The Martial Arts and the Influence in One's Life - Written by Senpai Linda Blake.
Yondan Essay for the Kokusai Butoku Kai Submitted 2011-08-08
The strategy “the way is in the training”, (Mushahi, 2005), taken from Miyamoto Musashi, 17th Century Japanese Swordsman, author of the Book of the Five Rings, was first introduced to me in my first few months of martial arts training, and it would be fair to say, I did not fully understand the meaning of this idea. My journey into the martial arts, was likely not much different from many others stories. I had an interest in learning some form of martial art, yet I had a very uneducated understanding of what the martial arts was, or eventually would mean. From those first few days of what seemed to be impossible training sessions, I began a journey that has woven my martial arts training into my life, providing excellent opportunities and experiences that can easily be traced back to the lessons learned though my martial arts training. As I begin my 23rd year of training, as recently as a few days ago, while struggling with life‟s unexpected challenges, I returned to this quote, “The way is in the training”. I now have a more sound experienced understanding how the physical training in a structure training environment known as the martial arts has had significant impact on my own life. As I have been also learning more about leadership in the past few years, I have seen many parallels between current 21st Century business and management strategies and practices that are easily traceable to that of journey of a martial artist. This essay will seek to comment on my own experiences and how the martial arts has imprinted my life, and how the ancient principles learned in the martial arts is further supported by current understanding of excellent leadership and life skills.
Although there are many different teachings of ancient Martial artists that I could have used as reference, I have chosen to refer to Miyamoto Musashi as his principles were often quoted during my first few months of training. In now looking at the different translations of his principles, I recognize how much of
my martial arts training followed his strategies as stated in his Book of Five Rings. When I first began to think about the imprints left upon my life by the martial arts, I began a list of what areas of my life were directly impacted. Working through this list, I can now see the ties to Miyamoto Musashi‟s principles, and how they are further supported by modern day strategists in life and leadership.
After reviewing the long list of influences, I have chosen to separate them into five areas which include, body, mind, spirit, leadership skills and friendships. As I move through these five areas of influence, there are direct linkages to the ancient martial arts strategies and it becomes very apparent that my successes and variety of life experiences would not have been as incredible if not for my life as a martial artist.
When I first began to train in the martial arts, my fitness levels could have been described as adequate. I was floundering between a gym that offered weights and cardio machines, to the occasional 12 minute, 1.5 mile run attempts. I was just beginning to get recruited for a policing agency and I recognized the need to increase my fitness levels and for some reason I thought karate might be the answer. My experience in those first few months of training was no different than most I imagine, the workouts were impossible and the instructors could never be pleased, but for some reason, I continued. From that day forward, I can easily say beyond the increased level of fitness I gained by training on a regular basis, I also learned the self defense skills that I thought would assist me in my career of law enforcement. Although I found it interesting that many of my colleagues believed that my karate skills logically translated into fantastical versions of physical confrontations on the street, I found myself disappointing them as they would point out, that they never saw “Blake, kick the hell out of anyone”. In looking back at my career, I can recall several challenging physical confrontations, the Vancouver ‟94 riots, those resisting arrest, an assault of a colleague by a drug deranged individual, an irate victim attacking me with her purse, and an angry family on a First Nations reserve shouting they were going to kill me and I with no back up. In all these areas, I escaped them all with the most serious injury being bruising. I have always felt that my martial arts training, although often thought to be “learning how to fight” as seen in
any typical Hollywood movie, provided me the skills to read my opponent, to move with the most efficiency to protect myself, and effect an arrest with the least amount of damage to myself or others.
Although I had become quite proficient in my training, I recognized as a young brown belt, that I knew that the 1st Dan was not my goal, that a lifetime of martial arts was my future. In making that choice, I have found the many dividends that come with never ceasing to train. In order to continue this it has been challenging at times, as in often in life, we become stagnant, even at things we enjoy. I chose to continue to challenge myself by always trying to be faster, higher, stronger, and always seeking to learn. I can see that never allowing myself to become complacent in my training, has allowed for me to maintain a high level of fitness and a hunger to always learn. Even to this day, I am willing to try new things, and most recently did my first outdoor rock climbing and will soon to start learning how to sail. I know that both such activities are only possible with those that have strength, flexibility and endurance, all areas that continue to be maintained through my martial arts training. The ability to retain my fitness has allowed for a list of many activities to be tried in the past few years, including indoor rock climbing, yoga, triathlons, big canoeing, sky diving, river rafting, white water kayaking, paddle boarding, adult gymnastics, dance, skippering a 20 person 31 foot Montreal Canoe, qualifying as a Force Options instructor and living in Bosnia Herzegovina while working as a UN Peacekeeper. At a time that many people start to slow down, I am looking for the next adventure.
The training over the years has also assisted learning discipline, focus and overcoming adversity. I have often relied on my martial arts training, to further my skills in the law enforcement area, including handling out of control, abusive, violent offenders by practicing discipline and restraint. In terms of learning skills, such as firearms training, driver training, and force options, my ability to have discipline, focus, learn under stress, practicing perfect practice has allowed for me to become proficient in all of these areas. For the past 10 years, I have been one of the few female force options instructors in two major policing agencies in Canada, and I recognize that this would not have been possible without the abilities, skills, focus, and discipline I have learned in the martial arts.
Although I have spoken about the many successes and benefits of the physical aspects of the martial arts, I have also had some challenges that nearly ended my training. In a period of two years, I have been hit by inattentive drivers while cycling and suffered significant long term injuries. In both cases, the recoveries have been long term, with often days at the dojo ending with pain and frustration. But as in those first few days of being a white belt, barely able to do four pushups, and not being able to make a fist, let alone thrown a punch, I remembered the words of Miyamoto Musashi and chose to just showed up and train. Some of those days were pushups against the wall standing, some of those days were just showing up, but I am happy to say that the previous years of training, the discipline, the support and the knowledge that if you take it one day at a time, the way is in the training, you can make improvements. I can say it is those simple principles that kept me returning to the dojo to the point that I was able to be prepared to grade for my next level.
It is very apparent that the many years of training, have had significant impact on my life, and in returning to Miyamoto Musashi‟s principles, one can look to “the way is in the training” and “do nothing of which is no use” (Musashi, 2005). Of course these are loosely translated and seem over simplified but it is their simplicity that is very easily understood from perspective of physical training. In order for a martial artist to improve in the dojo, no amount of money, attitude, observing, or wishing will improve them as a martial artist. The way is in the training, in other words, show up and train, and continue to train. In his strategy of “do nothing that is of no use” Miyamoto Mushashi‟s principle can also be easily translated into the physical aspects of the dojo. To the novice in karate, doing a pushup may seem to be an unnecessary cruel exercise of the Sensei, but as time goes on, a wise student will soon learn that pushups develop the muscles for stronger punches and stronger abdomen muscles for taking the occasional missed punch. The building of a strong foundation in basics and Kata is part of the training, and doing that of which is of use so a martial artist may take those initial skills and lessons and build a strong foundation of abilities that can eventually lead to a skilled and respected martial artist.
In the 21st Century, one can look to Stephen R. Covey‟s book; Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, with one habit being, “Be proactive” defined as “proactive people focus their time and energy on things they can control.”, (Covey, 2002). A person is responsible for their own versions of what life will be, by how they are proactive in making it better. To sit back and hope for success will not happen unless one is working towards success, an echo of Miyamoto‟s simple “the way is in the training”.
Two other areas of influence include the development of mind and spirit. As a martial artist begins their training, there is an immediate challenge to push beyond their comfort zone. It usually occurs in that first white belt class where apparently 100 pushups is not good enough and one more, never means really one more. For those of us that push beyond that 100, push to do that one more, we begin to create a mindset, a habit, a discipline that allows one to create many successes and opportunities to overcome adversity in life. In looking back at different situations in my life, I can easily find examples of having to call on my “fighting spirit” and never give up and always push on, as giving up is not an option. One of those examples included a river rafting trip, where I was thrown from a raft in a particularly heavy spring runoff year, and sent down the river fighting for my life. As each rapid pulled me under, tumbled me around, I would kick and swim for the surface, ready for the next looming boulder. During that time I remember the guide advising what to do to survive if you went through rapids, so following his earlier instruction I ensured that as I approached each rock, I was in position, aware I would be pulled below the water, and without panic, swim back up to the surface. I was beginning to lose strength, but I never gave up and finally managed to swim to a raft in time to be rescued from the river. I was travelling with numerous martial artists who observed the drama unfolding and were advised by the owner of the Rafting Company, I should not have survived, as normally most people panic, lose their strength and are swept away. My colleagues replied back, if one of us was to survive, she was the one most prepared, (as I was only months away from my 1st degree black belt grading). I have had many other examples of never giving up although none as dramatic as the rafting trip, but the common denominator in all cases, included a conscience decision on my part, to remain calm, focused and never give up. In looking back at how I have developed this mindset, discipline, and ability to focus, I can only comment that in terms of
the training, and development of a martial artist to prepare for their first black belt training, the goal is to prepare to find one‟s own limits and once there, push beyond them, dig deep, and find what they need to go even further. This process does not happen right away, and it normally does not happen without the careful assessment and guidance of senior belts and the Sensei, and it can only occur with the consent and willingness of a focused, goal oriented student.
Reflecting back to when I was caught in the river, I do remember making specific decisions to survive, and I believe that in returning to Miyamoto Mushashi‟s strategies, his one that reflects on “becoming acquainted with every art” applies to being prepared to take on life challenges and handle them with resolve and a fighting spirit. Becoming acquainted with every art, if applied to overcoming adversity refers to understanding your “enemy” or challenge, knowing what you are about to take on. Often while walking into a dangerous late night call while working, I would rehearse plausible worst case scenarios, taking into account, the potential dangers that could lie before me. This would be no different that facing a fellow marital artist and assessing their strengths and weaknesses, knowing that often they had more strengths than weaknesses. The idea is to prepare oneself mentally to handle what may happen, to not be caught off guard, as those are the times that one can be unprepared physically, mentally and spiritually.
Now to reflect on current perspectives in this area, a look at another one of Stephen R Covey habit‟s, the habit of “synergy”, where he speaks to the ability to synergize where “the whole is greater than the parts”. In terms of overcoming adversity, Covey explains synergy “catalyzes, unifies and unleashes the greatest powers within people. All habits we have covered prepare us to create the miracle of synergy”, (Covey, 1989). Covey explains that if one practices the other habits well, one can call upon all of them to handle times of adversity. If a person has prepared and become acquainted with their “enemy”, consciously strategize on how they will handle adversity, they will find success. The common theme with both strategists is to recognize adversity occurs, know what it could mean, and mindfully tackle the
situation towards a successful conclusion. As I have often found myself caught in a corner fighting with a stronger, bigger opponent, it is only when I apply tactics, strategy, resolve and a fighting spirit, that I am able to come out of the corner with a successful conclusion.
The next area of influence easily traceable to my martial arts training is the area of leadership. In the past few years, I have been fortunate enough to receive leadership training through my current employer. Initially I was surprised to get the opportunity as it was a highly competitive process to be considered, and I have never seen myself as a leader, if at best I would call myself a “reluctant leader”. But as I have come to learn through training, education and experience the ability to be a leader is not just found in a title, or position.
My first opportunities to begin my own leadership training began in the dojo. As with all first days as a white belt, a senior belt would come to your aid as you struggled to tie your belt, show you where to line up, explain how to throw that first awkward punch. At the time, while attempting to learn the many new things, I never recognized that one day, I would be the yellow belt turning to the new white belt and explaining to them how they tie their belt and where to line up. Slowly as a martial artist moves through the ranks, so does their knowledge and so does the expectation that they will pass on their knowledge to junior belts. Then comes that first time one is asked to take aside a few junior belts and teach a few sequences or part of a Kata and the responsibility grows. Then eventually came the time when I began to teach full classes, at first with my instructor just outside the dojo floor, but eventually to the point where he would leave and I no longer had anyone but myself to rely on. The process was slow, over a period of years, but it happened. As I look back at my own growth as an instructor, I had followed a few principles, including, continue to learn, lead by example, create positive energy, build up strong martial artists and recognize you can learn from anyone, including a white belt.
I have always said to any class that I teach, I will never ask you to do something that I am not willing to do myself, never really understanding how that could be such a significant leadership principle, but in
2001 while reading a recommended book for an introductory leadership course, It‟s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy, by Captain D. Michael Abershoff, his first principle to developing the ability to lead is “to lead by example”, (Abershoff,2002). Abershoff explains “leaders need to know how they profoundly they affect people, how their optimism and pessimism are equally infectious, how they directly they set the tone and spirit of everyone around them”, (Abershoff, 2011). Abershoff further clarifies to ensure leaders are held accountable and do not reach their goals with ethical short cuts. In reviewing Miyamoto Mushashi‟s strategies, a simple “do not think dishonestly”, captures the essence of what Abershoff writes about leading by example.
In terms of creating positive energy and building up fellow martial artists, well I believe this is one area that I really enjoyed and worked on. I suspect initially the motivation was more selfish, in that I always enjoyed a high energy class so if I created that for a class, then that helped me in my own training. In terms of building up other martial artists, I always felt that if I could teach someone to improve themselves, this would only push me to train harder to remain competitive. Again, the principles are spoken about by Abershoff in both areas of communicate purpose and meaning and building up your people. Abershoff, simply states “Make your crew think „we can do anything‟”, (Abershoff, 2002), give them a compelling vision of their work. His assertion is that if one does not have vision for why they are working, then they will lose enthusiasm and fail to bring their positive energy to work. With the idea of creating a vision, Abershoff further states that building up your people is a key skill in leadership, specifically building self esteem, trusting people and expecting they will succeed. While reading Abershoff‟s principles, I found myself nodding in agreement, as all of his ideas were clearly what brought along so many students to the senior ranks. Somehow my martial arts training had given me a head start on leadership skills, first with those initial conversations with a white belt on tying their belt and eventually to teaching in Bosnia, a group of non-English speaking Karate students at the request of their Sensei who trusted my abilities after the first class of training with them.
When it came to the idea, remember you can learn from anyone, I would probably agree that I may not have been open to this idea until recently. As it seems many of us, look to senior staff members, instructors or colleagues to teach us or come up with the great ideas. Yet within the context of the dojo as an instructor, I often find myself learning from a junior belt, whether it be I see my own techniques and recognize where I need to change or I see they have found a way to improve a technique. Within the work environment, I recently was tasked with some very challenging changes in a section of over 50 persons. At one point a critical decision was to be made and my managers and I were discussing the matter and getting nowhere fast. For whatever reason, I thought to the idea that even the most junior person may have the answer, so I went to the staff that were involved (newest employees) and asked for their input to the decision. I was happily proven that they indeed have the soundest well thought out decision and I was able to implement it with the support of both employees and managers. Abershoff‟s book provides many examples of his willingness to listen and learn from all of his staff, with one example saving the staff many needless hours of painting, and the Navy many millions of dollars by simply replacing bolts with stainless steel, rather than re-painting every year. The idea came from one of the lowest ranks on his ship, but more importantly, Abershoff as the Captain of that ship had the willingness to listen and learn from anyone.
As I review my own principles, I have to pause to think of how they became known and important to myself, and the only answer is these again, reflect some of the most basic strategies and principles of the martial arts. The three tenets of the Butokukai, respect compassion and gratitude, Miyamoto Mushashi‟s strategy, “do not think dishonestly”, (Mushashi, 2005), and "The true science of martial arts means practicing them in such a way that they will be useful at any time, and to teach them in such a way that they will be useful in all things.", (Mushashi, 2005). It is not by luck or fortune that in recent years, I have found myself to be the “reluctant leader”; it has actually been a 22 year education, beginning with those first few classes.
The final area that I have purposely left last is the friendships and relationships that I have formed throughout my time as a martial artist. I have come to deeply respected those that I have trained with, for their input into my own education and training as a martial artist, leader, person and friend. I count many of the black belts that I have trained with over the years as friends and even though many have found other paths outside the dojo, the common bond of what occurs in the world of the martial arts, keeps us close. What brought us together was the training in the dojo, as often we had no time to discuss our days as we dragged our soaked karategis across the dojo floor one more time before class would end. Our friendships were forged from a common understanding of what we were trying to achieve and I have thoroughly enjoyed training and becoming friends with all my fellow Karateka.
I have at different times in my life, usually during the more challenging times, commented, the thing about my training in the martial arts, is it never lets you down, as long as you show up and provide effort, you will receive satisfaction. Very little in life has that kind of guarantee. I have a stressful profession, but even on the most exhausting days, I can train and leave the dojo with a clear mind, ready to take on the next day. Before I began to write this paper, I had unfortunately experienced numerous challenging situations in a very short period of time. I was asked if I need an extension to compete my assignment. I quickly answered, that at first I thought I might need it, but then realized that this was yet another challenge that I could meet and to find a way to do this. Initially I was unable to form even the first sentence, and was becoming concerned on whether I could complete the task. I then realized that I had not had the opportunity to train for 2 weeks (family crisis and vacation) so I promptly put in several days of training. As I pushed myself to near collapse that first class back, I recognized as I came off the dojo floor, that all the stress, and fatigue was forgotten, as I was trying to learn a new Kata and needed to plan on how in the next few weeks, I would bring back my fitness to an acceptable level. As I drove home the clutter from the previous week had cleared and I was ready to write, and thankfully the assignment was completed on time.
When I started my own first days in the martial arts, I would not have seen myself attaining even the smallest of achievements, such as yellow belt, to finding a solid career, up to finding balance and happiness in a successful life. Yet as I have continued through the training, I have found all of this and more with each success connected to my martial arts experience. What I have learned, was not by accident, but by design, simplistic, proven strategies passed on by historical martial artist masters, through to my instructor and clearly echoed as sound principles by our 21 Century strategists and leaders.
Abershoff, M. D. (2002). It's Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy. NY: Business Pluss.
Covey, S. R. (2004). 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Toronto: Simon & Shuster.
Musashi, M. (1998). Book of Five Rings. NY: Gramercy.