Redefining Mistake

Growing up, I was unlike the other kids I knew as I never signed up for spring baseball or enrolled in a fall basketball league. Instead, I spent my extra-activity hours studying the art of karate. This year round sport was very demanding. One of the most rewarding aspects of karate was competing in large tournaments. Here I could showcase my knowledge of both fighting and performance.

The kata portion—or performed routine section—of the tournament required that a participant execute a predetermined set of movements in exact precision. Style, technique and form were judged. It was common knowledge that all competitors memorize their katas. However, since there were many dojos of various styles competing, there was no universal way any judge could remember the sequence of each student’s specific kata.

In one competition, I had stumbled over a forgotten move, which ended up costing me a place on the podium. I was upset and on the drive home, my father leaned over and said, “You know Matt, the judges will never know when you’ve made a mistake unless you show them you messed. If you continue you the kata with confidence, they will not notice.”

Wax on, wax off.

After hearing this, I started to think that maybe he was right. The only reason I lost that day was because I stopped and hesitated. I thought I had been caught by the judges, when in fact I was the only one paying attention to the correct sequence of my kata. I lost because I admitted defeat.

This was a turning point in my life: the definition of mistake had been redefined. No longer was right and wrong decided by an outside entity; the judge was always from within.

Extended past karate, the idea of making mistake in everyday life is often seen as black and white. This is most obvious in the traditional school system with standardized exams that gauge not intellect and creativity, but rather the narrow skill of taking such tests. It is also seen in the notion that attending higher education is the only way to make a respectable living. In society, fashion is determined by a scale of social acceptance. Body image, popularity and materiality are all products of dualistic thinking, seeing in black and white. Yet, even in the face of such powerful ideologies, there exists groups that redefine for themselves the meaning of what is correct.

“There are no mistakes, only happy little accidents.” ~ the Chuck Norris of painting

For instance, there have been many movements through out the history of the arts where rebellious artists (usually young artists) go against the status quo of their predecessors’ style. Such movements have been named modern, post-modern, contemporary and avante garde. In a way, every transition is a redefinition, an expansion of what is and what is not a mistake. This can also be seen in the haute cuisine movement of the culinary world, as well as its rejection. In the school system, we see the rise of liberal studies that focus on content and creativity rather than memorization and regurgitation. Other educational systems like the Waldorf Schools are beginning to redefine what an academic mistake is. Through out society, we see the formation and evolution of counterculture groups like hippies, punks, goths and hipsters. These subgroups recalculate what is accepted within society, expanding the definition of what is accepted within society.

In all of these categories, the idea that black and white is the only way to live for billions of unique people is slowly fading away. Just like how I realized I could define what a correct kata was, the world is beginning to realize what defines a mistake is the words of those that are condemned.

Theorist playing cards, eh? “Foucault uses special ability: avoidance! Baffles opponent!”

Rogue thinker Michel Foucault wrote about this idea in his book on power and oppression. He defined—quite uniquely—that the oppressed were not victims of those in power, but rather causalities to their own roles. In order for their to exist a power-oppressor relationship, the oppressed must assume the role of inferior. They must become the mistake. In contrast, Foucault wrote that the power-oppressor relationship could not exist without the presence of both roles.

The definition of what is correct and what is not is only decided by you. You are the person that holds the gavel. You are the one who swings it.

For more on jazz and mistakes click here.

Now, rewind and then fast forward a bit to my next karate tournament. Armed with a new perspective and a confidence I had never had, I stormed the stage and performed my kata. Since I was in charge, I could do as I pleased. I free-styled the whole thing, start to finish. If I wanted to do a spinning back kick in the air, I did. If I wanted to roll across the floor, I did. If I wanted to bang my fists on the ground, I did. The stage was my canvas and no one was going to tell me how to paint it. With sweat dripping from my brow, I finished my routine. I bowed and faced the judges. I couldn’t believe what I heard them say.

“Matt, would you kindly repeat your kata.”

Boy, was I screwed.

I guess this will be a lesson for another blog.

Wisdom of the Chinese Massage Parlor

I wasn’t sure if it was the pincer-like grip piercing my tender neck or the intrusive finger smuggling its way deep into my chest cavity, but for some reason I had the crystal clear epiphany that maybe going to Chinatown massage parlors wasn’t exactly my cup of tea.

After a friend and I had spent a long day walking around Manhattan, we were in need of some deep relaxation. After pondering the all-mighty midday nap, we opted for the more interactive idea of getting a massage.  We decided to take a stroll into Chinatown. We were dually warned, but I must have blocked it out, because when our dear referrer told us about this joint all my mind heard was: massage.

Yep, definitely not a Chinese massage.

The place was what you would expect for a $25 half-hour back rub beating. Having really no idea what I was getting into, I decided to just go with the flow. The very small, very nice Chinese lady who would deceive me in so many ways, spoke to me in sputtered English. I did what any confused, extremely naive client would do: I agreed. In retrospect, that was probably the moment I signed my name in blood.

She started out rough. And for the next 30 minutes, it was this roughness I would so desperately yearn. She dug, pulled, pinch, prodded, shocked, twisted, pummeled, gouged, kneed, passed gas (quite unashamedly), and repeated all of these things more times than I care to remember. In the midst of this, my body and mind were all over the place. My hands clutched the metal legs of the massage table so hard that the table shook. I was breathing like a madman. I must of sounded like a crazed sadomasochist. At one point, I literally thought I was going to cry.

Not quite a Chinese massage

I had no control whatsoever. I realized at this moment I could either count the milliseconds until sweet, glorious freedom or just surrender to the torture. And although I found it almost impossible to let my body go completely limp, I did begin to loosen up. This by no means helped the pain; it only allowed her more room to plunge deeper into my body. I think she touched parts of my skeleton that have never been and will never be touched again. She was a crafty one, that sweet, little lady.

There are many times in life when pain, suffering and basically a complete loss of control can create adverse reactions that limit our ability to learn from our experiences. When I was on the table, I could have chosen to get up, but I understood that my emotional reactions and physical urges (as well as the entire karmic event of me actually getting this massage) were trying to tell me something. As I settled into my state of being (tortured), I was able to re-examine the situation.

A Chinese massage.

Utilizing a new perspective, I came to other conclusions. The massage was teaching me a lesson in surrendering, sacrifice, respect and humility. It also gave me the inspiration to write this blog post. I am sure that physically I will be better off—it’s just that I might not recognize it until next year.

All jokes aside, how many times have you found yourself in an undesired situation? In that moment, how much of your energy is put towards avoiding or trying to stop that situation? How often are you present during these times? In these valuable moments, we exert so much effort in running away that we often miss what is right in front of our eyes. And worse, when we don’t realize the entirety of the situation, we tend to repeat it until we do.

Surrender to the moment, good or bad.

I’ve written about the wisdom of pain before, but this post is about recognizing your reaction to it so that you may be in a position to learn from it. The first step in approaching anything—be it a relationship, a lecture, a business meeting or a massage from hell—is the ability to listen. When we can listen with all the senses, with the inner ear, we can accept the lessons given to us without having to repeat them.

And I can tell you in all certainty that I will not be getting a Chinese massages any time soon.

Who Do You Pray To?

It’s funny how the act of teaching can unexpectedly become the ultimate teacher. This past week, I experienced an influx in the amount of yoga classes I teach. I’ve been subbing for other yogis like a madman. In this process, I have had tremendous amounts of exposure to the lessons I preach. It’s as if my words echo off the walls  and whisper themselves into my ears. I am certainly learning a lot from all this teaching.

One of the most repetitive lessons I have been taught is the concept of self-prayer. Usually, prayer falls into two categories: culturally stigmatized or a form of pleading. These two categories are dependent upon one clause: the idea that who or what we pray to is outside of ourselves. In the former category, prayer is discriminated against because who actually believes a man separate from us in the sky is listening to everyone’s thoughts? In the latter view, we focus on the exterior power of another (be it Jesus, Buddha, Krishna or the all-mighty dollar) to give to us what we think we cannot give to ourselves. In both situations, fallacy is observed and prayer is focused outward.

"No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other."(L16:13) The Self or "God"

Jet backwards two weeks. I was in a yoga teacher’s training focused on conscious communication. Among the many invaluable lessons learned, the one that seems to have stuck the most is the lesson of conscious self-communication. Many times a day we often talk to ourselves. Voices in our heads repeat, reflect, judge, battle and vie for our conscious attention. This inner dialogue is a form of self-communication. And like this self-dialogue, prayer is one of those voices.

Although prayer may be thought of as a more conscious and intentional mental narrative, it is certainly not free from the sliding gradient of unconscious thought. On the lower end, the awareness of prayer is basically exhibiting a pleading/begging posture towards an exterior power. This is like trying to get a full stomach by watching the Food Network channel. It is idealistic at best, but utterly ineffective. Instead of refracting your desires off an unknowable entity, try asking your Self.

Mmmmm. Delicious!

This concept of prayer is a method of conscious communication. It implies that we are God. We are the universe, the physical embodiment creation, stemming from one common source. In this light, we can see that all our prayers, blessings, questions and concerns are capable of being answered with nothing more than our conscious attention.

This transition inward has been a great lesson for me. It has shown me the extent of my patience and will, as many times my belief in this method of prayer has been tested. I often do not see immediate results and begin to doubt my power as the great answerer of prayers. However, when I continue to know beyond faith that I am capable, my questions are answered. I surrender my prayer to the fear of realizing my ultimate power.

There are many psychological and spiritual barriers to making this an easy-as-pie process because we have been conditioned to believe that we are inept and incapable, leaving us at the will of an entity that exists outside of ourselves. The leverage point in this equation is the realization that we are the omnipresent being, the source of creation. Once this old paradigm is expanded, the true extent of the Self can be realized. The key to this is persistance, understanding and the ability to listen.

Listening is the beginning of prayer. ~Mother Teresa

I use a simple technique that was given by Yogi Bhajan. When monitoring your mood and finding yourself in an undesirable place, ask yourself to raise your spirits. Simply say: “I do not like the state I am in. (Insert your name), will you elevate my consciousness.” Now when you say this, you must direct it at your highest self. Recognize that there are other voices that do no represent you highest state of consciousness and avoid speaking to them. Instead, focus on that person who you are when you are happiest, most conscious. Through listening, the proper voice will be heard. This is how you will lift yourself.

So often we beg and plead with the ideas we place outside of ourselves. We send out wasted energy into the ethers hoping that it will return. Disappointment and challenge face those who are not impeccable in the traditional forms of exterior prayer. In these times of spiritual redefinition, old structures of practice are no longer as effective as they once were (although for some—like my Lola [grandmother]—external prayer continues to work). As our minds change, so do the ways we perceive the world, God, and ourselves.

So if prayer has served you fruitlessly, stop sending out a letter to an unknown address and instead try sending one to yourself. Better yet, write an email. The turn around on your prayers will be instantaneous.

Stamped, sealed and self-addressed.

A new, favorite quote of mine from Yogi Bhajan:

“Blessed are those who bless themselves.”

It is time to quit thinking you are incapable, limited and separate from the energy of the universe. Omnipotence is your birthright, and you are as powerful as you will let yourself be. Release that which does not serve this purpose. Recognize this and you will become limitless. Turn off the TV, get into the kitchen and start cooking.