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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday 9 March 2012

Balancing On The Edge: Minding Your Surroundings and the Will to Act

"No citizen has a right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training... What a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable."

– Socrates


There Is No Sword
Colouring Outside the Lines
Playing with Fire
The Politics of Perception
Sharpening the Blade
Healthy Body, Healthy Mind

Back in 2001/02, I spent a year teaching ESL in Korea with my now-wife.  We lived in the city of Naju, tucked way in the South-Western province of Jeollanamdo.  It’s a nice little city with pockets of gorgeous pre-war neighborhoods, speckled amongst forests of high rise complexes.  Naju is famous for its sweet pears; you’ve probably seen or tried one without even knowing it.

Before we left for the long flight to Korea, I determined that if I was to live for a full year in an East Asian country, I was going to learn how to use a sword, properly.  I’ve always been fascinated by swords and sword culture.  It’s a more elegant weapon, after all, from a more civilized age.  With the help of our school’s principle, we found a local Kumdo (Korean equivalent to Kendo) school.  Despite the language barrier, the Gwanjangnim, or master of the school remains the single greatest teacher I have ever had.

Like all sports, kumdo is about discipline, both physical and mental.  You repeat an act (for example, swinging your sword in an arc over your head while jumping forward, then swinging and stepping back in tandem) again and again with little nudges from your instructor towards the perfect stance.  We would do this hundreds, sometimes thousands of times a session, building up muscle memory until the movement of the sword, the pull of the breeze on its blade and the strain in your muscles was internalized.  With time, you didn’t need to think about what the sword, the stick in your hand, was doing – the physics of its motion had become instinctual.  In short, there was no sword – there was only the wielder.

People sometimes chuckle when I tell them I’m teaching my three-year-old son how to use a sword.  Or, they give me a slightly worried look.  To the average person, the sword is equated with violence; isn’t teaching a three-year-old to kick ass a somewhat irresponsible thing to do?  Not at all.  To me, the sword isn’t about combat, about controlling opponents through martial threat.  It’s about self-control.  From random, foam-sword whacking play to subtle shifts in gripping style, situational awareness and behaviour anticipation, my kid is circling towards an understanding of one of the basic lessons of strategy.  Through discipline, all things are possible.    

Colouring Outside the Lines

Flash back many, many years to my days in early elementary school.  Picture a young CCE, sitting at a desk, looking at a paper, hand scrawling contentedly with a coloured crayon.  Over my shoulder stands a somewhat exacerbated teacher.  She’s not happy with me; on the paper is a picture that has been coloured rather excessively outside the lines.  She’s even less content because I’m trying to explain to her why I should be colouring outside the lines – after all, the page doesn’t end where the line does.

Think about art for a second; music conveys emotion, as can a painting.  An abstract piece can communicate a concept that words alone can’t.  Escher was a master of this; his work conveys non-realities that simply cannot exist within the framework of real-world physics.  Fiction, science-fiction, the rambling inventions of a child all present non-realities that, when considered with an open mind, can inform innovations that change our world.  Art, in a very real sense, is the science of colouring outside the box.

It wasn’t until I’d reached highschool that I was diagnosed with ADHD; suddenly, my penchant for almost anti-authoritarian behaviour and creative inclinations made sense.  I wasn’t a “difficult child” – I simply had a biological proclivity for thinking outside the box.   In an educational system that was designed to build standardized responses to standardized tests and develop a standardized set of skills to apply in a standardized labour market, I was an outlier.  My natural programming led me to be anything but standard.

Outliers are outliers because they lie at the periphery of social thought.  Most people gravitate towards the centre, towards traditional modalities of thinking.  The best students tend to be the ones who absorb information quickly and repeat tasks with relative ease.  The best communicators are the ones that deliver simple, easy-to-digest messages in pithy slug lines.  The populist approach to message sharing might be simplistic, but it’s also the most effective.

Put it a slightly different way; knowledge is a spectrum, like a rainbow.  Populists will consciously or unconsciously pick one or two colours and build their messaging around those hues, to the exclusion of others.  A communicator, on the other hand, is like an artist; seeing the whole palette, they try different combinations, attempting to reproduce the white light of understanding.

This lesson (the need to focus or crystalize one’s message with laser-like intensity) has been drummed into me throughout my formal and informal educational experience.  People are busy, they don’t have time, they’ve got lots of things on their mind.  If you want to get through the data smog, you get one shot – so make it short, sweet and interesting.  facts tell, but stories sell.  You’ve got a small window of opportunity to make your pitch and close the deal; you don’t want to miss it by going beyond the core elements of your message.


Look at the computer screen in front of you, not as notepad, but as a window.  Through your computer, you can see many things; other places, the future, the past.  It’s like an endless rabbit whole tunneling deep into the Wonderland of the possible.  Now, take a moment and sit back; look at the world around your computer screen, the world of the real.  A desk, a coffee cup, a wrapper that you should throw out, a pile of sticky notes.  Maybe there’s a conversation happening beside you where something interested is being discussed. 

Then, when you leave your home, office or coffee shop, do the same thing; see your trajectory, your schedule, your destination as your personal window to the world.  Establish the things that are relevant to you; the people directly in your path, the streetlight, the weather, the calls coming in on your phone and making sure your dinner plans are set.  Once you’ve done this, look beyond your window to the world you don’t take in; a homeless person on a corner, a cracked window on a store, a plastic bag, blowing in the breeze.     

The Politics of Perception

There’s an old maxim that you don’t know how many babies there are in the world until you have one yourself.  I certainly experienced this; it wasn’t until I started pushing a stroller that I saw how many other parents with babies there were on the streets, in the malls, on the subway.  I also never realized how restrictive society is for strollers and wheelchairs.  The TTC is anything but stroller/wheelchair friendly.  There are countless buildings with no ramps and narrow aisles.  Our social infrastructure, really, isn’t designed with the wheel-bound in mind.  None of this ever occurred to me, because it wasn’t part of my reality – accessibility challenges weren’t part of the view from my window.  Now, ask yourself this; how many urban planners, architectural designers and workplace managers have lived experience of disability either physical or mental?

While we’re thinking about this, let’s look at the Rob Ford/Tim Hudak push for more subways come hell or high water.  Or, look at the Federal Tory insistence on a tough-on-crime bill that the experts have said is hopelessly flawed.  Ford, Hudak and Harper are all populist politicians – they feed pithy catch phrases to the public and more broadly, have an accept-no-compromise position when it comes to policy.  The theory is, if they are tough enough, if they go over the heads of their opponents, they will get what they want.  Now, with a majority government, the Federal Tories finally see their window of opportunity to re-engineer Canada in their image.

Not ironically, this is the approach that Mike Harris took in governing Ontario.  He went into government with his parameters set – he knew exactly what he wanted to do and was going to do it.  While there is something to be admired in tenacity, there’s this thing that happens when you put blinders on – you limit your ability to see around corners and react to changes in your environment.  Blackouts, tainted water and protestor shootings were not part of the Harris plan; all could have been avoided if he had took the time to look around, to think outside the box.  Or, as I tell my son in his sword lessons, always mind your surroundings.

Extrapolate that concept for a second.  Look past the window of the immediate, see what lies beyond.  I have written elsewhere about why Capitalism is in trouble, what emerging problems Stephen Harper is failing to notice, why the 1% foment the revolutions that see them hanged and why our stigma around mental health is leading us to solve the wrong social problems, to our own detriment.  There are emerging challenges and emerging opportunities that are constantly being missed because collectively, we are thinking inside the box.  At the same time, the outliers of society are mulling solutions to problems most haven’t thought of and therefore, can’t be bothered to consider.  There are more pressing things to attend to.

Sharpening the Blade

This has all been an interesting, convoluted philosophical exercise; fun stuff to consider, but where’s the practical relevance?  Where do these arguments bear fruit?

Here’s where: philosophy is a product of the mind, which is a biological expression of cerebral function.  Out-of-the-box, creative function is a neurological process.  Focused, exclusionary “blinders on” thinking is a neurological process.  Information sharing is about switching on and utilizing certain parts of your brain.  Thought is physical.

I mentioned I have ADHD – that means, biologically, I am not designed to do repetitive tasks, to wait my turn, to engage in goal-oriented behaviour.  I was very capable of drawing outside the lines as a kid, but it was pulling teeth to get me to stick inside the lines.  Related to this, I had a stutter – too many ideas were rolling around in my head, all rushing to get out through the small window of my mouth.  When I did speak, I tended to be long-winded.

None of this is a problem for me now.  I have trained myself (to no small extend through the intense discipline and focus of martial arts) to straddle both worlds.  Today, I can think inside and outside the box; I have the capacity to focus on narrow messages or engage in wide-ranging conversations.  With effort, I notice what rests within my window and what lies beyond it.  My world is a much more interesting place.  Thanks to this strengthened balance between reactive and proactive responses, my opportunities are only as limited as I allow them to be.  My plans are both immediate and far-reaching.  Tell me that doesn’t provide an advantage.

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind

Nothing new here – a healthy body results in better concentration, confidence, better sleep and therefore, better cognitive function, etc.  The reasons why come as no surprise when we stop to consider them.  As mentioned, our mental functions are physical functions, just like riding a bike or watching the world go by. 

It just so happens the reverse is also true.  Look at the connection between obesity and mental health, addiction and mental health, road rage, poor planning, inappropriate behaviour, so on and so forth – and what goes on inside your grey matter.  We literally think the world we react to.

Remember the Socrates quote about what a shame it is for us not to grasp the fullness of what our bodies are capable of?  Makes sense, doesn’t it?  If our minds are part of our bodies (which is now well-established), how many of us can truly say we have fully harnessed our cognitive potential?

 - Miyamoto Musashi

The world we interact with is like a sword held unconsciously in our clumsy hands; we wield it poorly, unless we have trained ourselves to do so.  Put another way; our awareness is like a candle in the dark – lots of energy wasted but providing little in the way of illumination.  When we learn to extend our consciousness beyond ourselves – to think outside the box – our environment becomes an extension or who we are.  At the same time, we become an extension of it.

In seeing the world beyond our window, we identify not only our own track, but the terrain on which it rests and potential obstacles along the Way.  We also see alternative routes; after all, there is more than one way to the top of the mountain. 

Seeing the spectrum of reality is helpful, but useless if it is not focused into activity.  Like driving, perception of speed, weather, surrounding traffic and one’s one mind all serves one purpose – to help us reach our destination. 

Minding your surroundings; the will to act.  Perceiving all things, but do nothing that is of no use.  Think before you speak; work with purpose.
We all tend to hover around one end of the spectrum or the other, but the way forward lies in the balance of each.  With map firmly in hand, our window of opportunity is now.

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