Having a practice is not the same as doing an activity or learning a skill set.
An ‘activity’ is interesting or pleasant or distracting or edifying or fun. We enjoy it. It might make a lasting impression, but it probably won’t. Go to dinner or a movie, play a game or go for a walk. People might take up martial arts this way. Which is fine.
‘Learning a skill set’ requires more commitment and attention. Learning to drive, to cook, to do CPR, to play music, a computer program or a sport are usually done in this way – to add a new skill to what you already know. People often approach martial arts this way. That’s good too.
Using your martial art as ‘a practice’ is different. It is unusual. It is not for everyone and you do not have to do martial arts as a practice to get something great out of it. But to make the most of it you do.
We begin to practice by recognizing the value of an ideal, a form. This is always the case in traditional arts, like music, or calligraphy, carpentry or dance. We learn the form, we imitate it, we aspire to perfect the ideal. We try to follow it as best we can every time we practice.
We fall short. We persist. And as we do we change. As we change to meet the demands of the ideal we become stronger and more skillful, less impulsive, less distracted, more able and more free.
We need to choose the ideal carefully. It has to be proven. It has to reward the people who have followed it – the people whose example we can see – with mastery. By their example and the results of their practice, you can judge if the practice works. If it is something you would like to use to master your own life, and make your art your own.
Our kata are a good example of this. Kata – the forms of movement sequences we use in training – have a long and formidable history.
They also have been used badly. They have been poorly understood and misused. In some places in the modern martial arts world they have been distorted, drained of their value, made shallow and superficial. They are practiced as empty postures, as meaningless routines, as aesthetic or athletic pantomimes. Junk.
But some have understood the kata. Some are putting them to good use.
By studying the kata in an authentic way we can rely on them – to provide us with practical self-defense skills, with increasing strength, focus, flexibility, energy and more. To open fresh insights and possibilities continually, as our abilities go deeper.
The katas do not do the work. We do. We use them as tools to transform our bodies and minds, by practicing them, hour after hour, day after day, by aspiring to mastery, by endless application of attention and effort, noting our own shortcomings, observing the steady increase in our own abilities. We can see the same process underway in the people around us who share our devotion to practice.
That is a serious path. It makes you strong. It does not promise recognition or acknowledgement or extra credit of any kind. It is much more valuable than that.
Weak people are dangerous. They lie. They manipulate. They are restless and dissatisfied. They pursue things that cannot elimate their fear, assuage their shame or satisfy their desire. They disrupt the lives of good people and good families. They make nothing.
We will be like them if we are not strong: in body and mind, in character and in commitment to a virtuous life.
If we have a practice – a physical practice, a spiritual practice – and pursue it whole-heartedly, using it well, we will become strong.
Then when we meet poisonous forces we can recognize them for what they are. We will not be tempted by them or deterred by them but will be able to act wisely and well, by example or deed.
A warrior on the battle field, a mother in child-birth, anyone who willingly offers their life so others can live, understands the urgency of being completely committed.
Now is the time to live a life of practice. Now is when we have the chance.
Post and photo by Jeff Brooks