the best of a disappointing situation.

The worst yoga class I’ve ever taken was about a year or so ago. It was taught by a woman who was subbing for my regular Saturday teacher. She seemed like an aerobics instructor who had tacked on a weekend yoga workshop so she could teach more classes at the gym. Between the snarky, possessive comments she made about her poor whipped husband in front of the entire class and the bitchy, sarcastic little jokes she muttered every fifteen seconds I was unimpressed. After a few squats, lunges, and other ridiculous dance-y moves that weren’t any asanas I’d seen before I rolled up my mat and left.

This time I didn’t leave although I kinda wanted to. The woman teaching the class seemed very sweet, sincere, and also insecure, so I thought it would be bad form to walk out  on her…even when I realized with horror that she was playing a Celine Dion album in its entirety I didn’t want to be rude and storm out. It wasn’t downright horrible. It just wasn’t a yoga class. It wasn’t well organized, had no logical flow, and no explanation of “poses” (if you could call them that) to those who were new to yoga. Interestingly enough she did ask if anyone knew the Running Man and Peacock poses. Does every white woman in a pair of Lululemons make those poses a life goal or something? I quietly got my Crow on and silently willed her to focus on the basics, which she didn’t have much of a grasp of. Y’all, we didn’t even do savasana.

So I stuck it out for an hour. I decided that I would make it a good class for me and what my mind and body needed. I took full advantage of the opportunities to stretch and release my sore muscles that I had abused the day earlier in the dojang. I reminded myself to not let my thoughts wander or become impatient. Whether it was yoga or just a disjointed stretch class led by a very inexperienced teacher, this was the time for me to be quiet with no distractions–no phone, no computer, no TV, no taekwondo, no emails, no housework. Perhaps this was even better than a more traditional yoga class because it forced me to face head-on what was unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

And before anyone jumps on my back for being a judgmental, anti-Yogic, ahimsa-eschewing snob…no, I’m not. I don’t think that woman was a bad person or even a bad teacher. She was trying her best with the information and experience she had. What she taught just wasn’t appropriate for the situation, and I have the right to point that out, which I did to the gym staff after the class was over. Call it a stretch class or relaxation class, but don’t call it yoga. Calling it yoga would be very misleading to those who are new to the practice.

My favorite yoga teacher might counter me and say, “But, don’t you realize, Melanie, that IS yoga.” In a way, he would be right. Yoga is not a fancy pose or a pair of fashionable stretch pants. It’s the union of body, breath, and mind. That union could take place in an ashram or standing in line at the grocery store. Yoga begins and ends within.

So what’s the lesson to learn from this? Sometimes in life we don’t get what we expected or thought we signed up for. We find ourselves in situations that may be somewhat familiar but are still Bizarro, uncomfortable versions of what we’re used to. We may have to adapt and change more quickly than we wanted. We may have to take the initiative to make the best of a situation without the guidance of anyone else. I will not return to this woman’s class, but I will remember the challenge it presented to me to take charge of an unpleasant situation and make the most of it.

What’s Your Span of Control? The Answer May Surprise You!

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A few days ago I was meeting with one of my coaching clients, a nurse manager at a mid-size hospital. We were joined by a nursing student who was shadowing my client for a business class. My client mentioned a thought provoking question her student had asked:
“What’s your span of control?” My client’s even more thought-provoking answer made me pause.

“I thought about it,” she said with a chuckle, remembering her conversation, “And I said…Nothing! Nothing is really in my control!” She relies on her employees, her boss, physicians, the budget, the executives, the larger healthcare system. She recognized that she didn’t work in a vacuum. I thought that was a very poignant and self-aware answer to a seemingly innocuous question.

“Isn’t that refreshing?” I said with a smile. “You’re only in control of your emotions, your reactions and actions, your thoughts.”

I thought about her response as I walked through my neighborhood this evening, enjoying the cool autumn air and still-warm Texas sun as I strolled along the winding side streets. Nothing matters, not really, not in the big scheme of life, at least not most of the things we worry about. Nothing is permanent, and as George Harrison said, “All things must pass,” which is a relief and a little heartbreaking too. The more pressure we put on ourselves to control the outcomes and be perfect, the more disappointed we end up being. We must let go.

Nothing mattered to me at the moment but the breeze against my face and the setting sun on my back. I had no worries, no obligations, no regrets, no control except putting one foot in front of the other. And then I got back home…

It’s easy to forget that nothing matters–not really–when worry creeps in. I’m fairly detached from what society would guess would be my larger worries (job insecurity, lack of relationships) and instead am haunted by all those little things: guilt over seemingly insignificant actions, secret regret over what I let go of too quickly and what I held onto for too long, the itching scars of old grudges and deep wounds, angst over things I did and things I didn’t do, the relapse of body image struggles, loneliness I refuse to acknowledge, and a lurking feeling of listlessness and dread. Those are the things that slither into my brain when I have crawled into bed and am no longer protected by all my superficial methods of occupying my mind.

Of course as I’ve said many times before, the best place for me to clear my mind, focus on what’s important, and let go of needless and damaging attachments is in the dojang. Taekwondo gives me a quiet and mindful outlook. Even as I am practicing what has become the most important and fulfilling piece of my life, I feel a sense of lightness I haven’t been able to find anywhere else. The only thing I’m in control of is me: my emotions, my thoughts, my body to an extent although lately it has overridden some of the things my brain wants it to do…and hitting shit seems to make my endorphins soar, so maybe that’s part of it.

When you realize your span of control isn’t as grand as you thought it’s somewhat freeing. You don’t have to shoulder your burdens alone, and when you put them down for a moment you may even realize that you don’t need to put certain burdens on your back anymore. You are simultaneously surrendering and being more powerful than you ever were when you held on (too) tightly to things you thought would make you happy or solve your problems. Things always seem to work out when you back off a bit and when you stop beating yourself up over every misstep.

I really want to get to that point of being one of those old broads with “zero f*cks left to give.”

Nothing matters–not really, not in the grand scheme of things. Everything is impermanent. Our span of control is not what we think it is. We are not responsible for solving everyone’s problems. The worry, guilt, regret, and anger that gnaws at us will pass if we don’t hold onto it as tightly as it tries to hold onto us. The more we worry about everything the more we miss out on the beautiful parts of life.  I can’t beat myself up for mistakes I’ve made in the past anymore than I can worry about disappointing my instructors with a crummy jump spin kick or a hesitant self-defense technique. None of it matters–not really, not even taekwondo. And once I recognize that I can actually start to enjoy everything. If I have to remind myself of that every day I will.