Eighty-Four Days In The Teaching Life Of An American Shifu

In this blog I want to draw your attention to the practice of an integrated, holistic martial system by giving readers an intimate glimpse into a martial sensei’s life; perspectives, counselings, teachings, and the typical challenges presented by hundreds of students weekly, both in private and group settings. You will get an inside view of the student-teacher relationship, what and how a mindfulness sensei teaches, how student’s respond to these teachings, and where the heart of martial study actually leads the everyday disciple.

I will parcel out this chronicle in no less than 84 blogs. The events to be chronicled in future post are true. When necessary, the spirit of an encounter will be reconstructed in a narrative style to give a present moment feeling and to round out the essence of the exhange.

Real life, day-to-day martial arts practices and engagements  are not movie-scripted, flawless scenarios. Occassionally there is sharp, witty, spiritual communication that hits the mark. But it’s more common that miscommunications and mistakes are made unwittingly. This is why teaching is such a repetitive process. We sensei put out our lessons until they are fully assimilated. And this requires a great deal of patience.  Regardless, all the parties who are truly  committed to learning, will resiliantly re-group, return to the floor and try again. Just as it is the warrior’s duty to return to the battlefield again and again until victory or death trying is won, so too we, sensei and student alike, enter the martial temple with similar resolve. We return however many times it takes to ‘get it right,’ until the real  victory over self is achieved.

The martial experience is as much about its practitioners negotiating their day-to-day lives, as it is about the gathering and transmission of specific, combat-based information. Martial arts are not separate swatches of cloth isolated from the human quilt. Many students seek meaningful threads in their practices that can be used in their social and cultural fabric. The practice and insights gained from our martial pursuits will also affect our moods, our behaviors, and our quintessential life movements.

The goal of holistic martial art training is to yield a relevant everyday value to one’s life. Let’s face it, students and teachers alike have other priorities than martial training. They have spouses, hold jobs, persue hobbies and fulfill household obligations. The more relevant your martial experiences are to the real issues of your, life the more prominent your art will become.

In this modern era, students can choose to carry their art quietly and invisibily, releasing their skills in the face of actual physical adversity, or they can place their arts leisurely in their nylon gym bags until their appointed formal class hour arrives and get their one to two hour training high.

It is a natural consequence of the learning process for beginners to make errors along the Martial Way. Mistakes have a sobering quality. They temper our potential and the often illusory linear-ascending expectation into rolling hills of experience, yin/yang momentums, sometimes hitting surprising flatness or trajecting upwards with an awesome flourish.  Like a newborn learning to walk, new students initially loose their balance often only to later catch it as new patterns replace old ones, as muslces adapt for more rigorous action, and as new ideas about personal carriage are crafted and implemented.  Despite the misconception of easy mastery from the over-abundant, labels like black belt, tenth dan, grandmaster, or the amazing feats conveyed to us through the TV and cinematic medias, in reality, there are very few true ‘masters’ in the fullest sense of the word. What’s worse, too many of these lofty titles have become overly inflated today. The meaty substance behind them is lacking. There are also those who believe that the great masters may just be ‘of the past.’ For technology is reshaping how we spend our time. It’s pulling us away from physicality. Mastery is being condensed into the 1, ½ year black belt, like the ridiculous title of Master given to a three-month Reiki-practitioner. I don’t have any problem with Reiki. I have a problem with high titles given for minimal effort. Terms like ‘master’ in this light are rendered meaningless to any real, lifetime devotees of their crafts.

Every student will eventually discover how masterful his or her teacher was when the dust of their training settles and they are left to fend with the tools their teachers helped them to fashion. Some will look back fondly at their coaches and reminisce upon the sweetness of their journey. Others will despise the manner in which they compromised their life essence to become martially mature.

As vast and varied as martial interactions are, they all point toward the firery movement that defines these arts. Martial study is direct, candid and hot! Of the five elemental paths to enlightenment, karate, hard style martial art, is a Fire path to clarity and action. When the interactions go well, we call our outcomes victories; whether on the mat, in the tournament, on the street, or over oneself. A truly profound experience results in personal evolution. On the flip side, when things don’t go well it can be a shitty and debasing process. People really do get hurt. Hopefully, the wise student will have enough common sense to exit any de-grading process, martial or otherwise.

We professionals know that the plethora of Asian combative disciplines have grown in depth and breath in this country alongside their superficialities. Irony is hard at work here. We have more knowledge at our fingertips but less time to assimilate it.

Martial teachings can span a broad curriculum gamut from practical hands-on skills to lesser-understood spiritual pursuits. Despite the appeal within all social stratas and economic classes to these disciplines, few students and even fewer outsiders seldom glimpse the potential these arts are capable of offering. Eighty-five percent of the world’s martial arts community rarely trains beyond three years. Those that persevere, learn that the deeper paths need stronger legs, heaps of determination, clear goals and, most importantly, worthy guides. It’s easy to get lost or sidetracked in such a broad wilderness of ideas and techniques.

What is that quality that intrigues people to enter the martial arts for a week or for a lifetime? Why do students don their stark, empty, white canvas suits, year after year, despite grueling training regimes or painful self-realizations?  Perhaps, the answer lies not just in the lesson’s content or even in the student’s self-determination, but in their sensei who tries to hold the whole process together.

This blog starts to unfold the intimate story about the flow of people who enter the martial Way places in the world. Enlightened disciples begin the Spirit Warrior journey, the trek to awaken and rejoin the splintered, divided self into a powerful, cohesive and authentic human being.

Passions lead their pursuers. And what do you discover in this hunt? You find depth and soulful, mundane surface, complexity and candid simplicity, the spiritual and hidden truths that underly the everyday warrior’s pursuit of their martial systems.

All the physical ado about our arts is a backdrop for the real dramas unfolding in the spiritual realm where the deepest, darkest, and the most tenacious of our adversaries reside.

Most of you will fight more battles in your psyche then you will ever encounter on mean streets of the world.  Why? Because the mind and opponent are one and same.

Let’s look at how these trekkers fare in my future posts.