Personal leadership

Personal leadership is a way of leading by first becoming conscious of one’s own values, priorities, goals and furthermore one’s own mental and emotional strengths and challenges. In taking the task on of becoming more conscious of these areas we begin the journey of leading ourselves forward, pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. As these areas become more conscious we begin to create a greater capacity for recognising how the lives of others around us can be developed by doing the same. The way we listen to others and what we listen for changes over time, such that we can begin to see pathways ahead of the people we are tasked with providing leadership to. We gain the privilege of being able to walk some of these same pathways with them and the ability to recognise when a fork in the road lies further ahead, and to plan accordingly.

The simplest form of personal leadership however is an embodied one, and yet it often speaks the loudest and carries the deepest and most abiding messages. The starting point of leading in an embodied way is to find as many ways as possible to become comfortable in our own bodies. It is also important to find a way to access a centred place where your emotions are undisturbed, whilst your mind is open to new information. For all the expanded freedoms it has created for the mind, the modern work routine is now largely a disembodied one. We take the escalator or lift rather than the stairs, drive to the shops rather than walk and very rarely, if ever, do anything that tests our body’s sense of balance or flexibility. I have found that engaging in a regular embodied practice helps to bridge the gap in our lives between the unconscious pulse that drives us and our mental world with all its tactics, strategies and goals. I don’t believe it really matters which practice you take up be it Running, Football, Yoga, Pilates, Martial Arts, Feldenkreis, Rolfing or the Alexander Technique are all great in my experience.

Personally, I chose Aikido to stick with for the long term and have found the journey to be immensely helpful in finding my centre, and thereby increasing my degree of comfort in my body, whilst challenging me to expand my comfort zone in numerous ways. Having a lifelong embodiment practice brings all kinds of tacit knowledge that is impossible to learn any other way.

  • Working with your body for any period of time where your heart rate is elevated immediately reveals that your own actions can influence your emotions. This is powerful knowledge for anyone playing the long game in any field of endeavour; taking the rough with the smooth without losing your drive or passion.
  • Working with others in an embodied practice reveals what it’s like to influence a teams’ performance and how to meaningfully change it; real time action and physical dynamics in any team game reveal a wealth of personal and interpersonal information.
  • Constant maintenance of ones’ own body in the pursuit of an embodied practice will grow a deep self-knowledge and sense of well being that lets you know that you are essentially OK, regardless of temporary upsets in your day/week.
  • Increased flexibility in the body sets a pattern that the mind will hungrily adopt in times of stress, making you more adaptive to challenging situations/interactions.
  • Specifically from long term practice in Aikido I have found that learning how to fall safely has helped me to reduce reactivity and defensiveness in pressured or confrontational situations.
  • Above all, the simple and continued act of paying more attention to your own body will leave your mind with greater freedom to handle great complexity (without the persistent multitude of distractions that arise when we are alienated from our bodies).

In summary, if you want to lead effectively start with bringing your self on-board, no other special knowledge is required, and furthermore most people need leadership from centered and grounded people. Being led from ‘how’ a leader is, rather than from ‘what’ they know sets the widest and deepest frame for whatever specific content needs to be shared. Whatever challenges may arise being grounded and centered in the body means that you will have space inside to work on the questions that present themselves in the moment. It also means that the people you are leading will feel good about being influenced by you. And it is a long-acknowledged truth that people remember less about what you said and more about how you made them feel. Therefore, feeling grounded and centered is primary to personal leadership. From there developing the space inside to meet new challenges in a balanced and flexible way will position you extremely well to be an effective leader. The learning never stops, the comfort zone never extends far enough and the space inside could always be a little bit larger. Living at the edge of these aspects of ones’ self is arguably the edge of personal development, and arguably the best place to be leading from.

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Mushin Mugamae

Mushin Mugamae can be interpreted as ‘no heart, no posture’. Mu is a negative prefix and shin is heart or kokoro when read on its own. Gamae is kamae when read on its own, meaning posture. To quote Professor Tomiki:

With a still heart one can access the wonders of nature and by suppressing action one can still the gods of change.

This short quote gives a powerful insight into the impact of bringing Mushin Mugamae into our world. With a still heart our attention opens to its fullest, with nothing to fix upon in any direction. From the state of Mushin Mugamae there is no ‘kokoro’ which therefore means that all that remains is what is aware of the Heart and the Mind and the Soul (all are meanings connected with kokoro); pure awareness. From this state there is also no posture, which means that we have not yet stimulated or caused any changes to our environment or to others in any way. The moment we adopt a posture, even if it is simply to the neutral posture of Shizentai, we have committed ourselves to the physical world and its causes and consequences.

From this place we are still very open and aware and not yet committed in any direction. We are empowered to be highly receptive to external actions, such that we are in a position of advantage should an opponent/attacker commit themselves against us. All directions of movement are available to us whilst the attacker has limited themselves to an unfolding strategy that is susceptible to being countered by a flexible, centred and responsive body-mind. The abiding sense of awareness, prior to any intention to act, of Mushin Mugamae is a powerful baseline for Aikido and life in general. From this state of mind we carry less tension in our bodies, which means we can bring more of ourselves into action in a focused way when needed.

shodokanlogo

If we reflect on the Shodokan symbol in the light of what we know of Mushin Mugamae it reveals itself to be a kind of diagram. The Shodokan symbol could therefore be interpreted as the white background being the underlying state of Mushin Mugamae. The red centre (rise) being the energy we receive from the sun (our heart). The blue (fall) part being water (our postures in our environment). The directional points of the symbol can be seen as the directions in which our attention can be directed, and in which our bodies can be moved. Based on this analysis it is therefore possible to see Mushin Mugamae as a place from which all things arise and from where all things are possible. Professor Tomiki stated:

This symbol is composed of red representing fire, blue representing water and white representing infinite space.

We begin our Aikido sessions from Mokuso which can be seen as a way of accessing the state of Mushin Mugamae. At the beginning of all kata or competition our best results can be said to come from carrying a sense of Mushin Mugamae with us even as we move; extensive research has been carried out on the positive influence of Mushin by Manaka Unsui (2017). The effect being a kind of switching off of the smaller (identity) self and an increasing of our fullest potential self (spirit), unrestricted by fears, planning or strategizing. From here there is receptiveness, flexibility, speed and fearless engagement. This quote from Professor Tomiki beautifully sums up Aikido with Mushin Mugamae at its core:

Non-conscious action stemming from a neutral physical posture (in other words, neither aggressive nor submissive – mu gamae), executed without emotion or prejudgment (mu shin).

 

Bibliography

Allbright, Scott., Aikido and Randori: reconciliation of two opposing forces. Crowood Press Ltd (2002).

Deshimaru, Jean Taisen., The Zen way to the Martial Arts. Rider/Century Hutchinson Ltd (1988).

Lee, Dr Ah Loi., Tomiki Aikido Past and Future. Kelmscott Press Ltd (1988).

Nariyama, Tetsuro., Aikido Randori. Shodokan Publications (2010).

Nariyama, Tetsuro., Shodokan Aikido Dojo 50th Anniversary Commemorative Book. Shodokan Publications (2017).

Unsui, Manaka., Kakusei-Mushin: A research study on the ideal mental state in Martial Arts. Robert Gray Publications (2017).

Unframe the moment

Do not leave your song unsung
Poems neglected, threads unspun

Unleash the power of your story
Fan the flame of your heart’s glory

As you define your own self metric
Sing this moment and feel electric

Let the compass of your heart lead
Prick the unconscious, make it bleed

As your questions come up for air
Feel yourself become more aware

Live your life, a duet in answer
Soaked in movement, be a dancer

Paint the music that is yours to give
Unframe the moment, and truly live!

It’s been two years since I opened the doors on two training spaces in West London, where I have been running Aikido classes twice a week. It has been a strangely demanding commitment. Tremendously rewarding, as even with students coming and going over the period, a hardcore group has stuck with it. The progression of my students is humbling and never fails to evolve in me new learnings and insights into my own ongoing development.

I have never understood my own instructor better than I do now. For example: I now know the range of frustrations that come with giving over a portion of your life to others who do not always share the same level of commitment. But this just serves to highlight how special it is when a small collective of dedicated individuals repeatedly deliver on their commitments to their path in Aikido (and in Business, or in anything for that matter).

As I prepare for my second journey to Japan I am reminded of many such experiences from two years ago. I look forward again to losing my smaller self for a while amongst those who train every day; sometimes twice a day or more. In Japan I learned that being a part of something bigger than just yourself was as important as any other aspect of my training.

Otsukaresama desu, or in English “we have trained hard together”. This is something you might say to your fellow Aikidoka on the mat at the end of a training session. In saying it you have acknowledged that none of your personal development on the mat is possible without the dedicated efforts of others.

Another Japanese phrase that has stayed with me is moui ikkai which translates simply as “one more time” or “and again”. It is used to encourage training partners to switch off the judgemental part of their minds and return to the business of learning and, essentially, transforming ourselves into something better than when we stepped onto the mat.

This attitude, plus more practice with less critical judgement of errors, creates an irresistible process of incremental self-improvement. Working always towards greater flexibility in both body and mind, whilst gaining plenty of inspiring memories to stoke the fires for the journeys ahead.

Creativity

When we witness the creativity of children we also internally register the level of energy at play in what they are doing. The adult universe, filled with consequences and limitations on energy, sets itself apart from the child’s universe so that it can function predictably and reliably. For many adults the creativity of children is a direct challenge to their very being, and subsequently the strategies with which they go about their day to day lives. The energy inherent within child-like creativity is vibrant, unpredictable and somewhat susceptible to volatility as it can only be steered or influenced, never fully controlled.

Therefore, it is not hard to understand why it is that creativity is so carefully compartmentalised within the adult world. We have ‘creatives’, ‘arty’ types or ‘conceptual’ types that have a distinct role in the adult spheres of politics, business or education. Then there are entire domains of ‘The Arts’ where the cultural signifiers of their adherents are rooted in emotion, play and creativity. Wherever we see a new direction emerge in human interest we can be certain that a burst of creative energy has been the animating factor. The tendency towards conserving existing structures is as strong in adults as it is to reserve the use of energy for only those objectives for which there will be a clear return on investment. Whereas children, to a large degree, have very little idea of what they could possibly lose; or never regain.

Therefore, it is entirely probable that as useful as human memory has clearly been to date, it is a substantial factor in subduing the thrust forward towards the new. Arguably one the predominant factors of the new, right across the span of human culture, is the representation of difference and otherness. Across the globe we have a cacophony of voices that fall upon a spectrum of perspectives that have never existed together previously in history with such potential for connection and inter-relatedness. Therefore, there could also be an argument that as mankind is getting older there are elements within our collective and individual psyche that are, in a sense, becoming younger.

It is precisely within this youth of mankind’s psyche that we find the energy with which to make new sense of the world, and in doing so to apply this new sense-making to the generation of ways to validate a multitude of perspectives.  Seeing the bigger picture and the broader purpose of our ability to be conscious and self-reflexive beings has begun to form a new wave of human development. With heightened creative energies in the mid to late 20th Century we saw post-modernity begin the project of deconstructing even our living memory, releasing huge potential for mankind’s future endeavors.

The cradle of the emergence of creativity within the adult spheres in the 20th Century can be connected to the reduced levels of scarcity and heightened levels of security. Both are important factors in aiding a child’s playful self to emerge. So too, it can be argued, has it influenced humanity’s second childhood in the 21st Century. Whether this second childhood is ameliorated and made anemic by potential social engineering projects such as universal credit is a risk we can neither mitigate nor take lightly.

However, there is a tantalising possibility that we may yet give life to an era and a global wave of creative beings, wherein there is no limit to what could be envisaged, engineered or inhabited. We can only be certain of one thing and that is the vital importance of creativity as a vital factor in the ongoing success of the human race.

“It take’s a long time to become young”. Pablo Picasso

The double-edged sword of mindfulness

 

The classic perception of mindfulness is as a relaxing and grounding way of finding our centre and bringing greater attention to our sense of being. It is generally pursued through a variety of meditation approaches, most of which are usually experienced in short order as being quite other than relaxing or grounding. Meditation mats and cushions largely end up in a cupboard, Reiki CD’s in the attic and occasional yoga classes recede into distant memory like the flexibility of youth.

Ironically, people engage in mindfulness more often than they are aware. The main way that people engage in mindfulness is not even meditation. Mindfulness is most often experienced when beginning to learn something. Those first few steps of feeling off balance, falling out of ones’ comfort zone and into an array of confusing new information can turn up the volume and brightness on the world around them. Sometimes overwhelmingly. As a temporary member of the Consciously Incompetent we face our greatest challenge. The challenge to our own sense of self both internally and socially.

In fact, the whole experience is often compounded by the social element; as if the volume and brightness of our discomfort were not already turned up high enough. We unavoidably see our maladaptation multiplied in the eyes others around us. As adults, we must run the gauntlet of potentially being stigmatised, classified as unfit for certain levels of social sign off and approval if we fail in public. Yet at no other time are we so exquisitely attuned to learning. Our senses are never so keen or our processing powers as super-charged as when we are immersed in a learning rich environment. And a learning environment is grounded in failure and crowned on reflection with layers of consolidation and emergent capabilities. Put simply we cannot learn deeply and meaningfully without making mistakes and mistakes, as adults, are socially taboo.

However, it is the deep power of this newly unresolved and confused sense of reality that can help us to open up our mental models and make room for new data. The practice of meditation or mindfulness for most of us can be an exercise in self-torture as it is a pure pathway to heightening our awareness. Anything going on in our psyche at that moment in time will immediately become brighter, louder and generally enhanced in every way possible. Mindfulness therefore is one of the last things a troubled mind should look to for escapism, but entirely the way forward for engaging meaningfully and purposefully with life. No discomfort = no gain.

Therefore the double edged sword of mindfulness is that, as it cuts new ground ahead for us, it also cuts us open in the process. If we are not prepared to be open we will resist most of the new and strange information and experiences that want to rush in and become a part of us. My argument therefore is that the stuff deep inside us, that mindfulness raises so powerfully to the surface, is best dealt with through active learning and using the entirety of our being. It needs a purpose, in order for it to become repurposed within the context of our ongoing personal development. And personal development should always be ongoing.

In particular it is in the processing of our demons through creative endeavours that we knit ourselves larger and more encompassing, such that we are increasingly less frightened by our own shadows. These shadows can be reduced as our attention and our being grow and occupy the dark spaces, and it is from these dark spaces that we draw energy and insight for where we can go and who we can grow into being next. It is in this newly grounded and open space, with all of our demons put to work, that we can luxuriate into the quality of being we generally associate with meditation or mindfulness. As our attention begins to know no reason to flinch back from foreign boundaries our sense of self can know its true radius and in doing so find that there is truly no boundary.