There are a lot of analogies about martial arts training. Once you fall in love with an art, it tends to stay on the periphery of your mind, resulting in perceived connections with whatever you have going on throughout your day. One of my favorite karate similes is from Funakoshi Gichin Sensei, which goes something like this:
“Karate is like boiling water: without heat, it returns to it’s tepid state.”
Funakoshi Sensei was a great philosopher, and his observations ring as true today as when they were written. Anyone who has taken a break from their martial training knows just how accurate Funakoshi is – and “tepid” is a great word to describe the decay of skill that can occur rapidly.
Thanks to men like Funakoshi, I am occasionally inspired to think in non-literal ways about training. I wonder…what else in life reflects the simple, yet complex undertaking of martial arts? It was that lingering question that cropped into my mind when I was building a fire just the other day.
I recently moved to a new home in Pennsylvania, back from my mountainous excursions in Colorado. This home, unlike my previous dwellings, has wood burning fireplaces. I’ve started fires before in my life, as most kids do at one point or another, but I never really learned how to burn for longevity and heat value. I realized early on that there would be some trial and error in the development of my burning skills.
The Elements of a Good Fire
Starting Small with Incremental Steps
If you stack a bunch of logs in the fireplace and toss a match in, there is a very good chance you’ll be disappointed with the results. Even if the logs are very dry, there is just too much wood density there. To start a fire reliably, you have to begin by lighting small pieces of paper or tinder. That initial burst of fire will go out quickly though, so you have to make sure it interacts with slightly bigger pieces of kindling. Once you have the kindling burning you can begin to integrate larger logs. Skipping any of these steps, or taking on too much too soon, can result in failure.
Providing Maintained Exposure
Firestarter logs have become popular because they provide an extended amount of heat exposure at the beginning of the fire building cycle. This is valuable because to start larger pieces it requires a consistent flame over an extended period of time in order to dry, heat, and ignite. Without consistent, maintained exposure, a significant fire cannot be built…even if the initial flame is bright and hot.
Developing A Burning Core
Most people think of ash as the residue left over from a fire, but actually the ash core plays an important role in the burning process. As logs burn and turn into embers, they sink into the core and create an intense, lasting heat. It’s that core that helps provide significant heat to the home-at-large and also allows future logs to burn more readily. With a good core, a fire can be built, rebuilt, and maintained over a lengthy period of time.
Replacing Logs at the Right Time
I made the mistake early on of waiting until one set of logs was almost completely burnt out before adding the next set. I figured I was getting the most life span out of each, but in fact, I was missing my chance for a clean transfer of heat and energy from one to the next. Although it’s proper to let one set of logs achieve maximum heat and even start to turn to ember before adding the next, you still want to add the next set of logs while the first set is burning hot.
I’m always surprised at how a fire can spring back to life with a little help. I’ve had fires that seemed almost completely out except for a few glowing pieces in the logs and core. With some light poking (and occasionally persistent poking), even those fading fires have sprung back to life with fresh oxygen and energy.
Building Your Martial Fire
I bet your catching on to what I’m doing here, but let me explain. In the martial arts, if we place too much on a student too soon, or they try to take on too much right away, it’s very possible their enthusiasm for training will fizzle before it has a chance to truly grow. Instead, if we give them a small taste, allow it to spark their interest, and feed them more and more as time goes on it is more likely that their interest and commitment will grow.
In both your personal training and the training of your students, constant and careful exposure will be the secret to long-term success. Even though it might feel satisfying to train 12 hours a day for a month, the real value comes in training a responsible amount over long periods of time. It is with that maintained exposure that a person develops a true core of understanding and passion for the art. With a well developed core, the martial arts will fuel and guide a person in all aspects, even when they aren’t in the dojo.
Part of being a strong leader in the dojo or in a martial arts organization is understanding how to manage and empower your students and constituents. If students have access to their teachers while the teachers are still in their prime, the benefit of being exposed to the high level of execution will stick with them and benefit them throughout their training. Furthermore, as the senior echelon ages, the younger generation will be better prepared to take on the duties of their elders. If the ranking seniors wait too long to invest properly in the next generation…it may be too late.
There comes a time in most martial artists lives when they are sidelined by injury, work, lack of enthusiasm, or a myriad of other distractions. Despite that, most still have the passion for the arts somewhere deep inside of them. A small amount of inspiration, of poking and prodding, from the right source can bring that old flame back to life. You can be that inspiration, or, if you need it, you can seek that inspiration from someone who might be able light your fire.
What Do You See?
Contemplating the connection between building a fire and cultivating a strong martial spirit is an interesting exercise. What connections between the two do you see that I haven’t mentioned here?
(This is a fictional story with fabricated characters and events. Resemblance to real life individuals or incidences is purely coincidental.)
Coby’s black belt was beginning to show the first signs of frayed, white strands around the edges. He was by no means a master, but had become a regular at Yahara Sensei’s dojo. He fell in love with karate at a young age and never found a reason to stop. That is, until his work moved him hours away from his old home. He faced a choice – quit training, or find a new teacher for the first time since he started his martial arts journey.
Luck was with Coby as he was browsing schools online. Konishi Tsuyoshi, a nearby instructor, taught the same style as Yahara Sensei. Coby visited the Konishi school and was asked to sit and watch a class. Coby observed Konishi Sensei take command of the room, gliding across the floor in a stern and disciplined manner. Konishi lead the students through a brief etiquette ceremony, and then began the class. The training was hard and heavy. Konishi expected focus and effort from the students; anything less was met with a disapproving glare.
Coby shifted in his seat nervously, feeling a combination of fear and admiration for the Sensei. When it came time to sign up for class, Coby agreed. It was such a sharp contrast from his days with Yahara Sensei. He recalled his old teacher fondly; certainly Yahara made his students work and sweat, but he always had a grin on his face and music to his step. This would be a change of pace for certain.
* * * * * * * * * *
Coby trained diligently with Konishi Sensei. At first he found the dojo challenging, but soon came to welcome the rigorous workouts. It wasn’t until a full year had passed that Coby actually sat down with his teacher in a more informal setting, chatting and getting to know the man as more than just a Sensei.
While relaxing with Konishi Sensei at lunch Coby pulled out a small laptop. “Look Sensei,” Coby said. “I found an interesting video online. This appears to be some form of Jujitsu. They spend a lot of time closing distance and going to the ground. What do you think?”
Konishi Sensei eyed the video, then shook his head disapprovingly. “Too much time on the ground,” he said. “That’s exactly where you don’t want to be in a fight. While you’re down there, that close, you can get kicked by other people or stabbed if the opponent has a hidden knife. We always train to prevent going to the ground.” Coby nodded his head, accepting the obvious wisdom of the statement.
Later that week Coby returned to his hometown to visit family. While there, he stopped in to see Yahara Sensei. They sipped tea together and Coby recalled the Jujitsu video. “Yahara Sensei, there is a video online I would like you to watch.” “Ohh?” Yahara remarked, “Ok.” Coby showed the clip of Jujitsu practitioners throwing and grappling. Yahara Sensei stroked his short beard and eventually said, “I had a friend once who was tackled from behind while walking down the street at night. I bet he could have used some of these techniques to recover from the disadvantage, or, at least, escape the ground more easily.”
Coby hadn’t considered that possibility.
* * * * * * * * * *
Two weeks later Coby found himself enjoying more down time with Konishi. “Sensei,” he said.”I’ve got another video for you. This time it’s karate.” Coby showed a clip of two practitioners in flamboyant uniforms performing jumps, kicks, and rolls throughout their kata. Konishi Sensei shook his head in dismay. “How can this pass for karate?” he asked. “This resembles nothing of the art from my homeland. We work so hard to preserve the culture, kata, and art of karate. Yet here we have people propagating something completely wrong.” Konishi’s disappointment was palpable, and Coby wondered how the practitioners in the video could excuse their wayward performance.
Remembering his previous experience with Yahara Sensei, Coby decided to show the video to his old Sensei the next time he visited home. Yahara watched the video thoughtfully. After the performance concluded, Coby remarked, “What do you think Sensei? Certainly this doesn’t resemble the karate we do.”
“True,” Yahara Sensei said. “But you can see the passion with which they perform. We should appreciate their commitment to a craft.”
Coby found himself less-than-convinced. What if people continued to post videos of fake, watered down karate? It could increase in popularity and the real art could be lost forever.
* * * * * * * * * *
Coby continued to train diligently. He focused less on the internet and more on the dojo, until one day he stumbled upon a video of the very same style of karate he studied. Surprised and excited to see someone who’s kata and techniques resembled that of his instructors, he decided to approach Konishi once again. “Sensei,” he said. “I know our style isn’t the most widespread in the world, but I found someone else performing our art online. Take a look!” Konishi Sensei viewed the video, then pressed his lips thinly together while shaking his head. “This is not good Coby-san. I know the man in the video. He lacks our understanding of kata and application. You can see it all the way down to his foundation and his stances. Of all people to post videos online, it should not be him. This speaks to his arrogance.”
Coby understood Konishi Sensei’s point. It was definitely audacious of the man in the video to think he was the best representative for the style.
When last Coby and Yahara Sensei spoke, Yahara provided thin answers to Coby’s concerns. Nevertheless, Coby still respected the man’s opinion. He visited home a few weeks later and arranged to speak to Yahara once again. “Sensei,” he said. “I found a video of our style online. Would you take a look?” Coby showed the video to Yahara, waiting tensely and attempting to read the old man’s face as he watched. After the video concluded, Yahara nodded and scratched the small hairs of his beard.
“What do you think Sensei? Should this be posted online?” Yahara Sensei looked up in surprise. “That is not for me to say Coby! I do not control the actions of others. However, if it raises awareness of our style’s history and methods, I don’t see the harm in it.”
“But Sensei,” Coby replied. “Don’t you think this man is lacking foundation? Doesn’t he seem arrogant in his own knowledge, despite how much he lacks?” Yahara Sensei sighed, then said, “If we are all overly humble and choose not to share, the art will die with our humility. Even if this gentleman is not the best, perhaps it will inspire students to seek out the more senior teachers of the style.”
Coby considered the matter closed, but Yahara Sensei continued, “Coby-san, your critiques have merit. But be careful. The spirit of karate is not one of judgment, but of acceptance. One of support and protection, not of aggression. When watching others we may not see what we think karate should be, but our aim is to help them, not to steal their passion from them.”
“Sensei,” Coby replied. “isn’t it our job to protect our art and see it preserved properly? Aren’t we doing a disservice to others by not correcting videos like these?”
“I admire your sense of duty,” Yahara said. “But if you wish to make others richer, do not begin by stealing what they already have. Find what is valuable in what they do, and do your best to build on it. If they truly aim to achieve their best, they will likewise find the wisdom in your teaching and correct their path. I don’t dismiss the faults you observed in your videos…but I hope you see the importance of the mindset in which you judge.”
Coby thanked his instructor, and bid him farewell…until the next meeting for tea.
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!