Serving others can help you even more than those around you

Our minds must be like a still lake that reflects the landscape around it.

I practiced aikido, a Japanese martial art, for more than 20 years. This branch of aikido, taught by Koichi Tohei, cultivates stillness, outer-focused awareness and non-dissension — not just from a martial art perspective, but more importantly, in everyday life.

By remaining calm and centered, it’s easier to connect with others, even when there’s conflict. It’s simple to be tranquil when you’re sitting by yourself in a quiet room. But what about when you feel attacked? Or criticized? Then we’re quick to get angry, defensive, or aggressive. In aikido, we called this “fighting mind.”

My years of training had a powerful influence on my life. It helped me learn how to stay peaceful in difficult circumstances, stand my ground without becoming aggressive and to live more in the present. After about 10 years of practice, I started teaching children. In aikido, a future adult instructor must first teach kids classes. Teaching youngsters taught me to be both gentle and firm at the same time. It’s great training for everyday life.

An advanced aikido practice is “Otomo training.” An “otomo” is a personal assistant to the head instructor. Their job is to make sure that the teacher has everything they need. But being assigned this role, considered an honor, is more for the student than for the teacher.

The purpose of this training is to help the student be attentive to the needs of others — without waiting to be asked for assistance. It requires moment to moment awareness of what’s going on around you. Parents have their black belts in this art. They’re the personal assistants to their young children — supplying them with water before their throats are dry, suggesting a trip to the bathroom before they start dancing around, or offering food before their youngster gets cranky. It’s simply part of engaged parenthood.

Yet, how often do we think the same way about our partners, friends, co-workers or community? When you open a door, do you look behind you to see if there is someone else? How often do you offer help to an older adult that might benefit from some assistance? If your spouse looks tired, do you offer a helping hand? Do you anticipate when you partner might enjoy a cup of tea? Do you call a friend that might be going through a hard time? When you walk into work, do you greet everyone you pass? When you leave, do you say goodbye to everyone? The simple helpful gestures can have a big impact on the world around us

In order to be alert to these possibilities, our minds must be like a still lake that reflects the landscape around it. We must cultivate a relaxed outer focus which enables us to see and hear what is happening around us. We must be listening with all our senses. This requires that we turn down the inner chatter that is always running in the background of our minds.

So how do we nurture this awareness that turns into serving others?

Practice mind body disciplines. Yoga, Tai chi, Aikido, Karate, and other martial arts are tools to learn how stay centered when the going gets tough. They are not quick fixes and do take a long time to learn. But they are effective.

Volunteer. Helping others who are less fortunate cultivates a heart of service. It takes us out of ourselves into the world around us. It nurtures compassion.

Practice mindfulness. Attend a mindfulness class or download a mindfulness app, like “Buddhify” or “Headspace” for your phone. These apps lead you though guided relaxation exercises. For many, prayer can foster a healing mindset.

Be an Otomo to your partner. Experiment with being your partners Otomo for an evening. What did you notice? How attentive were you? How did you feel?

You will be surprised. You will benefit as much, or maybe even more, than your than those around you.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at

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