Quiet the Mind & Let the Body Speak


In many  blog posts, essays, and Facebook entries of people I follow on the Internet there is the recurring theme about just what does a person get out of practicing the martial arts if they were to name one, two or three things. They run the gamut from the martial to the spiritual, or both, the budo, the warrior, the samurai creed, the bubishi, this teacher, that sensei, zen, out-of –the box, body-mind-spirit, and so on and so forth. All true. The bottom line is that no one who practices any martial art is ever the same. This transformation–sometimes called the path, the way–is very typical of the martial arts experience and pretty much its overriding virtue.

The very first thing I newly experienced when I began was that I must quiet the mind and let the body speak. That was the first and everlasting hurdle to understanding the martial arts experience. The body has a language that the mind must learn to listen to. The body instructs the mind in this language. That is why the emphasis on the no mind: the don’t think but do. Somewhere along that path the mind learns to dialogue with the body in the silence of doing. It is not as effortless as it seems. Just the opposite. It is constant struggle to work out a middle ground. The mind meets the body in stillness and movement, in rituals of breathing, focus, and rooting.

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.

All else–the hateful comparisons of just what is the truer manifestation of the art, who’s the prince or the jester, the saint or the fool, is the mind in the hall of mirrors.
Sports are the vanities of youth, only arts permit aging. A person practices his martial art from the workplace to the lover’s bed, and all place in between. A martial artist is not a blowhard, but he who derives meaning from the doing of his art. As a martial artist ages, his art ages with him. It will be an art full of gaps and holes, in tatters, but yours. It will be you.

In sum, a martial art is learning defeat with style. The ultimate kata or form is learning how to die. To live and die with style, with meaning, with humbleness and awe. 

Old foes once, body and mind are in step on the path of time.

The spirit soars.


“The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of Defeat”

“Training in serious fighting arts will always have elements of both hardness and hardship.” Dan Djurdjevic    

One thing that has always struck me when I watch sport documentaries is the fact that many elite athletes abandon their “art” once they retire from their given sport. This is not always the case but it is prevalent enough to be considered a given. They practice religiously from their youth to their mid-30’s, retire and that’s it. They hang up their gloves, take off their track shoes, throw down the bat, doff their hats, and….

Professional sports demand a discipline, sacrifice, and commitment that not all are willing to assume. Many of our favorite athletes reach a pinnacle of performance that we see as either art or magic. They do unbelievable things that both inspire and hold us in awe. Yet when the curve of their performance begins to wobble we jeer and demand that they be sent out to pasture, stop practicing that for which they sacrificed their lives. Sport as spectacle demands new blood. You are only as good as your last game.
Many athletic endeavors demand the stamina of youth for their performance. Competition demands better clock times, a .350 lifetime average, more on the win column that in the lost column. You are either better than the rest or you are nothing, a loser. No wonder that many when they retire stop practicing their “art.” Their art was tied to competition, to winning either their opponent or ever surpassing their own records. Their art was tied to the roar of the crowd.

Of course, this can be said about literally anything our society puts a monetary value on. Money demands marketable results. As of late, the martial arts have also come to be judged by these sports-like demands on marketable skills: Do you have what it takes to make it in the Mixed Martial Arts. If not, your martial art is not only unmarketable but phony.
So reading Dan Djurdjevic’s essay, Yin and yang: vulnerability, worry and martialarts” I got to thinking about whether the “hardness” and “hardship” endured in my personal capacity had the desired results. But then we have to define “results.” Did I obtain the skills to enter the ring with the MMA greats? Did it expand my cash flow? Was I able to retire gracefully amid the roar of the crowd? Obviously Dan did not have this in mind.

 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.


Do You Believe in Magic: Can you Read Intent?

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.