Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Friday, September 30, 2011
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
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.
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
Friday, July 15, 2011
Monday, June 27, 2011
Friday, June 10, 2011
Thursday, May 19, 2011
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
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
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
Thursday, March 10, 2011
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
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
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
Thursday, January 27, 2011
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.
strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Friday, January 21, 2011
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