Play, Work and War

There is a lot of info out there about ways to train. Both physical training and meditation advice, as they are presented now, are highly biased toward self-attention. If you have only trained in this modern mode, it might seem that there is really no other way to do it. Here is something to consider:

Our approach in the dojo, is different. We use a traditional mode of training, which is a good antidote to the relentless self-regard in modern training which can breed narcissism and frustration, and limit success.

“My body, my stats, my routine, my supplements, my schedule, my performance” becomes the focus of attention. It produces anxiety and derives validity from scorekeeping.  Even in something as non-worldly as meditation, or in other mind training regimes, the current trend in popular apps, on sites, and from notable advisors, fosters the same self-orientation – “my practice, my depth, my teacher, my samadhi, my nirvana, etc.” – you can hear it in the voices of the practitioners and teachers when they talk about what they do. They are burdened by it. It makes people grandiose, complacent, and performative on the one hand or lonely, insecure, and frustrated on the other.

Of course, we do want to pay attention to how we are doing. But we should watch out for becoming too exclusive about that self-attention. Putting our attention on getting the work done, on the team effort, and the shared experience, enlarge the scope and meaning of our training beyond the limits of our self. 

Having a practical application for our training – aspiring to competence in self-defense for example – deepens the training both in the intensity of our effort and the scope of our purpose. 

Adding deeper dimensions of experience in insight and in service – transcending the conventional boundaries of experience as we do at higher levels of training – makes our pursuit of our training ideal more profound and less contingent on day-to-day pleasurable feedback or personal recognition than a more self-regarding approach can provide. 

The challenge of a competitive match is different from watching your heart monitor climb or totaling the tonnage you benched. 

Demonstrating your ability to escape a manipulation or deftly parry and counter a rapid-fire attack is more encouraging than wondering who will notice your abs, no matter how awesome they may be. Hard work in the gym or on the track are good, and for many people they are necessary. I mention this to warn everyone who is training about the narrowness and frustration that come when too much self-centeredness replaces enjoyment, challenge and purpose. 

The components of a good training life, including physical training and mind training, include the dimensions of play, work and war. Traditional approaches to training include these three. Modern, high-tech, solitary training is often deficient in some or all of them.

So, I am suggesting you take a look at what you are doing and if it is not exciting and purposeful here is a clue as to why that may be. 

Kids play hide and seek. Hide and seek is similar to predator and prey. For millions of years, it was handy to be able to be good at hiding when a predator was nearby, and it was very handy to be able to hunt successfully, when prey was nearby. These drives and skills seem hard wired. It is delightful for kids to play hide and seek, and to win. It is in fact a thrill for them, no matter what the outcome.

In traditional societies sports were always war training. Sometimes they were also work training. 

Settled people needed to protect themselves from raiders. And raiders needed to train to overwhelm and rob the settled people. Both settlers and raiders quickly discovered that just going for it was not as reliable a path to victory as training for it. And training hard. 

Ball sports, hammer throw, caber toss, climbing, running and jumping, team sports and on and on, from native American stone-ball games to the Athenian Olympics, in every country, in every traditional culture, in every village, people played – first because it was fun, second because it helped to keep them sharp and in shape so they could stay alive under pressure. 

The fact that it helped create defined and stable dominance hierarchies and mating status rankings was handy too. Rams, for example, don’t kill each other in mating competition, they smash horns and the winner gets to mate. The other one eats some grass and tries again next week. Herds would not survive predatory pursuits if the males in the herd all killed each other till the last man standing was crowned the winner. They worked out a better way. So have we. And everyone who participates gets stronger, healthier and more deeply embedded in the group.

People train and compete for war and mating and for work too. Dragon boat races in Okinawa are an example of community competition in skills which, in the pre-modern days, everyone needed to keep sharp all year round. 

The Okinawan tug of war with 1000’ foot long, six-foot-thick ropes, hand made by all the people in all the villages, kept people working together and competing in skills their lives and livelihoods depended on, all year round. Making nets and ropes, and being able to pull rigging lines on ships in a gale were their life skills. They played, they competed, and the results were and are spectacular. 

Martial arts were also practiced all year round, in the villages and cities, for health, defense, mental sharpness, and deep insight, and to be a real part of the community. 

But the primary focus was not on ones’ self. The primary focus was not on “my biceps, heart rate, blood oxygenation rate, or split times.” That may be part of the mix for some of us, but attention on the other people involved, on the life of the village, the work to be done, the life to be shared, the people to be cared for and defended, if necessary, all played an essential role in the motivations and objectives of everyone’s training and practice. 

This perspective plays a central role in our practice in our dojo today. 

It is a healthy corrective to the self-regarding training focus of so much contemporary coaching. This is easy to apply to your training. 


Post Copyright © 2022 Jeffrey Brooks, Mountain Karate Dojo, LLC, Yamabayashi Ryu honbu, located in Saluda, NC.

Photo by Yogii Surya Pangetsu via Pexels

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