Fade to Black

Don’t use the karategis anymore. They hang together like ghosts in the closet. Don’t use the obi either.

At a 45ยบ angle, the invisible dojo lies over the living room floor. Silently at night in darkness I do the Goju katas as I was taught, in the background Pandora plays selections from the Buddha Bells channel.

The guy to the left in this old faded photo from the late ‘60’s or early ‘70’s is my last karate sensei long before I knew him, when barely an adolescent, when he  practiced Isshinryu karate at a local military base, Buchanan. More than 50 years have passed. Because time does pass. And not in vain.

Don’t know if I do the katas right anymore, there is no mirror to correct myself. There is no one else telling me to slow down or turn this way or that. It is only me, my head, my body that tries to teach itself. Feeling my way through the katas, feeling them change, feeling myself change, but

not knowing exactly how. It is all feeling, breathing, and stepping. The music plays on.

A faded photo lost to time, barely discernible. Creased and white and threadbare as a sensei’s obi. Sai to neck, cat stance. Sensei Acosta has been practicing karate since his early teens. Last time I saw him in the dojo he was sipping lukewarm green tea and holding  his bamboo stick. Last time I saw him on the street he was smoking a sad cigarette and sipping black coffee. He does Thai massage. He gets by. He says he no longer goes to dojo. He says. Mean, motherfucking samurai.

Some still practice. Some still go to dojo. Some now have garden dojo like the old Okinawa teachers. All that is fine. Some only sweat when they go to a seminar every two years. Some tell old dojo yarns across a table full of beer bottles. Some look at their old dojo photos and reminisce. All this is fine. Everyone has paid their dues.

But Karate goes underground for some. I don’t do kumite anymore. Just the katas like an endless dream. Been years since I touched my toes, ages since I felt a blow. Yet the body moves in tandem with the kata in a darkened room, and somewhere in the pot belly something tenses then relaxes in Sanchin. Practice for that one sure blow or kick. Do the kata of hidden intentions. There is no time for fancy footwork. Laugh at myself as I slip further away from any hope of perfection. The music plays on.

Fade to black.


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.


Ego & Kata

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


The Longest Kata

It has no name. It is not taught. It has only one practitioner. It is a fluid flow of movement or stillness. Its opening stance is lost, but felt. Its different positions are hardly discernible. Once begun it goes on its own volition indivisible from the tapestry of the everyday. Breath and light merge and come apart. There is laughter and tears, loss and discovery but no one can yet distinguish the vectors where they cross and evanesce .Its last stance is a plume in the wind.


A Last Stand

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.