The true fruits of practicing martial arts are long term. One has to be in it for the long haul. The life of a martial artist is an arc that can only be discerned from afar, from the perspective that only the passage of time can give. In my last post I touched on my own personal awareness of this process in the last stage of my formal dojo experience in Las Cumbres. My good friend Dan Djurdjevic commented on the bucket v. thimble paradigm of energy that every martial artist confronts as the years pile on. Dan is a true and serious martial artist with a lifetime of continuous commitment to the study and practice of the martial arts who has had to overcome myriad obstacles to remain true to an art to which he owes so much. He is a long-term warrior. Dan’s commitment and arc reminded me of a fellow karateca and senior black belt in the Las Cumbres Dojo: Ángel Santana.
Ángel exemplified all that was good about Goju-Ryu, all that a Goju karateca could achieve through the continuous and profound practice of Goju (which can also be said of the commitment to any serious martial art). When I met him, Ángel had well over 20 years experience as a black belt, more than 30 practicing Goju, as far back as Ochoa when he was a university student. The point here is that this practice of karate was continuous. He never took a sabbatical from the dojo, never strayed from the path. By the time I met him he was no spring chicken. Ángel was not in the dojo per se for class, but he was a hovering presence of “old-school” karate training in the flesh … and spirit. Professional and family commitments did not allow him to go to a formal dojo session every day, and yet he found time to practice every day. This was obvious in the impeccable execution, relentless energy, and unyielding martial spirit he displayed when he did come an hour before class to practice solo. He was one of the founders of the Las Cumbres Dojo and one of the financial supporters of that old wooden structure atop a hardware store in the outskirts of San Juan. The dojo was, in a manner of speaking, his other home.
Ángel defied the passage of time. I remember now sitting sweating on a bench with other black belts watching how he did ten-step pushups with the ease of a teenage Chinese gymnast. He could do more of these heart-wrenching pushups that anyone there, young or old, and did so after practicing katas and doing drills without rest for an hour or so. Many were the times I saw him running past me up the stairs, still dressed from work in shirt and tie, lugging this huge bag where he carried his assortment of gis, kobudo arms, and whatnot. He’d make the fastest transition from street to dojo that I have ever seen and by the time I sauntered out of the dressing room he had already worked up a sweat. His warm up acceleration was astounding, looking as focused as if he had been at it for an hour instead of the 15 minutes since I saw him going up the stairs. Only years of continuous practice can give this level of performance.
Yet Ángel was the exception, not the rule. There were others with as much time and as much commitment, but not at his level. When he did give a class it was with the same kime he brought to everything, and not from the sidelines barking orders, but from the front leading by example. Ángel was an example of what any young person starting karate could and should aspire to be, physically, morally, and spiritually. But does this mean that if one does not reach his level that one should seriously consider leaving karate, or maybe stepping up the level of practice? Is the “way” of Ángel the only way to be a martial artist? Of course not, and Ángel would be the first person to say so. He believed that karate was basically an individual journey in the company of others.
The acute awareness that martial arts tries to teach us is not only the awareness of danger, of the opponent, or even at the moment of engagement, it is also an awareness of self. Of how one fits into the major scheme of things at any given moment of that arc. Mind you, I say arc, not an ascending straight line. Or forget arc, and think spiral.
I was not Ángel as much as I would have wanted to be. It would be foolhardy to believe that the practice of martial arts has one unbending rule of perfection. The practice of the martial arts is also one of learning to eat humble pie. As my other good friend Shinzen Nelson would say, one cannot go against Nature, but only flow with it.