Monday, May 27, 2013

The Paper

Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist. – Pablo Picasso

                Six years ago, I walked into the martial arts school with my three boys, thinking karate classes might be a fun and character-building activity for them to try.  Little did I know on that day how important the school, the people I would meet, and the martial arts training itself would become in my own life.  I had no idea that I would soon embark on my own journey – one that has transformed me in body, mind, and spirit, and will continue to shape the person, the athlete, and the martial artist I am to be.  In these final days leading up to my test for the rank of 1st Dan black belt, I am reminding myself that this step marks the beginning, not the end, of my real training in the martial arts.  These last four years have been very much about acquiring, memorizing, and more precisely executing my color belt material.  I have only begun to explore the meanings and applications of these forms and techniques, and I look forward to the years of study and practice where this will be my primary aim.  As I make that step, I take with me the lessons and wisdom I have gained from these initial years of my training. 

                JSD is a Korean martial art system which combines Tae Kwon Do (hand and foot way), Hapkido (way of coordinated power), and Yudo (gentle way), into a balanced, versatile study and practice which can be applied in a variety of combat situations.  Weapon training, self-defense, sparring and grappling, meditation and cardiovascular fitness are also elements of our training at our school.  JSD itself means “straight mind way” and its practice is guided by five tenets: Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-control, and Indomitable spirit.  The practice and teaching of these tenets is pervasive throughout students’ time in the dojang, from the way we address each other as “ma’am” or “sir” to the way we push and encourage one another to put forth the best effort possible and not give up. 

                While JSD is certainly martial, in that it teaches us how to defend ourselves or fight an attacker, it is also an art.  The history, honor, and tradition inherent to the study of the martial arts have been a gratifying part of my own training.  The process of learning a form, breaking it down, working to execute each technique properly and understand its purpose, then putting it back together into something seamless and powerful and beautiful to watch takes tremendous discipline and perseverance.  I continue to be amazed at how, after several years of working at this skill, I still struggle with my stances, my timing, the balance between relaxation and power.  Even the most basic form will always need more work, more practice.  For me, the benefit derived from all of this effort and repetition has not been so much the perfection of the form itself, but the incidental training and discipline of the mind, body and spirit that develops along the way, as it has for countless generations of warriors, training in every part of the world. 
                Modern science has its own perspective on this kind of pursuit.  Martial arts training is a prime example of what neuroscience describes as a “flow” activity.  This is best described as a state of optimal experience, doing something for its own sake and not for extrinsic reward.  Engaging in a flow activity requires full concentration and often results in a lack of or decreased awareness of time and self.  The feeling of being fully immersed in a challenging pursuit, being “in the zone,” focused solely on the current moment, engaging every resource in achieving the current goal, has a positive effect on both brain and body, resulting in feelings of well-being, happiness, clear-mindedness, and overall health.  The neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine released during both flow activities and vigorous exercise have powerful motivational and antidepressant effects.  People who regularly engage in a flow activity know all too well how poorly they begin to feel when their routine is disrupted.  No matter how unmotivated or lethargic I feel going into my daily practice, knowing that I will emerge with a boost in these vital neurotransmitters keeps me going back, despite the aches and pains and frustrations that are part of the same package.

                Dealing with frustration has been one of the disciplines I’ve had ample opportunity to practice over the years of my training thus far.  Frequently falling short of my own expectations can be discouraging, to the point that I don’t always recognize real progress that has been made.  During one such discouraging moment, an influential mentor encouraged me to simply “be better.”  After some consideration, it became clear that striving to “be better” – even just a little bit better than last time – each time I do a form or a technique – will eventually lead to more noticeable improvement.  Progress toward a goal in the martial arts, as in life, often happens in the form of tiny, almost imperceptible steps, and occasionally in giant leaps.  Between the leaps are the plateaus; the periods of time where the work continues without much visible improvement.  Moving off a plateau is extremely gratifying when it happens, and developing the patience to continue working at something, even when the progress is not yet obvious, has been a valuable practice for me. 

                Similarly, I’ve had to teach myself not to let the Perfect be the enemy of the Good.  Knowing that there are things I will never do as precisely as I would like, and being at peace with this knowledge and continuing to try regardless, has been a challenge for me.  However, the balance I have needed to find, and still struggle to find, in this aspect of my training has spilled over into other areas of my life.  I find that I have become more accepting of myself and others while still strongly encouraging continued improvement in areas of struggle.  The focus becomes less about being perfect and more about putting forth the best effort possible each time, no matter how long it takes to see the changes. 

                Reading and learning the history and traditions behind much of what we do has added depth and perspective to the day-to-day rituals of classes, conditioning, and outside practice.  Another of the more unexpected pleasures of my training has been taking part in the cleaning and upkeep of our dojang.  For centuries, this has been a mandatory component of a warrior's training, and I have felt honored to participate in this ancient tradition.  This ritual has not only deepened my connection with my fellow students, it also unites me with countless martial artists throughout the centuries who have swept the floors of their own training halls.  The satisfaction of leaving a clean dojang at the end of the night knowing it is fresh and ready for the next day’s classes is an experience I can say I’ve shared with students all over the world going back hundreds of years.

                Given the amount of time devoted to classes, practice, study, and at times, cleaning or helping with the Academy’s Demo and Competition teams, I have struggled to find a balance between this flow activity that has been so good for me in so many ways, and my responsibilities to my home, family, and career.  I am fortunate in the fact that my husband, parents and sons have been willing to make sacrifices in order for me to devote so much time to doing what I love, and I owe so much of this particular milestone to their love and support. 

                Similarly, I would not be where I am now were it not for the tireless support and encouragement of my mentors, teachers, and peers.  The hours spent patiently breaking down and working through a rough spot with me, celebrating movement off a plateau, encouraging and pushing me past my own perceived limits, and accepting nothing less than my best effort, have helped me see myself and my capabilities in a completely different light.  As a result, I have learned to take myself less seriously – and more seriously – in the ways I have needed to. It is my goal to be as much a support to future students when the time comes, and to follow the example that has been set for me.    

                Training in JSD at the martial arts school has changed me in more ways than I can articulate.  I am not the same person I was four (or even two) years ago, and while change is not always easy and there have been growing pains throughout the process, change is necessary and important throughout life in order to avoid stagnation and apathy.  Engaging in a flow activity with the amount of exercise and challenge and social time that I need has made me healthier and happier in so many ways.  I am grateful for every minute of this training, and for every person it has brought into my life.  I look forward to continuing many years into the future and I look at this milestone as a bridge, taking me from learning and memorizing the basics to delving into the meanings and applications and variations of these techniques for a deeper understanding of all there is to appreciate about JSD and the martial arts in general. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

I Need to Write a Paper

... and I'm procrastinating.  I started this thing a month ago, then set it aside, and now it's due and I've hardly written anything.

My black belt test is scheduled for two weeks from this morning.  It was my intention to have my application, testing fee - and paper - turned in by today, but alas, still no paper.

The Master said it was okay to turn it in whenever it's ready, but I am determined that this will be Monday at the latest.  I just need to buckle down and do it.

Part of the obstacle is that I want to prepare something that will do justice to the last 4 years of my life, and the way that my martial arts study and practice has transformed me in mind, body and spirit.

Words fail.


I have no idea of where to even begin.  I've thought of going back over the years of blog posts on the subject, where I have only scratched the surface of the joys and struggles and discoveries associated with this endeavor.  If nothing else, that would give me a few more hours to avoid actually writing.

Not surprisingly, I've avoided even blogging about it since the test has begun to feel like a reality.

Despite all the soul-searching that was involved.  A week ago, after weeks of back-and-forth, weeks of limit-testing with both myself and with those close to me, I had firmly decided that I was not ready to wear black and was going to delay this step until I felt truly worthy of the rank.

A few pep-talks from trusted friends and teachers (and a threat of divorce from Savageman) succeeded in  convincing me I was indeed ready.  The decision finally made, the necessary reassurances given, I felt a load had been lifted. I approached my training with renewed determination this week.

And a renewed urgency to write the paper, which I have successfully avoided for yet another night.