Saturday, December 19, 2009

Me and My Bad Left Knee

I thought about going in the army. I thought about going overseas.
I wouldn't have trouble with a piss test; only problem is my bad left knee.
The Drive-By Truckers, "Never Gonna Change"

More than one inspirational thinker has noted that pain, or the fear of pain, leads to motivation then action. I feel qualified to attest to this as a truism. I was off and on with martial arts as a young man, mostly off. I always wanted to, but for one reason or another never committed to serious training. Then as I was approaching thirty I came down with a rare form of arthritis, or rather rheumatism, that sidelined me for a while and ended a military career. It also motivated me over time to be more self-reliant and open-minded in terms of health and healing. This eventually led me to Bhuddhist thought, which led to Qigong, which led to Taiji, which led back to other martial arts. Now, some twenty years after the first onset of my arthritis troubles, I am training fairly hard for a 49 year old and have no intention of stopping my study of the martial arts. I am however, still stuck with arthritis. But the symptoms are much less severe and the episodes are further apart. The occasion is rare that I am totally sidelined or stopped because of it. Even then my greatest challenge is my left knee.

I am sure that sometime in my younger days I damaged my left knee and it just festered, waiting for an excuse to misbehave. Somehow, between jumping and falling out of trees, motorcycle wrecks, football, fighting, and general boyish activity I planted a bad seed. Arthritis became that excuse to misbehave. But that bad knee has also become my motivation. It did mess me up pretty bad a couple of years ago. I had been practicing Judo and Aikido at the time, but twisted it or hyper-extended it (I'm not sure what really happened) at work, and that put me on ice for about six months. I was still able to do limited slow Taiji work with a brace, but overall I had to take it easy. But I have insisted it would not stop me.

I have worked intentionally on leg strengthening exercises with the idea that as long as it's functional enough to support me through normal day-to-day activity, it should be able to support extra-normal (no-to-light impact) activity as well as long as I build the muscles around it accordingly. So in my individual training I have focused on squats, the Shaolin horse stance, the Warrior II pose, bicycle riding, and Zhan Zhuang Standing Pole. This has worked to a large degree. I had a setback about six months ago when I pulled a hamstring on the same leg. This has caused strain to be exerted on both the knee and hip joints in that leg as the hamstring itself heals. But overall my leg muscles on both legs are quite developed now, at least consistent with if not beyond the strength needed for normal Taji and Aikido training.

I feel as if I'm winning this battle, at least for now. I am able to do the low stances and moves in the Chen Taiji that I study, as well as the Suwari Waza in Aikikai Aikido. In fact, my Aikido Sensei insists this training will in itself work to heal my knee. I don't know. But I do know it helps in the long run as it works to strengthen the surrounding muscles in a unique way. I am still wearing a brace on that knee most of the time when I train. My hamstring still bothers me some, which aggravates the knee. And the old arthritis visits all my joints ever so often. But I am confident in one thing: I am much healthier, mind body and soul, practicing my arts than I would be without them. That much I know. Perhaps this pain is a blessing afterall.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Doing by Not Doing

I was preparing some documents last week at work and had a bit of martial insight. As this work was rather monotonous I allowed my mind to wander as I waded through it. In effect, it required a lot of typing of the same thing over and over on several documents. I am a fairly fast typist, but not the most error-free. Anyway, as I progressed I began to notice that my speed increased and my errors decreased. At least they did until I became conscious of it. Once I paid attention to what I was doing, started thinking about what I was doing rather than simply doing it, I began to make mistakes. This project was big enough that it took me a couple of hours to complete. So I couldn't resist the temptation for mental experimentation. I purposefully blurred my thoughts so that I proceeded mindlessly so to speak. As I did this my errors decreased again. I ended up working in a sort of auto-pilot mode. But as soon as I mentally noted this, or thought about it, I slipped back into mistakes.

I couldn't help but compare this to my martial arts training. As we train over time our bodies learn the moves and techniques to the point that we can complete them without thinking. In fact, once our bodies know, it becomes counter-productive to think too much. I am not however promoting day dreaming. That is even more counter-productive. The goal is to focus by being centered and being totally aware of our bodies. In the language of Tajiquan, we should transfer our consciousness from our mind or head to our dantien and then proceed utilizing the body's knowledge. This is another example how our martial training draws on mindfulness practice for guidance. The key to meditation is to focus on breathing or a mantra. As this proceeds our minds relax and drop all the external noise to focus on the present moment. This practice means one thing when our bodies are still. It means something else when they are moving and possibly engaging with another. This process leads to allowing the body to do what it knows without interference from monkey mind.

This is so much easier to say, or write about than it is to learn and practice. But on the other hand, nothing could be easier. It is just simply another facet of a complete training regime. Focusing on the mental aspect of training not only leads to better health, but better budo.