As New Years hits we are presented with a bittersweet moment where we reflect on things past and look forward to the future. What was in 2010 will never be again, for better or worse.
A significant part of Budo is coming to grips with mortality and learning how to make decisions, and once made moving forward strongly and bravely so as to better confront the next challenge. It’s with that in mind that we should look back fondly on 2010 no matter the circumstances, knowing we can grow and learn from every experience.
As time continues to march, I’ve sometimes wondered if my love for the martial arts would wain. Over the past decade or so my involvement with the arts has, like a steam engine, slowly built in strength and speed. What was once an average 3-day-a-week activity has turned into a life pursuit, one which I have carefully intertwined into my every day dealings. My work, my writing, my training, my reading all revolve around finding slivers of growth, and helping others find theirs as well.
I’ve learned to build in breaks and purposefully put down my training, even if for just a few days. Even so, there’s always that concern and wonder if one day I’ll find myself falling out of love; when I’ll wake up and not want to touch a gi. So far, after 15 years, it has not happened. Not even close, actually.
It’s beyond my full understanding but the arts have a way of becoming the best part of you, if you let them. Letting go of them would be letting go of Ikigai.
It’s with that I wish you a 2011 filled with strong spirit, so that you may overcome your obstacles and achieve those goals which will help you make the world a better place.
Perspective is important.
If you think about it one way, I’ve been involved in the martial arts for a long time (14 years). I’ve been doing kata for longer than I’ve been driving.
If you think about it another way, I’m a karate baby. Bill Hayes knew twice as much as I do now 30 years ago. Sadness and depression for me.
That’s why it’s never too soon to address not just the physical nature of your training, but the mental approach as well. In my opinion, you should think by year and train by day.
Think By Year
In order to access the deepest parts of your martial arts you simply cannot be in a hurry. Everything takes time and the pacing of proper training can’t be done at modern-world-speed.
We have a joke in our dojo called “okinawa time”, which means that things will happen when they happen.
For instance, if a class starts a little late – don’t worry about it. If you can’t figure out a technique, there is no need to stress. You have the rest of your life after all.
Thinking By Year is a process in which you set your goals not a few months ahead but a few years ahead. For example:
- Is there a new kata you’d like to learn? Settle into the idea of focusing on it for two years.
- Would you like to improve your kicking? Set a reasonable regiment of kick drills that you can accomplish every week for a year.
- Do you wish to understand the bunkai of your forms? Pick a form and critically analyze it over the course of three years.
The goal of this process is to reset the mind out of modern pacing and slow…things down…a bit. Instead of hurriedly acquiring the gross movements of a kata, why not examine every little body change and nuance? After all, you’ve got two years to think about this kata so there’s no rush to get on with it.
Now you might be thinking – Matt, it’s a little tough to think in years when my next testing is 3 months away! You’re right about that. In modern training where structured kyu ranking is involved, year-thinking is often not a great option. However, once you achieve black belt, designing your own training should be a top priority.
Train By Day
The main problem with Thinking By Year is procrastination. If you’ve got all the time in the world, it’s easy to wait until next week to put in some real effort. Of course, when next week arrives there are new reasons not to focus. And the week after that will hold new reasons again.
The idea of “surviving” or “coasting” through a class is a big-time disease for many students. It can take the form of physical laziness (which we’ve all seen), or mental laziness. Mental laziness is an acceptance of going through the motions and “getting your workout” without putting any thought into improvement.
Training By Day is a method wherein every time you step onto the dojo floor you strive to improve just a little bit. You reach for a small piece of understanding that you didn’t possess the day before.
One of the great big , mysterious, super inner circle secrets of the martial arts is that improvement takes place in painfully small increments over a hefty amount of time (interspersed with highly valuable ‘ah ha’ moments).
You need the short term fortitude to make those small steps, and the long term commitment to not feel hurried or impatient.
* * *
As a sidenote – living on “okinawa time” has been a great means of stress reduction in my life, and a source of aggravation for my friends and loved ones when they try to make plans with me.
National Geographic began a study in the early 1970′s wherein they identified global “blue zones”. Blue zones are specific locations that have societies of people that are longer lived, healthier, and more active into old age than the rest of the world.
Recently Dan Buettner, an American explorer and author, created a presentation discussing his research into the National Geographic blue zones. One of the locations he found most intriguing and noteworthy was the small island of Okinawa.
Watch this video as Mr. Buettner discusses his findings on why he believes the Okinawans and a handful of other cultures are so special.
There are multiple locations around the world that feature very interesting groupings of people that have achieved longevity. However, according to Mr. Bueller, Okinawa is considered “ground zero”. They have a complex social system with many built-in habits that lead to longer and healthier lives. I’d like to discuss a few of the points in the video and how they relate to the lifestyle of a martial artist.
Mr. Bueller’s Study In Relevance to Martial Arts
According to Mr. Bueller, the most important keys to longevity are:
- Eating Wisely
- Finding the Right Tribe
- Moving Naturally
- Adopting a Healthy Outlook
Within each of those categories Bueller features an Okinawan concept that achieves the desired results. Let’s look at the Okinawan habits and how they coincide with martial arts practice.
Eating Wisely – Hara Hachi Bu
Okinawans utilize “hara hachi bu”, which is the method of eating until you are 80% full. Similarly, recent western studies have shown that healthy dietary habits involve eating small meals throughout the day, and not eating excessively at any one time. The Okinawan people have found clever ways of maintaining this practice, such as eating off of smaller plates.
For martial artists, filling up the “fuel tank” with proper nutrients is critical to good study. One of the worst contributions Americans (and perhaps westerners in general) have given to the arts is the ‘master’ who is extremely rotund. Many times these portly experts can barely tie their belts around their waists. You might hear pseudo-explanations about these practitioners becoming more Buddha-like in their figure, or that the eastern arts benefit from a lowered center of gravity, but that’s all really fancy ways of avoiding the truth.
The Okinawan diet is heavy in fish, fruits, and vegetables, including the bitter and scary looking Goya:
This kind of diet has helped cultures around the world obtain and retain good health. Unfortunately, I’ve heard that some western conveniences like McDonald’s are slowly starting to creep onto Okinawa, especially in the southern regions. We will have to watch carefully how the longevity and quality-of-life numbers are effected by these changes (some senior karateka I’ve spoken to believe it is already having an effect).
Right Tribe – Moai
The Okinawans have a built-in social network of extremely tight-knit proportions. As technology increases all across the globe, humans are achieving a brand new level of social interaction. Will these online communities simulate the positive effects of Moai, or is something critical missing? We can’t be certain yet.
One thing that is certain is the kind of community that can be built in traditional dojos and study groups. As martial artists grow and train, they become closer and closer. If the group is made up of good people, they can also rely on each other and trust each other.
Moving Naturally – Physical Activity
This is perhaps the most obvious benefit of training. The physical activity in martial arts is extremely healthy as it works the whole body. While weight lifting and running both have very important purposes, activities like kata are demanding on every muscle group in the body. One can get a cardio workout and a tension-muscle workout, not to mention improved balance, fast and slow twitch muscle endurance, and much more.
The “moving naturally” aspect of Bueller’s speech is something I find very interesting. Although some arts like karate and tae kwon do appear to move practitioners toward ‘unnatural’ stances, ultimately they are designed to teach a person how to optimally distribute weight and move from one beneficial position to another. And, with enough practice, they are to be practiced naturally. Other arts, like aikido and tai chi chuan, place an even stronger emphasis on natural body.
Healthy Outlook – Ikigai
One of the biggest revolutions in thought in our time is the changing of emphasis from physical health to mental health in connection to longevity. The effects of negative stress and “inflammation” are cited more and more frequently as the cause of early death and lowered quality of life. One of the most important methods for counteracting that is ikigai, a sense of purpose.
Of course, not every purpose is ikigai. It’s quite possible to be driven and dedicated but without experiencing the true nature of ikigai. Ikigai is something that brings joy and contentment. It fills a person with resolve and a sense of satisfaction in what they are doing. Most of all, it brings happiness. I contend, as I always have here on this website, that martial arts can be that for some people. Or, at the very least, give them the physical and mental tools to find an ikigai in there life, and keep them active enough to continue experiencing it.