No matter how far I veer off course talking about martial arts santas or no-touch-knockouts, I always feel like I have to reign myself back in and ask – why practice martial arts? MA can be costly, taxing, aggravating, tiring, and discouraging. Why bother with all that racket?
I believe one reward is something called resilient optimism.
What is Resilient Optimism?
Resilient Optimism is that human quality that allows us to see the silver lining in a bad situation. It’s a burning in our chest that ignites when our sensibilities tell us to quit and give up.
There’s a Japanese proverb that states: “fall down seven times, get up eight.” This expression embodies unyielding determination, but in the phrase’s simplicity it speaks to many human qualities, resilient optimism being among them. It means that even when things look bleak, there is a possibility for growth and goodness in the end.
Martial Arts, Human Nature, Resilient Optimism
In order to find out how martial arts truly effect resilient optimism, we have to dig into human nature itself. In general, people have a base level of happiness and contentment. That means, regardless of what happens, they return to this level (think laws of equilibrium).
It looks like this:
There are ups and downs, but after all is said and done, that baseline is reestablished. The waves you see can be very big, or they can be very small. For example, winning $10 on a scratch off lottery ticket would make a small upward wave. Woohoo! Free ten bucks! But nothing really changes and life goes on. Winning $1.5 million in the real lottery would make a much much bigger upward wave. Swish! See you in Tahiti suckers! But ultimately the hassles, family strife, scams, and emotional tensions would bring a person back to where they started, even if it took years. There may be more dollars in their pocket, but their baseline would return to its equilibrium.
Luckily, there are ways for people to make lasting changes to their baseline level. Unfortunately, it’s nothing as easy as buying a lottery ticket. Real change must come internally; all external factors are like wind blowing at the branches of a willow. They can bend it this way or that, but they can’t make any fundamental alteration or growth. That has to come from the tree itself.
Plateauing and The Human Baseline
The human baseline can be moved up or down, and plateauing is the most common way for that to happen. Plateauing is something that occurs whenever we wish to cause change in ourselves.
It looks like this:
What we see here is long stretches of equilibrium followed by periods of growth. The one real variable is time. Depending on the task being undertaken, each plateau can last a vastly different amount of time. If you’re talking about getting better at a video game, each plateau could be an hour. Getting better at a kata would take longer. Unfortunately, emotional plateaus are far less predictable. Each level could be a matter of months, or a matter of decades.
So How Do Martial Arts Effect Resilient Optimism?
At their core, the martial arts train emotional and mental aspects just as much as physical. They do so by providing challenges, goals, disappointments, adversaries, friends, and more. By struggling through martial arts, practitioners ultimately enhance their self confidence, self reliance, and determination. Resilient optimism, the ability to see the good in even bitter situations, is made up of these same components.
The most important thing to remember about resilient optimism is that it is not an opiate. The goal is not to turn a blind eye to suffering and tragedy because it’s easier to accept good news. Instead, resilient optimism through the martial arts teaches us to accept pain because we’ve put ourselves through the pain of personal growth for so many years. We’ve looked at ourselves wholly and unapologetically and asked how we can make ourselves a better fighter, a better student, a better teacher. When compared to the ironworks of our own motivation, the tribulations of the outside world are pale – which is why resilient optimism is as natural as a bouy floating in the water.
When you put it all together, it looks something like this:
A Personal Example
Sometimes optimism can be difficult, no matter who you are. For example, while writing this post my new puppy threw up three times. Kata never prepared me for this.
His name is Nero, and he has been living up to the noise of his name. I am resiliently optimistic that one day he’ll be a good boy and not eat things he’s not supposed to. That day is not today.
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I’m back from both Christmas and the bubonic plague. It’s amazing how quickly some of these flu viruses can spread, and how effective they are at putting people out of commission.
Anyway, overlooking those details I’d rather not relive, I’d like to share a piece of my Christmas spoils with you. Check this out:
Pardon the weird angle, I was trying to avoid glare. This is an excellent art print of a classical Samurai that I received. It’s about the size of a normal poster, but came framed and ready to go. I was very pleased! This is a great look at real Samurai garb in action, as opposed to resting idly in a museum somewhere.
The development of Samurai armor is very interesting and demonstrates great battlefield ingenuity. This complex weaving of chords, iron plates, and fibers creates a durable yet flexible protective shell. Furthermore, the development of arts such as Jujitsu, Aikido, and Judo were all born from the Samurai and were utilized against opponents wearing this exact kind of protection!
But why does Samurai armor look so much different than the war-gear of other countries? Most predominently it’s due to the focus of speed and flexibility over raw protection. While a European Knight would be able to withstand blows and deliver punishing, pulverizing strikes with his broadsword, Samurai were more interested in quick killing blows with katana or spear. They would use accurate and evasive tactics throughout the battlefield, foregoing the protection of platemail in favor of maneuverability.
Furthermore, the armor of a Samurai was indicative of a great many things on the battlefield (not just how many hits he could take). A warrior’s clan, status, and military propensity could all be determined by his protective gear. Each clan had their own Gusoku-shi, or armor makers, who would design armor specifically for each Samurai (no walmart brand available at that time).
Furthermore, time and necessity changed the design of Samurai armor. In the picture above we see a very functional, battle-ready suit. This is quite unlike the decorative, Tokugawa-era pieces that rest in many showcases.
As times became more peaceful and Samurai more irrelevant, armor became more ornamental and therefore functioned better as display.
Samurai armor has many many pieces, and every minute detail is important (for example: the way you laced your armor would be indicative of your rank and status), but essentially there are six main components: chest protector (yoroi), helmet (kabuto), mask (ho-ate), sleeves (kote), shin gaurds (sune-ate), and loin gaurd (koshi-ate…also known as the most important piece).
High ranking officers would ride into battle mounted, wearing extremely elaborate suits of armor and demonizing masks, displaying their prowess and clan identity. Warring samurai, like the one in my poster above, stuck to what was functional.
Samurai armor and culture is extraordinarly complex, and not a single knot goes without deep contemplation. Although we only scratched the surface, we did learn a little about the individual featured in my picture above. Hopefully he’ll serve as a reminder to me that there is still much to learn, and more budo spirit to be attained!
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Karate-Do: My Way of Life by Funakoshi Gichin is a small book packed with extremely valuable anecdotes. Funakoshi’s stories grant us a peek into an Okinawa that is mostly lost to antiquity.
One story that strikes me as particularly interesting is entitled “A Humble Man” (pg. 62 if you’re reading along ;- )
In his daily travels, Funakoshi made it a habit to walk to-and-from the school where he taught. One day, when returning home from a teachers meeting that had run late into the night, Funakoshi decided to hire a jinriksha driver. Jinriksha, also known as rickshaw, is a two wheel cart pulled by a single “driver”.
As Funakoshi explains, “to while away the time, I began a conversation with the jinriksha man and found, rather to my surprise, that he gave extremely short answers to my questions. Usually jinriksha men are as loquacious [1 point for the translator] as barbers. Further, his tone of voice was extremely polite and his language was that of a well-educated man.”
Funakoshi decided to uncover the identity of this mysterious man, who hid deftly underneath a wide brimmed hat. His plan was to stop the ride and relieve himself, and at some point grab a glance at his driver’s face. His attempt failed. They began walking further down the path, the driver keeping a pace behind at all times. Funakoshi then attempted one decisive action to discover the man’s identity -
“Suddenly, at a bend in the road, I wheeled around and grabbed a shaft of the jinriksha and at the same time tried to get a glimpse of [the driver's] features. However, quick as I was, the man was even quicker, as he pulled his hat down deep over his face. So quick, indeed, was his reaction that I was now perfectly convinced he could not be an ordinary jinriksha driver.”
Through his calculated observations, Funakoshi was able to determine that the man was one Mr. Sueyoshi, a renowned and respected kobudo exponent (especially known for his bojitsu). He then learned that, even though coming from a well established family, Sueyoshi had fallen on hard times and needed money to pay for medicine for his ill wife. In order to accomplish this, Sueyoshi became a jinricksha man at night, using the darkness to conceal his identity and therefore save himself from disgrace.
Regarding his unlikely driver, Funakoshi had this to say:
“Had [Sueyoshi] desired fame and fortune, he could certainly have acquired it, but possibly at the expense of engaging in work that he would have felt to be beneath his dignity. In this he was…every inch a samurai.”
When examining the exchange between these two masters, it is evident the role respect and dignity played in their day to day lives. In Okinawa, like in many Asian cultures, the reputation of family plays an extremely important role. Sueyoshi’s unwillingness to show his face was an effort to leave the image of his family fully intact without “sullying” it by being acknowledged as a “lowly” rickshaw driver.
Funakoshi, despite being taken by curiosity, kept himself completely composed while attempting to catch a look at his mysterious driver. Once the identity was revealed, both men showed respect by walking side by side as opposed to one in front of the other, or one riding in the cart.
It’s also interesting to note how much information the men were able to gather on each other simply by monitoring movements during a mundane activity like a cart ride. Sueyoshi’s martial arts prowess, and even identity became evident simply by detecting his mannerisms. This speaks both to the mental and physical enhancement martial arts study can provide over time.
Funakoshi’s statement about Sueyoshi not taking work “beneath his dignity” is very telling of the weight Sueyoshi placed on his art. Sueyoshi, rather than sell out and market his bojitsu to become rich, eeked out a living at night performing duties that were very much beneath his status.
I admire Sueyoshi’s commitment to maintaining his art and not watering it down for public consumption. By taking the path of Koryu (“old style” method of martial arts transmission utilized heavily by the Samurai) he certainly maintained a high level of quality in his kobudo.
Koryu arts were, by nature, closed communities filled with secrecy and tradition. The main purpose of this was to maintain battlefield effectiveness. The true goal of Koryu was to kill opponents. The “do” aspects (mental and spiritual growth) were secondary. If a ryu or art like Sueyoshi’s bojitsu was to retain its complete effectiveness, he would have to keep his student body very low and the transmission of his concepts secret.
On the other end of the spectrum is Funakoshi, whom I also admire. Through his efforts to spread karatedo, more and more people became aware of the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of karate training. Truly, if it weren’t for him and others like him, the martial arts wouldn’t be what they are today. My own knowledge of the arts (as limited as it is) stems back to individuals like Seikichi Odo who allowed gaijin (outsiders) to study.
The One Conclusion I Will Make…
I don’t have any particular answers when it comes to the paradox of Funakoshi and Sueyoshi. They both had equally good justification for their actions. But what I will say is this – it’s astonishing what a four page anecdote can reveal, both about the men involved and us as practitioners.
This story made a personal impact on me because Sueyoshi No Kun is a kata I practice in my style of kobudo (we actually break it up into two kata, Sueyoshi Ichi and Ni). Where once I saw these kata as mechanical movements devised by some shadow of the past, I can now perceive the man behind their creation. I can sense his motivation to save an ailing wife and observe his behavior as he followed the martial way.
Stories such as this invite us to study our arts deeply. By imagining humid rains, dark nights, and pebbled studded causeways, we can place ourselves in the shoes of our martial arts forefathers and imagine what they were thinking while perfecting their art. We can then place ourselves back in our own shoes and think about our day-to-day tribulations and what might cause us to train differently.
While some folk might feel burdened by tradition, I believe it can be endlessly fascinating, and when taken in the right context, can help free us to express ourselves.
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