I wrote this before I started buying the business. I wrote it right before I tested for my 5th degree, actually. So, there are some thoughts that may be a smidgen…young.
Here we go….
Why Martial Arts?
The last time I was formally asked the question. “What does martial arts mean to you?” I was significantly younger and getting ready to test for my second-degree black belt. I was at a new school, with a new instructor, and had just learned an entire new curriculum. And I remember being completely stumped by the question. He might as well of asked “What does breathing mean to you?” I probably would have given approximately the same answer.
It’s been almost 14 years since that test. Fourteen years that seems to have lasted forever and simultaneously passed in an eye blink. Interestingly enough, I find myself in a similar situation. I’m at a new school, with a new instructor, and a whole lot of curriculum I need to learn. But everything else could not be more different. In the last 14 years, martial arts has given me so, incredibly, much. All that it asks in return is absolutely everything I can give.
I had this epiphany during a car ride returning from a tournament. I couldn’t pass on a single detail about the event, or even what approximate part of the state it was in. I remember feeling the various muscle aches and twinges that seem to accompany the rides home from a tournament far, far more than they used to and having a realization. The only way to really, truly, become great at something, the only way to achieve distinction in any pursuit, was to give it absolutely everything you had. For me, this made the classical martial arts instructor a little more understandable. I used to never be able to understand why all of these old instructors I knew had replaced hips, knees, elbows, ACLs, and all sorts of other chronic injuries. I remember asking myself why they just wouldn’t stop. I even remember asking my instructor at the time. He was telling me the story of how he began training after his first hip replacement, and ended up needing the other one re-done. I asked him why he wouldn’t have stopped competing, or at least taken it easy. He just chuckled and rubbed his chin.
“Yeah, that would have made sense.”
Fast-forward a bunch of years, in 2013 I went to Nepal for 2 weeks. I was able to spend a fair chunk of the trip in a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery. While there, I was asked to give a martial arts demonstration to all of the monks. It was a blast, and I think I was laughing and having just as much fun as they were! However, out of this demonstration came several conversations with the monks about pursuing one’s passion. There was one monk in particular, Lek-Shae, who was an utterly fantastic artist (in addition to speaking 3 or 4 languages and being a hell of a monk) and spent a fair amount of time talking with me throughout my stay. We were spending a rest day talking about martial arts and Buddhism when my sore knee was brought up. It was something that had, at that point, been plaguing me for some time. Lek-Shae heard about it, and without even a moment’s hesitation told me.
“We must sacrifice ourselves for the things we love.”
He then went on to relate this to Buddhism, and how sacrifice is the ultimate show of faith, and of dedication.
It was in that moment I understood all of the replaced hips, knees, and elbows. You sacrifice for what you love.
But, that doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with how people are sacrificing. I agree you absolutely must give something of yourself in order to become a person of distinction. I have never argued that. But it pains me to see a seven-year old wearing ankle braces. There’s a small part of me that quails when I talk to the 16 year old who just had an ACL repair. Whenever I see a child do something that actively destroys their body, it hurts me. I believe there is a better way. There has to be. I love competing, and I love the martial arts, but I do not love the stigma of certain joint replacement that has become associated with longtime martial artists. There is a difference between sacrifice and stupidity.
Ever since I first set foot in a dojo 16 years ago martial arts has become the most consistent part of my life, and sometimes the most important. I was the kid that never left the dojo, and seemed to be at every event possible. When I went to college I ended up training in parking lots and fields. This theme continued until just recently, when I was able to start training at Master Weinberg’s school. Every trial I have ever experienced, I have always had martial arts to fall back on: bad breakups, crazy tests, ridiculous jobs, stressful days, whatever. I have always had martial arts there for me. And, like I said, all it ever asked of me was everything I could possibly give. It is a refreshingly simple need. In order to train for a tournament, I knew that I had to give those katas everything I had in order to do well. So, that’s what I would do. I would find an empty field or parking lot, and do the katas using every scrap of energy I could pull. Then I’d do it the next night, and the next, and on and on until tournament time.
It was through these experiences that I discovered the difficulty of holding a cat stance in five degree weather on ice. It was during these times I discovered the joy of doing kata in the rain. It was at these moments I discovered I can’t train bo when it’s below freezing, because it makes the bones in my hands ache in weird ways. And these were the moments I missed my Sensei more than any other, and also when I laughed at deer and threw rocks into the woods in-between forms.
So what does martial arts mean to me?
It means everything.
It started out as an activity to help me control my emotions. Then it became a hobby, and has since transformed into a defining passion. Martial arts has opened more doors and given back to me more than I could ever explain. Through it I have had the opportunities to meet some of the most influential people in my life and to travel the world and live to an extent that I feel would be diminished in any other manner. Through martial arts I have been able to find my sense of self, a sense of confidence, and the knowledge that I am able to complete any task and accomplish any goal.
Now I stand on the edge of my next great adventure. Making the martial arts my career as well as my passion. I am starting to move a little away from purely competing and going more into teaching and making the next generation ready for whatever it is that will be coming down the pipe in the next 10 years. It’s a big step, an exciting step, and a completely terrifying step.
My passion is becoming my livelihood and I am so, incredibly, humbled by the opportunity. Martial arts has given me much throughout my life. And I feel it is time to start giving back. But even during this next step, there will be lessons. There will be trials, and there will be challenges. I am confronted with the paradox of teaching and practicing traditional martial arts in novel and innovative ways that maintain its heritage whilst simultaneously preserving the practitioner. The price that I am asked will not change. I will still be giving everything I have for what I love. But I will be fostering a love for the martial arts in others. I will be teaching the skills and life lessons I have learned and I will be passing on my knowledge and experiences to my students in the hope of making them better and more successful people – not just better martial artists.
This is more than a little bit exciting.
Martial arts has never meant just one thing for me. It has been the central theme to my life. It has given me a freedom to both find and express myself. And it has given me an avenue to affect other people’s lives in a meaningful way. I once asked a good friend why she did martial arts. She had what may have been the best answer I’ve yet heard.
“Because it makes my heart happy.”
But the question still remains. “What does martial arts mean to me?” My answer gut reply now is not all that different than what it would have been 14 years ago. But in the past decade and a half I have had lifetimes of experiences and education. Now I understand that there has to be more of an answer than “life.” At least, if I want to have any success as a promoter of the art, I should probably figure out what it means to me, and how to say that in the most pleasant way possible. But when I’m teaching, or in the middle of a tournament and can feel all of the passion and enthusiasm people have for this sport. It still boils down to that original answer.
Sometimes I think all I’ve really managed to do with my whole career is come to a more complete understanding of the question. Young children can come up with an answer easily. After all, the 3 months they’ve been training is a significant portion of their life and there isn’t a whole lot else going on. For them, saying that it’s really cool, or the best thing ever is enough. But the older you get the harder it becomes to quantify something that has always been. It is akin to someone asking you what your left leg means to you.
“Well, I sure do like it.”
It seems like a ridiculous answer, but is probably what most of us would say. For me, martial arts has always been there. I’ve never had to think about it not being there and the action of doing so challenges my perception of reality and leaves me flat-footed and awkwardly grasping for words.
That in itself is a type of answer.
Martial arts is, and has been, my passion since I was nine years old. It has been the constant challenge and consistent reward of every moment of every day. It’s what I love to talk about, to do, and to teach. I see this upcoming opportunity as the next step – in some ways, the biggest step. It scares me and it excites me. But, I am secure in, what seems like the first time in a very long time, knowing exactly what I have to do in order to succeed. I simply have to continue to give martial arts absolutely everything I have. In some ways, this step is no different then training kata in a dark and snowy parking lot in the middle of winter. We must sacrifice for what we love. In order to become a person of distinction, to succeed, I must give everything I have.
The same as always, and just as it will always be.