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The Zen Mirror
Every Person Can Be Great

Advice for Black Belts and Others

By Jeff Brooks

Most of the people in our black belt group have been training for many years. Some of them - now in college or recently out - began when they were children. One young woman, 20 years old, has trained at our dojo for fourteen years.

Some of the other members, with 8 or 9 years experience, started training when they were in their forties. Others, now in their 20's or 30's, after training three times a week for many years, even with the level of novelty built in to the curriculum, wonder about progress and about the ultimate destination of their training. All have experienced their bodies changing. They wonder if they are continually getting better.

They remember how it was in the first few years that they were practicing. They can see it clearly in their students and their fellow practitioners in the classes that they are now teaching -- people in their first years of training, whose learning curve is steep and whose developmental progress is rapid.

In the first few years you can feel your body changing rapidly. Within a few months of starting training you feel different. You begin to look different to your friends and family. You can do things easily that just a few months or years before you did only with the greatest difficulty, or perhaps, could not do at all.

Now, if you put a three-year practitioner next to a ten year practitioner you will see a big difference. But not all of the difference between them is visible, especially to an untrained observer. The difference between them will not only appear as different levels of athletic ability or technical skill. Because in addition to the changes in those aspects of the person there has also been change in their lives. And it is not as easy to see those subtle changes, those changes that really are most relevant in settings outside training, outside self-defense situations, outside the dojo.

It is even more difficult to detect the changes that occur in the body and mind of an advanced practitioner when comparing one person to another, because what really would show the transformation that comes as a result of training is the person compared to him or herself five or ten years before, or better yet, the person compared to him or herself now, versus how he or she would be now without any training.

That of course is impossible. So how do you look at it? How do you assess the long-term effect of training? How do I tell the college student what her karate is all about after all these years, when the savor of daily dojo practice, the novelty of martial arts as an interesting toy, is gone. What replaces it?

She is fit, fast, powerful, skilled. Her mind is sharp and clear. She takes those things for granted, as if they were part of her constitution, inherently in her make-up, as if these qualities were not the temporary and conditional result of her training all these years.

Beginners experience their practice as an object, with characteristics. Beginners experience practice as something special, separate from their ordinary life, something that is separate from them. They use it to hone their skills, tone their bodies, sharpen their minds; to feel how they want to feel.

For people who continue to train the "object-with-characteristics" that is the beginner's practice turns into, after all those years of effort and increasing mastery, not something "interesting out there." Your practice becomes not just a part of you, it is you -- yourself, in here, with all the compromises and limitations and familiarity that made you go in search of self-improvement to begin with.

What do I say to the 50 year old who cannot or doesn't feel good doing the tuite (pressure point techniques) techniques because his joints are stiff and resistant? What do I say that is good for all of them, including the inspired ones, the delighted ones, the great athletes, the entire spectrum of abilities and range of personalities and experiences that would help them all, not discourage any or elevate any in a false way?

Or should I? Should I tell the older students they are old, their bodies are not as strong as they once were, and they should just accept it and do less? Is it enough to tell the young, strong ones that they must work harder to make the most of their precious and fleeting youth? I have heard that kind of advice of course, but it is not the only advice to give. All of us will be old and young. We will experience all kinds of days in practice. We will experience all phases of life.

I think provisional advice like that ought to be given, but for advanced practitioners it should be given in this context: When we enter the dojo for training each day all of us, regardless of rank or age, come in a little faded and foggy. We have been at work or school all day, and we are bringing in with us all the disturbances and distractions that have been accumulating throughout our busy, jangled modern day.

After training we feel fresher. We sense that a kind of cleanness has come over us. We feel transformed, with our bodies alive and our senses more acute and our minds more settled and clear. The experience of training is more like shedding a skin than accumulating something. It is more like being reborn in the heat and pressure of training, than as something to be measured in terms of gain and loss.

Of course we all have our limitations and our talents. They are always changing, and all of our various characteristics and abilities throughout the course of our lives will change in different ways. We will decline in some things and achieve in others. But if we focus on gain and loss we will always be disturbed by comparison to something - to someone else, to an ideal - and we will always be living in a fantasy.

Our real training will have good effects, but if we engage in training simply to receive the effects we lower our sights too much. There are two kinds of people who fall into this trap. One is the people who just get the minimum skill they need to do their job. These are not "practitioners" -- they are doing their training not for the sake of the training and the deep transformation that comes from it, but as an expedient, so they can perform their job sufficiently to earn a living and go home, or in the case of a dojo, to earn their rank and go home.

No problem, but different from the orientation of a practitioner. The other kind of person who is more concerned with gain and loss as a result of his training, rather than appreciating it for itself or focusing on simply being in a life of training, is the "Olympic type" athletes.

The extreme case is the desperate professional athletes, doped up on steroids and other drugs, focused on outcomes at the expense of everything else, cashing in on the short-term benefit offered by artificial performance enhancement, and then getting sick, dying young of cancer, having deformed children and, having squandered their health, youth and biological capital, pulled away from the flow of normal, healthy life, have nothing but a medal and a memory to show for it. (Medals and memories superceded in importance the following year by other people's medals and memories.)

Being the best in that Olympic sense may be a worthy aspiration for some people sometimes, but it is a harmful way to think for almost everyone and it certainly is harmful to us as individuals and to our society as well. All people can benefit from participating in sports, not just for the purpose of being the best or being great, but as an expression of our human vitality and our shared life. All people can enjoy singing. But now, with fine recorded music available to everyone, people have become ashamed to sing in public, because they are not such good singers. Sad! Should we give up on everything because there are a few individuals with virtuoso abilities in a single area which makes us feel it's futile to participate in these human undertakings? Should we not pray because there is a virtuoso prayer out there?

The Olympic spirit - in sports, arts, culture, and so on - can suppress the human spirit as much as inspire it. Each of us can fulfill our own potential, majestically, as human beings.

So, as real practitioners, participating in vivid training day in and day out, for years, decades, a lifetime, as we strive and struggle diligently, we do not need to concern ourselves too much with gain and loss. We simply shed the old dead skin of the past, and so through training become refreshed and reborn in the daily immediacy of our own real life.

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About the author:

Jeffrey M. Brooks holds a Go Dan Fifth Degree Black Belt in Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu, training in Okinawa, Japan and the USA. He is a practitioner in the Soto Zen tradition. He has an M.F.A. from NYU Film School and works as a speechwriter for public figures. He is founder and director of Northampton Karate in Northampton, Massachusetts, offering classes daily for adults and children since 1988. Through Northampton Zendo he leads meditation programs for the members of the karate dojo, the community, as well as special programs for prison inmates and youthful offenders. ( Brooks is a regular contributor to His articles and his column (Zen Mirror) provide Buddhist insight and perspective on life and martial arts training.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

do, martial arts training, martial arts philosophy, martial arts training, karate training

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