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Lining Up Your Focus and Values

A warm-up exercise that’s done in the style of Aikido I’ve mainly trained in (Seidokan) involves learning how to change directions smoothly eight times in a row. Doing shihonage involves having your left hand and foot farther forward for the starting direction, and following a specific pattern of alternating which hand and foot lead the way as you move; your arms rise up to chest level at the start of each move, and then drop right before reversing directions and switching which foot is forward. It’s tricky enough of a pattern of forward and backward movements that it’s interesting to do this following the rhythm set by an instructor. You start to doubt your ability to do so when they speed up the pattern faster than you think you can handle the reversals.

Often, people tense up their arms and legs to try to move more efficiently at the faster pace. But that only reduces your muscles’ movement options, making it harder to change directions. Another choice is to try to cut off the end of each forward movement to get to the back part faster. In doing so, you end up with your arms still up in the air facing the first direction, while your legs are headed in the new direction, effectively disconnecting your body from itself (and making yourself an easier target to attack).

The lessons learned? To be truly efficient and give a proper focus to the tasks on your To Do list, it’s best to stay relaxed and give full attention to each task, one task at a time. And, if the speed gets too hairy, you can spend less time on each individual task (the equivalent of shortening your stride for each direction of shihonage).

An archer lines up his focus with the task, credit, Annie Spratt

But what do you do when your list gets too long to tackle? Some things on it may simply have to be dropped off. Say, for example, you want to build time in your life for writing that novel or some other personally meaningful endeavor, but your day job and family needs could easily keep you going from dusk till dawn. Then it becomes especially key to decide what to focus your energies on.

Defining Your Values

The up side of having competing tasks is that it can force you to look at what matters most to you. As author Anne Lamott puts it, to make something sacred simply involves focusing your attention on it, and doing so with love. And who doesn’t want to add more love into their life? So, for instance, a busy mom might work on her book project (because having a creative outlet matters to her) in the 15-minute breaks she gets in her car while waiting for her kids to complete athletic practice.

As a first step to narrowing your To Do list, I’d recommend coming up with a list of values that are the most meaningful to you. I developed my own list of values primarily from reading J.B. Glossinger’s book on the topic, The Sacred 6, and reviewing lists of values such as this one, which you can find on the web.

Too often, particularly for people who are givers, we rely on feedback from friends and family to help define who we are. To counter that, I didn’t ask anyone for advice on what my values should be. It’s important, on a regular basis, to treat your own inner sense of rightness as sacred, particularly with a process that’s as personal as defining values. What actions/concepts end up on your short list are entirely up to you, such as “nap-time” or “money” (which is not intrinsically bad, as it can be a vehicle for supporting charities and such that you consider worthy, as an example).

Valuing Life = Valuing Self

In part, my preference for that open-ended approach to values stems from an appreciation of the concept in shamanic-based religions such as Shinto in Japan that everything holds energy (ki), whether it’s a stone, a process, a stream or a brick chimney. If that’s true, then everything has value to it. For instance, I have heard that some Native American tribes will pay attention to which part of the wood faced the sky when they fell a tree to use the wood to make a bow. That’s because the skyward wood needs to become the top of the bow in order for it to work best. In a similar vein, several Aikido instructors have shared the fact that the founder of the art, Morihei Ueshiba, reached a point later in life where he didn’t want the wooden sticks and swords used for training to be hit against each other, out of concern for harming the wood.

Finding yourself at the center of a maze, credit, Ashley Batz

Once you know your values, it becomes easier to distinguish what activities match up with them. For instance, I have a freelance assignment check list where I rate potential projects not only by how they meet professional goals, but whether they add more variety to my life, or require me to be more in connection with others, two of my key values.

You can also build a personal mission statement to hang your values on, like ornaments on a tree of vitality. These steps add to life’s vibrancy partly because they circle back and reaffirm your intrinsic value. For if you want to build a life that feels more sacred than not, your responses to life must grow out of a foundation that is rooted in your fully engaged presence.

Barbra A. Rodriguez

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