I love poomsae (taekwondo forms), and I never miss an opportunity to practice and learn new forms. Pyongwon is typically learned at 4th Dan although at my dojang we learn it at 3rd Dan. Several months ago I talked my Master into teaching it to me shortly before I tested for 2nd Dan, just to give me a fun challenge to play with. We already do things differently by teaching Koryo AND Keumgang at 1st Dan and move on to Taebaek at 2nd Dan, so why stop there?
This form is short and linear, but also powerful and intimidating, both to watch and to learn. This form taught me to be strong and solid in my foundation, which I had to rely on recently in “real life.”
The concept of Pyongwon is twofold: (1) it represents a plain or vast field of land, which serves as a foundation and sustenance for life and (2) it’s based on the idea of peace and struggle….or, standing your ground. The physical movements of the form require core strength and mental concentration. Practicing the form itself feels like a mental struggle–which way to I go? Do I fight? Do I change directions? Do I stand firmly in place? Each movement is a calculated decision.
It’s an interesting form, but it’s not flashy like Koryo or Taebaek. This form is more reminiscent of the sturdy, complex yet primitive Keumgang, and even borrows that form’s signature mountain block. I get the same glint in my eye and twinge of quiet brutality in my stomach when I do Pyongwon as when I practice Keumgang. It challenges me to ground myself and focus on commanding the space. It taps into a darker part of my psyche.
Recently a colleague and I were placed in a very difficult position where we had to rely on our foundational values and internal strength. We faced the possibility of challenging an authority figure to defend what we believed was right. We faced with the very painful possibility of cutting ties with people we loved in order to defend and protect others we cared about. Feelings could be hurt on all sides, and relationships could be irreparably damaged.
The last few days have been stressful and emotionally draining in light of this challenge. I played scenarios over and over in my head–sometimes I was stoic. Other times I was volatile and biting. Other times I was calm and poignant. I reminded myself that whenever this situation might come to a head I would need to model the black belt tenets of integrity, courtesy, respect, perseverance, and compassion, even if I wanted to run or if I wanted to go against what had become my foundational values.
Thankfully the crisis was somewhat averted. Drama did not ensue (too much), and I felt a weight lift from my shoulders (two big glasses of wine also helped). Reflection on how events actually played out, however, strengthened my resolve to stand my ground, bravely face the internal struggle of the desire for peace and the instinct to fight, and protect the people I care about. That is the true calling of a black belt.
“For me, right now anyway, a relationship is like…grape soda.”
I was talking to a trusted friend and mentor a few weeks ago, and the subject of dating had come up. After a serious relationship ended last April, I spent several months doing the exact opposite of what I used to do after breakups: I wasn’t thinking about dating at all. I wasn’t wishing for it. I wasn’t interested. I was genuinely surprised when friends asked if I was dating because it was so far from my mind. My parents knew not to ask, and they were probably glad that I was taking time for myself. Even when my ex attempted to reconcile, I was tempted but ultimately declined. I was officially closed for business.
I continued my explanation to my friend:
“Grape soda is one of those things I don’t dislike, but I just don’t think about it, and I never buy it. If I see it at a potluck I think, ‘Oh look, grape soda,’ and then I forget about it and pour myself a cup of Sprite or Coke instead. Same thing at the grocery store: ‘Oh look, there’s grape soda on the shelf. You don’t see that every day. I guess some people like it,’ and I keep walking and forget about it. I don’t have negative or positive feelings towards grape soda. I just don’t care.”
That’s how I now find myself feeling towards dating and romantic love: nothing. I just don’t think about it. It’s become this fuzzy, foreign concept that doesn’t make sense to me anymore. I don’t dislike relationships, and I’m still attracted to men, but I’m not pursuing love or companionship.
After the big April breakup last year I needed to stay OUT of the dating pool for a long time because I was bitter, angry, and sad and needed time to grieve. Now that I’ve worked through those feelings (well, for the most part), in some people’s minds I should be ready for love again, but…nah. I don’t wanna. Telling me to “get back out there” is like telling me to get a puppy or go on a hot air balloon ride. It sounds nice, but….nah….not for me, thanks. I don’t hate puppies or hot air balloons or relationships; I’m just not that interested.
I’m a little dismayed at all the biased information on the internet about being single: how to cope with it, how to handle it, how to feel better about it. I’ve tried to find information about people who don’t want to date just ‘cause, but all I come up with are a bunch of sob stories from people who dramatically claim they “don’t believe in love anymore!” when they’re secretly pining for it or from people who are so burned and scarred from past experience that they are terrified of entering into another relationship again. I don’t feel angst, fear, despair, or…well…much of anything.
Being single is not a disease, and it is not a curse. It is an opportunity to discover who you are, what you want in life (and what you want in a partner), and what makes you happy. People take being single like it’s an insult or it’s something bad that has been intentionally inflicted upon them. I know that because I used to think that way. Oh, the time I wasted feeling sorry for myself! I thought all the men in the world had conspired to reject me. Boo-freaking-hoo! Now that I’ve let go of the self-loathing and resentment, I’m totally fine being alone, and in fact, nearly a year after the end of that last serious relationship, I prefer it. No dates, no texting, no set ups, no Match profile, nothing. If I sense a man is showing some interest, I run like hell. I go to work, go to taekwondo, do the things I like to do, and enjoy my life.
I am a rock. I am an island. Leave me alone.
And for the record, since I know people are going to assume this: I’m not anti-relationship. A lack of interest in something doesn’t mean I hate it. Grape soda, for example—don’t hate it, just don’t care. Same way with love. I’m not anti-marriage. I’m not anti-men. I don’t hate my ex and am not irreparably heartbroken. Maybe when I’m good and ready, I’ll welcome love back into my life, or maybe I will spend the rest of my life alone and unattached. Either way, I’m fine with whatever happens, and just being able to say that is an accomplishment I’m proud of.
Sometimes I wonder, though, if I’m deluding myself. Maybe I am so mired in loneliness and sadness that my foggy, fuzzy brain doesn’t know what’s normal anymore. When my friend of the grape soda conversation asked me to define love, I was stumped. I said I knew that I’d experienced it, but I couldn’t describe it. Months after that discussion I still don’t have an answer.
Maybe I’m in such a deep depression (or denial) that self-imposed exile has become the norm. I do get lonely, and sometimes I wish I could get dressed up and go on a nice date with a nice man. But then again, I don’t feel like something is missing from my life so much as something extraneous has simply been removed, perhaps temporarily, or perhaps permanently. It’s truly a strange sensation to feel no desire for something I’ve longed for and pursued all my adult life.
That absence of feeling puzzles me more than anything else.
Perhaps this absence of worry and longing for love is part of my larger shift toward relaxing and loosening the reins on my life a bit. Things have begun to fall in place like magic (or the law of attraction): Ever since the Christmas holidays I’ve stopped worrying about certain aspects of work, and without any doing on my part, my responsibilities were shifted away from activities I didn’t enjoy to things I find greatly fulfilling. I stopped trying to cram my free time with activities, and now the weekends feel longer and more restful. I stopped caring about having a perfect body, and now I’m a fitter and leaner version of myself than I was at an even smaller weight. I finally, finally stopped feeling angry and sad about that failed and possibly final relationship.
…Not giving a shit suits me.
Letting go of the “need” for a relationship felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. In getting over my addiction to love from another person (it was more likely a need for validation and attention rather than real love) and an anxious need to be in a relationship, I learned the power of loving and valuing myself. Sounds cheesy, but if you’ve spent most of your life hating yourself and desperately seeking the approval of others, experiencing this kind of shift is profoundly liberating.
I did feel a little down a few weeks ago when I saw Valentine cards in the grocery store and thought about how I didn’t have anyone to buy a card for…but just like whenever I saw grape soda, I kept walking and promptly forgot about it.
So, if you’re in a relationship this Valentine’s Day…good for you! I hope you have a nice day. If you’re single…good for you! I hope you have a nice day. Drink some grape soda, whatever. Either way, I hope you recognize your own value and beauty. You don’t need anyone else to tell you that it’s there.
Watch, right after I post this, some joker is going to come along, sweep me off my feet, and ruin all my single fun. *Sigh*
Happy New Year! Now is the time to kick things into gear, to start new ventures, to try new things, to add things to your to-do list, right?
…or, maybe it’s not.
Maybe now is the time to do the opposite: slow down, simplify, prioritize. I was fortunate enough to get about a week and a half off to spend the Christmas holidays with family, close friends, and of course my brother’s sweet little dog, whom I mentioned in a post last year. That gave me a lot of time to think about how I was managing my life and where it was taking me. It reminded me of the people and things that are truly important to me.
More and more I felt the pull to disconnect—physically as well as emotionally from certain aspects of my life. A few weeks earlier I was thinking about starting two different new blogs and began an intense amount of effort to learn what I could about successful blogging and starting an online business. I quickly burned out and realized that it would be better to let things happen naturally and not approach it with any desperation (my law of attraction followers will understand that). I also started thinking about getting another degree and went on a frantic search for information, but I realized that was yet another ploy to escape my current situation, which in the grand scheme of things is very pleasant…I won’t say another degree will never happen in the future, but for now, the only school I feel like going to is the dojang.
All of these distractions, wishful thinkings, desperate searches we create are attempts to “save” ourselves from our current situation, whether it’s really bad or actually quite nice. It’s easy to get sucked into a cycle of perpetual dissatisfaction: if only we had the right job/relationship/body/amount of money…THEN we’d be happy.
Happiness is right here in this moment, and I’m tired of running around like crazy searching for it. I’m staying right here for a while.
After I had this realization over the holiday break I decided to just relax and enjoy the present moment as much as I could. My personal life is pretty sweet and low-stress, so instead of searching for something new to add to it, I’m just going to enjoy and focus on what I have. I’m not feeling very ambitious right now, and I’m not seeking new opportunities or new people to come into my life…which is right about the time when those things manifest, am I right?
So rather than set a bunch of new goals or start new ventures or new work explorations I’d rather just focus on what I have now: the few relationships that are truly important to me, the few things I really love to do (taekwondo, exercise, yoga and meditation, taking care of my house, walking through my pretty neighborhood, reading and writing), the things I like about my current job. If I do get involved or excited over something, I want it to be something I TRULY care about, not just all the extra stressy gunk in life.
Maybe I’ll start a new blog, and maybe I won’t. Right now I have this blog, and that’s plenty. The mental, spiritual, and emotional journey that taekwondo has taken me on is far from over, so I’ll have plenty of material, plus something funny usually happens in class (like how a few days ago I got kicked so hard while holding a practice pad for someone else that I scooted back about ten feet and fell on the floor, my eyes wide open in surprise the whole time like Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff.)
I’ve also wasted a lot of time on social media and the bottomless pit of web surfing, as I’m sure many other people have. I’m tired of it. I must be so introverted that even virtual interaction became overwhelming. I’ll still be connected and spend time online, but much less than I have been lately.
As for my professional life, I’ve always been much more detached than I have been with my personal life. I don’t always have a choice in what projects I’m involved in at work, but I always have control over how emotionally attached I am to them. I put in effort and do my part and sometimes do get excited or annoyed about things going on at work, but I never lose sleep over it. If I could adopt that emotionally detached mindset in other aspects of my life…well…I’d be pretty damn blissed out.
Even in taekwondo we’re slowing down and narrowing our scope. The first week or so back is always focused on basics, and it’s a good reminder for the advanced students (especially the black belts) to work on the fundamental skills and techniques that ground us in our practice. I’m learning new things, but more importantly, I’m improving what I’ve already been taught. The advanced stuff will come. It can’t be forced. Last year I set a bunch of goals that I kind of sort of met. This year I’m just setting one taekwondo goal: to perfect my spin kick. I want to make it beautiful, efficient, and powerful. (And I’m thinking about all the picky technical details, but I won’t get into that here).
I do want to improve in certain areas, but more importantly, I just want to BE. If I’ve wasted hours on the internet, then I’ve wasted nearly a lifetime ruminating over the past or fretting about the future. I’ve wasted years letting my mind run around like a headless chicken instead of just being present and taking life moment by moment. It’s time to just be quiet for a while.
Sometimes in moments of silence and stillness, the most progress can be made. Stillness can be fullness if you let it.
As we were driving around the Texas hill country during the last week of December, my mom pulled a folded and faded piece of paper out of her purse. Unbeknownst to me she’d been carrying it around with her for months. On her folded paper was a quote from my November 2014 blog post about the sixth form Palgwe Yuk Jang, reminding us to be mindful and even take advantage of the quiet moments in our life. I was so touched that my words meant that much to her. (And she’s going to kill me when she reads that I’m sharing it here, so it’s been nice knowing all of you).
Here’s the quote:
“What adds complexity to this form are the pauses, the silence, the negative space that floats in the air after a staccato palm-heel strike or a dramatic leap into that rear cross-foot stance as your yell echoes into silence. My very quotable yoga teacher asked us during class one day to be mindful of the pauses in our practice and in our life. A pause can be a moment of decision and precursor to change. Those frozen moments in time, whether it’s a second or a year, allow us to examine the facts, listen to our deeper intuition, and choose the next step, whether it is continuing on the same path or foraging a new one entirely.”
That’s what I feel drawn to right now: silence and stillness. Not forcing anything, not pushing anything, not searching in vain for something to “save” me from the present moment.
I just want to hang out and be chill for a while.
Will you join me?
…And if you STILL need some motivation to throw everything to the wind, I invite you to listen to the “F*ck That” meditation. (Not while your children or boss are around of course.)
Yep, that’s how I’m feeling right now. F*ck it all….ahhhhhh…….
“I feel like Jake LaMotta when he’s all fat and out of shape and laughing at his own stupid jokes at the end of ‘Raging Bull.'”
I was leaning against the counter at my parents’ house, drinking a glass of wine and munching thoughtfully on a tortilla chip. As I’ve been coming off a serious back injury that brought my exercise routine to a screeching halt, I’ve been going into the holiday season, which means excuses to eat are everywhere. I haven’t exercised since the Friday before I hurt my back, and unlike the weeks before my black belt test, I’ve been eating a little more than my typical brown rice/roasted veggies/eggs/fruit diet.
So what to do when you’re an athlete in a demanding sport, but you also have a mother who puts Italian sausage in her Thanksgiving stuffing? (I know, awesome, right?) Here are my tips for staying semi-fit and fully sane during the next month of solid eating:
1. Choose Wisely Unless you have some serious dietary restrictions, it’s OK to indulge. We only get one life, and that life should include carbs, sweets, and salt. It doesn’t mean you need to eat every salty, sweety, carby treat that’s in your sights. I can skip the store bought cookies at the office potluck, but the aforementioned sausage-infusted stuffing? NO. I’m eating it. If you’re going to indulge, choose wisely and really enjoy it, don’t just mindlessly shovel in crap that doesn’t even taste good.
2. Honor the Family Traditions Is there a special dish that is significant in your family? Don’t deprive yourself!
This isn’t a holiday food per se, but I recently had the very last taste I’ll ever have of “lake fish,” which any family members reading this will understand. My grandparents owned a lake house for thirty years until selling it last year, and there is nothing better than finely filleted and fried crappie that was swimming happily (and organically, just FYI) until its untimely demise. No one cleans a fish like Grandpa, and no one fries fish like Dad. After my grandparents sold the house we all knew there was a dwindling supply of “lake fish” in the freezer, so every last bite was cherished.
Will I ever eat fried fish any where else? Gross, no. Other than “lake fish” prepared by Grandpa and Dad, I hate fish and refuse to eat it. I’m not going to waste my calories on some sub-par, disgusting, greasy fried catfish with bones sticking out everywhere and the skin still on it. (Cause y’all know that’s how most people fry fish. Amateurs.) The calories I spent on hand-cleaned and deep-fried Oklahoma crappie were calories well spent.
3. Keep Up the Exercise I hate cold weather with a bloody passion and may have to resort to my cold weather inside routine if the ice storms hit. Sometimes it’s hard to stay motivated when it’s gray and yucky outside. Feel like skipping the gym? Just remember how good it feels to get your body moving and feel those endorphins kick in. Even if you can’t do your regular workout a walk around the block or some push-ups while you’re watching a movie can keep the winter blues at bay.
4. Trim the Fat Elsewhere I always try to lose a little weight before the holidays kick in because I know I’ll be indulging and will be hindered from getting out as much as I’d like to by rain and cold weather. Maintaining a steady diet of whole grains, produce, and lean proteins will help you stay energized and feel light during a time when it’s so tempting to curl up under a blanket and eat cookies. If I keep up my normal nutrition and exercise as much as I can I feel like I have more leeway to indulge at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
5. Cut Yourself Some Slack Look, if you gain a pound or two over the holidays, is it really that big of a deal in the grander scheme of things? We put so much emphasis on things that don’t matter: getting all twisted over a project at work that really can wait until tomorrow, mindlessly scrolling through our phones while ignoring the other people in the room, agonizing over a bite of cake because deep down we feel ashamed of our own bodies. My grandparents are almost ninety. I would rather sit at the dinner table, linger over pie and coffee, and listen to them tell stories than go for a run outside by myself. The exercise and the diet opportunities will always be here. My family won’t.
I know I’ve gained a little weight, and going back to taekwondo class is going to be tough after a two-week break. I know taking the pounds off won’t be as easy or as fun as it was to put them on. Oh well, I’d rather be thankful for a healthy and fit body than make myself miserable when I have my moments of being a tad less fit. I can breathe, walk, move on my own, take care of myself without assistance, and feel that as far as being able wake up the next day, the odds are in my favor. Many people don’t have that reassurance. Be grateful for what your body can do.
No one will love you or respect you any less for that slice of pie, and if they do? F*ck them and their insecure, superficial, limited little minds.
6. Remember That Spring Will Come Okay, so it’s sleeting outside and your aunt made her famous brownies that you don’t think you should eat, but you reaaaaally want to. The world is not going to end if you can’t make it to the gym or if you have that brownie. Practice moderation, remind yourself that you will soon be able to get back to your regular training, and remember to enjoy the precious moments with people you love, Italian sausage, brownies, and all.
And if you don’t like your family? Go outside for a run! Problem solved!
When we think about finding balance in life, the concept of work-life balance often comes to mind, but the concept of balance is applicable to every aspect of our lives. It can feel like, though, we are living in a world that forces us to choose extremes: live the fast-paced urban lifestyle or be an anti-tech hermetic living in one of those innovative and super cute micro-houses. Be a minimalist or max out your credit cards. Be obese in a fast food nation or wear size 0 yoga pants on the gluten-free train. Be a stay-at-home mom or be completely devoted to your career.
Where is the middle ground? Where is the option to dabble and enjoy while remaining grounded and centered?
I am writing this while lying in bed with my feet propped on pillows and an ice pack on my lower back because somehow inexplicably I managed to throw my back out again. The last two times I’ve done it (once when I was moving stuff into a new home and the other time at the gym) I immediately felt the deep flash of pain across my lumbar area when I did the tiniest, most (seemingly) inconsequential movement. It stopped me in my tracks.
This time I have no idea how or when the initial injury happened. My back has been irritated but manageable all week but decided this afternoon it was going on strike. It stiffened up to the point that I resigned myself to making a nest of books, snacks, and my laptop in bed. Now I have to roll around like an upended bug to even sit up. On my last round of getting the ice pack from the freezer it was easier (and faster) to crawl on my hands and knees from my kitchen back to my bedroom.
So what is my body trying to tell me? My poor back is the subject of extremes. I’m either jumping, twisting, running, and moving vigorously in both taekwondo and my physical therapy sessions or I’m sitting stock still for hours at my very nice but unfortunately very sedentary day job (or doing my writing and research activities at home). Funny, just yesterday I read an article on the blog Yoga Dork titled “Sitting is the New Smoking.” Maybe I should have taken a walk and smoked a cigarette instead of sitting for most of the day.
I “balance” the extreme activity and the extreme stillness with gentle back-friendly movement like yoga and swimming, but apparently it wasn’t enough for my lower back to say, “Enough with the Jekyll and Hyde crap, lady! I’m calling it quits!” It’s a rare occurrence for me to just take a stroll down the street. I’m always go-go-go or at a compete stop. In a way I knew this was coming, but I’m grateful it didn’t happen the week of my black belt test.
What are some things you can do to find balance in your life? 1.Cut yourself some slack. Slow down. You can’t do it all, and that’s okay. Prioritize, focus on what is really important, and be proud of your accomplishments.
2. Practice gratitude. Sometimes we can be thrown off balance by the constant pursuit of something that we believe will make us “happy”–more money, a more prestigious title, a more attractive partner, a bigger house, a smaller waist size. Instead of drooling over that BMW in the next lane, be grateful for the transportation you do have. Instead of feeling self-conscious when a gazelle in stilettos walks by, appreciate the body you do have: the healthy lungs that breathe air, the able limbs that keep you mobile and independent, the hopefully healthy back that won’t keep you stuck in your bed like I am this Saturday night. When we are constantly in pursuit of the latest and greatest thing we have no time to appreciate what we already do have. Stop. Slow down. Be grateful.
3. Be present. Oh, so bandied about as the key to everything and oh, so hard to do sometimes. But it works! For me, taekwondo keeps me very focused and present. For others it may be knitting, petting a cat, reading a book, or simply looking out the window. Whatever keeps you from ruminating on the past or worrying about the future will keep you grounded and in turn, keep you balanced.
Thanks to my brother’s recommendation, I use the meditation website Headspace. Ironically, I’d just started a new 30-day “pack” on finding balance. Apparently my back was in on the cosmic joke. I’ll be doing my little meditation session once I upload this blog post.
Be grounded, be balanced, and be well. I’d offer a virtual hug, but I’m in too much pain right now.
Training for my October black belt test did more than get me in good physical shape and help me hone the skills I needed to demonstrate to earn my new rank. It also helped me rid myself of some particularly damaging (and sticky) habits.
1. I lost my sweet tooth.
Remember how I was going on about craving Little Debbie oatmeal crème pies in the last few posts before my black belt test? I finally bought a box, eagerly ripped open the plastic packaging of the coveted treat, and….meh. They’re a lot smaller than I remember them being, and they don’t have that wonderful greasy mouthfeel they used to. Maybe all the trans fats and yummy stuff were removed. I won’t be buying another box.
Along with the sweet tooth I also seemed to have lost my tolerance for junk food in general. The week following my test I gave myself a pass to indulge and polish off the goodies I had when my family visited for the test: leftover pizza, chips, soda, sliced turkey and Swiss cheese, Halloween candy, and….meh. I had carb face and a processed food headache. I did make it to Whataburger, so thankfully I didn’t have to revoke my Native Texan card. When I finally ate an apple after eating all that crap I felt like I’d bitten into a juicy atomic bomb. I never thought I’d be so happy to see my boring staples of oatmeal, brown rice, roasted vegetables, fruit, and boiled eggs again.
2. I lost my taste for alcohol.
I’m sure a few of my oenophile friends are thinking, “WHYYYY?” I gave it up for seven months primarily due to some health problems I was having at the beginning of the year, and I decided to just keep going until I completed my black belt test. It was much easier to quit than I expected, and I didn’t miss it at all. I enjoyed the champagne and red wine I drank with my family after my test, and I do see a bottle of Single Barrel Jack in my future, but…meh. I don’t dislike alcohol now. I just don’t NEED it anymore, and THAT is a very good thing.
3. I lost my need for validation or approval from other people.
I’m still eager to please and like to put smiles on people’s faces, and of course, duh, I care about what my taekwondo instructors think of me (and yeah, my boss too since he helps me pay for those taekwondo classes), but I don’t care anymore whether people “like” me or not. I enjoy and appreciate compliments, but they’re icing on a cake that I’m not craving that much anymore. (That’s my metaphorical sweet tooth). I still strive to do better, but I don’t worry about how I look, how I sound, or how people perceive me.
I know that I’m a good person, and I accept myself for who I am, both in my personality and my physical looks. I know I can kick ass in a business meeting just as much as I can in the dojang. During my actual black belt test I had no worries or fear. I wasn’t second guessing myself or apologizing, and I nailed it. I was so calm I wondered if part of my brain had melted, but maybe it meant that I’m finally, FINALLY exercising that fabled confidence martial arts is known for bringing out in its practitioners. Less than a week after my black belt test, during a meeting with some tough business clients, I tapped into my newfound strength and wooed our tough clients into going with the plan that my boss and I were proposing. Whether I’m in heels and a suit or a black belt and bare feet I am strong, confident, and capable. I would’t have been able to say that before I began taekwondo.
4. I lost my total and utter feeling of disconnect with other human beings…well, some of the time.
I know I’m not a sociopath because I have a very present and very vocal conscience, but I’m not exactly Mother Theresa either. I can go a whole week not speaking a word to anyone and not caring at all. (Actually it would be nice to have a week like that, where I don’t speak to ANYONE). One of the reasons why I got back into taekwondo was to get out of my house and more importantly, get out of my churning, depressed, self-loathing head. Taekwondo is a contact sport in many ways—obviously in the physical sense, but very much in the emotional and social sense. We’re a tribe, a family, a community. We rely on each other to learn and improve. I simply can’t get lost in a train of worrisome thoughts if I’m having to chase a nine-year-old across the mat with a kicking pad or help a teenager with tricky parts of their form.
Through my instructor’s encouragement, I have gained a lot of experience teaching and coaching, and that will be an even higher expectation now that I am a black belt. Turns out, I’m good at it, and more importantly, I enjoy it. It’s brought out the loving, giving, attentive parts of my personality that to this point in my life I’ve only been able to share with my family. I’m the doting, compassionate mother that I will forever refuse to be elsewhere, the leader I don’t strive to be professionally, and the funny, outgoing, loyal friend that I am unable to be in other parts of my life.
It still takes an extra effort for me to interact with people, but I’m doing it more frequently. Taekwondo forces me to actively and intensely engage with people six hours out of the week, which is more than I’ve done in the past. One of these days perhaps my “real” persona will bleed out of the dojang and into other parts of my life, but for now it’s nice to know that at least with some people I don’t feel the need to wear a mask.
5. I lost my need to be in a relationship to be “happy.”
This might be the most important loss (or gain?) of all. My partner of two years and I split up in early April, exactly a week after I successfully tested for bo dan, leaving me to travel the path to black belt alone. The relationship was already on thin ice, but we’d both held onto hopes that we could continue, until we simply couldn’t. For my entire adult life I thought that I needed a man’s love, or at the very least his attention, to be happy. I don’t believe in soul mates and hate the “you complete me” crap, but I still wrapped up a lot of my self-worth in what some dude thought of me. That was another reason why I re-entered the world of taekwondo: I had one dating disaster after another, and I was miserable. I needed to get away from myself before I messed up my life even further.
I don’t regret my most recent relationship at all. My partner and I loved each other very much and both agreed that we were able to be our true selves more with each other than either of us had been able to with previous partners. I think we both needed each other as support systems until we were able to function independently on our own. It was nice to have someone who loved me at most of my belt tests, especially the first one when I jumped from white to green, but by the time we split I figured out that I was able to continue the journey by myself.
I was heartbroken when it ended, but I wasn’t at a total loss of what to do, and more importantly, I didn’t blame/hate myself for the break up. I bounced back more quickly after what was my most serious relationship to-date than I had from one- or two-month flings. I didn’t have time to let a breakup crush me; I was training for my black belt! At first I thought the timing was terrible since I would be training for my black belt test “alone,” but in hindsight the timing was perfect. I learned that I could rely entirely and singularly on myself to succeed. I doubt I would have had that eerie sense of calm the day of the test if I were still subconsciously searching over and over for the validation that someone loved me, approved of me, and accepted me.
So will I start dating again now that I have my black belt? NOPE. SOOOO not interested, and SOOOO don’t care. One, it’s only been seven months, and I am simply not ready to consider anyone else as boyfriend material; it’s too weird and too soon. Two, and the more important reason, I haven’t been able to enjoy just being myself in…well…ever, so I’m going to bask in that for a while. I’m having way too much fun on my own. The way I feel about dating is the way I feel about sweets and alcohol and relying on other people to boost my self–esteem…nice, but….meh. Besides, whatever joker I finally decide to spend time with might as well start coming to taekwondo class with me or move along, because that’s where my heart really is.
“Don’t let it escalate,” my instructor offered as a final tip for the evening. We were hanging around the dojang practicing some self-defense techniques. I was a little disappointed when he said that. I’ll admit that I’ve daydreamed about snapping the elbow and repeatedly stomping on the face of some nameless gropey man, a drunk at a bar or perhaps a cocky teenager trying to show off for his friends, screaming “Women aren’t squeeze toys! If you do this to me or any woman again I’ll hunt you down and gut you like a f*cking fish!! Now apologize!!!”
Turns out that’s not really what self defense is about. My instructor likened it to how we handle our emotions in an argument, and we don’t want them to escalate out of our control. I was a little envious that this guy, twelve years my junior, already had it figured out when it took me many years of humiliating blow-ups and breakdowns and having to teach this crapat work for it to start to sink in. His practice had obviously given him much more than the ability to do a flying side kick.
I wondered how different I might have been had I stayed with taekwondo as a child–mentally more than physically. It would have given me purpose, focus, discipline, and most importantly, calmed me the hell down. One of the teenage black belts, who knows about my childhood foray into taekwondo, likes to joke that I’m really a fifth dan, and I always say, “No no no!” and waggle my hands at him. I really don’t think I would have stayed with it. The way my self-esteem plummeted–juxtaposed with my impossibly huge entitled ego–and priorities shifted (not necessarily for the better) as a teen and young adult was so powerful that I doubt taekwondo could have survived.
Maybe I had to go through all that unpleasantness to become who I am today. Had I not gotten to the brink of total self-destruction I would not have gained exponential growth through the help of trusted (and very patient) guides and the tools of observation, reflection, and accountability. If I’d started taekwondo even five years ago I still would have been brooding over how fat I thought I was or how much I wanted whatever jerk I was obsessed with for the moment to text me instead of quieting my monkey mind and focusing on my flying side kick.
I came back to taekwondo when my mind and heart were finally tired of fighting, and they were more open than they’d ever been. Oddly enough kicking and screaming on the outside finally stopped the kicking and screaming on the inside. I became more optimistic and laughed a lot more. My life was no longer spinning out of control while I wailed in the corner as the helpless (and blameless) victim. I was finally ready to, as my yoga teacher would say, “receive my practice.”
Besides, if your monkey mind is distracted by anything other than technique during a flying side kick you’ll fall flat on your face.
At the end of Tuesday night’s yoga class we quietly transitioned from savasna to the fetal position. Throughout the hour our teacher encouraged us to go big, take life, and when necessary, let go. “You can breathe through the tension, smile in discomfort, and use strength you didn’t know you had,” he said before summoning us to sit up. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. I have had to face discomfort and uncertainty and tap into a strength I didn’t know I had. I’ve had to let go.
I usually don’t set intentions during yoga class but that night I decided to practice a “loving kindness” meditation, something I’d picked up at a yoga retreat. Throughout my practice I thought about a person who is hurting and facing their own pain and tension and discomfort. I directed energy of peace and comfort during the class, reminding myself to get back on track when my mind wandered. I could not be responsible for this person’s happiness or emotions, but I could send feel-good vibes and well-wishes.
During our final backbend, wheel pose, my teacher put a cloth belt under my lower back and helped me flip up to standing and then bend backwards toward the ground about three times. “It’s scary!” I whispered as I flew up to face him and then fell back again, but I made it back safely to the ground in one piece. I would like to think that this person who is suffering will take comfort in fact that they will survive and land in one piece.
I tried to hold my mindset of peace and positivity during tonight’s taekwondo class too, which seems a little at odds with the purpose of sparring, but for some reason it works. I knew I needed to go big and take my life back, and part of that involves yanking myself out of my fog, throwing myself back into my passions, and remaining focused on my goals. If anything it was a welcome distraction, and as usual we had a lot of fun, hard work, and lot of laughs.
Thanks to a broken A/C, muggy Texas spring weather, and a dobok that doesn’t breathe I was so red that my face took on a charcoal gray tint and I had more than one moment of being dizzy. I got kicked in the head, knocked to the floor, and bashed against the wall. And I had a BLAST. I breathed through the tension and I even smiled in the extreme discomfort. (Don’t worry, none of the hard blows hurt. I’m as padded up as Randy in “A Christmas Story.”)
I’m still pretty bad at sparring. I get frustrated, I’m slow, and my body won’t obey my brain’s (or instructors’) commands. It’s uncomfortable, stressful, and exposes all my flaws. But it also reminds me that I have more strength than I thought I did in a scary situation. I’m able to breathe through the tension and smile in discomfort, and make it back to my feet safely and in one piece. I’m a fighter after all.
For a few minutes last night, though, it was the last place I wanted to be. As soon as the first round of sparring began my mood crashed and burned. Suddenly my instructor’s guidance sounded like taunts and my partner’s attacks felt like physical manifestations of all my shortcomings. This of course was all in my head. Neither one did anything wrong. They just happened to be in my line of sight when my old friend Low Self-Esteem decided to play. All my flaws were exposed, and there was nothing I could do about it. I was pissed.
I glared at my instructor and whined, “I’m tired,” which was a lie. I had been looking forward to class all day and couldn’t wait to work out. I was tired, but not physically tired. My mind and heart were tired. I am tired of holding it together and being “on” all the time. I’m tired of carrying myself and being my own hero. I’m tired of bearing my crosses alone. I’m tired of being slow and clumsy and weak and ineffective when I spar. I’m tired of trying to live up to my own impossible expectations.
But even that isn’t entirely true. I love my life and sometimes can’t believe I have the stupid luck to have it. I’m so much more at peace and in tune with who I really am and have accepted that happiness truly comes from within. What’s become confusing is that my tiny glimpses of bliss and enlightenment cause me to glance around, yawn with boredom, and say, “None of this matters one bit. This is all pointless. Who cares about these activities or possessions or achievements or relationships? All that matters is internal peace and happiness. F*ck it all. I’ll be dead in sixty years anyway.” My inner Buddha is sometimes more like an enlightened Eeyore.
As my partner and I circled around each other I continued to throw nasty glances and mutter curses through the plastic of my mouthguard. For a split second my instructor’s eyes glinted with a mixture of confusion and irritation. Even though I was silently willing him to go away, leave me alone, and stop reminding me that I didn’t know what I was doing I almost wanted him to call me out on my rudeness to snap me out of my downward spiral. Instead he continued to coach me and my partner, throwing out commands and not letting up until we were finished. I couldn’t look at him or my partner after that. Ultimately I was thankful that he kept pushing me to improve my sparring strategy. It kept me focused on the present moment and shielded me from myself. I’m a much more deadly opponent to myself than anyone I’ve ever encountered.
The only other time I’ve gotten upset in sparring class was when I was about ten in Taekwondo Iteration Part One. I did the classic green belt slapstick move of hitting myself in the nose as I was attempting to block a blow from my sparring partner. It surprised me more than it hurt. I went after the other kid in a blind rage, breathing fire and kicking furiously until my gentle-hearted instructor pulled me aside and talked me down from the ledge. I was never really angry at the other kid, other than that he unwittingly exposed what I deemed at the time to be an unforgivable flaw. I was angry at myself for being a failure. I was mortified that I had made such a rookie mistake.
My reaction was just a symptom of a much deeper problem. Even at that young age I was embarrassed at what I deemed to be a sign of weakness, a stumble, a cause for people to laugh at me, a reminder of how much I hated myself. I believed I couldn’t do anything right, and that attitude would haunt me well into adolescence and adulthood. Shame, humiliation, and feelings of unworthiness were ingrained into me so early on and so deeply that I am still digging out the pieces. These days when I think about the incident I’m not embarrassed about hitting myself in the nose. If I got hit in the face now I’d probably just start laughing and high five my partner for giving me a funny story to tell at work the next day. I’m much more embarrassed at how I reacted, just like I was embarrassed at how I lashed out last night, even though it was only for a few seconds.
At the end of class I apologized to my instructor, who was wondering what that side of me was about. I muttered a quick explanation that I was “stressed out,” but that wasn’t entirely accurate. I knew something weird had happened. I knew that for a few seconds the Old Me, the angry, lonely, self-loathing perfectionist, had clawed its way back to the surface. Dexter Morgan had his Dark Passenger. I have Old Me, and she is very troubled and very mean.
The next class, advanced technique for red and black belts, was much more relaxed and comfortable. But the tiny peek into darkness kept nagging at me. I felt like such a fraud! Who cares if I know all the forms or my slow motion front snap kick is pretty or I can explain the “whys” behind the one-steps to a young girl? If I can’t put what I’ve learned to practice to adequately defend myself and fight off an attacker then do I deserve to test for black belt this fall? Do I even deserve to be the rank that I am now? I am all talk and no action.The rational side of me says, “Chill, you’re learning, that’s why it’s called PRACTICE.” The irrational side of me says, “F*ck you, I want to be perfect NOW.” Short of smacking myself in the head the way Chris Farley did during his endearingly awkward celebrity interviews on SNL, I’m pretty tough on myself.
Last night instead of letting Old Me pour a shot of Gentleman Jack and crack open a trusty bottle of (legal) prescription pills to console myself I chastely chugged a giant can of Goya coconut water that I buy from the same neighborhood mercado where I treat myself to pan dulce and rose-scented soap and snacked on a bowl of shredded roast chicken mixed with a mashed up avocado and topped with garlic salt, which…OMG, you guys, you don’t even know…so yummy…OMG, yum!!!
In the end I was pleased that I had turned an unpleasant situation into a learning moment. For so long I let the violent flash floods of my troubled mind rule my life. I let myself be a helpless victim and I couldn’t figure out why everything kept falling apart. Even though I couldn’t control my reactions for those few moments, I knew exactly what was going on and why. Maybe that’s why it’s better to keep my friends close and my enemies even closer.
I was raised Catholic and still consider Catholicism to be my faith of choice even though I don’t regularly attend church and disagree with the Holy See on just about every political and social issue. (But Pope Francis seems like he’d be really fun to hang out with on a road trip, doesn’t he?) Every year around this time someone will ask me what I’m giving up for Lent.
My reply: “Nothing. If I did I’d be a hypocrite.”
I don’t really observe any other holy days so why start now? On the other hand it would fall in line with the stereotype of the “cafeteria Catholic”—picking and choosing what I want. Praying to St. Anthony when I lose stuff? Yes. Going to Easter Mass just to hear the part where the priest goes “Do you reject Satan and all his works?” so I can pretend I’m Michael Corleone at the end of “Godfather I” when his nephew is being baptized while his enemies are being murdered? A resounding YES. The harder, more polarized, and antiquated stuff? Not so much. I don’t even want to go there on this blog.
I’ve noticed that Lent has started to lose its reverence as a time of inward reflection and spiritual preparation and has instead become a quick fix diet fad for the masses. Just this morning I overheard a woman at work say, “I’m not Catholic but I could give up ice cream for a while.” Then just stop eating the f*cking ice cream! That’s not what Lent is about! Dare I say Lent has become trendy. These days most of the people I hear talking about giving up something for Lent have never known the discomfort of a blessing of holy oil gooping up their bangs on their already oily adolescent forehead during Confirmation or have had many a sticky, styrofoam-y Host get stuck to the roof of their mouths and they don’t have anything to wash it down (because who drinks the shared goblet of Communion wine / congregant saliva? gross!) so that they have to do that weird thing with their tongue that makes them look like a cat hacking up a hairball…i.e., not Catholics. Maybe I should start observing Hanukkah. I hear you get presents for eight days. Plus I love candles.
If you want to observe Lent whether you’re Catholic or not, fine, do it. I don’t care and wish we’d all keep our religions to ourselves anyway. Maybe you’ll get something positive out of it. People like having a way to keep tabs on themselves and compete with themselves in a healthy way. Sometimes it helps to have an outside force whether it’s a FitBit or the suffering of Christ to hold ourselves accountable for our behavior. But why do you have to give up something to attain the inner peace, love, and spiritual growth that you are (hopefully??) seeking during this time? What if you make a change or try something new? What if you gain instead of give up?
The most fruitful observation of Lent happened when I was around thirteen. I was an unhappy child. I was probably suffering the early stages of clinical depression, but at that time I was just labeled as “moody,” which made me feel oh-so-much better. It was really easy to talk myself down into a darker and darker state of mind. As the law of attraction teaches us, like attracts like. The sadder I was the more sadness I attracted to me….so when Lent started I decided to cut the crap for a while and smile every day. Just smile. Not a big dumb grin. Just smile.
And you know what? I felt much better, even though I only kept it up for about a week. The simple act of smiling brightened my mood and attracted hope. The residual effects were short-lived since I was young and foolish hadn’t yet figured out that happiness comes from within, not from a thing or a person. But the lesson has stayed with me ever since then.
So today on Ash Wednesday, a day when Catholics typically fast and avoid meat, I had chicken for lunch at my favorite Lebanese restaurant. I have been dreaming of this chicken for weeks—spicy, juicy grilled chicken kebab dipped in the tastiest, oiliest hummus I’ve ever had. A coworker and I joined a former coworker to catch up, and we had a fantastic time. Our lunch was a celebration of our friendship, and that fellowship means a lot more to me than eating a greasy fried fish dinner with strangers in a parish hall. (I consider fish a meat anyway. Have you ever seen one cleaned and gutted alive? A fish is a lot more pissed off about becoming a meal than a potato is.)
Eating is not part of my spiritual practice and is therefore not significant to my growth other than showing love to my body “temple” by eating nutritious foods that keep me healthy and strong. I eat a vegetarian/vegan diet half the time anyway because I’m too lazy to cook meat. Giving up meat is not a meaningful gesture for me. Perhaps your connection to eating and spirituality is different for you, and that’s fine.
So how am I going to observe Lent and honor my personal faith and relationship with God? Jesus didn’t die so I could mope around and punish myself. Here’s what I’ll do:
Be happy. Love life. Show gratitude for all that I have been given. Do all the things that make me feel healthy, happy, and whole. Be nice to people. Give a homeless guy standing on the freeway access road five bucks before the cops run him off. Take care of myself and treasure the body that I have rather than bemoaning the flaws. Make my coworkers laugh. Help a little kid learn a new taekwondo form. Eat chocolate without feeling guilty, drink wine and enjoy the smooth flavors and heady buzz, go to the pool and rock out the butterfly stroke, laugh my head off at stupid movies with lots of naughty language, thank God for something hilarious and random that happened today.
Why stop when the forty days are over? I’ll be having too much fun.