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Back in white pyjamas

19 Nov

IMG_2414So there I was, nervous and uncomfortable, barefoot in a Peterborough gymnasium, clad only in a pair of white pyjamas. The floor cold and hard, adrenaline spiking in my veins. The only source of comfort and security was the belt wrapped round my waist – my name and my old club embroidered on it – that and the months of extra training I’d put in during lockdown, pacing up and down my living room as I practiced. Somewhere in that practice I had tapped into muscle memory, and what I knew slowly started to flow back. They say that what you learn never truly leaves you. They say that any art practiced for ten thousand hours makes you a master. I’m no master – maybe I’d not spent ten thousand hours in practice, but four or five hours a week in class (at least) plus everyday practice for over ten years had made me solidly proficient.

Flashback: When my eldest son was younger, we rocked up to a traditional Shotokan karate class at a nearby school having seen an advert in the local paper. Some very tough years of training followed, with one or two injuries, and struggles with co-ordination, flexibility, speed and my innate lack of timing.. but eventually both he and I made it to our coveted black belt. And a couple of years later, I graduated again as a second dan black belt. But when I set up my own business, something had to give and, sadly, at that time karate was the thing I ended up giving up. But it felt as if a part of me had gone missing.

They say that black belts are masters. They say black belts are the ultimate fighting machines. Black belts know they are not. They know they are just at the beginning of the journey – that the only thing they had achieved after years of training was simply the right to be on that journey – and I had taken time out from that path to focus on other things.. important things, for sure, but now it was time to get back into the dojo, to put the gi back on and to train hard again. This was a new club, new instructor, new syllabus, and a new beginning.

IMG_2403And in the end, I was better than I feared, and probably even better than I had hoped. I could hold my own – not particularly because I had the skills, but because I had the determination to make it happen, and because that which you’ve learned never does really leave you. I had done my preparation work – reviewing what I had learned before, practicing over and over again in my cramped training space. I’d re-read my old books, watched the videos and went through my old applications and bunkai. But in the end it came down to turning up one day, leaving my pride, my ego and my fears outside the dojo doors, and starting again.

I’m nowhere near as good as I used to be – but it’s coming back, piece by piece, as I install new memories of old favourite katas and of fearsome sparring drills. My flexibility and speed need some attention, and there are katas to refamiliarise myself with, but there is progress, simply because I had chosen to turn up and try.

And suddenly, in that moment in the dojo, there was a deep knowing, and a deep sense of calm settled on me – something felt fundamentally right – as if I was putting a shard of who I am back in its right place. S it is that every time I pull the heavyweight white cotton fast around my shoulders, every time I tie the simple ties securely at my side, and especially when I knot that precious black belt firmly round my waist, I know I have come home, and that a piece of my life – a piece of who I am – is back where it belongs.


Enter the dragon–it’s back to the dojo

26 Sep

Some folk say that life is a lesson – while others say that there’s nothing that we need to learn – that we’re perfect just as we are. I’m not sure – all I know is that I feel a hard-wired imperative to grow, to learn, to develop, to become all I can possibly be. Some of that learning is through what I read, what I watch, what I listen to. And there’s a lot of that! Some of that is through the experiences that life throws at me – or, perhaps more accurately, that I create for myself. And there’s a real huge lot of that learning happening right now. And sometimes it’s through the experiences that I choose to have, the conscious choices that I make – like the one that took me round the world, the decision to pursue a career in computing – the day I chose to learn to dance, or the day my son and I took up karate.

Tai Chi (2)So I guess it was inevitable that one day I’d take up another martial art – a brief flirtation with Aikido, which I loved, came to an end when I moved away from my Aikido class. But I’ve always been intrigued by the flow of energy that the more centred martial arts draw on: like Aikido, Qi Gong, Tai Chi. Each of these martial arts contain the Japanese character for life energy or chi, and work by redirecting that energy. That’s a huge contrast to the forceful block and counter of martial arts like karate – although karate uses a lot of locks and body shifting, designed to redirect the opponent’s energy, it’s not at the core of the art. I found that as I watched the wonderfully charismatic yet unassuming teacher who I only think of as Mr PeaceyMind (after his continual exhortation to his class to be of peaceymind) on the Avenue of Stars in Hong Kong that I’d love to explore  a little more.

small karate

So Tuesday found me back in a dōjō (otherwise known as a village hall) – this time without my white pyjamas or, indeed, the security of my black belt… back as a beginner again.

You don’t really need to know about the experience – at times calming and at other times as frustrating as hell – but 15 years of martial arts means that my balance is pretty damn good and that I have can at least draw on the basics that lie behind transition and form. You also don’t need to know that I was the only man in a class of 30 women, either.

So there I was, relearning some of the basics: how to step, hip rotation, rise and fall, the basis of form, the first handful of movements (and unlearning some of the other things that were core to a very different martial art) – and then the moment when all of us, expert and beginner alike, took to the floor to perform all 108 movements of the set… a moment when it was sink or swim – give up or press on. And I’m not very good at giving up.

But it got me thinking again about mastery – about the journey to master anything, whether it’s an art, or a field of study, a craft, a discipline, a career. We probably know as soon as we step on to that path that we’re never going to know it all – that we’re going to be learning more every time we step onto the practice floor.

There’s a saying in budō – the study of martial arts – that the moment that we acquire our black belt is the moment that study truly begins – that the years of sweat and pain that have led to that moment have really only been qualifying us to study: that those preparatory years have been just the entrance to the school, and that from that point the learning really starts.

“To search for the old is to understand the new. The old, the new, this is a matter of time. In all things man must have a clear mind. The Way: Who will pass it on straight and well?”

(Gichin Funakoshi, founder of modern day karate)

Traditionally, too, in some martial arts the black belt is designed to fray with use – so as the student progresses, the belt increasingly wears back to white, demonstrating that even the master is always learning.

So what’s the life lesson here?

Well, in life as well as in the dojo, yet again I find myself in a place where I don’t see myself as an expert, knowing that I have much to learn… and yet finding myself called to teach and share what I do know. There are places that my studies have taken me over the last few years, things that have shaken me to the core of my being, clearing out old and unhelpful beliefs, helping me to see Life more clearly. Some of those experiences have been hugely painful and yet breathtakingly freeing – and have caused me to grow immeasurably in my understanding of some of the principles at the heart of creation.

Yet now I know that it’s time to take those out into the dojo that is life – to share some of those principles even as I seek to master them in my own life. I want to reach mastery before I start to speak about some of this – and yet I know that the only way to take the next step toward mastery is to start to teach and to write – to unpack some of the thoughts and insights that have been part of my journey.

For me, that’s hugely scary, and I have been fighting and resisting some of this for months… and yet the time feels right to start something new…So, hopefully I’ll have the courage and resolve to announce some of that in the next few days..



“Just as it is the clear mirror that reflects without distortion, or the quiet valley that echoes a sound, so must one who would study Karate-Do purge himself of selfish and evil thoughts, for only with a clear mind and conscience can he understand that which he receives.”

(Gichin Funakoshi)

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