It begins with a teacher, students, a designated place, the basics, the abc’s, the formalities, the ceremonies, the history of those that went before, the eternal circle of learning, the legends, the myths: the style. It begins amidst a crowd and ends in the loneliest spot on earth: yourself.
Can I consider myself a martial artist and yet have no tangible material results as a consequence thereof? Can all the “hardness” and “hardship” endured to master the katas have a timetable? How can I measure my “success?” Am I over the hill?
As my body goes, so goes the kata. The ideal kata in the brain can only be seen with the heart as the body wobbles in between. But at least I got that, I got the katas, katas which I practice with more fervor now than when young; even though with less formal decorum the youthful intention is there.
The Eros and Thanatos are still at odds, yet the art remains. This I suppose is the art in the mix. An art is not a sport, it is a lifestyle, a way to see the world. It is not how you perform but what you are. Therein lies the hardness and the hardship, the “no-free-lunchiness” of it all: life.
That which before our eyes defies logic astounds. When one cannot connect the dots from here to there and effect is without apparent cause what can fill the vacuum of understanding?
As anyone who has bandied around dojos for a better part of their lives can attest, strange things do happen, in passing, reality’s slights of hand; now you see it, now you don’t. I got to thinking about the “magical” aspects recently after reading Dan Djurdjevic’s article “Legend and the Martial Arts.” Like Dan, I also had a sort of magical seduction into the practice of the art. In my case it was the old Kung Fu series with Carradine. Of course, the seduction was short-lived; sweat, pain and frustration pretty much wrung it out, yet a lingering feeling of doing something out of the ordinary still persisted, there was always something “invisible” at play, if just for seconds at a time. It’s what keeps one going at it, that unknowable quality that promises to transport one out of one’s limitations, defy gravity, spin in space. The stuff that legends are made of.
I’ve never been able to appreciate the legendary and folkloric backdrop of the Chinese martial arts movies because my grasp of that culture is weak at best. At most, I’m mesmerized by the fluid technique and the spectacle. But I must confess that I am put off by the “supernatural explanations” although I cannot totally ignore the possibility of magic at play. And, of course, I fully acknowledge the fact that many practitioners and lay persons truly believe that this is where it’s at: that the true practice lies in attaining this magical power to defy the laws of physics. Many is the person who knowing that I practice karate has asked me if I am capable of doing all they saw in Crouching Tiger, Kill Bill, or any of the Bruce Lee movies, knowing full well that I can’t. It’s a pro forma way of saying that, ergo, I’m not really a martial artist. Where’s the magic?
Yet there are ineffable things in the marital arts and to deny them would be stupid and contrary to the very training you receive. And many of these ineffable things permeate the whole martial arts experience, but in very subtle ways, sometimes imperceptible. As Dan very well states, many of the uncanny techniques only seem so at first glance, the results of years of practice until the dots seems to disappear and only the results remain. The many years of kata, meditation, kumite and the like do have their effect of one’s perception of reality, how one receives it through the senses, digests it and responds. And this can transpire in seconds, hence the magical, the seeming slights of hand that are actually the product of endless hours, days and years of practice and the attendant honing of technique.
This can give way to myth and exaggeration and as a karateca I have also partaken of extending dojo legends and the occasional tall tale to make a point. But like all tall tales they carry a kernel of truth. And so we have the Sensei who can levitate his Johnson to evade the agonizing kick in the groin, the guy you kicked and felt his flesh yield like putty, the lad who experienced a spiritual transformation when touched by a teacher during a Sanchin testing, the third eye that saved one from being blindsided. All these are metaphorical explanations for very honed techniques born out of years of practice.
Can you read intent?
Can you know what the other person is planning to do in a combat situation or one where your life is clearly in danger? Can this be perceived from the faintest of evidence or total lack thereof? Years of practice develops a radar and nose for the harmful intentions of others towards your person. Can one literally smell trouble coming one’s way? All practice of martial arts, in my opinion, leads to this conundrum. But talking about it seems speculative, conjectural, eerily magical, yet it’s there. It can hardly be put into words. It can barely be suggested. And to take it a step forward, can one know it before it manifests itself even to the doer? Magic, right?
No one who has been practicing a martial art for a considerable span of time can say it has not altered their view of themselves and the world and how they approach reality and how they let reality approach them. No one who is truly a martial artist ever ceases to be one, practice or not. Much like any art, it molds its practitioners, making them move a certain way that always leads them back to the art itself. And you don’t have to be great at it; a third rate poet is still a poet, still wants to write that poem that has always eluded him or her whether he or she is capable or not, because that’s what art does, it transforms and tattoos their very soul. Anything else falls short of being art. These comings and goings are sure to spawn yarns, weave metaphors, exact similes. But what if at their very core they’re true, these legends, these tall tales we tell others and ourselves? I’m not talking about the flights through the air, the spinning kick that vanquishes three score and ten assailants, travel through the cracks of seamless time.
I’m talking about the natural magic of life as it unfolds around you, that seeks you ear on a darkened street, that beckons your eyes in a crowd. I’m talking about the martial art that teaches you not to take anything for granted in what you see before you, or better yet, what you cannot see but only sense. The intent of the other. Where is it going, what can I do or what should I do?
The many years of practice puts you before many people: short and tall, experienced and novice, male and female, fast and slow. Body language. Smiling, angry, stone-faced, open, misleading, readable. Each a book to be read and understood and filed away. These people move towards you and away. Someone can have you in their sights from an overhead window, or bump into you on the street. You don’t have to be in a movie to be killed. Then you have yourself, aging through the maze, clutching at straws, doing Sanchin on a fast moving train to nowhere. But where do you train this? I’ve just said.
You train to pull the rabbit out of the hat, whether there is a rabbit or not. That’s the magic.
One of the riskiest things of practicing solo is navigating between the ego and the kata. There is no reason why you should be doing the katas except that you want to do them for reasons that shift as whimsically as the sands in the desert, and since no one is around to verify that you’re doing them except yourself, you are your only witness and judge.
If you are in a dojo what you do is in the hands of the sensei. You surrender to his or her whimsy. You can perform out of ego, fear, pride or conformity. You survive as part of a choral ensemble. You can mouth the kata in silence, no one is the wiser.
But you’re alone. Alone in a small space. You are priest and acolyte. And all around the ego multiplies like crabgrass. And you try to forget about yourself for the duration of the rosary bead of katas you’ve chosen for that night’s ritual of movement.Fat chance
A photo of “my Dojo” would show a small, over-crowded living room with barely any space to move, much less do katas. Should I dare call it “my Dojo” or just the space where I practice? No Kamidana or other Dojo trimmings. Truly a dojo of the mind, if not despair or need. Or just the way things are.
As I drifted from my last Dojo I used the terrace, a cement concoction outside my kitchen door and overlooking the street. Used it to practice for awhile when I still harbored the belief that this practicing solo was just a temporary solution; that somehow I would find my way back to a “real” Dojo. It was to be a complement to the dojo. When it became apparent that I would never definitely go back to a formal Dojo, I began to practice in the terrace more or less formally; mimicking or mirroring what my formal Dojo sessions were. The whole enchilada. But, of course, alone.
But the terrace proved a problem in more ways than one. Weather, peering neighbors, the accidental cement floor with its occasional pebbles, nails, and slipperiness were all factors in my abandoning it eventually, but the real clincher was something more intangible: energy. The old “chi” kicked in. I was beginning to hurt internally: dizziness, cramps out of the blue, palpitations, etc. I just could not harness the Chi, could not prevent it from dispersing into the night or boomeranging back into me like a wallop, a spiritual and physical thrashing of the senses.
Then I remembered what I heard about practicing solo and with a group. How the group can absorb the excess energy or carry you through a session. How practicing alone one runs the risk of not being able to manage the energy fields around you, especially if you practice as if you were in a full Dojo. So eventually I went indoors.
Mapping the space available was at first a challenge. Laying out the katas so I wouldn’t bump into everything took me a while. Learning how to practice also took a period of trial and error.
I recalled the anecdote of a former Sensei when he was forced to learn a kata from a Master in the confines on his tiny studio apartment, how they had to learn the kata in segments. I was not as confined or constricted but it also posed a problem that I resolved by designing a session suited to the space, my condition, and my age.
It has all been a process of continuous adjustments. I am now fully integrated to this sort of karate practice and Dojo practice is what seems foreign to me. There is nothing on the walls or floor that demarcates the area as my practice zone. I just move one piece of furniture. I dim the lights and put some instrumental mood music. I practice kata and some light stretching and breathing exercises. Sometimes I also include punching and kicking drills, but rarely. I usually only do katas.
What brought me to this was not choice but circumstance. It is not a door I walked through of my own volition. It is a last ditch effort, a foxhole carved out of what is available, a last stand.