The other day I revisited a cartoon I used to watch as a kid. After about 10 minutes I realized I was gritting my teeth and wondering what the heck was going on.
The plot was nonexistent and the voice acting made me want to find the mute button in a hurry. Nevertheless, when I was young this cartoon made all the sense in the world and I loved it.
Was I wrong as a kid to hold it up as greatness? Am I wrong now for seeing it differently? No. I simply have a different mind today than I did all those years ago.
Of course, growing out of a cartoon isn’t a very monumental personal development. But there are more subtle examples of how the mind can develop year to year, week to week, and day to day.
Books, in general, are read once and then filed away. Every now and then one stands out to each of us in such a way that it demands closer inspection. Most prudent martial artists have a few specific books about the arts that they deem exceptional, and have revisited them from time to time.
The important thing about special books isn’t the raw information but the complexity of the concepts; the depth of the insight that reveals more over time, and improves as the reader’s experience improves.
The cartoon of my childhood was entertaining, but it lacked depth. On the contrary, I can watch certain movies that I grew up with and experience them like they are brand new, filled with powerful emotion and drama.
I’m not suggesting you should go reread old books (although you should). Nor am I suggesting you should revisit old movies (although you could). What I’m saying is that every day you have a new mind. Sometimes the difference between yesterday and today is infinitesimally small. But of course, the depth of that development is entirely on you.
Every time you step into the dojo you are bringing a new set of experiences, a deeper wisdom, and a broadened outlook. Just how much of that growth you supply is dictated by your desire to learn new things and keep an open mind.
This reality is critical when practicing the fundamentals of your system, sometimes called “basics” or “kihon”. Every time you execute a technique you have a chance to see it in a new light with new context. Your mind today can see with better potential than you could yesterday. Of course, not every repetition will result in spontaneous enlightenment, and if you get entirely lost inside your own mind you’ll soon feel mental fatigue. As in all things there should be balance. Indeed, sometimes quieting the mind through pure physical expression can be more valuable than analysis. Regardless, the decision should be conscious and aimed at higher goals.
If you find yourself settling for “knowing enough” or going through the motions, then you’ve allowed yourself to become stagnant. Participation without thought and emotion is a waste of Today’s Mind, and a disservice to yourself.
After a hard evening’s workout, a sweat drenched student approached her instructor. She shuffled her feet for a moment, then asked, “Sensei why do we always do our blocks the same?”
The sensei replied, “Because that is how my sensei always taught them. We are carrying on tradition.”
The girl asked, “But why did he do it that way?”
The sensei replied, “Because that is how his teacher taught him! You know, I’ve explained the fundamentals of our blocks, the physics of our movements and how each block compliments our stances. I’m surprised you don’t know all this already! Certainly by your rank you should know.”
The girl responded, “Yes, but I was just wondering if there is no better way to do it. Are we sure we are doing it the best way?”
The sensei replied, “Yes of course. This way has always proven effective for me and those that have gone before me. Are you doubting your own system?”
The girl responded, “Not doubting, just curious.”
The sensei learned a valuable lesson that evening.
Marge Simpson: “Homer, is this another one of your get rich quick schemes?”
Homer Simpson: “No, no…this scheme is SURE to make us rich. And quick!”
One of two things is going to happen in this post – either I’m going to reveal some fantastic money making secrets, or I’m going to use ‘getting rich’ as an analogy for training. You take a guess.
There are all kinds of ‘brilliant’ ideas people create to get rich quick. The most famous is the pyramid scheme. These ill-conceived concepts crop up because it can be very arduous building up money. Heck, I know if I could get $100,000 tomorrow I’d look into it. It’s also the reason why we play the lottery (and ignore the mathematical improbability of winning).
Sadly, the same is true when it comes to martial arts. Instead of financial pyramid schemes we see promotional pyramid schemes, where groups of ‘experts’ get together and promote themselves to extremely high ranks. I’m still waiting to hear about the world’s first 20th dan…it’s bound to happen. More harmful are the schemes where instructors ripoff their student body through inflated monthly fees, testing fees, belt fees, etc etc.
But lets focus more on the training side of things.
At home I’ve got this gigantic glass jar where I keep all of my loose change. You’ve probably got something similar, yes?
I’ve put a ton of coins in there and have been storing up for years and years. Despite that, the damn jar looks virtually empty!
Also, the bb gun hole wasn’t my fault.
It was a great day when I first realized I could no longer see the glass bottom of the jar because I had saved up enough change. But since then, I’ve gone on autopilot. I no longer really watch the level of the coins rise because it’s such slow progress. I know I’m putting money in, but to constantly fret over how much (or how little) is in there would be wasted energy.
Martial arts training can be very similar. How many workout sessions can you think of where you really thought to yourself, “man – I’ve improved by leaps and bounds today!” If you’re anything like me, those occasions are few and far between. Most of the time training seems like a struggle against futility, improving skills so slowly that it barely seems like any progress is being made at all.
At first, I watched my progress in karate like a hawk. I was really pleased about things I could do and opined about things I couldn’t. But since then, I’ve gone on autopilot. I’ve simply done my best when either stepping onto the dojo floor or exploring martial arts on my own. The journey in itself is becoming more and more the goal.
So to you I say keep dropping that change in the jar! I know it doesn’t seem like a lot. Whether you’re in top form and toss in fifty cents each time, or if you’re struggling and only have five cents, remember – you’re building the total and one day you’ll take a peek at the jar and wonder where all that money came from!
We all have a small piece of real estate in our minds reserved for bad guys, and we drop by for a visit every time we think about carjackings, rough neighborhoods, or the safety of our loved ones. It’s here we imagine all the unpleasant outcomes and dangers the world has to offer us.
This seemingly masochistic piece of human nature is one of the reasons why martial arts are so important in modern society; but I think true martial value might come more in overcoming the little bad guy inside, rather than a big one outside.
Self Defense…Value and Limitations
The more things change, the more they stay the same. As far back as human history goes, there has been a need for one individual to protect him/herself against another. That’s why when discussing martial arts, one of the first topics always brought up is self defense.
Karate…BJJ…Kung Fu…they’re all methods of combat, and unless you’re a soldier, you’ll be fighting as an ordinary citizen. Thus, learning a combat art is an extraordinary way to increase your physical capability of defending yourself.
Furthermore, we live in a society that does not permit the casual carrying of firearms. These laws have pulled us out of ‘old west’ mentality, but have also delivered the bad guys a distinct advantage against the good guys (us). One recourse left to the modern citizen is combat training.
Yet, when you boil it down, the greatest fighter in the world can still get shot from ten feet away or stabbed in the back. So…why even bother with martial arts if their primary purpose is so compromised?
Sure, Kick and Punch (But Also Think)
As you’ve probably heard me harp about before, the benefits of mind and spirit are just as critical in training as body. For example, a skilled instructor can not only teach a student how to fight, but also how to detect and avoid bad situations. An experienced martial artist is just as adept at conflict resolution as he is at conflict “resolution” (Seagal style).
Furthermore, a martial artist will analyze his surroundings at all times and realize ways to avoid potentially risky environments. In doing so, the probability of getting into a brawl or encountering a desperate gunman are drastically reduced.
But…be that as it may…no one can completely control the world around them. Bad things will still happen no matter the effort and attention payed. Once again, why bother with training?
So bad things are going to happen and we can’t stop them. What an uplifting post. But don’t worry, there is a little light at the end of the tunnel.
Let’s think statistically – how often do people get robbed or assaulted in their life? Once or twice? Some unlucky few experience it more often, but many experience it less. On average, we are all likely to face scant few situations where fighting is called for. Now how often do we think about getting robbed or assaulted? bullied? accosted? raped?
It’s much more often. This is true for everyone.
What martial arts really gives us is the strength to face these fears with courage. Rather than shiver at the thought of walking to our cars alone, we can command a straight posture and say to ourselves “sure you might attack me, but it won’t be as easy as you think.”
We can use our training to solidify our spirit and determination, which will exude from us in a way that deters would-be aggressors, prompting them to try an easier target.
Ultimately, we transform our internal bad guy into a constant reminder of our martial calling, using him to spur us forward and remind us that we aren’t so easily drawn down into dread and fear.
Sure, any of us could be shot. Any one of us could be gone tomorrow. But I’d rather go knowing that I didn’t live in helplessness.
Martial arts…Budo…is what we can thank for that.