Prior to this past weekend I had never been snow shoeing before. It always seemed like way more work than it was worth and a regular hike was fine by me anyway. However when I called the park service hotline at Rocky Mountain National Park the pleasant man on the other end of the line informed me that almost all the trails were still buried in snow. Any trail worth seeing, he pointed out, would be accessed primarily through snow shoeing.
It was at that time I felt the first tinge of ‘quit’ rising up in me. “Wouldn’t it be smarter”, I thought, “to try snow shoes some other time?” I glanced out the window and noticed the perfectly blue skies, 60 degree weather, and clear-as-day mountains in the distance. I decided there was no time like the present.
After I secured the proper equipment I made the drive up to Rocky Mountain and took off to meet Loch Vale, a rather well known hiking destination and point of natural beauty. The following video takes place at the summit of Loch Vale. I was quite alone and had a chance to collect my thoughts. It was then that I made a few connections between that hike experience and martial arts, namely how two different voices influenced my behavior that day – one telling me not to bother, the other challenging me not to quit.
Enjoy the video and I’ll share some pictures afterward:
The following are a handful of photos that help illustrate some of the points in the video. Loch Vale provided a very scenic, very challenging experience that I am glad to have undertaken.
I hope you enjoyed this little reflective trip through nature. All the best in your continued training!
Mediocrity, by its very definition, is what surrounds us. The world is constantly seeking a balance of order. As such, we as a species follow suit and establish an acceptable average of behavior and endeavor. That’s why excellence is so noteworthy and challenging to achieve.
Of course, with the advent of TV and the internet we can see excellence at work everyday. Tune into a basketball game featuring LeBron James to see what talent plus hard work can accrue. But the flashy kind of success isn’t what I want to talk about today. What I find noteworthy, and truly enjoyable to see, are people who endeavor to be the best they can be at whatever it is they’re doing, no matter how seemingly mundane. Indeed, a person of excellence can turn the routine into something remarkable.
A Not-So-Average Grocery Store Trip
Not too long ago I found myself at the grocery store doing typical grocery store stuff. As I finished gathering my items I walked past the checkout aisles, recognizing the predictable looks of mild impatience from the customers and general malaise from the cashiers. They all appeared roughly the same until I came upon an aisle that was moving faster than the others. Not only that, but the common air of drudgery was suspiciously absent. I saw a few smiles as person after person wrapped up their business. I decided this was as good an excuse as any to hop in.
When my turn came to checkout I got a good look at the young man behind the register. He wasn’t remarkable in stature or appearance; just in average, slightly nerdy fellow. But what DID stand out was his presence. He stood with excellent posture, not puffy but not meek and defeated either. He scanned items deftly, manipulating fruits, vegetables, deli items, and more with ease. While working he engaged me in just enough polite conversation to make me feel attended to but not burdened. Before I knew it I was out the door and headed home.
There’s no outrageous end to this story. The young man behind the counter didn’t rescue any kittens or stop any thieves that day. But what he achieved was quietly noteworthy. He tolerated nothing less than excellence from himself.
How Habits Can Alter Our Destinations
It wouldn’t shock me if the young man behind the counter became a manager one day, or even a business owner. In fact, I don’t see any particular limitations for him as long as he can maintain the same attitude as he displayed during that one work day.
Like Aristotle says in the quote above, excellence is not something that occurs once in a vacuum. Certainly people are capable of heroic acts and unusual moments of achievement, but more often than not those who succeed understand that the destination is a result of how the journey was made. The trap most people fall into is putting focus on the major events at the expense of all the little moments in between.
I remember a friend telling me a story about his father, Roger. Any time Roger went out of the house he refused to dress in anything less than his best. It didn’t matter if he had a critical business meeting or a stop a the post office, Roger carefully selected a button down shirt, dress slacks, polished shoes, and a tie. When asked about this peculiar habit Roger simply replied: “It’s not for other people. I don’t do it for them. I do it for me. If I don’t set high standards for myself, who will?”
It was Roger’s intolerance for mediocrity that made him noteworthy. It’s also something that others around him could sense. There’s an old saying that goes “chance favors the prepared”. In much the same way, achievement favors those who aspire everyday and look inward toward refinement.
Hinkaku – Character in Martial Artists
Striving for achievement is one of the most ingrained aspects of martial arts training. Every serious student has felt the grind of repetition and the burn of correction. The dojo is a rare place in modern society where the idea of habitual excellence is lived out in real time.
However, it’s just as easy (perhaps easier) for martial artists to miss the subtle message espoused by Aristotle. Discipline, character, temperance, and control are elements stressed inside the dojo but are often left at the door as students walk out for the evening. The refinement that was preached during kata training might not make the transition into day-to-day living.
In Okinawa there is a very important term known as “hinkaku”. On the surface it can be translated as “personal dignity”, but really it tells a much deeper tale. Rare Individuals who display hinkaku have overcome the hardships of life yet still exhibit kindness and understanding. They move with a refinement of posture, motor skill, and balance yet do not make displays of it. Their intensity and focus is coated in contemplation and open-mindedness.
Hinkaku is the result of a lifetime of personal refinement and achievement mixed with a fervent maintenance of humility. Hinkaku is impossible to fake and is exuded not intentionally but as a result of “living the martial way”.
Striving toward this improbable feat of character is one of the most important aspects of karatedo training and the mark of a rare person. Making excellence a habit, therefore, is not an option, but a responsibility for any dedicated practitioner.
Very few people are immune to the sneaky problem of negative self talk. It’s easy to miss since it can start off small and inconsequential but eventually cascade into a full on mental road block. Let’s take a look at what self talk is, how it can become problematic, and how to avoid negative compounding.
First, a definition. Self talk, as the name suggests, is when you communicate with yourself inside your mind. It can manifest literally when you are talking out loud to yourself (I do that, don’t you?) but for the most part acts as an interior monologue as you go about your day. Self talk is critical for problem solving, decision making, and thought organization.
Interestingly, the way we allow that inner voice to manifest can have serious impacts throughout our day and can affect how we view martial arts training. As such, self talk can result in motivation and enthusiasm or grinding annoyance and hesitation.
Example: A Simple Matter of Wording
I’ve been teaching karate and kobudo for a number of years. Occasionally I forget what day it is and say to myself “ohh shoot, that’s right – I have to teach to today”. Seems harmless enough right? Actually it’s not; it is the subtle first stage of negative self talk. You see, I say “I HAVE to teach”, meaning that I do not have a choice in the matter. It is a disruption from my normal pattern. When I HAVE to teach it is a burden beyond my control. Whenever I catch myself doing this I immediately say to myself “no, I GET to teach today.” Believe it or not this diligence has made a world of difference at times.
The way we use language, even within ourselves, can have a serious impact on our outlook and motivation. We can choose to alter that conversation so as to avoid negative spiraling. Here’s another look at it:
Example: Perceived Obstacles
Winter is starting to hit many areas of the world and things are getting cold and icy. Human nature suggests that staying out of that weather is the smart thing to do for survival; therefore, the brain will start programming reasons to avoid the cold well before you realize what is happening. You might start to feel a tickle in your throat, an ache in your back, or worries about your car on the ice. Your brain will talk to you and nag you unless you choose to change the conversation.
Instead of a series of insurmountable hurdles you can choose to see challenges, knowing that if you overcome them you will be happier and more successful at the end of the day.
Here’s a tip: for hard days when you know your motivation is going to wain build in a reward mechanism post-class. My Thursdays used to contain 4-5 hours of training and on those days I would get a hoagie and tea afterwards. No training, no hoagie. Simple but effective.
You Guide the Conversation
If none of this seems relevant to you consider yourself lucky. A few fortunate people always see the dojo as a haven and retreat there without a moment’s hesitation. Most of us though have bouts of laziness, doubt, and distraction (especially as months of training turn into years which turn into decades). These moments of mental weakness can quickly become burdens unless you steer the conversation early enough. That being said, there’s a fine line between indulging in negative self talk and ignoring serious signs from your body. If you are downright sick or injured it can be detrimental to your health to force yourself into training. Longevity and health are as much a part of training as kicking and punching. Learn to notice when your body is serious and when it’s just whining.