The vortex of anything
I like projects. At any given moment, I’ve got a work project, a personal project, a volunteer project, or a house project in the works. Some are small, like labeling the spice jars. Some are large, like encouraging all martial artists everywhere to stand up for black lives. And I enjoy them all. I like being productive and creating things. I like being busy.
Even though it’s fun and fulfilling, if left un-checked all that projecting can become a vortex that leaves no space for anything else. At several points in my life, I have taken on too many projects at once and it hasn’t ended well. Particularly when too many of those projects were other people’s priorities. I don’t like to disappoint, so that meant I got it all done at the expense of my own mental or physical well-being.
I’m sure many people can relate to the vortex of saying yes to too many things. It’s easy to fall into with so many great and worthy causes in the world needing time and attention. It’s also quickly reinforced by American society's general idealization of the workaholic lifestyle. Being busy is a status symbol that comes with a certain amount of prestige.
I certainly bought in to the narrative: I am doing important things in the world, therefore I am important. It is one of the very subtle ways I have embodied supremacy. I saw my state of being busy with important things as something that separated me from all those other people wasting their time on unworthy pursuits. It was also incredibly hard for me to identify because it was tangled up with my fight against being constantly devalued as a fem-presenting human. I had to gently tease apart where recognizing my own intrinsic value stopped and where comparatively devaluing others began.
Similarly, part of my martial arts training morphed from helpful skill-building into unhelpful vortex at one point. I spent a lot of time practicing being comfortable in a really crappy position, which is an excellent skill to develop. Being calm when things are at their worst facilitates seeing more creative opportunities for resolving that situation and making better choices between the options available.
Unfortunately for me, I got so comfortable in the worst possible place that I would wait to start solving the problem until my partner got me fully into a crappy place, or I would put myself there and then start working things out. That is not a smart self-defense choice. That is also not a smart sport-fighting choice. But it had become a vortex and sucked me in for a while.
One giant vortex that has sucked us all in is Covid. It’s unavoidable, which makes it prime vortex territory. It’s also ever-present, which makes its effects difficult to identify. One of the ways this has presented for me is a new relationship with planning and time. At the beginning of the year, I had many plans for 2020. Over the last six months all of those plans have been cancelled or have drastically changed their nature. Flights were cancelled, conferences went virtual, and I stopped looking forward to things.
Early on, I participated in a lot of virtual social time. Unfortunately, I also work at a computer all day, so that essentially doubled my daily screen time. Every night my brain was buzzy and my face felt fried. I wanted to maintain some semblance of my regular social life and it was exhausting.
I fell into a pattern of essentially just working. This was especially easy since by the time Covid struck, tax season was in full swing. Then it… just. kept. going. The filing season extended all the way through July (instead of ending in April) and the workload was immense. With my Covid-safe home office accessible at all hours and no other outside activities happening, I could work and work and work without even the usual pangs of filing season fomo.
Recently I made plans to spend in-bubble time with an out-bubble friend. The logistics were immense. We had multiple conversations about everybody’s risk tolerance and exposure levels. We all had to isolate in a similar fashion for two weeks and make hard choices to temporarily treat some in-bubble folks out-bubble.
I followed all the protocols we agreed to and the days passed leading up to our week-long visit with the dear friend we haven’t been within six feet of for half a year. I did not get excited about the visit until the night before. It was as if the plan didn’t become real until it was actually happening. As if I am so out of practice at looking forward to future plans that I just couldn’t do it.
There are vortex opportunities all around us. Just like every time you pick up your cell phone to check the weather and fifteen minutes later you’re reading emails and wondering why you picked up your phone in the first place since you were about to make lunch.
Anything can become a vortex. It’s so easy to get lost in the doing of things. It’s important to come up for air from time to time, and check-in with why we are doing things. No matter what we’re working on, it’s important to maintain that perspective. Otherwise we lose sight of everything else, including ourselves.
Information and Inspiration
Consent is like...
Tea. At least according to one amazing video that thoroughly and clearly explains consent using tea as a stand-in for sex. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it now. It’s brilliant. It's simple. Everyone should see this video. Consent not only applies to tea, of course, it applies to sex. And it applies to a lot of other things because consent is not actually about sex (or tea). It’s about autonomy and agency and respect.
This more complete understanding of consent is something I have come to pretty recently as an adult. When I was growing up in the 90’s, all I learned about consent was that “no means no.” If somebody wanted to have sex with me and I didn't want to have sex with them, I should just say "no" and that would be that. End of transaction. We did not cover the nuance of power dynamics at play during any human interaction, or discuss the potential for more subtle requests or veiled demands.
It was only in the last half decade that I learned the distinction between a request and a demand, which can be most easily identified by what happens in response to a denial. For example, I ask my friend for a bite of their cake and they say “no.” If I accept that answer and life moves on without interpersonal consequences for my friend, then I made a request. If I do not accept that answer and instead get mad and hold their refusal against them or attempt to guilt my friend into giving me a bite of their cake, then I have made a demand.
Nobody taught me that distinction growing up. Nobody taught me I could say no to a demand. Nobody taught me I could say no to things other than sex. Nobody taught me I could also say no to giving up my physical space, giving up my sound space, or holding emotional space for other people.
In fact, I learned the opposite. In my family, whoever was the most upset got to take up the most sound space and was given all the emotional space. People who were not upset didn't need emotional space so they didn't get any. This created the unhealthy dynamic of unchecked emotional outbursts I learned to manage regardless of whether I had any of my own emotions to contend with in the moment. It reinforced a pattern of setting my own needs aside to resolve the needs of someone else.
This was a pattern I brought with me into my marriage and that I have worked hard to unwind in the wake of my divorce. In its place, I am cultivating consent in emotional engagement. I am practicing asking and being asked whether the listener has space for the expression of intense emotions before they are shared. I am practicing giving notice and asking for notice before an emotionally intense conversation begins.
This practice recognizes the autonomy of both the expresser and the receiver as equal participants in the emotional or conversational exchange. It recognizes the agency of each participant and respects their right to choose whether and how to engage in that exchange.
I am grateful to also have the opportunity to cultivate consent culture in my martial arts practice. One way my Mo Duk Pai teacher models consent is by requiring partners to check-in before they begin to work a drill. They discuss each person's preference for speed and intensity (within the parameters assigned by the teacher), and come to an agreement for their exchange. If one partner wants to dial it up later, they ask the other partner who must give enthusiastic consent before the pair changes anything.
My Taiji teacher models consent by checking-in as she offers additional layers of challenge when working directly with an individual student. She doesn't press a student to take the next step in their learning journey before they are willing to face it. She also encourages all students to self-check-in and understand as fully as possible what they are bringing into any partner interaction.
These practices recognize the autonomy of both training partners as equal participants in the learning process. They recognize the agency of each participant and respect their right to choose whether and how to engage in that process.
There is opportunity to engage with consent in all parts of life. Unfortunately, one place it is glaringly absent right now is in some people's refusal to wear a mask during the pandemic. In the beginning of the outbreak, this was more understandable because the medical guidance was unclear. Science didn't know the answers to critical questions like: do masks actually work and how effective are they? Nobody knew whether only sick people should wear masks or everyone should wear masks.
However, now the science is fairly settled and has been for a couple months. We know masks make an important difference. And yet, some humans still refuse to wear them. There seems to be broad consensus that many people refuse to wear a mask because they don’t want to be told what to do. I understand wanting to be in control of your own experience, but I think it's more than just that. I think these folks are also missing a fundamental understanding of consent. They didn’t grow up in a culture of consent, and so they don’t understand that consent is like… wearing a mask.
Science tells us that Covid spreads from person to person through tiny particles we breathe out. Science also tells us that wearing a mask prevents most of the particles we breathe out from floating through the air and landing on the surfaces and people around us. When people wear masks, there are fewer virus particles hanging out on surfaces I might touch and fewer virus particles sticking to my clothing and hair. That means there is less chance of me picking up the virus and spreading it around to other people or places.
I want other people to be aware of the Covid risk I bring into any interaction because that allows them to make an informed choice about what kind of interaction with me fits within their personal risk tolerance. I want the people I want to interact with to consent to the entirety of our interaction. And I want the same opportunity to consent to the risk other people bring into my personal space or the public spaces I have to interact with. So I wear a mask and stay 6 feet away from humans not in my Covid bubble.
The people who don't want to wear a mask can definitely make that choice. If they were cultivating consent culture, they would understand they can make that choice without affecting me or anyone else within their own home or other non-public spaces. If they were practicing consent they would recognize their refusal to wear a mask (for non-medical-exemption reasons), means they cannot go out into the world and do whatever they please wherever and whenever they want. They would understand that bringing their unmitigated Covid risk into public spaces takes away everyone else's opportunity to consent (or not) to that Covid risk level.
Wearing a mask, frequent hand-washing, and physical distancing from out-bubble folks recognizes the autonomy of everyone else in public spaces as equal participants in our society. It recognizes the agency of each participant and respects their right to choose whether and how they engage with the risk of Covid. It turns out Covid is just like sex (and tea).
Information and Inspiration
This week I took a break, which is not something I do very often. I enjoy working on projects – personal and professional – so I tend to take a break from one flavor of project by working on another. I break from work to get a personal project done. Or break from a personal project to complete a house project. But this week, I took a break from everything and went into the woods for a couple days.
Even though it’s not my usual mode, every time I’ve taken a break from part or all of regularly scheduled life, I get something out of it. The most obvious benefit of taking a break is rejuvenation. It’s generally beneficial for humans to take a break and recover after a stint of focused or intensive working. I participate in the madness that is Tax Season every year, so right after the deadline I disappear from the office for a couple weeks to catch up on sleep.
When I come back, I’m well rested and back to feeling like a complete human being. That means I can once again be available for the needs of any other human, so I’m ready and excited to help my clients. It seems like the more intensive the working (and the greater the personal drain), the greater the need for recovery and so the greater the benefit from taking a break.
In addition to recovery, I have also experienced a great benefit from breaks in the form of new perspective. A couple years into my martial arts training, I broke my foot and then came down with a serious illness that prevented me from training for a few months. With just a broken foot, I was able to attend classes in a chair and work some upper body techniques. But the addition of the illness kept me entirely off the training floor and out of the dojo.
When I came back a couple months later, I started slowly and took it easy during classes for the first few weeks. Even though I was moving more slowly than the rest of the class, I was surprised at the variety of my offensive and defensive choices during sparring. I was a less predictable and more nuanced fighter than I had been before my break. It felt like some of the principles I had been working had fully soaked in during my time away.
I have experienced a similar thing with creative projects. There are many times where I have toiled and fussed with something that just isn’t quit the way I want it. Then I take a nap. And upon waking, I suddenly see exactly what needs to shift to bring all the pieces together to complete my vision.
It can be all too easy in our fast-paced, high-demand, quick-turn-around society to neglect the space between things. But in those moments of silence and non-doing lives great potential. When I fill my life with assignments and tasks, that leaves no room for the infinite possibilities of the universe. Taking a break this week reminded me of the fullness of potential in those empty spaces.
Information and Inspiration
Black Belts for Black Lives
Martial arts has been a significant part of my life for the last 15 years. It all started when a friend called to tell me his roommate's kung fu school had just moved to a new location and was having a grand opening celebration. There was going to be demonstrations and prizes and food. The prospect of free food was very appealing to me, so off we went. The demos were great, the food was tasty, and their screamin' sign-up deal of 3 months unlimited classes for $30 was an offer I couldn't pass-up. At some point during that 3 months I was hooked, and I've been training ever since.
One of my favorite things about martial arts is that every lesson I learn on the training floor also applies to the rest of my life. At work I have used the fighting principle of set-ups to establish expectations for team members on an important project. In school I used the fighting principle line of attack to consider alternate perspectives and solve problems. Lately I am using the fighting principle of positioning to recognize my privilege and use it to uplift voices of color.
In my personal quest to infuse anti-racist work into every part of my life, I have come to realize martial arts is the perfect medium for practicing all the skills and techniques needed to dismantle racism and other forms of systemic oppression. For example, situational awareness is the most important base skill for practical self-defense. It is also one of the most useful skills while attending a protest or giving public testimony on a piece of proposed legislation. And it is vital for dismantling systems of oppression within myself and in society because I have to be able to see what is really happening, I cannot just rely on the narrative offered by those currently in power.
A commitment to life-long learning is also a good example. I recently attended a de-escalation training with a specific focus on peacekeeping at protests. None of the workshop content was new to me, but I still came away with expanded perspective and some new ideas for how to practice the skills and techniques I already have. For me, the biggest take-away from the workshop was the extremely high value of practicing skills before you are in the heat of the moment and have to actually use them. Which is exactly what martial arts offers.
Partner work is another great example. This is important because none of us exist in a vacuum, even if we spend the majority of our time alone. The world is comprised of people interacting with other people to live out our daily lives and shape the world around us. Even in styles where most training is typically done solo, partner work allows the opportunity to try things, test theories, and see what works and what doesn’t. The feedback of my own experience with a partner enhances the guidance from my teachers who provide new theories to consider and new ways to practice.
Martial arts also holds a lot of the same systems of superiority and supremacy present in greater society. The belt ranking system has been used by some people at the top to oppress or bully people lower on down the line. Fortunately Martial arts is also primed to disrupt the status quo in favor of something more thoughtful and intentional. There has been significant progress made over the last several decades for women in martial arts, and I see work happening now to create safe training spaces for gender-fluid and non-binary humans.
We can teach our students in a way that eliminates supremacy. We can teach our students that a person’s value is not created by diminishing someone else, but through our individual actions, choices, and personal quest for greater understanding. We can recognize that I’ve got what I have grown to understand, and you’ve got what you have grown to understand, and we can share with each other. When we recognize everyone’s strengths and value everyone’s contributions regardless of rank, we all grow.
There are many styles of martial arts, and at their core they are all systems of learning, designed to bring a person from wherever they are to a greater understanding of their self and a greater connection to the world around them. In the world of martial arts, styles can be mapped onto a cross section where one axis is a continuum from hard to soft styles and the other axis is a continuum from internal to external styles.
Hard styles tend to focus on meeting and disrupting force with force. Soft styles tend to focus on redirection instead. Internal styles focus primarily on a practitioners internal world and their influence on it. External styles focus primarily on the effect of the external world on the practitioner and the effect of the practitioner on the external world. Karate is a classic example of a hard style and an external martial art. Tai chi is a classic example of a soft style and an internal martial art.
Each style has their own methods and philosophies for how to make the journey from beginner to black belt, but the end goal is still the same: know yourself more fully so you can know the world more fully. Martial arts is self-development, which is the same work we all need to do to take down the systems of oppression our society currently runs on. The greater martial arts community is perfectly situated to act as a leader in the quest for racial justice and other forms of equity.
There are even some schools and organizations that have already been doing this work for years. The Pacific Association of Women Martial Artists has created space for humans of color to gather and share with each other at the last few annual camps. I have seen more conversations happening in recent weeks between martial arts teachers about how to update curriculum and create an environment in our dojos that supports equity and inclusion. These efforts are exactly what the world needs from the martial arts community.
And I want to see even more. I want black belts everywhere to stand up for black lives. I want black belts to lead by example and do the challenging personal anti-racist work in their lives and in their dojos. I want black belts to bring all the brown belts and green belts and orange belts and white belts and belts of every color to stand up alongside them for black lives. Anti-oppression work is about continual life-long learning, just like martial arts. We know how to do it, so let's all get to work.
Information and Inspiration
Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.