Stress and conflict – things everyone in business has to deal with on a daily basis. Some stress is good as a motivator to action, but too much is bad for the health.
I remember years ago when I was starting up an earlier business, I read in a newspaper about a Hong Kong shipping magnate who attributed his effectiveness in business as well as his good health to the daily practice of tai chi.
This impressed me at the time because I was transitioning from being a middle manager for a multi-branch wholesale house to having my own company, and feeling the appropriate amounts of stress from such a transition.
As we all know, it doesn’t get easier, the problems just change. The stress remains. If you don’t deal with the stress, sooner or later you get burned out or ill from it.
Therefore, in 1989 I started to learn tai chi as a form of exercise and stretching, and to see if I could experience less stress in life.
The style I settled on was a Wu Style long form taught by Margaret Emerson in Arcata, Calif. Ms. Emerson emphasized the meditative aspects of tai chi more than the usual martial arts aspects.
Eventually I began teaching tai chi myself in Gualala, Calif., for the six years before my wife and I moved to Bellingham.
Tai chi is a slow motion series of movements followed in a precise order. It takes months or years to learn an entire “sequence” or “form” and then years of regular practice to get full benefits. But right off the bat, your balance improves and your flexibility improves.
Balance because of the careful changes in weight as you step, flexibility because of the slow stretching of every group of muscles in your body from your neck through your back to your fingers and toes.
But the truly surprising thing for me was in the absolute calmness of mind that results.
I had tried at various times to learn to meditate but had always given up because of my busy-busy brain, which is always going off in all different directions, especially at 3 a.m. But one day after practicing tai chi I noticed that I hadn’t been busy-braining for a while.
The reason is that to practice a series of more than 100 different postures in the right order requires you to pay attention to what you are doing.
If you don’t pay attention, you simply forget where you are and stop in a state of confusion. This attention to time and place and movement for 20 minutes trains your brain to focus.
I have found that once I learned this simple thing, I could create that state of attentive focus even when I was not doing tai chi, whether it was right before a big presentation, while sitting at the airport waiting for a flight — or at 3 a.m. when I need to relax and get my sleep.
During the last six months, I have used the technique often, especially when we were on a 24/7 schedule dealing with engineers in Iraq, on the other side of the world.
If I had not had this skill, I would have had much less sleep than I did have, and much more worry during all the complicated processes of setting up our new shop in Bellingham with all the new rules, new entities, deadlines, and personnel.
And then there’s conflict. Everyone in business has to deal with conflict at some time or another. Conflicts with other business people, employees, whatever.
We never really learn to deal with conflict. Usually when a confrontation comes up, we settle on childhood techniques or methods we read about or see in the media.
This is where the study of martial arts has great value for the business person. In Japan, business people study Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” and Musashi’s classic “Book of Five Rings.”
These books teach the wisdom of strategy. Strategy is not just about vanquishing enemies, but more about positive outcomes, even yielding when it is appropriate.
Studying a martial art like tai chi’s “push-hands” or jujitsu or karate makes you come to grips with your own fears and insecurities facing another individual in a controlled circumstance.
This is invaluable in learning conflict management. The thing that gets us all in trouble more often than not is our own responses to confrontation and conflict. Martial arts study develops the calmness and assurance when facing conflict and confrontation to allow us to make right decisions and respond in appropriate ways to restore balance to chaotic situations.
Speaking for myself, I don’t think I could be doing what I do, growing a business across state and national borders, traveling and working in strange and often hostile physical and psychological environments without the “toolbox” of tai chi and martial arts training to give me tranquility, mind rest, and effective action.
Humphrey Blackburn is the owner of Blue Future Filters in Bellingham and has been practicing martial arts for more than 25 years. He can be reached at email@example.com