Sunday, February 24, 2008

Doing Simple Things

I’ve always placed a lot of emphasis on doing simple things in my martial art practice. It comes from my Kenpo teacher, Al Thomas, who taught that complicated techniques were nothing more than longer combinations of simple things. Master those elements, and the whole comes together better.

As beginners all we can see is the gross form of something, and we need to create a structure within which to work. As we develop and acquire breadth, though, there are fewer and fewer new structures to build. Rather we develop depth through developing control of smaller details, polishing what we have.

Consequently, my job as taskmaster is to insist students go back and figure out what I showed them to prove they understood the concept. Sometimes I’ll scold them by saying “You’re paying me for my knowledge, so why aren’t you paying attention?!”

It gets frustrating at times, as a teacher, to see that other people don’t grasp this. Sometimes I show a very specific move I want practiced, then I’ll turn my back for even just a few seconds, and when I look back guys are already experimenting with variations or even completely different moves.

Recently I thought of this analogy, that a technique is like a car’s engine. There can be a lot of moving parts, but if only one of them screws up, the whole thing might fail. Things like precision and accuracy in timing and motion get honed by conscious repetition, paying attention to consistent efficiency. The payoff can mean success under stress.

A personal example of that comes from my old Kenpo days. I was a brown belt, sparring against a green belt named Eric to help him prepare for a tournament. Eric was about 6’1” tall, 220 lbs, a deep chested physically fit lineman for a utility company who won trophies as a black belt in point and semi-contact competition. I was his tune-up, but facing him I felt like more like tuna.

On our first face-off, I beat him with a quick and unexpected jab. He looked like he expected to box and I caught him by surprise, a lucky shot. The next point was more of a setup, faking him and then catching him with a backfist on the reverse.

Now Eric was angry. As we squared off I could see the flames in his eyes and thought “this is it; what will I do?” I swear I remember thinking of the old story of the monk who offended a samurai.

Not wanting to dishonor his sword by simply killing the man outright, the samurai told the monk he had three days to prepare for a duel. The poor monk, distraught, sought out a local fencing master who took one look at the monk’s lack of skill and said “Just hold your sword over your head like so, close your eyes, and when you feel “coolness”, strike!”

All the monk did for those three days was practice standing and meditating on feeling coolness. When the time came for the duel, the two faced off and the monk did as he had been instructed, expecting to die at any second. A few moments ticked off, then a few more, and finally he opened his eyes to see the samurai bow to him and say “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were a master!” and then stride away. By concentrating so fully, the monk (or a tea master in some versions) attained a state of grace which was impenetrable, and the samurai recognized the power of such commitment to a single moment.

Well, Eric was not about to stride away, but my commitment to the next moment was absolute. As soon as our teacher shouted “Hajime!” and Eric started forward, I through the straightest, strongest, most single-minded right punch of my life, powered by a kiai that shouted I had nothing to lose.

The punch caught Eric square in the center of his chest. His legs kept churning towards me; his upper body stopped cold, and an instant later he was flat on his back, both of us in disbelief.

Our teacher called “Point!” and every hand in the room except one pointed to me. The last student crossed hands and said “I couldn’t see it because of my angle.” The teacher burst out laughing, saying “When someone goes down like that, it’s a POINT!” Everyone started laughing, the tension was broken, and Eric, as I recall, went on to do well in that weekend’s tournament.

The point is this – back then in our training we threw thousands and thousands of punches. Every day we’d do hundreds, in horse stances, side stances, hitting the heavy bag, hitting each other. Classes would last up to a couple of hours, and we’d punch and kick until we felt our limbs would fall off and there was no choice but to be efficient, because we were too tired to put anything extra into our movement. Thus when the moment came, the body was primed to act; the mind said go, and so it was done.

Beyond that moment, though, are the many attributes one gains to get there, and these are the things that we can apply to daily life, as most of us aren’t required to punch our way out of many situations. We learn to persevere, to endure the effort to reach our goals. We develop stamina to work harder, and efficiency to succeed with less expenditure of energy. These are not just characterizations of physical movement, but qualities of the mind that foster determination and courage. We learn to stay calm through patience and to act decisively when necessary. We become observers of the human condition, both our own and of others, and so develop appropriateness of action.

Like that punch, our qualities of wisdom await the right moment to act. To the unprepared, the unknown can be overwhelming, while those who have developed their inner resources will always have that strength to sustain them. Lately I’ve been dealing with my mother’s death, the passing of the matriarch of our family. Such occurrences often upset equilibriums, changing the balance of relationships between family members. No matter how one might prepare, the reality remains a challenge, and I’ve found my ability to remain centered has been a great attribute not only to myself but others around me as well. People react to stress by feeling stressed themselves; it can be contagious. Conversely, having a place to feel secure can allow problems to simply be what they are, without necessarily becoming overwhelming.

No one becomes a black belt or escrimador overnight, and looking at the whole process taking years can be daunting. However, when we approach things one step at a time, just taking on what needs to be done next, things are more manageable. Remember to breath and relax; tension isn’t going to help. As the old saying goes, “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water ….”

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