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.”