Coping with Adversity

There are things people say to you that stick for years to come. I remember my manager at my first corporate gig, MTV Networks in New York City. He was new to management, being a creative like me, and of the deluge of information and requests that flowed through him to the team he had this to say: “I just let it wash over me.”

It is strange that after all these years I still remember that statement and only recently have come to fully understand the meaning and power of what he said.

These days we are deluged with information and the barriers that used to protect us from information overload are all but completely dissolved. Smartphones have brought with them a constant streams of notifications, alerts, texts and phone calls (that stubborn holdover from a slower time).

In this era of constant distraction it is the ability to control our attention and direct energy and effort towards what matters that is the difference between success and drowning in distraction.

Karate training is an excellent way to develop focus. The practice of paying attention to the teacher’s instruction, making eye contact with our partner, distinguishing the finer points of the movements, working on timing, feeling the point of resistance in a submission…all these sharpen our attention skills.

For me stress is reduced immeasurably by this act of focus, a total surrender to the present. Coupled with physical exertion, karate releases all kinds of tension, as well as helpful chemicals like endorphins.

Karate training also helps us better respond to surprise stressors as we simulate attacks and practice our responses. We slowly become desensitized to a fist flying at our face or being hurled to the ground. The level of intensity and challenge we are capable of withstanding increases with time on the mats. We are able to get thrown to the ground and get back up again with barely a blink.

Tournaments are another great way to test our metal at taking hits and coming back strong. Sometimes literally. Recently at an outside tournament one karateka from our dojo took a direct roundhouse kick to the face and kept sparring to win the gold in her division. Not winning comes with its own gifts, as long as you keep trying, train harder and never let your spirit get down.

In her book “fail fail again fail better” Pema Chödrön writes of advice that her teacher Trungpa Rinpoche gave on facing adversity:

“It’s a lot like walking into the ocean, a big wave comes and knocks you over. And you find yourself lying on the the bottom with sand in your nose and in your mouth. And you are lying there, and you have a choice. You can either lie there, or you can stand up and start to keep walking out to sea…After a while it will begin to seem to you that the waves are getting smaller and smaller. And they won’t knock you over anymore.”

Chödrön goes on to explain, “It isn’t that the waves stop coming; it’s that because you train in holding the rawness of vulnerability in your heart, the waves just appear to be getting smaller and smaller and they don’t knock you over anymore.”

So there it is. Over 10 years after I received this guidance, I am finally getting practical training in how to actually do it. There are many practices aimed at enhancing focus and honing the control of awareness like yoga and some meditation techniques. Martial arts training is unique in that it specifically aims to simulate stressful situations (being physically attacked) and trains the student to respond calmly. So the next time a big wave comes my way I’ll dive right under it instead of getting pummeled and let it wash over me.

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