Monday, November 23, 2015

Interview with my martial arts teacher, part 1

Let's start with this real-talk letter to the editor of the Economist newspaper from their November 14th issue.
A human army 
As a serviceman I read your article on the problems for army recruitment in America with interest (“Who will fight the next war?”, October 24th). Through games, movies and political pandering, we have cast the average American soldier as a hardened commando. This gives politicians leeway to make extreme claims about our military effectiveness while cutting our fighting strength. The result is a smaller force with higher expectations.
America’s troops should combat their status as idols. Perhaps making us seem a little more human will bring in more recruits who “don’t like the violence”, and undercut the idea that our military should be our primary instrument of foreign policy. --- SHAWN COOPER, Enterprise, Alabama
I've always been the idealist in every group I can remember. As a teenager I refused to buy new products and take car rides unnecessarily, patching clothes and biking to school. I want to document the unique and fleeting phenomenon of a martial arts club I trained with from '07-'09, in which I began to learn not only how to use my changing body and male presence but to avoid violent situations and to de-escalate street violence. Here is the first part of this month's interview with my teacher.

[begin interview]

Q Introduce yourself, who are you?

J I'm Jacob Fisher, and, let's see, how long have I known you?

Q Wow! Okay, this is a story I did want to tell. We met in 2008, in the beginning of the summer I think. When Triangle Martial Arts Association had a self-defense seminar at the LGBT Center for trans people. [Note: The reason for my excitement is that Jacob is one of only two people I've known for eight years, not counting family, who is still a regular part of my life.]

J Ah, that's right.

Q Yeah, and it was big! It was a really big room, it was full of trans people, it was really awesome!

J It was. Yeah, we had a few people come up and you came up afterwards, didn't you?

Q Yeah.

J And then you went away... and then you came back.

Q Yeah, I went to Camp Trans pretty much right after meeting you. It's funny because I remember Grand Master Ken Craig saw my Swarthmore t-shirt and pointed out that you had also gone there! ... and we never brought it up again so I actually forgot about that connection until this year. [Ken Craig was the founder of Triangle Martial Arts Association.]

J [laughing]

Q At Camp Trans I decided that I was going to do medical transition and started T pretty much the same time that you started Eureka Valley Taekwondo Club. How would you describe Triangle and Eureka Valley to our readers?

J Triangle Martial Arts Association was a club that was founded after Matthew Shepard was murdered. And it was specifically to provide a safe space for gay people to train in self defense and martial arts. I joined in 2001, and started with taekwondo and then, after I got my black belt, I started training in hapkido with Triangle, got my black belt in hapkido, and then I took over the hapkido club. 

I also started a taekwondo club within Triangle Martial Arts Association focused on trans people. It was open to everyone, but I wanted to have a space that felt safe and welcoming and open for trans people. The reason was because I transitioned before joining Triangle and no one knew that I was trans. Then I had a friend in the club who transitioned while he was in the club and things didn't go smoothly for him. It was a very difficult experience for him. And I think that a lot of the people didn't realize that they were making this other person suffer by how they were treating him. I didn't want other trans people to go through that with Triangle because the whole idea of Triangle was to be a safe, welcoming space. So that bothered me that that was happening. 

So I had many talks with Ken about it, and argued about it a little bit because he didn't think it was necessary, but after talking about it with him more he understood how it could feel unsafe and how comments that he saw as innocent could be very hurtful to someone who was trans. And then of course he was incredibly supportive and ... he came to class occasionally [laughs] and worked out with us and was a visible presence. So that's how Eureka Valley started. And it went on for a couple years? a few years...

Q At least two years.

J Yeah, and the goal... Ken, I think, sort of saw it as a feeding ground to the regular Triangle classes and I didn't see it that way at all. I wanted it to be its own thing, and of course in my fantasies there was a large group of trans folks who were incredible martial artists coming and having big huge demonstrations which... it didn't quite work out that way... but that was my fantasy.

But it lasted for a few years, which is good for a martial arts club. It was always pretty small and had a low student-instructor ratio, which is nice. We did do some cool things. We did more than one self-defense seminar for the trans community. I think the one you went to was the best, it was the biggest one. And it's always nice to have a large group -- it was very large even for the -- we would regularly do seminars just for the LGBT community, not specifically trans focused. But that was one of the larger, more successful ones. One of the things that makes them work is when people are open and contribute; they don't just sit there. People were engaged in it, which was fun and nice to see. And then we were at a couple of the Trans Marches at Dolores Park and we had a demonstration one year.

Those things were all really cool and good for [trans] visibility. The other thing I thought was important was to get trans people, regardless of whether they joined or not, thinking about being safer and self defense.

[See my comment at the bottom.] 

Q Something you said made me think about risk. It was a risk for you to come out to Ken in order to point out that there was a real injustice being done. And we think about risk in a really deep and a really real way in conversations that we've had in the middle of figuring out techniques. I'm just wondering if you have anything to say about that, like whether your attitude about risk has changed through your martial arts practice or what the role is, in your life, of martial arts training and your assessment of risk.

J I think, for me, the biggest thing about Triangle's approach to martial arts, the thing I appreciate the most, is that the physical stuff was secondary, the primary thing was the student and helping them to become more of who they are.

Let's say you have someone who is overly aggressive. The instructors as a group would actively work to help them to control some of that within class. And also sometimes, some of the senior instructors would talk to them: "Hey, so is that really working for you?" outside of class. And we have had several people who were able to see that connection of, "Oh, I changed how I was behaving in class, and it was better. It worked better. Now I'm going to change, make those same changes to how I'm behaving outside of class," not in a physical situation, but just interpersonally.

Q Wow.

J And "Oh, that was a positive change, too." So that's what I think was the best thing, most powerful thing about Triangle.

Q Are you talking about... at the level of arrogance? Or like, what kind of behaviors?

J No, bigger than that, like substance abuse.

Q Okay.

J So yeah! [laughs] there were some people with some really big problems that came to Triangle. And many who were helped significantly. And it wasn't something that maybe most students would be aware of, so that would be something quieter, behind the scenes and a lot of times it was Ken specifically working with someone because people would come to him. They would come to me sometimes. Because you start to become, sometimes... an authority figure, a parental figure, as an instructor, and sometimes people bring you personal problems. You have to have good boundaries.

[Note: Jacob had very strong boundaries as my instructor in Triangle. He was one of the toughest teachers I've had, including Chinese ones. I don't remember ever exchanging any small talk. In fact, I'm not sure I ever saw him laugh. At the time it was helpful for me to see strong boundaries modeled. Now, I'm exploring my classical Chinese-influenced relationship with student and teacher roles.]

It can be tricky sometimes with boundaries and knowing where and how to effectively draw them. So I kinda got off-topic there, but [laughs] Triangle was more interested in the person as a whole than a lot of other schools are.

Q Hm. Yeah, I do think of Triangle as a tremendous resource, and because martial arts touches on so many aspects of the practitioner's life.

J Yeah. And the other thing I want to add to that is that, you know, that's my take on it, and a lot of other students didn't see those layers and those layers weren't what was important to them, and in effect, that didn't exist for them. But for some people, it did. So it's kind of a weird thing, that's the other cool thing about Triangle for me was that it *was* what you made of it.

And your original question was about risk, and so I think that for me it was always about becoming more of who I am, and that always involves a risk, right? ... I think. So that's how they're related. [laughs]

Q Thanks.

J For me, starting a new club is a big deal. I don't believe it would have happened if I hadn't asked for it; certainly it wouldn't have come from above. So I'm glad I took that risk. I think it was worth it. [laughs]

Q It was worth it for me.

Also on the topic of risk... when I worked for TRANS: THRIVE, a local trans resource center, we had a documentary at the Frameline LGBT film festival. So I got to introduce the film by saying a little bit about TRANS: THRIVE. And one of the things I said was that we had support groups including a support group for trans men of color. And in this theater of I don't know how many hundreds of people, there was shouting and cheering and clapping, and it was a huge show of support, and ... almost no one showed up to this support group month after month.

J Yeah... That's how I felt with Eureka Valley Taekwondo Club. It was like, "Surely people must be excited about this!" They would be, but then it's hard to get people to show up.

Q Do you have thoughts about what is going on?

J [laughs] Why that should be? Action is always... you know, it's easy to clap and cheer for something and it's harder to get people to follow up, no matter what it is, I've found. There's a lot to do...

Q [laughs] [Note: I think this is a common, weak excuse for indecision and poor self-care. I've used it plenty when I was sicker, and now I am much clearer about my priorities and intentions. Let's live this one precious life like we mean it.]

J ... in the city. People are busy. There aren't that many people who are willing to give up that much of their time on a weekly basis, ongoing. And then some people try it, and they're like, "Oh, it's not quite what I thought it was," and then they stop... and... yeah.

Q I mean, Triangle had their own version of this challenge, right? There wasn't enough support because it... Oh! We should point out that this was a volunteer-run club. No one was paid for any of the time. Right?

J Yup, that is correct. In fact, Ken spent quite a bit of money out of pocket to run the club. Yeah, nobody made any money. Money went to renting a space and buying supplies for tests, things like that. Yeah, running a martial arts club is often not a profitable experience.

The club I'm in now, the same thing. The instructor, who is, in fact, the head of the system, so not only does he lead the club, he is the head of the entire art, pays money out of pocket to pay the rent each month. You would think that the head of a system would have people flocking to come train with him. [laughs]

Even though Triangle, I thought, and from what I've seen from the martial arts world, placed a very strong emphasis good teaching, so the instruction was pretty good, I'd say, removing myself from the equation. [laughing]

Q Although you were a student as well.

J That's true, I was a student as well. Good instructors teaching solid stuff. The other thing is that there are plenty of martial arts clubs here. Triangle was one of the very few that was specifically self-described as gay friendly. But it's not like you couldn't go to another club and be gay, although, when Triangle first started, that was not the case, even in the Bay Area. And there were even people who would exclude people... if they found out you were gay you couldn't train with them anymore, because they were afraid you were going to "give them AIDS". [His quotes]

Q Wow.

J Specifically, I mean actually, literally, people got kicked out for that.

Q In the nineties?!

J Yes.

Q Wow. That's... disgusting.

J Yeah. Ignorant and disgusting. But, you know, at the same time, you do have to be aware that we did have HIV-positive people within Triangle. You do bleed -- occasionally. Much less than in the club where I'm training now; we bleed a lot more often.

Q Oh my.

J And no one knows *anything* ... you start bleeding, you're bleeding on someone else's uniform, on someone else's body, and they don't stop.

Q [wails]

J So... I've often been the one to be like, "Oh, someone's bleeding, let's stop and cover it." And then the person'd be like, "Oh no, it's fine." I'd be like, "No! We're going to cover it."

Q [groans]

J [laughs] So there is a complete lack of awareness about infectious disease control.

Q [makes face]

J Yeah. [laughs] I'm also concerned about MRSA, frankly. [laughs]

Q Yeah... risk! [laughs]

J Yeah, more risk! [laughs]

[end interview excerpt]

Triangle was always inclusive of everyone, and people sometimes question the need for exclusive learning environments. The tool of oppression is invisible: most learning environments are designed by and maintained by people of privilege in the privileged culture -- in America, white, middle and upper class, straight, and cis-male. It's when we intentionally identify marginalized identities and cultures to define the learning environment that it becomes truly accessible to members of those groups. It's nearly impossible for privileged people, without help, to see how the environment obstructs learning for others.

One easy way to open up the learning environment is for the most powerful positions, teachers and board members, to be filled by members of those groups. I love that Jacob, through effort and persistence, was able to help Ken address his own limitations. I know a lot of trans people and people of color have burned out or become aversive to making similar efforts in their communities. Sometimes I still find myself in that place. It's because those communities are so important to us, rather than unimportant, that the process can be so difficult.

I offer this shared experience of Triangle and Eureka Valley as inspiration to those who continue to see ignorance in their communities, to be open to opportunities as they arise. Knowing from moment to moment what you have in you, what is worth risking for the well-being of our communities? Can we ever completely separate our personal well-being from that of our communities?

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Teaser: Interview with my martial arts teacher

I'm working on upcoming posts of an interview with Jacob Fisher, my martial arts teacher. In 2007 He started a transgender-friendly taekwondo club within a gay-focused group called Triangle Martial Arts Association.

Here's a brief audio excerpt.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Park review: Mount Diablo from North Gate

I want to share a bike-and-hike route I just discovered. It's autumn and the hills are deep in quiet. I looked for amorous tarantulas, but didn't spot any.

From Pleasant Hill BART Station, follow the little signs to Iron Horse Trail. You have to cross Treat to what looks like a driveway. You can also take the spectacular pedestrian bridge over Treat.

Keep heading south, away from BART until the first trail crossing. Turn left onto Contra Costa Canal Trail. It's well marked and there are few street crossings before Bancroft. This is a major street with generous bike lane most of the way; turn right onto it. It's a long, straight shot to a small roundabout. Bikes easily use the sidewalk, on which we're allowed at this intersection. Turn right, then left onto North Gate Road to Mount Diablo. This leads all the way to the summit.

I prefer to pull off at any of a handful of trailheads and hike. It's hard to find a post narrow enough to fit a U-lock around, though. There are group campgrounds most of the way to the summit.
Lovely lichens on a pock-weathered rock face
The hills along this first section of North Gate are mostly exposed. To find trees you will have to head south to Barbecue Terrace Trail and the like. Instead, my legs got a workout climbing Burma Trail north of the road. Descent the same way was worth avoiding -- I looped up to Juniper and Summit Trails. Still, 2000+ feet gain got me a cooling breeze and a sense of accomplishment!

Right now water is turned off due to drought. This is a major obstacle to my being able to camp there! Enjoy your park explorations.
I think I found emu tracks.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The courage to find the Way through martial arts and mindfulness in modern life

No one has ever tried to punch me maliciously; I will probably go the rest of my life without encountering such an assault. We spend a lot of time in martial arts class preparing to defend ourselves against just such an attack. In daily life, however, I have emotional conflicts with myself and others that have a measurable physical impact. This post is about how martial arts and my Buddhist practice are helping me work with it.

Have you ever noticed that emotions have physical sensations? In mindfulness practice one can sensitize one's awareness of sensations in the body, not to get rid of them or prolong or intensify them, but to know what is happening here and now. In the Buddhist teaching on unconditional kindness this constancy of mindfulness is celebrated as "living in heaven here and now!"* When one is being verbally attacked, whether the attacker is face to face or in a recording or phone call, one may feel sensations in the body including heaviness, paralysis, searing pain, heat, constriction in the chest, heart pounding, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, etc. These stress responses might be helpful in a predator-prey situation where one's life depends on stillness and readiness to flee or fight, but in modern life they hinder well-being and conflict resolution. As we evolved as fish, lizards, and tree-climbers the stress response would be discharged once the threat disappeared, but how can we discharge these high-energy sensations in modern life with a modern brain?

One technique is to apply mindfulness to the acute sensations in one's body at that moment. They are just passing sensations, so they are not worth acting on unwisely. In street self-defense, as in the wild, we learn to use our own alarm and excitement as a source of speed and energy for measured, protective responses. In taekwondo we learn to control facial expression so we can choose whether to show pain when attacked. We learn to feel pain without aversion and reaction so our actions continue to be consciously chosen. In a street or competitive fight a flat affect can discourage an attacker, and when someone who loves us attacks us in anger, sometimes seeing our pained expression can help slow and disarm them. Doesn't it escalate anger and frustration in you when someone to whom you are speaking harshly appears unresponsive? In that moment what would you like to see and hear that would restore your forgiveness and kindness?

Another technique is to apply mindfulness to a deliberate, unaggressive movement such as shifting weight from one foot to the other, touching one's own face, even lifting a finger. The consciousness of this apparently insignificant motion reminds the body that one is still in control and not physically trapped or immobilized; it might be perceived by the attacker (if present) as a non-threatening sign of engagement, "I'm listening." This technique connects to somatic therapy, which uses awareness of sensation and the body's ability to discharge pent-up trauma through natural movements. In situations of emotional distress the Buddha directed those present to "follow the breath," a sensation source that connects us to all life.
Me breaking for a Triangle Martial Arts Association demo in 2010.
There's a common misconception about martial arts training that I had to overcome in my first year of taekwondo practice. When one walks into the school, immediately rituals and rules snap into place. Remove one's shoes, change into a costume, bow to the flags at the threshold, bow to each other, address senior ranks and black belts as "sir" or "ma'am," line up in rank order, etc. At first this seems contrived. I personally rebelled internally against the hierarchy of rank.

As I practiced more and watched other students, though, I began to understand that not only was rank earned through effort and physical, mental, and spiritual skillbuilding, the entire format exists to cultivate the Way, "do" in many martial arts styles (aikido, judo, hapkido). Self-consciousness and pride can fade as the Way to interact and communicate with every situation becomes clearer. In the real world any situation may arise; the school provides an orderly container to cultivate the ability to see right Ways and opportunities to respond appropriately. Eventually I experienced this in the joyful ease of giving guidance to new students when I saw a need, without a thought or sense of pride.

For a crude example, if I am so unfortunate as to meet someone who tries to punch me, I see a Way to help him stop harming himself and me and engage in stepping out of the way, calling his attention to this unnecessary violence, and if necessary immobilizing him. If I am skilled I will do so with kindness and not hatred because I understand ignorance, not any one person afflicted with it, is the enemy. I understand that society currently rewards greed and promotes false views, and as a member of that society I get to interact with that norm and its consequences. When a gunman burst into their train car Sadler, Skarlatos, and Stone saw the Way was to take him down, without heroism and without hate. They could have killed the man, but they simply saved him from the terrible consequence of murdering and injuring others. I believe they didn't have to think about consequences, debate how appropriate it was for foreign tourists to engage, or weigh whether protecting the others in the car was worth the personal risk. They saw what needed to be done and just did it.

We can practice in our everyday lives so that if severe physical and emotional misfortunes do befall us, as they eventually do, we can be ready to see the Way and act with conviction, kindness, and skill. Every "difficult person" can be a spiritual friend in a situation that shows us more of the Way. Every challenge is an opportunity to look hard at ourselves, know and befriend all bodily sensations that arise without discrimination, and keep the steering wheel steadily in hand.

Our worst tormentor is our own mind and our ultimate liberator is also our own mind. It's up to you to use your precious time to work with the mind. May we all have the courage to face the reality around and within us, with mindfulness, without preference or aversion, and with the freshness of the present moment that is the touch of every bodily sensation.

* Pali: Brahmamettam viharam idamahu

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Abandon the twin engine of oppression

I have decided to abandon hatred and greed.

All summer I have been investigating intensely the following, and am becoming convinced that the hatred when I think hateful thoughts, say hateful things, and act from a place of hate is made of the same material as all human hatred. I have become aware of the impact of hatred and greed on myself and on others, and its effect of destruction on the world. I am becoming convinced that hatred and greed in my own heart and mind are the twin engines of oppression. It is Augusto Boal's "cop in the head:" there need be no cop physically restraining me, beating me, or searching my home when my mind does all that work constantly. Indeed, the source of ill-will toward others is a long-time dwelling self-hatred that denies the common humanity and potential for freedom of myself and others.

With this awareness I have begun to cultivate kindness and generosity. I resolve with strong determination to abandon hatred and greed. I will notice every time these old habits repeat and remember that they are not worth my time. With this precious human life I will practice kindness toward myself and others. This is the most important work that I can do to stop oppression and needless suffering here and now.

If oppression doesn't end in this lifetime of work that's fine. My ancestors started this work thousands of years ago and future generations will benefit from my work and continue it. What matters most now is that I pay attention to the manifestation of hatred and greed in my mind, speech, and actions and abandon it again and again, to turn toward any suffering and offer kindness and generosity instead.

In the teaching on goodwill there is a beautiful line "it is said this is living in heaven here and now," that is, maintaining constant awareness and wakefulness (except in deep sleep). May we all see hatred and greed for what they are, and turn in kindness toward long-time suffering in ourselves and others.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Four Elements

My prison penpal asked about the four elements common among cultures all over the world. I used an example to explain.

One of my favorite things to do with my teacher is grappling, wrestling to immobilize the other on the ground. I'm a beginner, but I enjoy the whole-body challenge of moving like Water. Water feels soft; it always finds its lowest point through the smallest opening, sometimes even rising by adhesion through a bit of fabric. The smallest hole can empty a vessel of water, even break it in the process. (It feels soft, but is strong.) So in grappling I am learning to be soft and liquid, seeking any open space at every moment.

Simultaneously an opponent seeks to restrict my movements, so often I have to be like Earth, committing to a motion to escape. This can feel scary when I don't want to hurt my partner or myself, and too much Earth can get me stuck opposing a closed way. That wastes energy, Fire, and leaves me exhausted and weak.

Air can help me: a feeling of spaciousness in focus. Usually when I am pinned down it's uncomfortable and hard to breathe, but if I give up panic and slow my struggle, I conserve Fire for making that small "hole" when it becomes possible.

To succeed, in grappling or living in general, one must use all four elements skillfully and interchangeably. They are, after all, a construct in the oneness of being. When one is able to be as much a part of the present situation as a wave is part of the ocean, skillful action flows easily from being, without division into elements.

May all creatures find ease in every situation.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Response to Pope Francis's Encyclical

I'm excited to write today about Pope Francis's rallying cry for stewardship of the planet and resounding admonishment of consumerism and greed. This is the first time I've heard a high-profile leader point out that those who suffer the most from climate change are those least responsible for it. In fact, the wealthiest nations and families have enriched themselves by depriving colonized and enslaved peoples of resources and freedom for many generations. The pope states that the former owe reparations for impoverishing the planet.

There are some moving and revealing quotes here*. He acknowledges our free will to choose to cultivate either goodness or suffering and clearly directs that the church "must above all protect mankind from self-destruction." The choice is ours, and he urges us to use our best intelligence, including insights offered by science. His is an encouraging perspective on the collaboration of science and religion.

Here is an Argentine who, in working in slums in Buenos Aires, cultivated deep commitment to end suffering, especially of the poor. Despite the traditional structure of the Vatican his progressive work has grown, rousing opposition among Catholic conservatives. High-profile assassinations, including those of Martin Luther King and President James A. Garfield, have been motivated by threats to class inequality. I am convinced Pope Francis and his advisers are well aware of this, and genuinely perform according to a profound sense of duty and virtue.

We need all religious leaders, communities, oppressed peoples, and privileged peoples to get on board with the Encyclical. Let's receive this message of kindness and concern and broadcast it into our lives a millionfold.