Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Enter Form, Exit Form

There is a saying in Japanese martial arts that translates as “Enter form, exit form”.  When you first see these words they don’t really make much sense as there is no context in which to place them.  However the meaning should become clear during this short article.
The phrase refers to the process of learning that we go through during our journey along the path of martial arts.
First of all we walk into the dojo on the first day armed with a sense of excitement at trying something new as well as a little bit of caution because we don’t know what to expect.  At this initial stage of our training most of us know very little about fighting but despite this lack of refined fighting skill, we possess something very useful.  We possess natural reactions because of our survival instinct as humans, we have the element of surprise because the people in the dojo have never seen us before and therefore know nothing about our ability, and we are also unpredictable for the same reason.
So we come to the Karate dojo possessing “no form” and then we are put into a rigorous program of teaching us technique after technique, form after form and sparring drill after sparring drill.  At this point we are “entering form”.  After a couple of years of this training we no longer look like, react like or move like the person who entered that very same dojo two years earlier.  In fact we have become quite proficient at executing all of the different techniques, we know several different “forms” and our sparring skills seem to have improved dramatically.  What’s more, that white belt we were given to wear has now changed color to purple or maybe even brown.  By anybody’s standards we’ve come a long way.
The problem at this stage of our training is that we are so immersed in “form” that when faced with a spontaneous attack that isn’t pre-arranged (like the sparring drills we practice) oftentimes our mind is so confused by choice as to which technique to use against the attack that our defense actually is ineffective despite our good technique.  This is a common occurrence at this level of training because of the vast amount of new material that our minds have had to take in over the past two years and unfortunately for us this process will probably continue for several more years as we continue to accumulate knowledge about the martial art and try to integrate it and assimilate it into something meaningful and natural.  This requires many hours of practice.
Finally we accomplish a higher degree of understanding and we now start to break away from “form” and we begin to slowly “exit form”.  This process of “exiting form” also lasts for quite some time and is full of inspirational moments when we gradually start seeing things on a deeper level and from a different perspective.  Simple things that we thought we already understood suddenly open up and show us something we had never thought about before, thereby giving us additional skill and knowledge.
Finally we fully “exit form” and essentially return to the beginning, to that same person who walked into the dojo on the first day possessing natural reactions and the elements of surprise and unpredictability.  The only difference being (and a big difference it is) is that we now have a very refined skill base and an extremely deep level of understanding that just reacts to whatever situation it is faced with in an appropriate manner without thinking.  Essentially all of the skills that have been practiced for years and years have now become second nature and we have finally reached the highest levels of the martial arts.  This is what I believe is meant by the phrase “Enter form, exit form.”

Friday, December 17, 2010

Truth or Belief?

I started karate at the age of eight on an extremely cold dojo floor in the North-east of England on a January evening in 1982.
My truth that night was that my feet were freezing cold like blocks of ice; my belief was that karate was extremely hard and unforgiving.  I cried after the class and wanted to quit before the next lesson.  Despite my initial experience, I stuck with karate.
At the age of 10, I passed my brown belt after failing two previous gradings.  My truth that night was that I was a tough young boy; my belief was that I was actually good at karate.  I answered my parents doubts that night and was brimming with confidence.  Thanks to my newfound confidence, I stuck with karate.
At the age of 14, I passed my first degree black belt after spending four long years as a brown belt, after failing two more gradings, after trying to convince my parents that their money was well spent on my karate training, and after almost giving up on karate altogether.  My truth that day was that I was a very stubborn individual who had reached a goal; my belief that day was that karate was in actual fact very difficult and that maybe I should quit now while I was ahead.  Instead of quitting, I stuck with karate.
At the age of 22, I graduated from university, left England and went to Japan and enrolled in Master Kanazawa’s Headquarters Dojo in Tokyo.  At the time, I was a third degree black belt in my previous style, well-versed in my new style of Shotokan and had experience in Ju-jitsu and Aikido.  My truth that month was that I finally had some bona-fide experience on which to build.  My belief was that I could actually be successful in karate.  Thanks to my fearless decision to move to Japan, I stuck with karate.
At the age of 26, I left Japan as a third-degree black belt in Shotokan, awarded directly by Master Kanazawa.  I had spent three hard years in Japan learning the art of karate and experiencing the melting pot of culture shock, intense training sessions, and strange yet rewarding experiences that I will never forget.  My truth in that moment was that I didn’t really know who I was, or what I wanted in life; my belief was that it didn’t matter because I could do anything that I put my mind to!  Thanks to the inspiration of Master Kanazawa, I stuck with karate.
Over ten years later and many many hours of hard work and a lot of help from family and friends, I am responsible for teaching well over 100 people this art of karate on a weekly basis.  As a fifth degree black belt I represent Master Kanazawa’s worldwide organization and do my best to promote his message of harmony and strong spirit through my teaching.
In some people’s eyes I have made it as an instructor.  The truth of the matter is that I have a very long way to go before I can even begin to claim some measure of success.  My own personal truth at this stage of my karate journey is that I have come a very long way since first stepping out on that freezing cold floor in England, and that my study of karate has revealed many personal weaknesses that I have had to face along the way.  The process of trying to correct these weaknesses, both physical and emotional, is never easy but it is necessary if we are to continue growing as a person.  My belief at this point in time is that I truly can achieve anything I set my mind to, regardless of how difficult it may seem at first.  Thanks to all of my experiences, I still do karate!
My instructor, Master Kanazawa, once said that one of the reasons to practice karate is to learn how to “make the impossible possible”.  This simple phrase sums up the difference between truth and belief very well.  The truth of our current situation or of a goal that we want to achieve may very well seem impossible, but our belief that we will ultimately be successful is what propels us forward and drives us through the invisible barrier in front of us.
Time and time again in my own life I have come up against very difficult challenges that seemed insurmountable at first.  Yet with determination, perseverance and self-belief, the challenge gradually changed from being impossible to being very difficult to finally becoming imminently achievable.  I suspect that all of you reading this have had similar experiences throughout your own lives.
So what have all of these different experiences and my karate training taught me.  Well, I think that after searching for truth in everything I do, I have finally come to the conclusion that it is not the so-called truth of our situation or challenge that really matters; all that actually matters is our belief and how we handle it!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Benefits of Failure

To use the words “benefit” and “failure” in the same sentence probably qualifies as an oxymoron.  Like any good lesson in life, however, the things that we are afraid of the most often give us the best insights.
I have come to realize that we all avoid failure as much as possible.  It’s almost a kind of taboo subject that gets swept under the carpet.  In our culture nobody wants to admit that they made a mistake or that they were wrong.  Why is this?  Is failure really that bad?
It seems like it is bad.  After all, who can deny the feelings of disappointment and disillusion when something doesn’t go our way, or even the harsh feeling of despair and regret when we really crash and burn.  Why does life treat us so badly?  Don’t we deserve better?
No we don’t!  We deserve absolute honesty in everything we do.  If that means failure instead of false praise, then so be it.  If that means that we have to admit that we lost, or that we were sub-standard, then so be it.  If that means that on that day we just missed out, then so be it.  Don’t gripe, don’t moan, don’t throw a fit!  Be happy that you have just received a lesson that you need to learn!!
I received this lesson for the first time when I was 9 years old.  I had been very successful at school, passing every test, getting top grades, being on the sports teams, getting praise from the teachers…
I thought karate was going to be the same...until I took my green belt test.  I stepped forwards when my sensei called my name, expecting to receive my belt.  Instead, I was shut down and demoralized with that one word, “FAIL!”
Absolute shock!  I was still an orange belt, I had to wait three more months to test again, I was not good enough!
This was the first time that I had failed at anything, and as it turned out I failed in karate three more times on my way to the black belt, before I finally made it on December 5th, 1987 (a day I will never forget based on the hardship that led up to that occasion.)
How could I fail? I thought I was better than that.  Well, as it has turned out, karate has shown me over the years that I’m not really that good at anything.  I just get ahead of myself at times and think that I know something, which basically means that I am a little stubborn, and that on occasion I can be a little too self-confident.
I needed to learn humility!  Karate continues to teach me this quality.  My failures along my karate journey were exactly what I needed, and they have definitely taught me some very valuable life lessons!  Thanks to these hard lessons, I have come to realize that failure can actually be a good thing, despite the fact that it doesn't feel very good at the time.  As long as you learn the lesson that failure brings, the experience is valuable, but if you stubbornly refuse to face up to yourself, then the lesson will have to be repeated again and again until you notice.
When I first met my most influential sensei, Master Hirokazu Kanazawa, he wrote a piece of calligraphy for me that has inspired me in my life on so many occasions I have lost count.  What he wrote in Japanese translates as,
"Never be afraid of failure, if you try your best."
I am very thankful for my sensei's wisdom and I hope that his words will inspire you too.