Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Long and Difficult Path

In the book Martial Arts Teaching Tales of Power and Paradox, Pascal Fauliot collects myths, legends, and parables about masters of zen, tea ceremony, and the sword. He uses these stories to convey a series of lessons on confronting ourselves and the challenges of living the Way of martial arts.

At the beginning of Chapter 3, he describes for the reader the path of self improvement.

Confronting the Mountain

As long as you are incapable of
going beyond the mountain, it is
impossible to attain the Way
Wei Kuan
"Tradition tells us that following the Way is akin to scaling a steep mountain. The person who has chosen to undertake that ascent will select the slope he wishes to attempt and set off in search of a guide who can show him the path. These choices are deciding factors. If the slope is too steep, or the guide too inexperienced, the results can be disastrous. But nothing is guaranteed, even with the best possible guide. There are numerous obstacles ahead and many painful efforts will have to be undertaken. A great struggle that involves going one-on-one with the mountain is necessary. One's muscles are straining, one's fingers are tightly clinging to the rock. Each movement must be precise and measured. Nothing can be left to chance. One false step will lead to a long fall.

But what is the point of this challenge that does not let up for a second, poised halfway between the summit and the abyss, between life and death?

The person who dares the mountain knows, or at least something within him or her knows, that the great struggle takes place inside. The mountain is only a pretext. It permits a man or woman to come face-to-face with him, or herself, it provides one with an opportunity to go beyond oneself. It is by coming to grips with these kinds of difficulties that the student will develop the discipline, the will, and the energy necessary to his continued evolution. In reality every ordeal is a help in getting to the way. "If Heaven is about to entrust an important mission to a man, it begins by filling his heart with bitterness and by confusing his powers of perception and overturning his plans. It forces him to exert his bone and muscle. It forces him to endure hunger and all manner of sufferings. When the man emerges triumphantly over all these trials and tribulations, he is then capable of accomplishing what would have been impossible for him to do before." This quote from Mencius is a very precise answer to the question: "What is the true meaning of life?"

What is truly at stake in this inner battle? For the masters, the real obstacles that prevent the student from making any progress are those erected by his or her artificial personality. The ordinary individual, choking under a yoke of mental and physical habits, his vision of the world distorted by a screen of illusions, is an invalid cut off from the depths of his being, depths whose potential remains untouched. The necesary work to be done consists in exploding these physical and psychological blocks so that the individual's latent forces can blossom freely. The goal of budo, the way of combat, like any authentic path, is the regeneration of the individual. But this self-realization can only be attained through a merciless struggle against one's own defects, weaknesses, and illusions. Vanquishing one's inner obstacles requires the patience to be relentless in tracking them down and the courage to confront them when that search bears fruit. Pride, cowardice, impatience, and doubt, all fed by illusion, are so many dreadful traps in which a great many people have fallen. The path through them twists like a snake; it is long, difficult, and taxing. Not allowing oneself to become discouraged, persevering no matter what and in spite of oneself, is one of the keys to the Way."

The inner battle. It is the one we truly face. Self defense is a valuable skill to develop; humans are an intra-species predator. But when we step onto the training floor we do not face an enemy. There is no mugger, or murderer, or villian between us and our goal. We face only ourselves.

The battle against our own illusions, our fears and self imposed limitations, against the Six Invisible Enemies, is a long one. It will take all of your life to walk the path of self improvement. But each time the karateka steps foot inside the school he moves further down that path. Each decision we make to move forward, in karate, in life, embodies what Fauliot called, "the regeneration of the individual."

Drills -
Beginner: Set a goal to practice each of your techniques twice when you get up in the morning and twice before bed. Even if you are really tired. Even if you don't want to. If you forget, forgive yourself and try again next time. Identify something you are afraid to do.

Intermediate: Next time you're working out, keep count of how many pushups and situps you can do comfortably during your physical training. Then attempt to add two repetitions of each every time you train. If you get tired or fail to meet your new goals, take a break and return to the exercise later. Make it a point to do an extra set of each at the end of your workout. Make plans to confront your fears.

Advanced: Perform each of your forms from beginning to end. When you run out of forms to do, begin again with your earliest forms and run through the lists again and again. When you get too tired to continue, perform the forms each one more time. Lower yourself into your stances. Hold each position and breath deeply as you experience the fatigue and weariness of your body. Focus on completing the task. Overcome your anxieties and have new experiences.

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