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Tag: meditation

In “Following my own advice” I described how I try to get something important done every day before checking emails. In that post I rather blithely referred to concentrating on ‘creating assets’, and loosely defined assets as “anything that adds value to your life. Value in this case is usually either money, or reputation, or both.”
I’ve had a lot of interesting feedback on the post, mostly through my mailing list (feel free to join below), and one point that came up more than once is that I didn't define ‘assets’ clearly enough, so I thought I’d go through in detail what I think I should be spending my time on.
You spotted how I carefully did not say “you should be spending your time on”, right? As ever, take my advice with a sceptical mind, and discard anything that doesn’t work for you. One big caveat: being self-employed means I have a dick of a boss who never gives me time off or a raise, but I can choose literally anything to work on. That's both a blessing and a curse.
Here is the Master Asset List, my top three assets, in order of priority.

1) Mental Health
Every experience you will ever have is mediated and experienced by your consciousness. There is no experience so blissful that you can’t be miserable during it, and no experience so awful that bliss is impossible. Perhaps the best single resource on this is Sam Harris’ book Waking Up, closely followed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow. The key elements to my mental health are:
1. My relationships (primarily wife and children, other family and close friends, everyone else).
2. Meaningful work. Like writing this blog post. Or the next book. What makes it meaningful for me is its ability to transform other people’s lives for the better.
3. Meditation. I meditate every day, and have been doing so (with more or less regularity) for many years. The last year or so has been especially difficult (see here for an idea why), and one of my coping strategies has been to get a lot stricter about doing my meditation every day. It helps. I’ve written a short guide to getting started if you want to try it out.
4. Fun. Much underrated, but it is critically important to kick back and have fun often. Never underestimate the power of silly.

All the rest of these assets listed below are only relevant or useful because they affect my state of mind. It’s easier to be mentally healthy when you’re physically healthy and not worried about money.

2. Physical Health
“If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.” Count Rugen was a villain, but he spoke truth here. Physical health rests on two foundations: what you eat and how you move.

Diet: I’ve written up my approach to diet in lots of places, including here, here, and here; and it can be summed up as:

  • learn to cook
  • avoid sugar
  • eat lots of vegetables
  • pay attention to high quality fats, and
  • fast every now and then.

That's a very big topic dismissed in a few lines, so do check out those links if you're interested.

Exercise: How you move… hmmm, I wonder what kind of exercise a professional swordsman would recommend… ok, start with looking after your joints (here’s a free course on knee maintenance), and carry on by finding any physical activity that you enjoy, and do it regularly. That could be walking the dog, ballet, rock-climbing, trapeze, anything. Some activities are better adapted for long-term health than others, but if health is your priority you can probably avoid most of the damage that might be done during the less conservative activities. I’m a big fan of breathing exercises, as you probably know; they are the foundation of my movement practice, and they are specifically designed and intended for promoting health.
An imperfect plan that you actually follow is way better than a perfect plan that you abandon, so it’s much more important to find something fun that keeps you moving, than it is to find the ‘perfect’ health-giving exercise. Moving your body should not be a chore.

Sleep: The best single source on sleep matters (and sleep does matter!) is Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep. In short, the more and better you sleep, the longer you live. Good sleep is really the ultimate time management strategy because it a) buys you more time because you live longer and b) makes your waking hours vastly more productive.  There are so many factors affecting sleep that it would take a whole book to go into them (like Dr. Walker’s!), but I’ll summarise the main things that have helped me:

  • Avoid caffeine for at least 12 hours before bedtime. Yes, 12 hours. I only drink coffee at breakfast. Caffeine kills deep sleep.
  • Avoid alcohol, or at least get it all out of your system before bed. Alcohol kills REM sleep.
  • Keep the bedroom dark, cool, and quiet.
  • Stop eating at least 3 hours before bed. A full stomach affects sleep quality.
  • Nap, but not too long or too late. eg 30-60 minutes at 2pm.
  • All screens off at least an hour before bed, and screens after 8pm are set to ‘Night Mode’, cutting down on blue light.

I could go on, but you get the picture. As with everything, experiment to see what works for you. I track sleep with the OURA ring, but you can use other tools, or just notice how you feel in the morning. Top tip: if you need an alarm to wake up, you haven’t slept enough.

 

3. Money
Once your mental and physical health are being attended to, then the next big thing is money. Money worries are truly toxic to your mental health, and can poison every aspect of your life. Think of those bankers jumping out of windows during the Great Depression, all because some numbers on a bit of paper were not the way they wanted them. Weird, huh? But real. Just choosing not to worry is an option, of course, but it's much easier for most people to actually do something to reduce expenditure and increase income. Incidentally, my favourite money blog is Mr Money Moustache. He's refreshingly unapologetic.
I should point out that I am by no means rich- I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of months since I became an adult in which I had enough cash in the bank to cover the next month’s bills in advance. This is because I have always, always, put time-rich ahead of money-rich, on the grounds that you can always make more money but when time is spent, it’s gone for good. My first salary as a cabinet maker was £6000 per year. I learned fast enough to double that in two years. Woohoo! And swordsmen these days don’t make much cash either.
In Finland, people’s tax returns are actually in the public domain- you can literally walk into the tax office and for a small fee get a copy of anybody’s. Let me save you the bother: here’s mine from last year in case you’re interested.
But, and here’s the big BUT. Since the beginning of 2015, I’ve been effectively living off passive income. My books and other assets generate about enough money to live on, month by month. People buy my books and courses while I’m asleep. And, given that I’ve never made a lot of money, I’ve never become addicted to a large and regular income, so it took relatively little time or effort to get to the point where my assets were generating enough income to cover all normal expenses. This means that I am now much freer to choose the things I spend my time on. Like taking all day Wednesday off this week because it's my daughter's birthday and she has stuff planned from dawn 'till dusk.

In short, my work priorities are:

  1. do I think it's important, in terms of serving the art?
  2. will it be good for my reputation?
  3. will it force me to acquire new skills?
  4. will it produce passive income?
  5. is it scalable?

Let's take those one at a time:

1. Serving the art: In my experience, every single time I've tried to be ‘businesslike' and put what should be a sensible business move in place it's gone horribly wrong. But when contemplating a course of action if I can look into my heart and say ‘yes, this will serve the art', then it's always turned out ok (even if it hasn't made any money).

2. Reputation: Not every asset generates income: some generate opportunity. When The Swordsman's Companion was published in 2004, it made me no money at all (there’s a story there, but after suing the publisher, part of the settlement included a mutual non-defamation agreement. Make of that what you will). But that book put me on the map as an instructor. I suddenly started getting invited to events to teach, which massively broadened my horizons. Students from all over the world started to get in touch, having heard of me because they found my book in a bookshop somewhere. My Singapore branch came into being because Chris Blakey and Greg Galistan stumbled upon my book in the Borders Bookshop there. And when the rights reverted to me in 2012, I self-published it, and now it pays the mortgage.

3. Acquire skills: Time spent working on skills is never wasted, especially skills that you learn for their own sake rather than for a specific objective. Because whatever skill you are learning, you are simultaneously learning how to learn, and, more importantly, if you’re learning for its own sake you are putting process over outcome. Let’s say I learned to speak German because I wanted a job in Germany. If I learned German but didn’t get the job, the time would have been wasted, and I wouldn’t take full advantage of being able to talk to Germans in their own language, to read German books and watch German films. But if I learned German for its own sake, and it happened to lead to a job, well that’s a bonus.
A skill become an asset when they add value to your life. I really cannot think of a single skill I’ve ever regretted learning. And I can think of several that I learned ‘just because’, that then turned out to be professionally useful. Martial arts being the obvious example- I didn’t even think of turning professional until 2000, and I had about 15 years of training under my belt by then!

4. Passive income: There is nothing wrong with being paid for your time. And nothing wrong with being productive. But even in the classic model of employment, you’re supposed to retire at some point and live off your pension. Your pension is created by investments that pay you a passive income. This is how people in professions like dentistry can end up retiring in comfort- they make a good income per hour, being paid by the hour, but use a big chunk of that active income to buy assets (such as stocks and funds) that produce a passive income.
A passive income is defined as income that requires no work on your part whatsoever. If you are packing and shipping your own books, that’s not passive income. If you have to be in a specific place, or awake at a specific time to get paid, that’s not passive income. When I am faced with a choice between producing something I can get paid once for (a woodworking commission, a writing commission, private lessons, seminars etc), or producing something that will generate a passive income stream, even a small one, then I will tend to choose the latter.
Perhaps the most outrageous examples of this choice comes from the original Star Wars movie. Carrie Fisher sold her image rights outright for a sizeable chunk of money. Over a thousand dollars, I think, way back in the 70s when that was worth something. Alec Guinness got paid royalties. Guess which one did better? There was a lot of luck involved, but if you don’t have passive-income producing assets that might go all Harry Potter on you, then it cannot ever happen.
Let’s put some numbers on this. The Swordsman's Companion makes about 10,000 dollars a year in income for me (it’s my best-selling book by a margin!). To generate similar returns, I would need at least 200k in traditional assets. Here’s an article on how that would work. If anyone wanted to buy that book off me outright, I’d therefore ask for at least 200k. Nobody in their right mind would offer me that much, so the book stays with me. Folk might stop buying it tomorrow. But folk might still be buying it in 50 years time. There is no way to know, and that is true of any asset. Stock markets crash like Italian drivers. There is no such thing as a perfectly safe investment- even cash loses value over time. My mother in law saved for a pension for 30 years- and just before she was due to retire, the fund (Eagle Star) crashed and she lost the lot. Nothing is safe, so the only sane course is diversification, which is why you can buy my books on any platform, in any format- so long as people still want to read about how to train with swords, they will be able to buy my books on the subject.

5. Scalable: A scalable asset is one which you create once, and can sell an infinite number of times. I have spent most of my working life producing non-scalable assets. Back when I was a cabinet maker, I would work for hours and hours on a piece of furniture, which was then sold. As a martial arts teacher, I would teach a class, which existed only in that moment. I got paid for that moment, but that was it. There is nothing wrong with this model if you have the energy to work full time forever, and never get sick. A non-scalable asset might produce passive income, but you can still only sell it once. A house that you rent out is a good example. It can be an excellent passive income stream, but you can only rent the house out to one tenant or group of tenants at a time.
A book is scalable- you write it once, and when it’s published people can buy as many copies of it as they want. You don’t have to write each reader a new book. An online course is scalable too; create it once, sell it as many times as you like.

Ideally, my most productive time is spent serving the art, building my reputation, learning skills, and producing scalable assets that produce passive income.

So, that's how prioritise my time; how do you prioritise yours?

This will be my last post this year, so let me close by wishing you a Merry Christmas, and a happy, mentally, physically and financially healthy New Year!

I'm working on the latest instalment of The Swordsman's Quick Guide, which will cover my foundational breathing exercises. The book is already out to my test readers who have kindly volunteered to wade through the sewage of extraneous verbiage and excessive punctuation in search of the faintest glimmer of useful text. My fellow writers will recognise that moment when first draft hits first readers…

I intend to release this book with a lot of extra material, such as video of all the exercises and audio clips so you can play the instructions into your ears, leaving your eyes and hands free. This is completely new territory for me so I don't expect it to be very good right away. The only way that I know of to get better at anything is to do it, get feedback on the results, then do it again. A tiny amount of that feedback can happen internally- I can usually spot the utter crap and kill it before it escapes. But it's far more effective, I find, to ask the community that the work is intended for to try it out and let me know what works and what doesn't.

To that end, here are two clips, one for “Walking Breathing” and one for “How to Stand”. This is the worst way to encounter the material – out of context of the book it goes with. If it survives, in other words if you can follow it, then it's robust enough. Please listen to the clips, and let me know in the comments on this page, or by email to me at guywindsor@gmail.com, whether it works for you. Is it clear? Can you follow the instructions?

Walking breathing exercise:

[audio-clammr mp3=”https://guywindsor.net/blog/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Walking-breathing-02082016.mp3″]

How to Stand:

[audio-clammr mp3=”https://guywindsor.net/blog/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Breathing-How-to-Stand-02082016-10.43.mp3″]

So, how was it? Posting the most amusing comment will get you a free copy of the book when it's done, but the most helpful will get the book package with audio clips and audiobook. Carry on!

I'm a Luddite, it’s true. I resist the march of technological progress because I think that most new technologies aren't labour saving life enhancing devices at all. I was saying this back in the ‘80s when people were extolling the new ‘desktop publishing' thing. “What used to take two weeks can now be done in a single day!” they cried. “Great” I replied. “Do you get the rest of the fortnight off?”

No. What happens, every time, is that as capacity increases, expectations rise, and so you end up with an increase in productivity and more work being done for the same pay. Not fair, and not helpful, except to those who own the fruits of your labour.

But, and this is a very big BUT (I like big buts), there are areas where all this new-fangled gadgetry does actually help people. HEMA would barely exist without the internet, because it is such a niche interest that finding fellow enthusiasts was very hard before the web came along. And for those of us trying to make a living serving those enthusiasts, I think it would be impossible without things like print-on-demand technology, easy-to-use web building tools, and communications of all sorts. I have students in Chile who can send me videos of themselves doing my Longsword Syllabus Form for me to comment on and help them improve. Fantastic.

This is a screen capture not a video link because the video is set to “Unlisted”. Chaps, if it's ok to share it, let me know…

I've also come round to the idea that while the actual use of force (responding to pressure in the bind, that sort of thing) cannot really be taught over the net, there is a place for online courses to help self-study. Lots of people use my Syllabus Wiki in various ways to help them learn, but I am taking a great big step right now and am plunging into creating online courses. The first one is now live, and you can see it here.

I'm using the Teachable platform, because it seems to be the best in class for what I need it to do; unlike Udemy, for instance, I can directly control things like pricing, and tracking student progress.

Another major benefit of the internet is that I can reach vastly more people virtually than I ever could in person. And some of those people are excited by the work I’m doing and want to help. My School and I have benefitted enormously over the years from people volunteering their skills to help. Ilkka Hartikainen shooting the photos and laying out two of my books, for instance. Jari Juslin shooting the photos for the last three. And when I arrived in Ipswich, Curtis Fee (of The Barebones Company) showing up to help unload the lorry for another instance. And when I mentioned the projects I was working on, well, turns out he has a bunch of useful professional skills, which he has applied to making the online school interface vastly more beautiful than it was.
Isn’t this pretty?


It's an exciting time to be teaching swordsmanship, that's for sure. Right now my head is simply buzzing with ideas for other courses that I can create to teach online. Breathing. Meditation. Mechanics. Dagger. Longsword. Imagine if when students finally find a group they can join, or start one themselves, and they already have decent fundamentals in place. Wow.

Medieval scribes had crap posture too! Image from: http://www.booktryst.com/2012/03/medieval-scribes-gripe-about-writing.html

One of the challenges of my new lifestyle is that I don’t have class three or four times a week to keep me to a fitness regime. Before I could make the switch in my head from swordsman-writer to writer-swordsman, I had to figure out how I was going to prevent myself from becoming a weak and overweight lush who was always drunk by lunchtime. Because that’s what writers are like, no?

*Guy ducks and runs away from the many, many, uber-fit sword-swinging writers he knows*

Well, maybe not all writers, but I certainly have the capacity for it.

You may have read about my morning routines for beating jet-lag. I have developed and adapted those for preventing a condition that I will christen “writer’s blimp”. The trick, the key insight, is that this is about developing the sort of habits that will lead to my desired result, rather than coming up with a prescriptive regime. This routine has four steps:

1. Meditation

When I wake up in the morning, I usually go straight into an awareness-of-breathing or mindfulness meditation (guided or otherwise). This lasts from 5-20 minutes, depending on all sorts of things, not least the time. Ideally, I wake up naturally an hour or so before my kids do, which does actually happen about once a week. But one of the greatest privileges of my self-employed (and parental) status is that I almost never have to set a morning alarm. So I don’t set an alarm to be up in time to meditate before breakfast, because if I don’t have time to do it before the kids go to school, it’s #1 on my todo list after the house has quieted down.

2. Breathing

Then I usually do three rounds of Wim Hof breathing; if I’m too late to meditate before the kids come in, then I do this anyway. In the second round, while my lungs are empty, I get up and do some squats and push-ups. Then after breathing in, I do some gentle stretches, push-ups, that sort of thing, guided by how my body feels. Or I might do some of my classic breathing exercises. You know, like the ones in this book.

3. Engage with strength

I usually then do a couple of clean-and-presses on each arm with a 16kg kettlebell, some squats with a 16kg kettlebell cleaned in each hand, followed by a couple of double overhead presses with the 16kg bells, followed by some clean and presses with a 24kg kettlebell. Maybe some Turkish Get-Ups if I’m feeling energetic. This takes about 5 minutes, and engages just about every muscle in the body. If there’s time and I feel like it, I go for longer and do more.

4. Cold Shock

Shower next; for a long time I used to have a hot shower, then finish cold. Then I went to cold-hot-cold, again for several months, maybe a year or more; I didn't really track it. Now I treat hot water as a delicious luxury for when I really feel like it, and so usually shower on full cold only. It is very invigorating.

I put together a video of this routine for you.

5. Paying attention to food

I always sit down for breakfast with the kids, but I don’t usually eat anything. If I’m hungry, I’ll eat some protein and fat (such as half a tin of sardines and a tomato); I try to avoid any starches or fast carbs first thing. (But oh! Peanut butter and banana on toast with brown sugar sprinkled on! Pancakes with bacon and maple syrup! Nutella with anything! I do miss them all, so they are weekend-only fare.) I almost always have a cup of coffee, and sometimes make it “bulletproof”: a chunk of organic butter, a dash of MCT oil, and whizz it with a hand-blender. It doesn’t taste very nice, if I’m honest (if you take milk in your coffee you’d probably like it more), but it does seem to delay the need to eat lunch, and it may help a bit with mental sharpness. I'm considering changing the pattern to eating in the morning, but last-calorie-in by 6pm, to give me the necessary metabolic cleansing time. Dr Rhonda Patrick suggests 14 hours as a useful minimum in this handy podcast. Dig into that if you want the details (and yes, she's a proper scientist). I have noticed that having an earlier eating window makes jet-lag recovery much faster.

When I settle down to work, it often means doing my 20 minutes or so of meditation, and sometimes some exercise (breathing exercises, kettlebells, that sort of thing) first. My feeling is that I need to maintain a solid baseline of fitness, strength, and agility, so that my body doesn’t deteriorate, and I can still do all the things I want to do (like beat the crap out of people with a sword practice swordsmanship to a high level).

Then I start writing. If I’m working on the first draft of a new book (as I am right now), then I hit my word count, and either keep going, or stop and do something else (edit a different book; do some marketing; write a blog post; empty my inbox). I don’t usually even open my inbox before hitting my word count. I also almost always have my phone on silent*, and check it when I’ve done what I need to do. This period of maximum productivity lasts for about one to four hours from about 08.30.

Ergonomics are really important; this is why I only usually work at home in my carefully set-up study.

[Update: losing this study was one of the worst things about leaving Finland; but I'm nicely ensconced in my new office at the Waterfront Studios, at the University of Suffolk. Kelly Starrett has an interesting take on the problems of sitting to much in his book Deskbound]

I’m done working by lunch, which is always very short on fast carbs of any kind, but long on vegetables. The kids get home from school between 12.30 and 2.30, depending on the day, and I try to avoid being buried in my laptop when they’re here. Of course, these days they often don’t want their old man messing up their very important games, so I might do some work or reading in the afternoons, but it’s not guaranteed.

By 6pm, right when I would have normally been starting a class, I’m free! To cook dinner for the kids, for example, have a glass of wine with my wife, for another example. The day usually ends with my wife and I watching something on TV before bed, and it’s usually sufficiently easy watching that I can get of the sofa and do twenty minutes or so of stretching while we watch it. Assuming I’ve been careful with starch and sugar all day, then I’ll usually eat whatever I want in the evening.  [I think I need to do a proper blog post on diet and weight control. Hmmm. Ok, done.]

So, in a day when I don’t set aside any real time for training, I’ve meditated, done some breathing exercises, done probably 20-50 push-ups, 10-20 pull-ups (there's a pull-up bar in my office; every time I go get a cup of tea, go to the loo, or am procrastinating, I'll do a couple), 5 minutes of kettlebells, and 20-30 minutes of stretching, and watched what I ate. Any part of this can be expanded without having to create a new habit. In other words, if I feel that my flexibility is suffering, I can extend my evening stretches, and add more range of motion stuff in the morning, without having to suddenly find time to stretch. The time is already assigned. If  I think I’m getting weaker, I can add a minute or two to the kettlebell part. For example, I went to the physiotherapist yesterday because my always-dodgy spine started acting up; I've now got some totally specific corrective exercises to do regularly throughout the day… no problem; they are slotted in in place of the pull-ups. If you are interested in the specific exercises I use to keep my arms from going into tendonitis spasm, see my free course on arm maintenance, and my free course on looking after your legs.

I am blessed with a metabolism that puts on weight very easily if I don’t watch what  I eat, a spine that produces agonising spasms if I don’t exercise it regularly, and pathetic little wrists that will swell up with tendonitis if I neglect my forearm maintenance for even a few days. This means that I am obliged to keep reasonably fit, or it all goes to hell very fast. It also means that I have had to learn how to do so, or I break. In this case, inherent weakness really has been a virtue.

So, that’s what I’m doing to remain a martial artist while becoming a full-time writer. What do you do?

*Here is a list of the things I might be doing that a phone-call might interrupt. In no particular order: writing something you might want to read one day if I ever get round to finishing it what with all these interruptions; editing video; training; breathing exercises; meditating; eating; playing with my kids; sleeping; bathroom stuff; thinking; writing up my notes; lying on the sofa doing nothing; watching a movie; sharpening a pencil; doing woodwork; cooking; talking to my wife; planning stuff; and that's me just getting started on this list. So, really, why would I want to answer the phone? The chances of it being either really time-critical, or something I really want to hear, are pretty small. Most of my phone calls are scheduled in advance by email, so I know not to be doing something else when the phone rings. Wife, kids, parents, siblings and very close friends get a pass. Everyone else? make an appointment 🙂

I have been meditating in one form or another for about 18 years. Of all the things I do to be a better human, and a better martial artist, writer and teacher, I think meditation is perhaps the most important, and the most effective in terms of time spent to results obtained. This is because 95% of training happens in the brain, and you need your brain to do the other 5% too. Meditation can work like defragging your hard drive, installing a better CPU, quadrupling your RAM, and upgrading your operating system. Only better. There are a dozens of studies that suggest that meditation is good for you. And there are a bagillion pages of hippy crap out there too claiming it will make you fly, or infinitely wise, or good in bed, or whatever other nonsense. Here are two articles, both from major government health organisations: the UK National Health Service, and the US NCCIH, which seem to conclude that it's healthy.

Tim Ferriss has an interesting podcast where he interviews overachievers of every kind, and one thing that they all seem to have in common is they meditate. I've written before on how it can help to manage fear, but I thought I'd introduce it in a more practical way to those for whom it's unfamiliar.

There are lots of different ways to meditate, with lots of different effects, and of course every system claims wonders for its own special style. But really, meditation is about two things: focus and awareness. The easiest place to start, I think, is with “mindfulness of breathing”. It goes like this:

  • Set a timer. I recommend perhaps 3 minutes if this is your first ever go.
  • Sit comfortably, or lie down. I like sitting cross-legged on a kicking pad, at the salle, or on my pillows in bed if I've just woken up, or on the floor in my study if I don't want to wake my wife.
  • Close your eyes, and notice your breathing. Don't interfere with it, just pay attention. if that's a bit vague, try noticing the feeling of the breath coming in through your nostrils, and out of your mouth.
  • Start counting your breaths, one in, out, two in out, three in out, etc.
  • When (not if) your mind wanders, just notice that it has wandered, and bring it gently back, starting the count at one.
  • If you get to ten without distraction, go back to one anyway.
  • Keep doing this until the timer goes off.
  • Repeat this every day. First thing in the morning is probably best, but any time will do. I do it on waking.

I usually set my timer for about 10 minutes, or 20. No more, because I'm not a Buddhist monk. On a good day, I get up to about six breaths, sometimes even 10 without distraction, but quite often it goes one, one, one, one, one, one, one two Yay I got past one! oops, now I'm distracted again one, one, one. That's ok. The practice is the process of gently returning your attention to the breath. Nobody cares that you did 10 rounds of 10 breaths without your mind wandering even once. Any computer will do that for you, and better. This meditation teaches you a relaxed, gentle focus. If the timer going off feels like a surprise, that's great. Try adding a minute or two to the time on your next session. Or not. If you can't wait for the damn thing to beep already, that's ok too. Be gentle. And set your morning alarm three minutes earlier. You can manage that, right?

The next stage is to apply that focus to something beyond your breath, such as the feelings in your body. I have used this extensively to help me deal with the feelings that have been boiling up during my boarding school recovery. The idea is that by making space for the feelings, and being aware of them, they cease to control you and fade away. When, for instance, a wave of grief would hit, I would just sit with it, and it would pass. It's also generally useful in that it teaches mindfulness as a specific skill unconnected to your daily tasks. I have recently come across Tara Brach's guided meditations, which seem pretty good. I've linked to her page of basic, beginner-friendly guided meditations, but I personally use a couple of the longer ones. I'm also trying out the “Calm” app, which has a free course of seven guided meditations, which is a really good introduction for complete beginners to the practice.

Give it five minutes a day, every day. After 10 days, if it's doing nothing for you, stop. But I'm confident you'll already be giving it 7 minutes. Or 10. Because it's wonderful.

I'm giving a lot of thought these days to the parts of my practice that are not directly sword-related. Over the last 15 years of being a professional swordsman I have spent perhaps 10% of my training time sword-in-hand. This may seem odd, but as I see it, the sword is just the tool; a drill-bit in a drill, the head of the spear, the arrow not the bow. So I have spent most of my time upgrading my hardware (with breathing exercises, strength training, mobility training, joint maintenance, this sort of thing), and my operating system (with meditation, study, research, interacting with other practitioners and so forth). This makes running “Art of Arms 1.0” easy (though creating “Art of Arms 1.0” has been really hard!). Sword practice, such as striking targets, solo forms, pair drills, fencing, and demonstrations in class, combined add up to only a fraction of the total time. My results speak for themselves; you can google my fencing matches on youtube if you want to see how I fence, or just ask my students.

This is why my book The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts includes a lot of practical advice on things like nutrition, sleep, and yes, meditation too. You need your body and mind working properly to practice! The book also covers breathing practices, some of which are also a form of meditation. For an in-depth look at my breathing training, you should have a look at my breathing course. You may also find this article from Groom and Style interesting as it goes into some variations of breathing exercises that I don't cover, and gives some background information with fancy graphics.

I recommend sharing this post with everyone you know who is even a little bit stressed out!

My next book, Swordfighting, is, from a creative perspective, done. It is still being edited, tweaked into better forms, and has yet to be published, but the creative work, by which I mean “writing new material”, is over. I have a bunch of started book projects on my computer, and  I am wondering which of them most takes your fancy; which one would you most like to see finished first. I posted a poll yesterday, and the top three contenders are:

1) Mastering the Art of Arms vol 3: Longsword Advanced Training. The sequel to my latest longsword book, which would cover advanced training, techniques, and concepts. (40% of the votes)

2) A new rapier book, to replace The Duellist's Companion. This will take into account about 9 years of teaching rapier regularly, and so be much easier to follow and use. (22% of the votes)

3) How to Train which has sections on strength training, nutrition, range of motion, meditation, and breathing. In other words how to craft your body to be able to do what you want it to do. The emphasis will be on being able to swing swords, but the principles are sufficiently general that it can apply to any area of life. (31% of the votes)

Or is there something else? I'm open to suggestions, which so far have included: a beginner's Bolognese book, Sword & Buckler, combined martial arts and swordsmanship (whatever that is!), and my interpretation of all of Fiore's plays on foot, among others.

So, if you have an opinion, please let me know it by answering my poll. I added 3000 words to my draft of Advanced Longsword today, inspired by yesterday's responses…

We had an interesting time in the “intermediates” class this week. (Those scare quotes are to point out that after all these years, we should probably be calling it the Advanced class. So I will.) We began by establishing the goal of the class: to address the problem of freeplay devolving into tippy-tappy shit. You probably know this kind of thing: right leg leading, no passing at all, sniping out with snappy little cuts from a middle guard position. The sort of sport-fency speedy stuff that has nothing to do with the Art as Fiore represented it in his book. But here’s the thing; when fencing for points, it is far and away the best approach, which is why sport fencers do it. And in any kind of competitive fencing environment, that is what fencers will tend to do, because it works. But we are not creating sport fencers here, we are training martial artists in a specific historical system, so we had to come up with a way to make our free-fencing practice more faithful to the source.

Rather than dive right into freeplay, we only tried to create first drill, with a designated attacker and defender, in the usual set-up (one person taking on each member of the class in turn) and when a blow was landed, at whichever step of the drill, the combatants had to maintain awareness of each other, and retreat out of measure without dropping their guard.

  • In round one, the defender had to stand their ground, and the attacker had to approach from out of measure and attack with a committed mandritto fendente.
  • In round two, the defender could work from any guard.
  • In round three, the attacker could attack with any blow.

Needless to say, we almost never saw first drill in its basic form. All sorts of things went “wrong”, and most of the fighting that ensued was done in the proper measure, with proper commitment. The idea of the set drill was enough to shoe-horn the students into a better approach. There was no tippy-tappy shit at all. Maintaining focus after a blow was struck and you were safely out of measure was perhaps the hardest thing for most, so we worked on that. (I made reference to the way koryu students do their drills: bow out of measure, enter into measure, do the drill, retreat with total focus, bow again. We need more of that in class, I think. I last saw it done in Spain on my trip last year, by Marcos Sala Ivars demonstrating with the naginata.)

The drill was for both students to approach into measure simultaneously, with an agreed attacker and defender roles, do first drill without pause, and passing each other, retreat under cover until out of measure again. Change roles and repeat.

It was not good, the first few rounds. So we had a discussion on mindset, and suddenly it got a lot better.

This is a common problem in just about every advanced class I teach. The first round of anything is crap, so we have a short chat, and then it gets much much better right away. This means that students are entering the class in the wrong mind-set. Obviously, in any martial art, you only get the first opportunity to win. Because if you lose once you die. There are no practise runs, no rehearsals. State of mind is everything. Improvement should be gradual: if it leaps ahead after telling the class something they already know, then the problem is in their state of mind, not their knowledge or skill level.

If a whole class is doing something badly, it can only be my fault. I must not have trained them in the necessary skill. So we had a look at the key techniques for establishing a desired state of mind: visualisation and focus.

We started with visualisation, choosing images that generate a specific state. First injustice, to generate anger. Think of any injustice, and the state of rage begins to build. Then a rose, which calmed them down. Then the person(s) you love most in the world. Three different states of mind in as many minutes. So then, how to focus. For this we used the “awareness of breathing” meditation. Breathing is usually so boring that normally you don’t think of it at all. Requiring yourself to simply notice every breath is really hard: the mind naturally wanders. So the practise is to gently return your attention to the intended object. This works best if it is not inherently interesting, as there is more likelihood of being swiftly distracted.

We then chose images that represent the desired physical attributes of a swordsman. The class chose grounding, agility, relaxation and balance. Each student chose something that symbolised these things to them, and practised keeping that image clearly in their mind’s eye.

Then the mental attributes: the class chose calmness and relaxed focussed attention. Each student chose something that represented the desired state to them, and practised keeping that image clearly in their mind’s eye.

Then they combined these images, if applicable (there were some pretty funny mashups). The idea is to create a personal symbol that represents the ideal physical and mental virtues of the perfect swordsman, and be able to meditate upon it for a few minutes, to establish the optimum state of mind for training.

We then got up and did the same drill as before. And it went much better, of course.

To finish up, I asked them to think about this practise, and develop their own image to meditate upon, to generate the correct state of mind before class. Every class. Let’s see how things go next week!

This kind of performance-related meditation has been absolutely critical to my own development, and we really should do more of it in regular class. If you’d like to find out for yourself how it is done, I am teaching a full day seminar on it here in Helsinki on September 8th. More details here.

Every activity has its optimum state of mind. Knowing what it is, is one thing. Establishing it in yourself before the activity begins, is another. It isn't easy, but it is simple. Hold your attention on the right image for long enough that the state of mind develops. This is a skill like any other, and gets better with focussed practice.

 

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