Friday, March 6, 2009

Basa was right

I collected my bags at SeaTac airport knowing that I should have been doing this very thing at an airport I flew over roughly six hours ago. There was no real reason for me to be in Seattle again. Instead there was a list of reasons to which girlfriends would have nodded in agreement while politely keeping their opinions to themselves. Being in this city was like sex with an ex – comfortable, reliable, familiar – that would leave me asking ‘why couldn’t we make this work?’ in spite of myself and as if I’d actually forgotten the answer. It was a silly indulgence hidden behind my ‘non-refundable’ return flight from Bangalore, a debit card unusable online thanks to one last indulgent cup of coffee in Heathrow Airport deemed ‘Suspicious Activity’ by my bank, and some fuzzy math that explained how a one way ticket from Washington to Boston and the transfer fee to change my destination were roughly equivalent.

I enjoyed twenty-one hours of flying, six attempts to poison me with in-flight food worthy of assault charges, five mind-numbing movies and a foot-dragging meander through Heathrow in which I tried unsuccessfully to miss my connection so I could visits friends in London. Some Brit, aligned with my secret agenda, tried hard to accommodate by pulling an emergency brake in the train that shuttled between terminals. This felled most of the occupants and forced us to exit on the wrong platform. The orderly, queue-loving Brits cordoned us neatly and then spent the next thirty minutes plotting exit strategies only to shuttle us through one of the three exit doors directly in front of us that opened directly to the platform on the other side of the train. We were eyed keenly and with suspicion as we walked through one at a time leaving a distance appropriate for queens of England following their kings while dreams of my first legitimate cup of coffee in six months poured away with each wasted minute. I readied for my just-to-say-I-tried sprint to the gate pausing only for a pageant-wave to my hijackers and a tightening of the straps to my backpack.

Those of us fresh from India, and I use the word ‘fresh’ loosely, joked that this would never have worked at the Bangalore Airport as Indian Aunties would have wandered off in every direction from the onset disregarding shouts and even gun-waving thanks to Gandhi and the residue of civil disobedience combined with their plain obstinacy and hearing loss. Regardless of minor mishaps and my best efforts the Brits did what the Brits do and efficiently moved me along until I found myself breathing the brisk but clear Seattle air with a ton of luggage on my back, a fist full of rupees in my pocket and a useless mobile phone that could help me secure a ride only if I elected to throw it at a cab windshield to get the driver’s attention. Even weighted down like a Sherpa, I was unflummoxed.

In India, something breaks. Had I allowed myself to get stressed by anything, I would have been stressed by everything. My time there became a sort of ‘coping camp’ so my current predicament left me unmoved. Twenty hours or more pressed against the rest of humanity was the norm in India so the flight had as little impact on me as finding myself in the middle of a city with a currency worth its weight in embossed stationary and no transportation other than the fervent hope that meditation would allow me to transcend matter. My well travelled friends with restricted passports had certainly landed themselves in more unforgiving circumstances especially Taha who recently found himself with a guarded escort and an order to get the hell out of Taiwan in less than twenty-four hours after global cris-crossing and a nap in a closed, unheated airport with any hopes of comfort heading to Bali in his luggage while he waited for a flight to Nairobi. For me, there was no imminent danger or threat of imprisonment but what was remarkable was my sense of complete contentment. I simply asked a businessman from L.A. if I could borrow his cell phone and then settled down with a book to wait for my friend Reza in the brisk winter breeze outside of Baggage Claim that, after the olfactory overload of India, refreshingly smelled like nothing but cold air.

All of it seemed perfectly reasonable when hours later I slid through the automatic check-out with a jar of organic almond butter at an upscale market with wide, serine isles in an equally upscale neighborhood with wide, serine streets and typed Microsoft’s main line as the ‘Preferred Customer’ card number to find that some things never change. Thanks to a group of brave freedom fighters willing to rack up a Preferred Savings tally in the name of another rather than be tracked and categorized for marketing purposes, the preferred savings which is usually nickels and dimes at a time, had already reached nearly $2,000 not six weeks into the new year thanks to all those fraudulently using the number in order to hide from ‘The Man’. How could I not come back? I was a vital part of ‘The Resistance’ and sometimes that demands some personal sacrifice. And I saved 42 cents.

My arrival in the United States was, for the most part pointless, other than a VISA which said In Hindi essentially, ‘You Don’t Have To Go Home, But You Can’t Stay Here,” to quote Gretchen Wilson and I’m sure once translated, I’d find that the government of India had indeed quoted the country singer in an effort to give a little western-style pizzazz to paperwork. I had already decided to make the best of my return by embarking on a composting project in Vermont with my family while I figure out how to parlay all the fame and fortune of a Karnataka State Weightlifting Gold Medal into a lucrative product endorsement. Since the ‘Wheaties’ people haven’t called, it probably means returning to India where I’d built a rather cozy life for myself – if by cozy I mean dirty, dangerous and bacteria-infested – but with a certain amount of clout and respectability.

From the onset, my trip to India was never intended to be one of those journeys of personal discovery about which I would scrawl a 200+ page neurotic ramble of a memoir that gets lodged inexplicably on the best-seller list like a cherry pit choked on, plucked presumably from the bowl of cherries that is life. Unless of course, this manifesto already has that kind of vibe. It was never about where I ended up so much as how I got there and how I would handle it once I landed. Though finding myself in India and then writing about it would’ve been fabulously uplifting for my so-called career, I suspect in my case that process would be like locating lost keys right where I left them. I’m not sure that’s best-seller compelling. And, alas, I had been warned: There would be no leaving baggage at the airport unattended.

In ‘A Girl from Foreign,’ Sadia Shepard returned to the U.S. for a visit to find that ten months in India’s toxic air had blessed her with the lungs of a pack a day smoker according to her doctor. Taking into account the assault on the respiratory system as well as all the other exotic ways to die both quickly and slowly in India, it seems a silly place for someone like me whose preoccupation with wellness borders on persnickety. In fact, being persnickety about anything in India is a Western indulgence that I abandoned immediately along with western hair products and walking shoes. In India, one adjusts.

In fact, letting go of all my structures and beliefs was part of the appeal to begin with since most countries manage to have better overall health than Americans even with limited access to healthcare, no nutritional supplementation and an arguably unbalanced diet. Meanwhile I had built up a complex schedule full of work-outs, supplementation and meticulously-sourced, often-artisan foods that didn’t necessarily leave me any healthier. It did leave me with what could amount to my entire retirement account passing through my digestive system on it’s irretrievable way through the Seattle sewer system. Was there something other cultures added or something they had failed to add to their lifestyle that helped them live longer by what would appear to be accident? Is this a Gestalt phenomenon where all of our examination of minutiae is leading us farther away from any real answers?

Paying strict attention to parts of my lifestyle while ignoring other parts doesn’t make me a little less dead on the day when lack of sleep finally kills me. It would take distancing myself to come to conclusion and even then my ‘results’ would still be nothing more than speculation and maybe only applicable to me. It would be fun, though.

After six months, my laundry said it all. It was misshapen and worn after being hand-washed in cold tap water from the kitchen sink, scrubbed with what I assume were harsh and corrosive ingredients in the local bar laundry soap, twisted into tight balls to squeeze out water and hung out to dry in pollution so severe that it turned everything once white into a mottled steely grey. It aged my clothes as quickly as it aged me. My ragged t-shirts became an appropriate metaphor for the wear I was feeling. I was dirty, I was short of breath, I drank the tap water. I was, however, well-rested which is the kind of supreme joke you can usually only laugh at when it’s aimed at someone else.

In the end, I hadn’t found nutritional enlightenment to go along with my nightly eight hours of sleep. What I found for the most part were a people hurrying unquestioningly in our American footsteps all the way to the grave. There was an eagerness to westernize even if the results were bleak. Apparently, even dying young and fat is all the rage. Beneath that surface, there were things that I found there that, for me, would have only been found in India. For starters, it was meditation that gave me access to a new idea, a book that explained things to my non-believing, research hungry brain, and the snatch that connected the two.

I began to meditate regularly not because I was in India and that’s what you do when you’re a tourist and you’re not on Commercial Street paying too much for bangles to look like Madonna in the 80s but because the sensory overload of smells, sights and general chaos made at least thirty minutes a day of sensory deprivation not only a necessity but a relief. It reminded me of my early experiments with alcohol when somebody told me I could get rid of room spins by keeping one foot hanging over the bed touching the floor and I believed it eagerly because I wanted there to be an answer other than the more obvious stop drinking sooner, a solution I had already overlooked several drinks earlier.

As I calmly sat breathing, I boiled down the distractions of Bangalore’s sights, smells and sounds leaving nothing but a spicy broth in my head peppered with the occasional fleeting thought which, as it turned out, usually centered around the snatch, a movement I couldn’t quite master in spite of the many hours of practice and the looming state championship. I couldn’t help but think that regardless of how much work I put into it, that catching a significant percentage of my bodyweight over my head in that perfect space teetering between falling in front and falling behind was any feat other than luck. As a result, progress had become that: mostly luck.

I then overhauled my thinking and decided that I, like many people before and after me, could find the sweet spot but only if I would stop messing up my pretty solid understanding of the movement by thinking so damn hard about it. And I did – in time to win gold. This took me all the way back to one of my first coaches, Jim Martin, when I was 14 years old and learning to golf. After months of practicing swing mechanics, Jim lined up a bunch of balls and gave me three seconds to hit each one leaving me no time to brood about it. After countless repetitions, the body knos what to do instinctively while the brain worries, gets underfoot, creates unnecessary tension and gossips about you later. Wax on, wax off, Heather-son.

Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, Ph.D. would describe this in a little all-you-can-eat buffet of ‘In the zone’ quotes in which athletes described moments of mastery in her book “Extraordinary Knowing – Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind” published by Bantum Dell, 2007:

“I read what Michael Jordan said about his mind-defying dunks: “I never practice those moves. I don’t know how to do them . . . . I’m taking off, like somebody put wings on me.” Here’s Catfish Hunter after he pitched his perfect game against the Minnesota Twins in 1968: “I wasn’t worried about a perfect game going into the ninth. It was like a dream. I was going on like I was in a daze. I never thought about it that whole time. If I’d thought about it, I wouldn’t have thrown a perfect game – I know I wouldn’t.” Pele, describing his 1958 World Cup soccer game: “[I] played that whole game in a kind of trance, as if the future was unfolding before [my] own disinterested eyes.” And British golfer Tony Jacklin: “I’m absolutely engaged, involved in what I’m doing . . . . That’s the difficult state to arrive at. It comes and it goes and the pure fact that you go out on the first tee of a tournament and say, ‘I must concentrate today,’ is no good. It won’t work.” The German philosopher Eguen Herrigel talked this way about learning Zen archery: “The shot will only go smoothly when it takes the archer himself by surprise . . . . You mustn’t open the right hand on purpose.”

There’s clearly a point in which thinking is a necessary part of training and, in the case of Zen archery or anything else sharp and lethal, life-preserving. My mother’s advice was also life-preserving for a time until much of it turned less-insightfully towards the many reasons to travel to New Hampshire and how best to begin a life of baby-making. It was at a point in my life when I began to disregard every third thing she said. When most of the movement in a snatch, or any other complicated skill, becomes instinct the time comes when every third thing the mind thinks should also be disregarded. Since the brain’s primary job is to keep you out of harm’s way, if given a voice during the snatch, it’s primary piece of advice would probably be, “Duck!” Not at all helpful.

Even if the brain could move at the speed of snatch, it doesn’t, which means that most of its useful advice comes too late and is as welcome as driving directions barked from the backseat. Think of it as touch-typing when fingers translate words into a key combination while never registering the individual letters. When I come across an unfamiliar word that I have to spell, my fingers slow to hunt-and-peck speed. I experienced this in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as well. My defense was automatic and I only regarded it after execution as if I was color-commentating the actions of another. This literally took years of training until blocking a choke was typing ‘The’ and not ‘T-H-E’.

Jiichi Watanabe and Lindy Avakian, in The Secrets of Judo: “You and your opponent will no longer be two bodies separated physically from each other but a single entity, physically, mentally, and spiritually inseparable.” That level of connectivity might be one belt away from my purple, but I know that when I grappled, I was reacting to what I knew was coming without knowing what had me know. It’s when I got entangled thinking about my offense that I generally missed something vital and found myself tapping out. The development of an offense usually comes only after the defense starts to happen automatically. It seems that most mastery is preparing me for a state of non-thinking, a state I achieved in high school without any of the preparatory thinking part with a reliable result that looked a lot more like stupidity.

Knowing that the thinking sometimes pushes me farther away from the experience of the snatch had me approaching the bar with less internal ruckus allowing me to ‘feel’ the movement rather than talk to myself about it. Once I’d created adequate acceleration and a reasonable trajectory, my job was simple: Get under the bar and stay there without messing it up and let the bar do what the bar does. Any idea I had about how that was going would only pop in my head after the fact and would depend on whether or not the bar was still balanced overhead when everything stopped moving. As Mundane as learning to trust the nature of gravity as a universal law can be a big step for someone like me who tends to make things complicated in my head. Realizing that my endless analysis was often pointless gossip about something that happened three seconds ago was a huge breakthrough for me. “An object in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by another force,” so said Sir Isaac. From then on, my job in the gym and in other areas of my life would be to stop being that other force standing in the way of my goal.

Not only did meditation give me a place and a time in which I sometimes visualized the perfect execution of the snatch it also gave me the mental practice of not thinking which my goal was during meditation at other times. In studies examining the brain with Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT) during states of deep meditation and prayer, radiologist Andrew Newberg and his colleague Eugene D’Aquili doing research at the University of Pennsylvania found that blood flow to the posterior superior parietal lobe of the brain decreased. They published their findings in ‘Why God Won’t Go Away, Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.’ This has interesting implications as explained by Lloyd Mayer in ‘Knowing’.

“Those bundles of neurons located in the posterior superior parietal lobe, the region of the brain that’s critical to orienting us in the physical world. This part of the brain normally feeds us ongoing signals regarding the physical limits of our individual selves in relation to everything else, helping us separate “us” from “not us” with messages such as “I’m here, not there,” “I’m next to my bed, not on it,” or “I’m in my body, not hers.” During the subjects’ moments of deepest meditation and prayer, what stopped firing were all the signals that tell us where to locate the boundaries that separate us from everything that isn’t us.”[pg 65] Lloyd Mayer continues, “On a purely neurobiological basis, the SPECT scans led to a fascinating speculation. They suggested that anybody whose posterior superior parietal lobe quieted down would experience the same subjective sensation. They wouldn’t feel separate and boundaried from the rest of the world in all the ways we consider normal. Instead, they would probably experience a subjective sense of oneness or connectedness with everything around them.” [Pg 66]

“Newburg and D’Aquili’s experiment suggests there may be a neurobiological basis for achieving that art of union with reality, not by achieving access to new sources of sensory information but rather by learning how to tune down the flow of incoming sensory information that constitutes our daily and habitual diet. And that is absolutely consistent with what meditators and mystics have told us over centuries about how they gain access to the states they engage.” [Pg 66]

Leave it to me to twist mysticism not for perpetuating serenity and peace but to make me better, faster, stronger at throwing shit and kicking ass. I’m not convinced that Stacey, my yogi sister who spreads harmony and deep inner peace, will fully appreciate my interpretation. We may be in for a comic book style duel of superpowers like the Wonder Twins in a cat fight. “Wonder Twin powers Activate!” “Form of 65 Kilos,” “Shape of Downward Dog!” (Yes, Stace, I specifically wrote this for the Wonder Twins reference so I could giggle to myself over my Americano. Fellow patrons of Starbucks think I’m the weird ‘laugh at herself lady’ in the corner and they’ve suddenly elected to move to ‘more comfortable’ tables farther away)

And I can’t believe I’m going to say this having just returned from India using words that will sound so frickin’ Om it forces me to make fun of myself, wouldn’t becoming ‘one’ with the bar come in mighty handy? Wouldn’t sparring with that kind of mental edge be scary cool? Paul Tholey explores this as he argues for the benefits of Lucid Dreaming, which is a state in which a person who is dreaming can manipulate the dream, based on the Gestalt theory which, as he explains “conceives of the complex sensory-motor feedback system of the human physical organism as a servo-mechanism which serves the finely-tuned, energy-saving control of the organism.” Ok, I didn’t entirely get that the first time I read it and I’m not sure that I’ve even got it now but it gets more, um, lucid.

One of his arguments for lucid dreaming is the ability to incorporate the environment in the equation, “In the course of sensory-motor learning, separate parts of the phenomenal field can grow together with an increasing degree of unity. In this way, the skier "grows together" with his skis, or the tennis player with his racket. The sports equipment acts like an extension of the sensory-motor organs in the practiced athlete. The skier feels the snow and the terrain with his/her skis and willfully and deliberately moves the skis rather than his/her body,” writes Paul Tholey of Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universit├Ąt, Germany in ‘Application of Lucid Dreaming in Sports.’ Part of balancing the bar overhead in a snatch requires an intuitive feel of the bar that goes beyond up/down, left/right positioning. Feeling the bar as an extension of yourself gives you that special GPS of neurology.

“Visualization better work otherwise my whole life has been a hell of a coincidence,” Ben Blackstone said over a warm cup of coffee as we pondered my TiVo’d Brazilian Jiu Jitu training. Blackstone was my Muay Thai and Jiu Jitsu coach in Seattle, and I had explained to him how in India, once I was getting enough sleep, my mind began to play stored images of chokes and sweeps that I had struggled with in class but that I suddenly understood in an instant as I walked through the crowded streets of Bangalore. I explained that though there was no place to practice in the city, I had continued to play back images in my mind and felt like I could probably execute the movements that had once had me stuck. He, of course, had talked to me about this practice before but I had never creating a discipline around it. In Jiu Jitsu, it’s seldom a formal part of the class but it’s a vital component in other martial arts and certainly of grapplers who like, say, winning.

In a piece for called ‘Shingan: The Mind’s Eye' the practice of Katas in which one moves through the steps with an imaginary is explained. “The mind does not distinguish between a well-visualized Kata and an actual fight. The Kempo practitioner thus gains real self-defense experience without having to fight or harm a human being. Keep in mind that the Shaolin monks and the famous ancient Okinawan fighters developed their great fighting skill through Kata. Neither of these groups of warriors believed in mock competitive fighting. They practiced only Kata.” But then of course, I’ve never been able to get the measure of a Shoalin Monk since I’ve never seen one go toe to toe with Georges St. Pierre in a UFC title bid. I’m willing to take somebody’s word on it though and of course Google sources are never inaccurate.
Again Tholey explains this further in his paper on Lucid Dreaming:

“To illustrate this point I will first present the case of a competitor in the martial arts (Tholey & Utecht, 1987, p. 208). For years this man had studied the so-called "hard systems" (karate, tae kwon do, and jujitsu). Then he decided to learn the "soft" system of aikido. Over a period of two years, however, he failed to succeed in this because the previously learned movements stubbornly refused to be superseded. He considers the following to be the key experience that put him on the right path:

On this particular evening, after still not succeeding in wearing down my attacker and taking him to the mat, I went to bed somewhat disheartened. While falling asleep the situation ran through my mind time and again. While defending myself, the correct balancing movement collided with my inner impulse to execute a hard defensive block, so that I repeatedly ended up unprotected and standing there like a question mark . . . a ridiculous and unworthy situation for the wearer of a black belt. During a dream that night, I fell down hard one time instead of rolling away. That day I had made up my mind to ask myself the critical question in this situation: "Am I awake or am I dreaming?" I was immediately lucid. Without thinking very long about it, I immediately went to my Dojo, where I began an unsupervised training session on defense techniques with my dream partner. Time and time again I went through the exercise in a loose and effort-less way. It went better every time.

The next evening I went to bed full of expectations. I again achieved a lucid state and practiced aikido further. That’s the way it went the whole week until the formal training period started again. . . . I amazed my instructor with an almost perfect defense. Even though we speeded up the tempo [of our interchanges], I didn’t make any serious mistakes. From then on I learned quickly and received my own training license in one year.”

If this can be done with aikido, it can be done to override the tendency to bend my arms early in the snatch which developed as first a bad habit since I tended to be upper-body dominant thanks to the unpredictable back pain that I dealt with for years and second a faulty set-up. Performance Menu handles this in Issue 50 of their publication that came out this month and I was thrilled to read it but in a ‘now you tell me’ sort of way after struggling through the complete redesign of my poorly constructed starting position during my first two months in India. Performance Menu’s take on it was genius but certainly hard to sum up here other than to say a deadlift set-up never works for a number of reasons.

Initially I wanted to fight the point with my Indian coaches only to be proven wrong it seems. The set-up I was using had my hips too high and my shins perpendicular to the floor. This works well in powerlifting as the starting point for the deadlift but it almost always resulted in an early bend of the arms and a lack of explosive power out of the squat since my weight seemed to shift too heavily to my toes and didn’t seem to inspire much acceleration. Even when I set up correctly following the advice of my coach Sharada who I should have listened to right from the start and without question given the number of medals she’s one, I tended to shoot my hips up into the familiar position before the bar left the ground. This was one of the things my brain gossiped about three seconds after execution and that I was beginning to think would be fixed by nothing short of a lobotomy. One thorough session with a knitting needle would’ve stirred that idea right out of my head along with a lot of actually good ideas that I might later mourn the loss of.

One last point to ponder in the magical word of unthinking, is from studies done by Dean Radin, Ph.D., author of ‘The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena’ working with Marilyn Schlitz at California’s Institute of Noetic Sciences on ordinary folks like ourselves with an afternoon to kill looking at randomly generated photographs which actually might not make them like ourselves at all, “What I’ve observed in these experiments, conducted with a total of 131 participants so far, is that on average people sweat slightly more (that is, their autonomic nervous system becomes activated) before they see emotional photos than before they see calm photos. The observed overall difference in autonomic arousal is associated with a probability of p = 0.00003, so there is good reason to believe that this result is not due to chance. My colleagues and I have considered numerous conventional explanations for this effect, including sensory cues, inferences, nonrandom target selection, and physiological anticipatory effects, but none have been found to be adequate. It appears that our nervous systems can indeed perceive about five seconds into the future,” [Pg 228] as explained in ‘Knowing.’

The results were similar using ‘startle stimuli’, a blast of loud noise using a true random-number generator circuit not a computer algorithm, in a study done by Edwin May, Ph.D. in a collaborative effort with Hungarian physicist Zoltan Vassy. “In a paper published I 2003, the researchers reported that participants displayed more agitation – i.e. they sweated more – three seconds before they heard loud blasts of sound as opposed to silence during control periods, the probability statistics were impressive, with odds that the association was due to chance of less than 5.5 million to 1.”

This might be one of the only ways to understand the instinct that develops in Jiu Jitsu once a student passes the point of panic and starts to relax. Since I can’t necessarily go back in time and erase instinct only to see if I could get through the initial panic phase of Jiu Jitsu faster knowing that calming my mind would give me access to instinct, I’m not sure this helps. I do know that it will continue to be a reminder to me whenever I’m sparring to get out of my head more. And of course this always leads to the question I find myself asking at the end of some new piece of research, ‘is any of this even true?’ Everything I’ve read passes the ‘do no harm’ test even if the results are hard to measure and though I know it was part of my training in India, I don’t know if it was the part that made a difference.

At this point, I can’t help but think of my nephew Dustin’s superstition that washing hockey equipment ruins the season. It means if he can make it to the championship game, his gym bag has a radioactive miasma that could bust a Geiger gauge. Stale sweat smells bad but puberty adds a rare nose rich in hormonal funk that has me recoil even after being hardened by the routine olfactory abuses in the streets of Bangalore. As an observer, I can’t help but wonder if it has less to do with mind’s impact over matter and more to do with his personal impact on gag reflex. Perhaps it’s ability to impact the game’s outcome will one day be put to the test by the same scientists who were able to document the proof of beer goggles and it will likely be discussed by me at length at a party thrown by hosts who will never invite me back.