Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Coherence in practice

A few weeks ago I attended a workshop at the Open Center on martial arts philosophy. It was based on the concept of a love based martial art, led by Rick Barrett, where love is defined as a state of being that embraces what is. Fear was defined as that state which rejects what is. You can see how this may be relevant in the practice of a martial artist. It reinforced many of the ideas and concepts we already have in place at the dojo.

One such idea was the concept of coherence. One of the underlying tenets of this workshop, and when you think about it most martial arts, is that entropy is inversely related to the coherence in any given system.
Coherence being ordered focused energy and non coherence being chaotic dissipated energy. The analogy that comes to mind is that of a laser and light bulb. A light bulb while providing light is dissipated energy, whereas the laser (which is also light) is focused to such a degree that it can penetrate steel. Both are light, one is focused and coherent the other is dissipated and dispersed.

So how does this apply to practice in a martial art? I will take kata practice for example. Two people can perform the same kata and yet the one that is focused will flow through the kata, while the other will struggle through the kata. Kata is an ideal indicator of the state of mind of the practioner ( in addition to being useful for many other things).
You will hear me constantly tell my students to stop thinking so much and let their body do what it knows to do. This state is arrived at when we are coherent. At this point you are not "doing" the kata or any other technique for that matter. When you are truly focused(coherent), you are "being" the kata.

The other example where this is clearly observed is kumite. The speed that seems to be exhibited by seniors is not a supernatural ability(although it may appear this way). What is happening is that the seniors are simply more coherent, and by being this way they are connected to their opponent. This connection can be so deep that it would seem that the senior is reading their opponents mind before they attack. In reality it is just a high level of focus and not thinking, but being. It means being in the constant now. While these words are very easy to type-being in the now without distraction or lack of focus takes time and practice.

We are all connected, all one. Most of the time we are oblivious to this connection, because we have a tendency to walk around in a fog as a default. When you study a martial art and have a practice, you will find that you cannot deny the connection you have. Realization of this will make you a better martial artist, but more importantly it will make you a better human being.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Sensei Orlando

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What is Shibumi / Shibusa / Shibui ?

The following definition handily provided to me by Wikipedia begins to scratch the surface of what it means to be shibui or a person of shibusa.

The person of shibusa modestly exalts excellence via a thoroughness of taking time to learn,watch, read,understand, develop, think and merges understatement and silence concerning oneself. The shibusa sanctuary of silence, non dualism-the resolution of opposites is intuition coupled with beauty and faith as foundations for phases of truth revealing the worship and reverence for life.

The following excerpt is from Shibumi by Trevanian. Published by Ballantine books, New York.

"Shibumi is understanding, rather than knowledge. Eloquent silence. In demeanor, it is modesty without prudency. In art, where the spirit of shibumi takes the form of sabi, it is elegant simplicity, articulate brevity. In philosophy, where shibumi emerges as wabi, it is spiritual tranquility that is not passive; it is being without the angst of becoming. And in the personality of a man, it is...how does one say it? Authority without domination? Something like that."

The closest definition we can get to a translation of the term is effortless perfection. This is not so much a definition, but more of a desired state of being.

Like all those qualities that defy easy translation( as I discovered with Shibumi) the word Shibumi eludes definition. Those externals which soothe and make the spirit content are considered shibumi to the Japanese. It is on a deeper level, instinctual, not easily conveyed. It reaffirms the traditional appreciation of serenity,introspection, modesty,formality,nobility,generosity and reserve. It is the polar opposite of everything that is garish, loud, noisy or commercial hype.

In essence shibumi is a state we aspire towards. Effortless perfection, simple complexity, understated elegance. It permeates the art we practice and is available to all those who would travel through knowledge to arrive at simplicity.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Sensei Orlando

What is Shibumi / Shibusa / Shibui ?

The person of shibusa modesty exalts excellence via a thoroughness of taking time to learn, watch, read, understand, develop, think, and merges into understatement and silence concerning oneself. Shibusa's sanctuary of silence, non-dualism--the resolution of opposites, is intuition coupled with beauty and faith as foundations for phases of truth revealing the worship and reverence for life.
The above definition handily provided to me be Wikipedia begins to scratch the surface of what it means to be a Shibusa.

The following excerpt is from Shibumi by Trevanian. Published by Ballantine books, New York.
"Shibumi is understanding, rather than knowledge. Eloquent silence. In demeanor, it is modesty without prudency. In art, where the spirit of shibumi takes the form of sabi, it is elegant simplicity, articulate brevity. In philosophy, where shibumi emerges as wabi, it is spiritual tranquility that is not passive; it is being without the angst of becoming. And in the personality of a man, it is...how does one say it? Authority without domination? Something like that."
The closest definition we can get to a translation of the term is effortless perfection. This is not so much a definition, but more of a desired state of being.

Like all those qualities that defy easy translation( as I discovered with Shibumi) the word Shibumi eludes definition. Those externals which soothe and make the spirit content are considered shibumi to the Japanese. It is on a deeper level, instinctual, not easily conveyed. It reaffirms the traditional appreciation of serenity,introspection, modesty,formality,nobility,generosity and reserve. It is the polar opposite of everything that is garish, loud, noisy or commercial hype.

In essence shibumi is a state we aspire towards. Effortless perfection, simple complexity, understated elegance. It permeates the art we practice and is available to all those who would travel through knowledge to arrive at simplicity.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Sensei Orlando

Friday, September 30, 2011

Pushing the limits

It was ten, then twenty, then thirty. It kept increasing by ten until we had hit one hundred push ups at one time. At some point I lost feeling in my arms, but I kept going. When the class was finally over I realized several things;
1)push ups can be very difficult.
2) I was exhausted.
3) Any perceived limitation I thought I had regarding the execution of hundreds of push ups was shattered.

Every time you set foot in a training hall you should push some kind of limit. Whether that limit be physical or mental, you should aspire to move forward or upward, each time. Why should we attempt to push our limits, aren't they in place for our well being? In some cases I would agree. Limits can serve as a governing structure to prevent harm. For example, I don't attempt to jump over moving vehicles accelerating at me in the street. It is a limit of mine, it keeps me safe and intact. This is not to say I haven't thought about it, or haven't seen it done. I have done both, but my internal limit advises me that it is not a prudent course of action, for me.

Pushing your limits forces growth. When the limit is physical it is only matter of convincing your body that you can do whatever it is you seek to do (provided the skill set is present, please don't try and jump moving vehicles) and usually the body follows suit. As in the example above about push ups, I did more than I thought I could ever do. It meant that my body was more than capable of churning out push up after push up far past what I thought was my limit.

Which leads to the other and more important aspect of limits, the mental side. My students constantly hear me say " The moment you quit in your head, your body follows."
This mental aspect is by far the hardest to acquire, it has been called fortitude and heart. It has been defined in various ways by many people. It boils down to not giving up, not giving in and pushing past any limit you may harbor. This is difficult, but not impossible. All of us have internal censors or voices that tell us we can or cannot do something. When you push that limit, you must dictate that you can, despite what anyone else is telling you, sometimes despite what your own body is telling you. This translates directly into your life from the dojo. One of my other favorite sayings is- The only limits that exist in your life-are self imposed. The second you think you cant do something, you cant.

This is why I stress the pushing of limits. We have a tendency to avoid discomfort, to the extent that we create a "comfort zone" and very rarely decide to leave it. Pushing your limits means you have to break out of the comfort zone. It means doing whats necessary, not convenient. It means taking the hard path most of the time. It means discovering how far your body can go taking it to that edge and then further. It means developing mental fortitude and not succumbing to the doubts. It means total commitment.
Is it difficult? Yes very much so, some days it will feel impossible, but it isn't. Is it worth it? Absolutely.
What limits have you pushed today?

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Sensei Orlando

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Our Dojo Kun

After a brief hiatus (the month of August and September, we had a spectacular summer program!), I was eager to get back to this blog, especially at the prodding of the many people who faithfully read these pages. I wanted to spend some time on our dojo kun.

So the most obvious question is what is a Kun (pronounced coon)? According to Wikipedia Dojo kun is a Japanese martial artsterm literally meaning dojo rules. They are generally posted at the entrance to training halls or at the "front" of the dojo; and outline behavior expected and disallowed. In some styles of martial arts they are recited at the end of a class.

A better definition for me would be the code of conduct that governs a school or training hall. It means that it governs behavior inside and outside of the school. For each student it is the guiding principle of their practice. Do I think it’s important? Absolutely. When a school lacks a kun, written or otherwise its very much like a large ship without a rudder, large, powerful and directionless. New students can look to the kun and see if the seniors embody it. Seniors can look to it and see if they are upholding its ideals, using it as a mirror. When schools lack a code of conduct, it means that any behavior is hypothetically acceptable. It gives room to ego and behavior inappropriate to a dojo.

As schools are made up of people, and people are flawed, it underscores the importance of the code of conduct. We all make mistakes, but when we do rather than try and save face or overcompensate for being embarrassed, we can allow our code of conduct to dictate our response. It allows us to maintain grace under pressure, to push ourselves when we would rather give up. It calls us to be supportive and selfless rather egocentric. Can this occur without a kun in place? I would like to think that it can, but I also know that our default way of being can be rather unpleasant.

A dojo is not a gym or a social club it is a special place where we go to train, grow and confront our flaws and shortcomings. As such it requires that we behave in a manner reflective of the vulnerability this entails. This is what a dojo kun enables. It sets the parameters for the behavior that is appropriate to the dojo. The next time your school recites the kun, really listen to the words and reflect if you are living the ideals it is stating.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Sensei Orlando

Friday, July 15, 2011

Training with pain

The first thing I discovered when I started training in a martial art is that knuckle push ups hurt. I distinctly remember the hardwood floor, forming two fists and trying to place my body weight on those very tender knuckles. That was my first introduction to pain in the martial arts. Surprisingly its not part of what is shared when a prospective student walks in the door (probably for fear of scaring the student away). You will hear that you will become stronger, develop discipline, attain focus and flexibility.

You will not hear that you will experience pain on many different levels. The truth is you WILL experience physical pain if you are practicing a hard style, its just something to come to terms with. Somewhere along the path you will sprain, twist, bruise or break something. You will not be told this when you begin, because frankly it would deter most of us from training. Could you imagine walking into a school and being told "Sure you will get stronger, but don't forget you will also feel lots of pain!" Most of us would turn around right there and head for the nearest exit.

You will experience emotional discomfort and in some cases pain, as you are confronted by yourself, your limitations and aspirations and the gap between the two.
So how do you deal with pain? Most of us flee from pain, if it hurts we want no part of it. When it comes to a devoted practice and a mindset of training, you accept certain pain as part of the equation. Now I'm not advocating training with broken bones or in excruciating, mind numbing pain. That would be detrimental to your training and would put your sanity in question. If you need to rest by all means do so, likewise with injuries, give them time to heal. However, there are some situations when it is acceptable and even expected to continue even when in pain. Think about how our society glorifies the hero who is injured but doesn't give up. The one who despite the pain he/she is feeling digs deep, finds a reserve of inner strength and fortitude and manages to overcome whatever obstacle lies before them. We all seek to emulate that model or at the very least admire it.

It is usually the case that what many of us consider pain is actually moderate discomfort. The problem surfaces when we must leave our comfort zone. Push ups, to use an earlier example, are not what I would consider a comfortable exercise, they tax your body to a considerable degree, but I do them until it " hurts" because the benefits outweigh my discomfort. We each hit out threshold for pain at different points, the question is not if but when. What do you do when you hit the place where whatever you are doing is no longer comfortable and just downright hurts. Do you quit? Do you rationalize that it wasn't really for you anyway? Do you create an elaborate story to reconcile the fact you couldn't face the discomfort and more importantly, yourself? The alternative is to accept the presence of pain, adapt and get stronger.

I have always believed that if you quit in your head, your body just follows suit. you have to learn to train with pain. My first hand experience of this was taking a promotion with a broken hand. A concerned sensei pointed out my condition to the head instructor and I was informed that I had another hand with which to strike. Again this is an extreme example and I don't suggest training with broken limbs, but I have seen individuals whose practice is as important as breathing to them, these people let very little stop them from training, including pain.
The dynamic of pain is an interesting topic which I wont explore in its entirety here. Suffice to say we each experience pain differently. How this impacts your training rests with the reaction you have to the pain you will experience. You can embrace it, realizing that its a facet of the training, something else to overcome. You can reject it and the training making it something to avoid at all costs.
Even though I belong to school of thought that pain is part of the process, I don't advocate pain for pains sake. Pain is always a byproduct of pushing ourselves harder and longer, making our bodies and minds stronger, each and every day.
You will get stronger, you will be more focused, you will improve your flexibility, you will develop discipline and you will feel pain.
What will you do when that moment arrives?

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Sensei Orlando

Monday, June 27, 2011

Progress not perfection

"It takes a thousand days to make a fist, a thousand days to learn a stance and a thousand days to learn to strike". Its possible this saying isn't shared by many martial artists, nevertheless its important to understand what is meant by this saying. You don't hear this shared in many schools because it can be disheartening to the western mindset of " I need everything yesterday". If you listen closely and are fortunate enough to be in a school where this philosophy prevails you will hear it in every class, in one form or another. I have to admit that if someone told me at the beginning of my training that it would take over three years just to learn how to make a fist, I may have seriously reconsidered the whole endeavor. It is the kind of lesson that is self affirming. By that I mean you understand it to be true after you have realized that it took you a thousand days to learn how to make a fist.

In our school there is a mantra that is shared by one of our instructors. "Progress not perfection", which is usually followed by "gradually and eventually". Both are related to each other but they are not the same. What they convey is the attitude needed to excel at something like the martial arts. You do not develop proficiency in what we do overnight, it takes years and years. Years of progress not perfection, moments (long stretches) of frustration followed by brief flashes of insight and ability. One example that comes to mind: A student was working on an evasion for the better part of a year, in essence learning to move the head out of the way of an incoming fist.
Time and again that student kept getting hit, but one moment (and I was able to witness this), a fist came and the student moved effortlessly out of the way, no thought- just pure reflex. It was graceful, efficient, and quite amazing to see. That is progress. The fact that the student continued to get hit in the head afterwards does not negate the fact that the evasion occurred. Progress not perfection.
This is not to say we should not strive for perfection, of course we should. Its a worthwhile goal. It has to be done prudently though, with the knowledge that perfection is difficult(many would say impossible) to attain. In my decades of practice I have yet to do a perfect kata, it doesn't stop me from striving to do so each and every time I practice.

Progress reveals to us that perfection is ever elusive, once you think you have gotten closer to perfection, the bar is raised yet again, the target shifts to a level that is even more difficult, one you didn't even know existed before that moment. That is how progress works and that is why we never quit. If we do quit and settle, then we admit to ourselves that we no longer are seeking perfection, we have grown complacent. In our school we have a character that reads constant polishing. Each day no matter how brightly we have shined in the past we must continue to polish, remember it takes a thousand days just to begin.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body

Sensei Orlando

Friday, June 10, 2011

Many paths - One way

My style is better than your style. Another variation of this, is my version of said style is better than your version of the same style. What this ultimately leads to is a demonstration of ego in what should be an egoless expression. Where does this sentiment stem from? Usually from those martial artists, who are starting upon the path and get caught up in the excitement of beginning something new and exotic. Inevitably it leads to comparison and criticism.

What you discover over time is that the longer you train the closer the martial arts are in purpose and expression. What does this mean? Well it was not unheard of for advanced practitioners in the past to hold black belts in several different types of martial arts. They believed that it was important to be exposed to different types of martial arts and schools of thought. This is not to say they dabbled in the different arts, jumping from school to school or art to art. They would usually only pursue a second black belt after many years in what they considered their primary art, and even then the training in the second art was just as vigorous and dedicated as the training in what they considered their primary art. Why was this done in the past and why is it not so commonplace now?

It is my opinion that in the past, even though many of the arts were kept secret for reasons of safety (your enemies should not know your most effective techniques) or the preservation of transmission, when like minded practitioners trained, ego was less of an issue than it is today. Today because of the commercial aspect of many schools, students are discouraged to try other styles or methods. What if they like that school, instructor more than this one? What if I lose that student? These are the motivating factors in this behavior from many instructors. What is occurring however is the creation of narrow minded martial artists who come to view their way as the only way.

So what should be our position as martial artists? Realize that there are many paths, but only one way. Respect other martial arts and artists as you would like to be respected and realize that the opportunity to learn may come in many different forms, if we are open to receive the learning.
Martial arts is a summit-less mountain with many paths on its face, upon which you encounter fellow travelers. Some join you on your path and others take divergent paths, but the mountain is still the same.

strong spirit, strong mind,strong body
Sensei Orlando

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The potential of each person

Jigoro Kano, Gichin Funakoshi, Morihei Ueshiba, Chojun Miyagi, Masutasu Oyama, Kenwa Mabuni, Anko Itosu, Hironori Ohtsuka, Yu Niu and Ng Mui. What do all these names have in common? If you study any type of martial art you will be at least familiar with some of these names. What they all have in common is that at one point in time they were all unknown students.
This very short list is not by any means comprehensive and I deliberately left out names and styles, not that they were any less pivotal to the development of martial arts, but for the sake of being concise, otherwise this would be a post of names.
Each one of those mentioned above (and no they aren't all male) has had a far reaching impact that is felt even to this day. In their time they weren't exactly notable or even famous. Some of them may have been known, but most of them studied in relative obscurity with the goal of perfecting the art that was handed down to them. In their time, training was viewed as a normal part of life and was devoid of mystique, it was simply part of their make up and was done diligently and with intensity.

So how does this pertain to you? If you are an instructor, then you have to understand that EACH student that trains with you, has the potential of impacting thousands of others as a direct result of training with you. You should possess the vision to see that the student that trains with you each week can, if they continue, can go on to transform the lives of many others. Each of those named above understood that to be a transformational agent in the world, they had to be willing to sacrifice personal ambitions and desires for the good of the many. This is your role as an instructor of a martial art.

If you are a student(and this applies to the instructors as well) then you should be cognizant of the fact that each of those listed above were men and women just like you. Which means that everything they achieved is accessible to you as well. The only caveat being that you must possess the same level of dedication, intensity of focus and willingness to train as they did. Qualities that are not the easiest to cultivate, but that are not impossible to attain either.
Each person is a potential multitude. when viewed this way, every time you train, every interaction you have with fellow students and instructors will enrich your life to a greater degree.

Teachers open the door but you must enter by yourself-Chinese proverb

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body

Sensei Orlando

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Kumite- Why we fight

When I first considered training over twenty years ago, the reason was because I felt I needed structure in my life. I told myself I would learn everything I needed to learn, but I would not fight. I had come from what many could consider a violent childhood and at that point in my life I no longer wanted any more "violence". As I progressed through the ranks the time had finally arrived to fight. I requested the opportunity to decline and was told privately that I was studying a martial art, and while the purpose of the art was to defend myself, I would still have to fight.

And so I fought, and to my surprise it wasn't violent. It was however confrontational, not with my opponent but with myself. When we face an opponent in kumite, they become the vehicle for our inner exploration. Our fears,(the fear of getting hurt, of not measuring up, the fear of pain)face and confront us. How well we deal with these fears determines how well we can execute during sparring.

So why do we fight? For those who do not train or practice a martial art it may seem like an unnecessary thing. Surely you can learn everything you need to learn without fighting? Yes and no. Its true much can be learned without ever facing another person, or without ever making contact or being hit. In order to truly appreciate a technique you must hit something besides air. More importantly, its very easy to strike a target or a person, what is truly difficult is evading and inevitably dealing with the blow once struck. We don't fight out of anger (although some do carry excess anger), which would only hinder good technique. We fight because ultimately it is where we can truly be ourselves stripped to the core. There are no pretenses,excuses or reasons that are allowed during kumite. You know when you have been hit as well as when you have hit squarely and with power. You are confronted with harsh truths- I haven't trained enough, my techniques need work, he /she is much better than I am, the list can be endless. Rather than dwell on it we must strive to focus on the moment and to the best of our ability, fight. For many this can be the hardest thing, to let go the litany of reasons and focus on the moment.

It is not an easy path and I don't think it ever will be. Its confronting and many tears have been shed on our dojo floor. Its uncomfortable because its designed to be that way. There are moments where it is physically painful and moments when the pain is much deeper. Through it all, kumite is like a forge, burning out the impurities until only the purest expression of your self remains. This is why we fight, this is why we return time and again to what those who do not practice a martial art may consider torture. Within the context of kumite we discover our limits and transcend them, pushing past them when we thought they were insurmountable.

The Navy Seals have a very famous saying-"The more you sweat in training the less you bleed in battle." Its something that we strongly believe, nothing can take the place of training and practice. The more you train the more prepared you are. When you are prepared very little will take you by surprise, meaning you are in a state of readiness. That state of readiness is what we all strive towards, with the understanding that the path is soaked in the sweat of long hours of training.

It is through kumite that we forge a:
strong spirit,strong mind,strong body

Sensei Orlando

Being Connected

I recently was walking down the street when I observed a small group of teenagers. As they walked down the street they each had their handheld devices and were actively texting-each other. It drove home how reliant we have become on technology for communication and connection. For example, we no longer hand write letters we just text or send emails. Even though I was born before the invention of both the cell phone and Internet, I am by no means a Luddite. In many cases I have been an early adopter of technology that makes our lives easier. And while the world has grown considerably smaller and we can now remain connected globally, it seems we are remaining connected in an age of disconnected interaction.

This highlights the importance of practicing martial arts in such an age even though it may seem anachronistic. It is important to be in a tech free environment like a dojo, on a regular basis. Its important to have actual interactions,where social skills and the art of conversation and dialogue are required. Its important to connect to others on differing levels as you train together. Practicing a martial art also puts you in touch with history. In many cases, the art you are practicing is decades if not centuries old. It is transformative to be a living part of history. It makes me realize that I am part of a group of people who felt that the art I am practicing was worth preserving. That there were many before me and if I am diligent in the transmitting of what I have learned, there will be many after me.

This is what it means to be truly connected, to be part of something that is larger than you. To be the catalyst of transformation for others, one at a time. There are many times we don't see the scale of what we are doing and how many people we have impacted until way after the fact. In many cases we may not see the entire scope because it can transcend our lifetime. However, it is important for us, in our quest to be connected that we not lose sight of daring to take on those endeavors that are larger than us, than any one person. Immersed this way we can always remain connected.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body

Sensei Orlando

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Training and Deferred Gratification

We live in a era of instant gratification, so it's something of a paradox to practice something that has no immediate outward manifestation of achievement. When I am asked
"How long will it take until I get my black belt?" A few things come to mind. First of all my impression is that the person is not very serious about training if that is the first question. Those of us who do train understand that achieving the rank of shodan, or first degree black belt is really only the beginning of training. The next thought that surfaces is that the person in question has not absorbed the lesson of deferred gratification and is simply looking for a symbol of status.

Most martial arts are long arduous expressions of countless repetitions done over a long period of time. If you do not internalize the concept of deferred gratification you can quickly become frustrated and disillusioned that your progress is taking so long. This way of being usually comes from not understanding that to embark on the path of training, you have to learn to measure achievements in the span of years and decades.

So how do we learn to incorporate deferred gratification into our training? One way we do it is by not rushing through the ranks. If you allow the student to progress through the ranks at a measured pace, not looking to the next rank but trying to learn everything that is available to him or her at the current rank, the focus becomes less an attitude of "what's next?" and more an acceptance of "what do I need to work on now?"

Not every school adopts this philosophy, which on occasion leads to getting black belts in 2 years, or 8 yr old black belts. If that works for a specific school, that is their prerogative. In our school it takes quite some time to achieve a high rank, not because we feel it should take a long time, but because other aspects of the character need to be molded, prepared and reach maturity before the responsibility of a black belt is given.

So how should you approach your training? In the moment, cognizant of the fact that a minute is made up of seconds, hours of minutes, days of hours, months of days, and years of months. When you approach your training like this, time becomes irrelevant.

strong spirit, strong mind, strong body
Sensei Orlando

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Why not Ichidan?

The term shodan literally means beginning degree, as opposed to the term ichidan which would be translated as first degree. It is a term used to describe the lowest rank of black belt in most modern japanese martial arts. The question I always asked myself was; why isn't this rank called ichidan? It would be the most appropriate form of address for the first degree rank. Shodan implies that all the basics of the style have been mastered.

What was expressed to me by my sensei when I asked this question was, that once I reached this rank then I was ready to begin training in earnest, hence the name beginning degree. Let’s look at this for a moment. What I was told in essence was that all of the kyu up to and before black belt were basically preparation for the real training that would start once I reached first degree. It did not sit well with me at the time of this revelation that I would invest years of my life only to be called a beginner after attaining my black belt. However, it is typical of many martial arts, that the real training begins after years of learning basics. The problem (which I didn't see at the time) was that I was approaching my training with a western mentality. I figured, in my youth and with ample doses of hubris, that once I attained the rank of shodan that I would have arrived, right? That upon attaining my shodan some mystical black belt prowess would be conferred upon me and I would have reached IT, the summit.

It was a rude awakening after my shodan promotion. I discovered firstly, no mystical transference of powers took place, much to my chagrin. Then the realization hit me, as a shodan I was expected to train harder, longer, and with more intensity than the kyu who came after me. I was expected to be a model to those who came after me, no longer was I given special consideration; the kid gloves were off, revealing the rock hard fists of serious training. Everything radically shifted overnight. The classes were longer and harder. The only word that comes to mind is grueling. When there was any question in our eyes (it would never dare escape our lips) the only explanation given was, you are shodan now, time to really train. So what were the previous years about getting to this point? Preparation.

The term is shodan because the mindset required at this stage of training is that of a beginner. You have prepared for however long it took you to get here, and now you are ready to truly train. In our school, for a few months before the actual shodan promotion takes place, the student must don a white belt again. This is not a demotion (how can you demote years of training?), but rather a symbolic gesture that prepares the student for the transition to begin yet again. Even though there is a white belt around the waist, the body does not lie. I have had the privilege to wear a white belt in other martial arts. I get questioned during class as to what I have studied before, because it’s apparent. The purpose of the white belt is to tie the belt around the students mind, that no matter the actual belt being tied around the waist, we are always just beginners.

I eventually embraced being shodan. I don't think I would be where I am if I had not. I was recently informed by a Hachidan (8th degree) who has been teaching longer than I have been alive, that out of every thousand people, one makes it to shodan. I would add that the numbers of those who progress past shodan are just as small, because many become disheartened to learn that black belt is not the summit but rather the base of the mountain. What about all the ranks that preceded shodan? Those are the paths that lead you to the mountain.

Stay on the path, the mountain is usually just around the next bend.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Sensei Orlando

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Reverting to Simplicity

I was walking down the sidewalk with my youngest son when he taught me a wonderful lesson. I was occupied in getting to our destination when he stopped. It was fall and the sidewalk was inundated with fallen leaves. He looked down at the multitude of leaves surrounding him, bent down and picked up two. One for me and one for his mommy. I asked him why he didn't pick one for himself, and he showed me his pocket, which contained an assortment of leaves, acorns and other assorted "treasures". Evidently he was much wealthier than I in the leaf department. What I learned from this seemingly innocent exchange is that I (like many of us) can get caught up in all the "extras" of life and overlook the simple treasures that surround us.

Some of the greatest pleasures in life are the simplest, a good book vs. one thousand channels. Water over the next super powered drink. Taking a walk as opposed to driving everywhere. The list is quite extensive. We have managed to surround ourselves with so much that we can literally be in a cocoon from life. How many of us have sat down next to our spouses or partners, watched a movie, but not actually speak with each other? In the larger scheme of things which would you weigh as more important, the movie or a great conversation with the person you have chosen to spend your life with.

Yet each day we are constantly rushing and moving towards, always towards something. So much so that we lose the moment we are in. In our training we have to, by nature of the training embrace the simple. Initially we learn the basics and it seems like a daunting task. After the basics are learned, the more advanced techniques are taught, what students learn is that the advanced techniques are built upon the basic simple ones. You must always revert to simplicity.

In our lives this is a worthwhile pursuit, instead of making our lives about the attainment of material things; let's pare down what exists so we can appreciate the intangibles.

It is now winter, and there are no leaves on the sidewalk, but I still appreciate the one my son stopped to collect so that I can have a reminder to do the same- stop every so often and let loose my sense of wonder.

Live simply.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body

Sensei Orlando

Friday, January 21, 2011

Why wear a gi?

A few months ago I was a teaching a children's class when a comment was made to me. The context for the comment was regarding the expediency of getting the children dressed quickly to maximize their training time. The comment went something like “They don't really need to dress in their uniforms, I mean I know it looks cool, but it’s taking long and it’s not about looks." I'm paraphrasing and recalling to the best of my ability. At the time, I didn't lend the statement much weight (I was trying to get a large class in limited time), but the comment stayed with me for some reason. I started to go over why we wear Dogi or Gi for short.

I researched the history of the gi and found that it had originated with judo founder Jigoro Kano, in addition to a multitude of facts. Everything I found still didn't answer the fundamental question as to why we wear these items of clothing. Was it tradition? What about all the arts that now sport many different colored gi? Are they somehow inferior because they have opted to wear a different color? To this day, I have not found the ability of any martial art practitioner to be contained in the gi, white or otherwise.

So why wear it?
Part of it is tradition; I enjoy wearing a simple white gi. Notwithstanding all the symbolism about white being a color of purity, I have always preferred a white gi. In practical terms, it’s not actually the best color if you are engaged in hard training that involves blood and sweat. It requires another level of diligence on the part of the student in terms of your training - hygiene (no one enjoys training next to an unwashed gi for long).

The other part is that it is unpretentious and I really prefer simplicity. It took some time, but I came to an answer that satisfied my question. As I observed classes filled with students wearing their gi, I found that on the dojo floor we are all the same. When we don a gi we are leaving the outside world, outside. In a very real sense, it’s a ritual we perform when we put on our gi. We are preparing to face ourselves, our shortcomings, insecurities, faults and strengths. It is a physical act that prepares us for a mental shift. I have witnessed the transformation that occurs when a beginner dons a uniform. They may feel uncertain and unsure initially, but they are dressed the same way everyone else is with no difference, and over a short time are comfortable with the multitude of techniques they are being exposed to. The actual word dogi means "way clothes" and it’s what we wear on the path to self perfection.

In regards to the variety of colors and hues now available for gi, I have always felt that changing the uniform severs our links to the time and culture in which our arts were founded. From what I have seen and what has been shared with me, the norm in most Japanese dojos is austere and simple. You don’t see walls covered in trophies, flags, posters or other distractions. I personally find the gi with the flash and multitude of patches to be garish and uncalled for. Let your techniques and bearing speak for you, not your gi.

The gi we wear is a symbol of unity. On the dojo floor, there is no status - only rank. We all train together, sweat together and grow together, irrespective of how much or how little we make, what we do or do not own, or what position we may have in our jobs or careers. On the dojo floor we all share the common trait of the pursuit of self perfection. One of my senior students shared a profound insight with me recently - The dojo is one of the only places where you can just be. Much of that freedom is provided by wearing a garment that initially, appears to suppress your individuality. What you discover over time, is that free from the constraints of external expression you are capable of a deeper form of expression that is not dependent on what you are wearing.

Now when I'm asked by a prospective student "Do I have to train in a uniform?" My simple answer is-yes, you do.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body

Sensei Orlando