Last Tuesday my home was struck by lightning. I don’t mean there was a power surge during a thunderstorm. I mean the building was HIT directly by a giant, bright, crackling bolt I saw as I was driving home. Whenever I see distant lightning strikes or smoke from a fire I think, “Gee, I hope that wasn’t my place, hee hee ho ho,” and nonchalantly go back to my day.
This time it was my place.
Thankfully I got home just at the right time to (1) not be electrocuted myself (let’s say I’d been home earlier and had the misfortune of plugging something in at just the wrong time) and (2) call the fire department in time to catch an exterior smoking outlet that sent scorch marks all the way up to my attic. Here I was thinking the main problem was a bathroom outlet that burst into flames after a breaker was flipped. Turns out the damn building was on fire…kinda.
My dishwasher and internet router are dead, but other than that everything is fine. The electrical problems have already been fixed courtesy of my condo HOA.
I knew something messed up like this was going to happen. I’ve been in a constant state of anxiety and anger and resentment and distrust and worry since the beginning of the year. Everything was a crisis, and every action from someone else was a slight against me. I wanted desperately to stop caring so much, to really try hard and keep to my “zero f*cks by forty” mantra. But that proverbial stick was pretty far up there if you catch my drift. A great deal of my stress was relieved when I quit my taekwondo school last month, but apparently I was still in such an emotional tizzy that I needed a literal shock from the universe.
In a real crisis I’m pretty calm. Outlet on fire? Oh, let’s just smash a towel over that. My heart was pounding when I called 911, but panicking and screaming would do no good in this situation. I sat primly on my couch while fire fighters tramped all over my hallway, attic, and back porch.
I will say that experience made me much more relaxed for some personal matters I had to deal with the next few days. Life is pretty good when you’re not homeless.
My problem is that I panic during the pseudo-crises, which we all seem to drum up in our fast-paced, overly connected, in-your-face society. I could do with a bit less of all that right now.
Real life has settled in again although I’m not sure how or to whom to express my deep gratitude for being so lucky. I try not to get pulled into the spiral of “what could have been” thinking because it’s too scary. I’m back at work. I bought tickets to a play. I was a little on edge the first time I ran my dryer and heater in case some little lightning goblin had holed up for a few days and was waiting to wreak havoc at just the right time–everything was fine.
If I’m not careful and mindful the lesson I’ve learned from this will evaporate quickly. Very rarely is anything a true crisis. The house fires, the heart attacks, the all too many mass shootings, the car chases, the financial ruin–the real times of peril are crises. Nothing else is that big of a deal, and I say that just as much for myself as I do for others. Work stuff–not life-threatening and as a bonus they help pay for my nice home that didn’t burn to the ground. All the drama and stress and unhappiness around Taekwondo this year–it’s OVER and I’m free to enjoy my time off and pursue other ventures. Even personal relationships–all the little stuff doesn’t matter.
I said in my last post that I’d have to keep trying to let go and not care as much and just enjoy and be thankful for what I have, and damnit I’m going to keep trying. Hopefully it won’t take another bolt of lightning to keep me on the right path to emotional and mental freedom.
Maybe when I had a lotus flower, symbolizing the characteristics of Jidokwan, tattooed on my arm I should have also had the common taekwondo tenets etched on there too:
…cause I’m doing a crap job of them lately.
What we want the most is often what is just out of reach, and the more we chase it and try to force it into our hands the more evasive it becomes. I want a sense of calm and ability to stay present and also be slow to anger or judge. Apparently it’s Opposite Day, because for the last few months I’ve been a stressed out, short-fused, worrying grouch. EVERYTHING is serious and EVERYTHING is a crisis. I have good intentions to calm the hell down, but it’s been slow-going in the face of the real-life tests put in front of me.
I might not be training in taekwondo at the moment, but as I’ve said in previous posts, I am and always will be a black belt, which for me has as as many mental and emotional indications as physical. I didn’t get into taekwondo for the physical aspect. I wanted to get hold of my wily mind. I’ve gotten a lot better at it, but in times of stress I seem to revert back to some old habits.
I doubt my fellow martial artists are perfect at applying these tenets at all times. We’re human. We’re fallible. We slip up. The world can be a difficult place that breaks down our indomitable spirits. But it’s nice to have these guideposts in place.
So maybe this is the real test: how I conduct myself outside the dojang. Courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and having an indomitable spirit are not meant to be trotted out for belt tests or sparring matches and then be tucked neatly away. They’re in place to help us shape our daily practice and interactions with others both on and off the mat. Maybe self-forgiveness should be part of that guiding system too.
Let’s live the tenets in real life. Let’s use our black belt ability to pause in the face of stress, calm ourselves, and respond in a way that corresponds with our guiding values. I’m still going to have my bad days, but I’m going to use my black belt perseverance to keep trying.
A few days ago I told my Grandmaster and fellow instructors that I would not be returning to the community center where we hold classes twice a week. I kept my explanation simple: my job is demanding, I have health issues to address, and frankly, I just don’t want to teach anymore.
That was the simple explanation. I’m not sure it was truly heard or accepted, but that’s no longer my problem. I’m done. I’m out. I’m free.
I wrote this post for all the black belts and instructors who made the heart-wrenching decision to leave their martial arts school in the face of potential backlash and harmed relationships. There are tons of articles and posts online about quitting martial arts or a particular school from the students’ perspective, but I could find very little solace in stories of my fellow instructors who finally said, “enough” and cut ties. (Although I did get some hits when I paired the search terms “martial arts” and “cult,” which is telling.) I know the stories are out there. This one is mine.
“Quitting” is such a taboo word in the martial arts word where we all proclaim to be white belts who never gave up, and those who quit really aren’t dedicated and blah blah blah. We all like to make ourselves feel good when we say, “I’ll never quit!”
Sometimes quitting is exactly what one needs to do depending on the situation.
I once heard someone describe their religion as a “prison of the mind.” Religion can be a wonderful thing for many people, but like any institution or philosophy or way of life, it can be a trap for those who are susceptible. I knew I needed to leave my taekwondo situation when I realized I had mentally trapped myself in a state of believing I was helpless to change a situation that I have not been happy with for months.
The irony of my fascination with cults and my past history of staying in toxic personal relationships that were past their due date is not lost on me.
I brought the cult-like devotion on myself. I entered my taekwondo school when I was in a very vulnerable mental state. (And as martial arts imitate life, I happened to enter a controlling, emotionally abusive, classic gaslighting relationship around the same time) I was beyond thrilled at how wonderful taekwondo made me feel. I had traded one mind-numbing substance for another.
Recently as I was agonizing over whether I could muster up the courage to quit my Taekwondo situation I reflected on why I left my last job in 2011. I left that job and the library profession because there was no opportunity for growth (an expanded position my manager and I had proposed to her corporate leaders was twice shot down so bye Felicia to them) and the department strategy overall changed very little. At 30 years old I was about to hit the ceiling of my salary range, and I knew I had more earning potential. I wasn’t going to settle for a librarian’s salary, which for a professional with an advanced degree is on the lower end of the middle class spectrum. My manager asked me if I’d ever go back to a library job. At the time I probably said, “I don’t know” to be polite, but I knew I’d never go back.
Without going into too many details, that’s essentially why I left my school. I have higher “earning potential” for my own black belt capabilities elsewhere. I was bored. I was frustrated. I hadn’t done higher level black belt training since last year, and as much as I liked my students, I felt like I was teaching the same old stuff over and over again to the same handful of people. I was tired of teaching all the time and longed for the days when I could just be a student and work out. While I realize teaching is part of the black belt’s job, only teaching and not training caused an imbalance in my practice. I was having more fun in my Body Combat classes at the gym.
Taekwondo wasn’t fun anymore, and that’s what made me sad. It used to be loads of fun, including the times when it was really hard, even frustrating work. It was still rewarding for a while, especially when some of my favorite students tested for black belt, but even that wore off. Now it just felt like work. I already have a job that I am well compensated for. When I do things in my free time I want them to be FUN and STRESS-FREE.
I’d already bowed out of teaching the earlier class because I hate teaching white belts and little kids who are too young to be in martial arts, and I didn’t want to get pulled into that again. (Nothing against white belts; that’s just not where my teaching talents lie. As for four-year-old white belts? Get the f–k outta here. The last four year old white belt I saw was dancing around in the corner with a McDonalds Happy Meal box on his head. Let him be four. Just don’t let him do taekwondo yet.)
I didn’t see anyone making much progress during our very limited class time in a location I didn’t care for. It didn’t help that our rush to clean out the old school and coordinate the move at the beginning of the year happened during a time at work when I was also feeling used and stretched to my limits.
I’d like to say it’s not personal and it’s strictly business, but it is personal. There were practices and behaviors I deeply disagreed with (let’s just say I was in a cultural institution where saying “no” and taking back one’s independence was frowned upon), but I’d let my cult-like devotion take over, and as frantic and unhappy as I was, I didn’t see how I could leave.
I was making myself miserable with worry about how certain people would react–my Grandmaster, parents, students. It got to the point that I hoped not only for the community center to kick us out due to low numbers, but I also secretly wished for ridiculous things to happen like getting kicked out for my tattoo or hoping to get into a verbal altercation that would allow me to leave in a self-righteous huff. But in my heart I didn’t really want those things. I didn’t want drama or damaged relationships. Finally I stopped waiting for a deus ex machina to release me from an expired obligation. I decided to just up and quit. I stopped caring about how other people would react or what they would think about me.
And I don’t care how people will react. I had to make a choice that was best for me to regain emotional health and balance in my life.
I know I’ll come back to teaching taekwondo. I like helping other people learn, and I like being that positive coach, poking and prodding and guiding people to their highest potential. I just don’t want to do that right now.
You may be tempted to ask, “Why did you wait so long?” One could ask the same question about why I stayed in certain relationships when they showed their true unpleasant colors. I ask you not to judge those in difficult situations. For a long time you tell yourself that things will get better, and that certain disappointments were just flukes or one-time incidents. The sinking realization that things will not change is a blessing in disguise because it is the first baby step out.
Taekwondo, whether it went beyond the realm of hobby to addiction or not, was the impetus for me to get control of my mind and my life and become who I truly have the power to be. I am a much better version of myself. I’m confident, much happier, and according to some people, funnier than I used to be….and I let it burrow deep into my brain and inject my veins with the sweetest, most wonderful high you could ever imagine. I needed taekwondo to feel whole, and when I lost the comforting structure that I had, I kind of lost my mind too. I think that’s why making a break with the people and the place and the practices and that particular institution is what’s best for my emotional well-being.
There is a future for me in taekwondo—just not where it has been for the last five years.
July and August were such pleasant, slow, and QUIET months. Then September hit, and all of a sudden it seemed everyone awoke from their daydreams and determined that EVERYTHING MUST BE ACCOMPLISHED BEFORE THE END OF THE YEAR!!! Plus it looks like this is going to be one of those North Texas falls with torrential rain and damaging floods. Awesome.
I got pulled into that Chicken Little panic that I revile so much almost immediately, right of course, when I vowed to myself to be more detached and not let the small stuff (and it’s all small stuff) bother me. Ha ha, Universe, I guess I needed humbling. What a wonderful cosmic joke!
I think I’ve been especially susceptible to groupthink and anxiety and panic this year because of my lack of balance and healthy way of relieving stress. Taekwondo has not been much of a failsafe this year, and the structure I’d gotten used for the last five years was turned completely upside down. There have been other stressors professionally and personally this year not to mention the total and utter garbage state of my very divided country. And yeah, I’m gonna get petty for a second because this pisses me off too: I’ve gained back about half the the weight I lost last year (albeit the weight loss was due to an intestinal parasite)…although the taekwondo change has been the biggest and most noticeable stressor for me personally.
I realize in hindsight that I’ve been a lot quicker to anger, more reactive, and more prone to worry this year. I either haven’t been myself because of the taekwondo thing, or what I fear more, my loss of built-in stress relief and balance has revealed who I’ve been beneath the surface this whole time. I don’t blame anyone in my taekwondo or professional worlds. My emotional reactions to everything whether they were big changes or mundane ideas were ultimately my choices.
It’s been a struggle that I probably haven’t done as well a job of hiding as I thought.
This month hasn’t been all bad, though. I got my first tattoo, which I love! I celebrated a friend’s book release. I made a difficult but very freeing decision that I think will relieve a great deal of the stress I’ve been feeling this year. I got through four weeks of busy project work and course facilitation without feeling too drained or grumpy although I’ve been drinking more wine this month. Personally I’m doing well and enjoying my quiet life in my nice little home.
But seriously, everyone….can we all just chill and calm the f–k down for two minutes? Why all the rushing and need to have our hands in everything? It’s time for eating Halloween candy and Thanksgiving stuffing, not running around like the proverbial headless chicken.
I knew I’d have to go back to square one on this not worrying/letting go thing over and over until it stuck. This is one of those times. I’m going to keep trying. I owe it to myself and the people around me to get back some of that joy and ease I’d waited so long to attain and seemed to so quickly lose. I’ve fallen seven times, and I’m getting up eight.
And if all else fails there’s a place in town where I can pay to throw axes at targets. Seriously.
I am celebrating my 39th birthday this week. While I won’t be eating complimentary cake in my dobok with my other black belts and taekwondo students like I did last year, I’ve enjoyed some extended time off and have a few fun things planned. The biggest thing I plan on doing is embarking on a year-long quest to take me into the next decade of life with a smile: I want to give zero f*cks by forty.
Many people start improvement plans on their way to forty: some do a “Fit by Forty” exercise regime, which I don’t need because I already am. Some people get their financial act together, which I don’t need to do because it already is…Hmm,I suppose I could embark on a year of humility, but…nah!
So why the “Give Zero F*cks by Forty” program? Frankly, I have spent most of my life sweating the small stuff—and the big stuff that turns out to be relatively small in the big scheme of things. Work, school, what other people think of me, what other people say to me, my body, what I do or say, the worries and limiting beliefs and troubling thoughts that take up real estate in my mind–ENOUGH! I’m exhausted!
Giving zero f*cks about the things that really don’t matter (which is most of “the things”) sounds like a dream. I would be calmer, more relaxed, more open-minded, and more accepting of the shifts and tides of my life.
It won’t be perfect from the beginning, and I know I will have many setbacks and have to re-commit myself many times between now and next July. I’m a control freak in many aspects of my life. It’s served me well academically, career-wise, and financially, but it’s left me pretty tightly-wound too. Letting go of my hatred for a particular body part will be hard. I’ve been failing at that since I was 13. Not being pulled into senseless panic over things at work that don’t matter can be difficult to resist if everyone else is doing it (although working alongside true lifesavers in the healthcare industry has given me a pretty good perspective on what is truly important and what isn’t). The political landscape and division in the United States is a nightmare. Social media is a tempting time drain. Sometimes I daydream about rude, hurtful things people have said or done to me in the past, and it can be a chore to yank myself away from those runaway thoughts and move forward. Letting go of the things I want the most out of life and trusting that they will come to me in due time and without desperate attempts is a huge act of faith.
Does this mean I won’t care about anyone or anything anymore? No, it doesn’t. My new mindset doesn’t mean I’ll stop loving people who are important to me (but it will mean I won’t waste thoughts on people who aren’t) or not put in a good effort at my job (but it will mean I’ll stop taking myself and all the corporate-ness so seriously) or stop trying in taekwondo class (but it will mean I’ll loosen it from my heart strings just a little; holding onto taekwondo too tightly is hurting me this year). What this really means is I’ll stop needlessly worrying about all the stupid petty crap that makes me miserable. We all get pulled into senseless worrying depending on what’s going on in our lives. It sounds so easy and so inviting to let it all go, but sadly we’re programmed to hang on tightly to the very things that make us unhappy.
I’m glad I’m giving myself a whole year.
…but I can do it. If anything I have that black belt stubbornness that makes me continue to challenge and motivate myself.
Join me. Sit back, relax, give zero f*cks, and let yourself finally enjoy the people, things, and experiences in life that truly matter to you and bring you joy.
Work can be stressful although it doesn’t have to be. Even black belts can’t be super calm and relaxed at work all the time. Once in a while I sneak in a little taekwondo practice in my office (yes I’ve done a spin kick in a dress). Other times I look for more traditional ways to bring a sense of calm to my workday.
Lately I’ve gotten some positive feedback from people in different areas of my life. They see me as strong, calm, and a perfect fit for a taekwondo instructor. One of my coworkers calls me an “Activator” because I am quick to complete tasks. Another coworker asked me a lot of questions about taekwondo when she found out I practiced it, and said she saw the inner strength and peace within me befitting of a black belt. During a period of job upheaval a coaching client was adamant that I HAD to remain his coach, and he would be “devastated” if I weren’t. A mother of some of our taekwondo students told me her kids love me and appreciate the “gentleness” in my style of teaching.
I’m having a hard time believing them. No, you have to understand, I feel like I’m pulling a fast one on people. I’m not that nice. I avoid socializing. I’m sarcastic and judgmental. My first priority is looking out for Number One. What inner peace I do manage to have is often dashed by worry and doubt. Privately I struggle but I’ll be damned if I share what I’m going through with anyone. I’m lonely but I’m thrown off when people express an interest in spending time with me and actually start to get anxious about sharing my precious free time and scheduled activities with others. And…sigh…sometimes I still think I’m fat and worry I’ll be rejected because of it (as a petite size 4 who kicks ass in the gym–I know, I’m an idiot).
Why doesn’t anyone see the dark, self-serving, angry, mistrusting creature looming just beneath the surface? Can’t they tell?? I don’t think I’m completely hiding my true nature or what I believe my true nature to be. I get along with people easily and feel comfortable interacting with small or large groups so I’m pretty much being myself (well, some of the time). But something feels off when people tell me how awesome they think I am. Half the time I’m counting the minutes until I can get away from them and go hide by myself. It is more comfortable to wear a mask and hide behind my walls than to let relationships flourish. I don’t understand why they like me. I don’t see what they see. If only they knew…
I started to wonder if it wasn’t so much that people didn’t know the real me but instead, I didn’t know the real me. I am the one pulling a fast one on myself with self-deprecating lies. I only see the flaws and magnify them until they crowd out all the other good qualities. I am SO guarded against letting people get close to me that I would rather entomb myself in my own mind with all its biases, exaggerations, false assumptions, and bad habits. I’m so wrapped up in my own self-destructive BS that it’s threatening to drown out all the good qualities I DO have.
Okay. Now that I realize that…now what? Maybe it’s like winning a lottery but at first not realizing you have the money and instead you still choose to live in a cardboard box. Now that you realize you have all that money you can get yourself out of that situation. I can be friendly, funny, and engaging if I let my guard down although right now I still don’t want to. I can be strong and calm if I don’t allow worry to overtake me although right now the habit of worry is so deeply ingrained I have to put all my energy into breaking myself of it. I still kinda want to live in my cardboard box.
I guess I’m not so bad after all. In fact, I’m pretty great. Now I have all these resources to tap into—calm, creativity, connectivity, people who want to be friends and spend time with me, a body I can enjoy and appreciate rather than hate or punish….that’s pretty cool. Once I stop spending so much time ruminating on the darker parts of my personality I’ll have a lot of free time on my hands. Hmm…
So it turns out I am who you think I am…and maybe someday I’ll believe that too.
This an expansion on a post I wrote several weeks ago. Life can be frustrating, scary, and stressful, but maintaining a black belt attitude (whether you’re a white belt, black belt, or not even into martial arts at all) can help you get through tough times with confidence and grace.
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A few weeks ago in taekwondo class we were practicing a kicking drill: one person held a square pad in each hand and walked backwards while another person moved forward, kicking the pad with each step. The twist was the holder changed the target’s position every time, so the person kicking had to quickly respond with the appropriate kick: snap kick, roundhouse kick, side kick or turning back side kick, and spin kick. The purpose of the drill was to practice reacting quickly to an uncertain situation. If the target is open we should take advantage of the situation and respond with the most appropriate kick, which may not have been the one we were expecting to use.
Some students picked up on the drill quickly and others had to take a little more time for their bodies to catch up with what they were seeing. I found myself thinking too much rather than resting in that sweet spot of my brain and body acting in sync. In a sparring match and even more so in a real-life altercation we can’t necessarily tell what kind of blow is coming next. There are some tell-tale signs to the trained eye, but even then things can change at the last minute. We learn how to strike and defend, and we also learn how to fake and change direction quickly. We shouldn’t be surprised when our opponents do the same.
In life we don’t always know what’s going to happen next, where the next blow is going to come from, or where the next opportunity may pop up (i.e., that open target). In taekwondo we’re taught to always be ready and to rely on our arsenal of tools and our (eventually) well-honed instincts. It doesn’t mean we won’t get hurt. If you get in a fight you’re probably going to get hit. If someone attacks you with a knife and you fight back, you’re probably going to get cut. Hopefully, though, if you think fast and respond quickly and intelligently, the blows or cuts won’t be fatal (and the proverbial knife won’t end up in your back).
Some friends and I are dealing with an uncertain situation. The first blows have been dealt although we’re not certain how or when the next attacks are going to occur. There have been some fakes, and there have been some low blows. Like seasoned black belts, people have responded with grace, confidence, and dignity. They have found ways to take their power back. They have learned to dodge the most fatal blows and strike back when necessary. It’s easy to get bogged down with thinking of the worst possible scenario, but just as when we are in a fight, we can’t become so consumed by worry, fear, or even anger, that we are blind to the opportunities in front of us.
When I was kicking during the class drill my holder was a male bo dan close to my age. When he held up the target he would mutter the kick along with it. Even though he was verbalizing the right kick, it took a few seconds for my body to catch up with what my eyes were telling me.
“Spin kick,” he said quietly. Ugh, I hate spin kick. Okay…whap!
“Oh come on!” I protested jokingly. “I just did that!”
“Spin kick,” he repeated with a smile. Grrrr…okay, whap!
“But it’s my left leg! I suck on this side! Can’t you switch to the right si-”
“Spin kick.” Dang it….whap!
While the spin kicks weren’t much of a surprise after the first or second time, I was surprised by my holder sticking to his guns and pushing me to do something I didn’t want to do. My spin kicks were far from perfect, but I got the job done. I think that’s what I can do at this point in this place of uncertainty–not be totally surprised when dealt blows or even a bit of dirty fighting, but I can use my strength, cunning, confidence, and skill to fight back as best I can.
Looking for a great way to lower your stress levels? Why not sign up for an affordable martial arts training camp? From Taekwondo to Krav Maga, BookMartialArts.com has camps on various types of martial arts disciplines to choose from!