So much is written about the martial arts these days, and now more than ever, accessibility to what is written reaches truly epic proportions, thanks to the wonder of the internet and social media. It literally pains me to see so little written about, and so little evidence of practitioners embracing that part of the martial arts that truly touches my soul.

Karate (and I will speak here of Karate, as it is and always will be my first martial arts love, but these musings apply equally to every martial art) is more than just a martial endeavour. In truth, I hasten to add that it is, for me, not even a martial endeavour. I did not begin my career in the martial arts, and I especially do not continue it, to learn to fight. I never lived a lifestyle that made such pursuits necessary, and as I moved along in my training, in Karate as well as other forms, I began to realize how demeaning to the art it is to think of it in terms of the martial side of the equation alone (and equally demeaning to ignore the martial side in favour of what I now discuss).

There is a sublime beauty in so many levels of Karate; my mind fumbles with the breadth of it all. Take the simplest of techniques – one taught at white belt level – the lowly and unassuming low block. So seemingly simple a movement, with endless permutations and interpretations; so simple in appearance, yet so complex in the progression of movement of the human form required to perform the technique properly. The contraction of the muscles of the arms and shoulders in tandem with the relaxing of the opposing muscles; understanding which muscles to contract and which to relax, and when; the intellectual progression of learning the precise moment at which the block makes contact with the incoming strike, and once contact is made, understanding the entirely new set of muscular circumstances required to effectively block the strike. Add to this the equally daunting intricacies of breathing; when to inhale, and how deeply; when to exhale and learning exactly how much of your breath to expel; coordinating the breath, both inhaling and exhaling, with the movement of the block.

And this barely scratches the surface, for blocks are not done with the arms – in truth, no technique is performed in isolation. Every technique is done with the entire body, for the entire body must be engaged, or not engaged, at precisely the right instant, and each muscle, each tendon has its role to play, even if that role is doing nothing at all. The diaphragm, the hips, the legs and feet – no part of the human form is excluded from the tapestry that any one technique weaves as it wends its way toward execution.

If you dare to add the complexity of moving your body, either stepping forward, or in the context of a kata, or in the more dynamic circumstance of sparring, you are now trying to assemble a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle in the heartbeat is takes to perform any single technique.

This symphony of movement (or in most cases cacophony of movement) is the art. It is this learning; this introspective understanding of technique that is the true challenge of the martial artist. This is what elevates that which we do above the mundane and into the sublime. This is why I silently chuckle when I see martial artists raising their arms and shaking their fists in victory at a tournament. So much joy and personal satisfaction gleaned from winning a piece of plastic, when the greatest challenge, with the greatest reward, has absolutely nothing to do with such superficiality. Certainly winning is always nice, and there is something to be gained from the experience, but when compared to the depth of personal understanding that awaits those precious few practitioners who dare to challenge themselves in so personally vulnerable a way, tournaments and competition and who beat who for the trophy become sad, almost irrelevant achievements, and sadder still that so many seem to hold such golden idols in such high esteem. Those who perform well in the martial category seem to be placed on the pedestal of popularity, while the artistic, truly personally rewarding side of karate seems to fade from view. I suppose that the need for validation in the human experience is so strong that what is truly rewarding, and holds permanent value easily gets trampled in the rush for that validation. Those that walk the path toward personal understanding and personal growth seem to walk a very lonely and less-traveled path, to be sure.

I look at the rewards of the martial artist. A trophy or medallion, sitting on a shelf, gathering dust, taunting us as we grow old with the fading abilities of our youth, or to be able to carry the rewards of our training in the very fibers of our muscles; to be able to feel your understanding with every step you take, and every technique you perform. I would trade all the trophies and medals and adulation in the world for the sense of wonder and accomplishment that arises from the internal struggle of the artist, rather than that the fighter.

Don’t get me wrong – I do not believe for a moment that these two things are mutually exclusive. There are martial artists who excel in both arenas, and these are practitioners to be revered. Look at Koga, for those who might appreciate Judo. YouTube has a number of videos about him, both competition and instructional. He holds the quiet confidence of one who has walked the path of internal understanding, and elevated even that to greater heights by taking that understanding and applying it in the martial arena as well. Watch his competition videos. No arrogant fist pumping when he wins. Simple internal understanding is all you see. Even when he wins, I sometimes see a hint of frustration in his features, for I firmly believe that he does not measure his success against whether or not he defeats his opponent. He measure his success against a much more unforgiving and daunting an adversary; his own understanding of perfection of technique. Watch him, just for a few minutes. It is well worth the time, for the lessons he shares in his humble yet near flawless technique, as well as his calm and introspective understanding, stands as a model for those who follow the martial way.

Everyone practices the martial arts for their own reasons, and follows a path toward their own ends, but I cannot help but think that every last one of us would hold our efforts more dearly, and close our eyes at the end of our lives with a touch more peace in our hearts, if we can learn to marry the art in our time on the dojo floor, to the martial side of that which we practice.
Nothing imperfect is the measure of anything!