I want to be as honest as I can about this. I was always interested in martial arts. As a young kid, I borrowed a book from the library about judo. I sifted through a few pages, even flopped on the ground a few times trying to follow the pictures. This initial foray didn’t last long. Somewhat bruised from the hard floor I gave up and didn’t pursue it again for thirty years. Here’s another of the honest parts: I wanted to learn martial arts to acquire the skills to beat the tar out of someone. This exposes a kind of ying and yang in my personality because I am at heart a collaborative, peaceful, empathetic person. But, somewhere inside, the house cat wanted to be a, well … bigger cat, at least.
Anyway, fast forward several decades. I’m working out in the old weight room of the Lake Forest Recreation Center. Because I have a tendency to chat rather than work-out, I get to know my fellow sufferers. One such wore white pants and a T-shirt. It wasn’t long before I had introduced myself to the Chief Instructor of the recreation department’s karate program, Frank Chrzanowski. I’m not sure what I expected a karate instructor to look like. Frank was (and is) a friendly, exceedingly polite and thoughtful individual. I suppose I envisioned a more steely eyed, threatening demeanor. One thing did strike me, and I know now it wasn’t my imagination. There’s a switch, of sorts, always ready to be flipped. It’s not visible to the eye, but it’s there. I knew I had met someone who could defend himself and I wanted to learn what he knew.
It’s been twenty some-odd years since. In reflecting on those early days I realize I was a difficult student – nothing new here to which my first grade teacher couldn’t attest. The teaching of Shotokan Karate requires the conveyance of a curriculum. The Dojo is the classroom. Students possess varying degrees of aptitudes, both physical and mental. I just happened to be long on the first and short on the second. I am of the opinion that girls learn best with positive reinforcement and encouragement, while boys are best suited to the swift end of a two by four (figuratively, of course). And, applied to me, it’s how I got past the early years. But, let me be clear, the right learning environment needs a deep well of patience on the part of the instructor and, from him, a genuine fondness and respect for his students.
The Dojo is a no-nonsense place; your ego is left at the door. When you enter, you are in the domain of the Sensei – the teacher. When class begins you are expected to give complete attention and 100% effort. Less than that will be called out. And, there is no escaping the critical eye of the Sensei. He sees all.
So, what have I learned? First, is how little I knew of the mind-body connection. It is truly the case that absent self-discipline, learning cannot progress. I have seen this over and over, particularly among the teenagers. Repetition aids learning. Correcting errors requires discipline. Those who advance with the greatest ease are those who control their minds and hence their behavior. Each repetition of kata (a memorized sequence of punches, kicks and blocks) is an opportunity to learn and to correct errors. The process of correcting errors (some of which, by the way, are behavioral or attitudinal) teaches discipline. As for all matters in life, some students are better at it than others. But, hard work pays-off. Take me, as an example. As I look at myself from the lofty perch of almost six decades I realize how little self-control I possessed as a youngster of 40. I was all over the place. I needed to learn how to focus. One of the surprises of training in karate is that I did. And, I needed to. Discipline and focus became the fertile ground for the learning that subsequently took place but would not have, absent it.
Here’s another of the big surprises: One of the first lessons of mental discipline is respect: respect for the teacher, for the Dojo, for other students and for yourself. Mental discipline learned in karate can be extrapolated beyond the Dojo. It applies to school, work, relationships, you name it: wherever unleashed emotions can inhibit good decision-making.
Allow me to expand just a bit on this. In the context of karate, as I’ve learned it, discipline involves facing one’s fears and, as we put it, “sacrificing our body” for the greater opportunity. So, in a fight, we’re willing to take a punch in order to deliver one more devastating. It’s a calculation, a risk we take, but one for which we have prepared. Ultimately, all our training is focused on application or the act of self-defense. Underlying the practical aspects of karate is an equally important lesson. It’s the mental sequence implicit in self-defense. Does this sound familiar?
- Awareness of the situation
- Assessment and analysis of response options
- Decision as to the proper response
Indeed it is the core of the decision-making process used in business, law, science and virtually any other undertaking. That it is so important in our curriculum is not a coincidence.
So, I’ve told you a little about myself and how I see the study of martial arts. Let me tell you about the children I’ve seen over the years. For many (but, truthfully, not all) the study of karate has been transformative. It’s altered the life path of these kids. For some, those with cognitive or other disabilities, karate can be an activity in which they experience success without an asterisk. Our classroom is not intended to make world champions. It’s to teach self-defense. Understanding what-it-takes is available to a broad spectrum of people. Of course, some do it better than others. The point is that even at the bottom of the spectrum there exists the possibility, in fact the high probability, the student will acquire the mind-body connection to resist the bad intentions of others. That the physical skills learned will ever be used is unknown and, let’s hope, unlikely. Not so the mental ones. They are likely to be used every day. As a beginner, invoking the lessons of karate is a conscious affair. Over time, it comes out naturally. The young teenagers who have been training for years, you can see it in their eyes.
Not all the kids make black belt. Most don’t. And if they don’t, they are still successful if they take from karate what they can use. Some make it all the way, a joyful event in the Dojo. Every higher belt is called upon to teach every lower belt. So, as an old black belt welcoming the newest, I am as aware of the contribution I’ve made to his or her education as I am of the lessons imparted to me by those who came before. There’s a lot of teaching that goes on inside the Dojo.
It is a great honor to spar with the Sensei. This afternoon was one of those occasions. In a way, this is an “advanced class”. Sensei is always teaching. Although it appears to be free-form, there’s a protocol to which I must adhere. Brawling is discouraged – anyone can do that. As unlikely as it seems, I’ve discovered a tendency in my teacher’s defense I can exploit. But, the opening doesn’t last long. The Sensei is as eager to learn as I am. We spend an hour exchanging punches and kicks, first using distance-timing strategy, then close-in fighting. Each of us is able to simulate fighting without doing damage to the other. This is the pinnacle of martial arts, what I’ve trained for and the highlight of my week. I am engaged in an act of self-defense using skills learned over many years. And, although I’m sure to feel every muscle in the morning, I’ll be ready to go again if Sensei calls.