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.
One of the immutable truths of martial arts training is that it requires hard work. Time, sweat, and pain are the primary currencies for martial growth. However, I’ve never believed in the concept of training without thought. “Shut Up and Train” may be a great way to kick yourself (or others) into gear, but a career spent “shutting up and training” fails the true potential of martial arts, by my estimation.
Let me explain in the context of exercise, and walking around the neighborhood.
What is a Walk?
Sometimes when I am taking a stroll around my neighborhood I wonder what passersby must think of me. As they push forward to make pace on their run, mind the behavior of their dogs, or chat with their jogging buddies, they see me doing none of those things. In fact, I am walking at death row pace and looking around like I’m lost. They might very well think me a vagrant…or so high I forgot how I got there.
In truth I use those walks to untether my mind from the day’s grind. I try my best to appreciate small things I never noticed before, or wrestle with problems that I haven’t yet come to terms with.
While I walk I wonder of those passing me, must everything be so…regimented?
The Trap of Pure Exercise in the Dojo
There are limitations in my story above. For example, I hardly know what other people are thinking or what their intentions are…and I certainly don’t think people need to do things the way I do them. In fact, many people state that they achieve a relaxed mental state and calmness through hard physical activity (like hitting a bag) or repetitive activity (like running). But that is the subtlety here – I am not referring to a peaceful mind, but instead of mindfulness.
In his book “My Journey With the Grandmaster” Bill Hayes Sensei discusses the results of training Sanchin kata over and over again. He pushed his mind and body to a point where normal aches and pains washed away in the rhythm of the kata. By the end, his attitude and perspective had changed and he felt a great happiness. This is the potential benefit of prolonged exercise. However, it was not on that same day that Hayes Sensei gained his massive insight into the fundamental operations of that kata and how it could be applied throughout his entire karate paradigm. He did that slowly and thoughtfully on different days, observing himself and others and finding the important questions to ponder.
If, every day, an individual arrives at the dojo and commits fantastic effort into their training they have a chance at receiving the same kind of benefits Hayes Sensei experienced. But if that’s all they do, they could be forever limited.
Mindfulness in the dojo should not be confused with discussing technique or bunkai drilling as both of those matters have distinct purpose. Instead, mindfulness is taking the time to step outside yourself and “watch” with patience as you execute the art. You, as the observer and the executer, have the opportunity to poke around and ask why, how, and to whom. As such, the observations made will likely begin technical and expand beyond it.
A mindful observation of form and function should consider physical technique as well as emotional content (we all remember the finger pointing to the moon right?) and presence of character. Some questions that might arise include: who are you? Why are you moving in such a way? What change in emotional state does this bring? Are you feeling focus…or anger? How does this relate to the bigger picture of the art? Are you being wasteful? Does the dignity of this kata walk with you when you leave the dojo?
One of the least tangible but most critical qualities of true martial arts masters is Hinkaku, a possession of quiet dignity. When around those rare individuals who embody Hinkaku one tends to feel at ease, and wishes the individual would speak more as everything they say and do has weight. In some manner, the dignified individual both exemplifies the simplicity of training for trainings-sake and the discovery of mindful introspection.
Of course, a person of Hinkaku has something else that can’t be written about or photographed or recorded. But that once again is the purpose of mindfulness, as everyone’s something is entirely unique and embodying it is paramount to the martial way.
This is the third article in Reader Week II. In this somber post, author Helen Cawley examines the state of her martial arts after losing not just one but two Sensei. These influential men led their style (Ryute) and passed away in close succession. Now Ms. Cawley faces the burden of honoring those instructors while trying to figure out how to carry on.
Adapting and Adjusting (How to Carry On After Losing a Sensei)
This past year, two of my teacher’s passed away, Taika Seiyu Oyata and Tasshi Jim Logue, and I have found it more difficult than just mourning the death of two people I loved dearly. The first months were about getting used to the fact that I couldn’t just pick up the phone and say “Hi”, among other things. Training was very difficult. I kept thinking, what was the point? How could I really improve with out their guidance? How would our organization stay together? Would we continue to train as a group? Who would teach us?
I always tell people that I started studying martial arts by accident. I say “I wasn’t looking where I was going and tripped and fell into a class”. I really didn’t know what it meant besides the Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris movies. What really sold it to me was seeing how I, as a small woman, could have a fighting chance against a much larger man. I wasn’t looking for a fight or MMA, or scoring points for trophies. I enjoy the empowerment I feel by knowing I can stand my ground if I need to. At some point I discovered that martial arts training becomes part of your daily life, like drinking a cup of water, and you never think about not doing it.
Then, I met Taika Oyata, and I was exposed to a level of martial arts that I had never dreamed of. I saw a grace and sophistication that was beyond any silver screen, green screen or televised fight. Small angles had dramatic effects. A slight twist of a wrist with a bend in the knee could send a six foot, 200 pound man flying across the room. And then I realized what the “art” in martial arts meant. There was no divine channel being tapped to magically slam his opponents to the ground. There was no magic wand behind a curtain. Taika was a man. He was a man who studied and thought and practiced and practiced again. It was not one month or one year or 100 repetitions that set him apart from anyone I had seen before; it was 10,000 or maybe 100,000 repetitions and an unbelievable mind. I am thankful that I was able to spend 20 years going to his seminars and learning fascinating details from him. Many of the drills and concepts he gave us could not possibly be learned in a 4 hour seminar. We usually got a study plan that he expected us to practice and show him how we improved when we saw him again in a few months. He often said that he can show us what to do, but we have to investigate each technique ourselves; we have to train our own body. We were often chided for talking too much and training too little.
He wanted us to be professional in our study, professional in our technique, and he wanted us to know his culture and his family history. This was important to him because he wanted us to know that he was passing down his art to us from his teachers and that what he learned from them was from their teachers, and their teachers before them. It is hard to have these lessons in my memory only. It is hard working with a group of people and only hear in my head that booming voice yelling “No, godamit” across the room at me. I want to be able to have that voice telling me if I am getting it right or wrong and implicitly trust that the answer is true.
And now they are gone and I am not and I can’t stop thinking about punching, blocking, adjusting, and practicing. So, where do I go from here? My only analogy that I can hold on to is that I have been given a gift; his students were all given a gift. We have been given ideas and drills and methods of study to follow. If this gift had been an ancient porcelain vase of the finest quality, how would I treat it? This I can answer: I would cherish it, feel responsible for its preservation, and share its beauty with my friends who could appreciate it. So now, how do I do that with memories and old lessons? The cherish part I can do, but preservation and sharing are more difficult. What if I remembered something incorrectly? I don’t know if I will be able to preserve, accurately what I was taught. What if I’m doing a drill and I forget a step or a block? I might start an exercise on the wrong foot and it might come out as a cheap carbon copy instead of true technique. Maybe I need to share with my friends and together our memories will be more accurate. If five people all remember the same motion the same way, it has to be right, doesn’t it? But what if we argue instead of share and we twist around the truth in a lesson we were given? What if everyone remembers something slightly different, because we are different and the right way to do a technique is relative? Who is going to tell us which one of us is more right, and if someone does, will we believe them? I guess to move on I will have to take that risk. This idea is a big adjustment for me, but I’m going to give it a try, anyway. I do feel responsible to preserve what I know I know and to pass it on. It is what Taika really wanted us to do.