What if This was as Good as You Would Ever Get?

5cc4e416a35340d8a89c741c14d6ea52My Tai Chi Instructor, Sifu Robert Brown, used to ask his student this question;  ‘What if this, right now, was as good as you were ever going to get? Would you still continue with your training? Would you be happy to keep on doing the training, the hard work if you knew there was going to be no more external recognition, and that there was going to be no progress, that this was it. Would you still train?’

Sifu Brown had good reason to ask this question of his students, as in his case this was not hypothetical, this was a real question that he had to consider his answer to, not once but several times in the course of his Martial Arts training. Sifu Brown was born with Cerebral Palsy and Dyslexia, and at different times in his training, it truly seemed as though he might have come to the end of his progress, that his physical high point had been reached and he could go no further.

At this time, he considered very carefully what he should do about his training, and fortunately for everyone, he came to the conclusion that he loved the practice of the Martial Arts, and that even when he was convinced that he would not improve any further, he would still practice at the level that he could, and would still be a Martial Artist. To put that another way, perhaps it is better phrased that he could not stop being a Martial Artist.

However, this experience that he had with being confronted with his own physical limitations taught him a vary valuable lesson, that it is the Martial Arts that he values, not any rank, or progress, simply the fact of participating in classes, being involved in the art, and this is what he tries to share with his students when he poses the question, ‘Would you still train, if you knew that this was as good as you were ever going to get?’

yellow-belt_origFor me, I found my answer to this question a couple of different times, the first one when I was a Yellow Belt student. At the time, Gradings were held at my school every 3 months, so if you missed a grading, you had some time to wait before you would have the next chance to progress. At that time in the school, there were no Tips on Belts, and students were personally invited by the Instructor to attend a Belt Exam when the Instructor thought the student was ready.

As a Yellow Belt, I trained with 4 other students who had all started around the same time as me, and we were all on Yellow Belt together. A Grading was coming up, and it was getting closer and none of us had been invited to the Exam yet. We had all been training hard and consistently, so we were hoping to get invited to the Exam.

Finally, one of us, not me, came up with a plan to ask our Instructor whether or not we would be ready to do the Exam. Someone, the person who was picked to do the actual asking was me. This was a very nerve wracking experience. To ask for something you really wanted, but to ask for it in such a way that it was clear you meant no disrespect by the asking. I was nervous. After class I stayed back with a few other the other students, who were chatting as the class finished. I walked over to the Instructor, who was talking with another student. I looked back to my fellow Yellow Belts, who all made encouraging gestures towards me, but with equally nervous expressions on their faces.

At last, I asked the question, ‘Do you think that we (gesturing to the other Yellow Belts who were all waiting in a group) will be ready to do the next Belt Exam?’ My Instructor looked at me, looked at the other Yellow Belts, and said ‘No, not this time’. So I thanked him and walked so quickly it was practically a run back to the other Yellow Belts to tell them we were not going to be Grading this time.

As we were walking out of class, one of the Yellow Belts said, ‘ Well, if we are not testing this time, I am going to take a week off, and I’ll start training again after the Grading is over.’ Another of the Yellow Belts nodded, and I thought about the idea for a second, and it just didn’t make sense to me, because then you would miss out on your training. Why on earth would you stop just because of a Belt?

So a very unexpected sequel to that story is that the very next class after this incident, our Instructor was watching us in the class, and at the end of the lesson came up to us and said, actually, you guys are more ready that I realised, you can Grade at this next Grading.

27544600_10215232115781897_3550794398757989804_nWe did Grade, and unfortunately, the other student who had taken the time off never did return to his training. To this day I have no idea whether that was a lesson that our Instructor took the chance to teach us, or if we simply put the idea in our Instructors’ head that perhaps we were ready. In any case, it was the first time that cemented in my mind that training in the Martial Arts is a core part of who I am, and that Belts and progress is a bonus, but not the main reason that I train in the Martial Arts.

So, take thechance to consider your answer to the question, would you still train if you knew that you were not going to progress any further? Or perhaps consider this, what is your reason for training? If you have an answer to this, it can help you keep going through those times when it does feel as though you are not progressing, or bring recognised for your work, and accept that sometimes nothing but time will get us to the places we are going.

A Black Belt is not Something you Earn, it is Something you Become

12003973_10153622628455871_1018021166963204721_nWe held a Black Belt Exam in our school last month, where a talented young man achieved a goal he had been working on for four years. This was also the first Black Belt Exam in our school for a student who had trained exclusively at Fire Phoenix Martial Arts, so it was significant for the school as well as the student.

The process of getting a Black Belt is an intense, refining process. The Black Belt Exam is like a furnace, an intense heat that burns away the outer layers, the impurities and leaves a strong, solid core that is impervious to external factors. It is a process during which the Black Belt candidate internalises the principles of Hapkido and the martial arts and makes them a part of themselves.

There is a story told of a farmer who was inspired to mine for diamonds, and this story makes me think of the search for a Black Belt as well.

There was once a farmer who lived on a farm in a hilly area where he farmed sheep. It was a farm that made enough money for the farmer to support himself, but there was not a lot left over. He worked hard and he had everything he needed. He was content with this until one day some strangers came to his village, and told of how they had found diamond mines. Diamond mines – imagine that! How much wealth there would be! How could the daily grind of sheep farming ever compare to that?

So the farmer decided to sell up his farm and travel, searching for his diamond mine. He travelled far and wide, searching, follow new clues, listening to rumours of where the diamonds might be mined, dashing to mountainside caverns and beachside cave systems, always searching for the elusive diamond mine. At last, footsore, weary, with no money left and full of disillusionment, he returned back to his old village.

There, he discovered, diamonds had been found! Asking for more details, he found that they had actually been found on his old farm! He was devastated, and also amazed. He went and spoke to the man who bought his farm from him, and found that there was a cave on the farm in the hills that turned out to be a diamond mine. The farmer knew of the cave, he used to use it to shelter with his sheep in storms.

12038061_10153622630875871_1055340105642275361_nThe thing he didn’t realise was that diamonds in their raw state do not resemble the sparking crystal stones we see on diamond rings and necklaces. The look like dull brown stones. It is the process of polishing them, refining them, cutting them that makes diamonds what they are. By destroying them in their raw form, the beauty and wonder that is within can shine through.

This story always makes me think of the process of becoming a Black Belt. To become a Black Belt, we must be prepared to sacrifice what we are for what we might become. To become more than the dull brown stones, we need to put ourselves through a process that demands everything from us, that changes us into something much more than we ever were before.

The story also illustrates that sometimes on the path to our Black Belt, we look for a quick fix, a magic solution that will get us to our goal faster. We look for other options that will take the place of the hard work that is required to get our Black Belt. The fact is, there is not one. There is simply day after day of hard physical work, hard mental work to keep slogging away at the things we need to work on.

The path to Black Belt calls on us to make sacrifices. Some of the sacrifices we make are of our time – we spend a lot of time on our training, sometimes choosing to come to class when there are other fun things we could be doing. Sometimes we sacrifice comfort – we stretch a little deeper, we train a little harder, we collect bruises, bumps and knocks as we train. Sometimes we sacrifice our pride or ego, to submit to doing what our instructor asks us to do even if we don’t want to, or are scared to. It is making these sacrifices that builds us up mentally to be able to withstand a Black Belt Exam and come out of it on the other side stronger and more than we were before.

12042648_10153622625745871_4982656721780597830_nAfter the Black Belt exam, you understand that you ARE a Black Belt, it is not simply something you earn and can be removed when you change clothes. It is something that is a part of who you are, because it is something that you have had to work incredibly hard to become.

Sometimes when extended family members come to watch a Black Belt exam and they have not witnesses first hand the training, they are shocked at what a Black Belt exam demands of a student. They are scared for the Black Belt candidate because what they are being asked to do seems completely unreasonable. It is only unreasonable without the preparation of the sacrifices and hard work in the years of classes leading up to this one special event. This event is a once in a lifetime event that you always carry with you as a source of strength and motivation in daily life.

Congratulations to Ethan on his Black Belt, to all our Black Belt students and to those who are coming in the future.

A Leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, shows the way

johncmaxwell383606Martial arts is a great place to grow leaders. Through the history of the martial arts, we can see that martial arts has been developed from the very beginner to nurture and develop leaders, not followers . Martial arts shows us how to be generals in times of war, not foot soldiers, and how to be strategy developers, not the ones who must simply follow orders.

Leadership is a skill valued in martial artists now just as much as in history. While we may not be preparing for a battlefield, there are other battles we face in our lives, times when we need to show leadership in a variety of ways. It takes leadership to stand up for someone who is being bullied or spoken about behind their backs, because it is leading public opinion towards doing the right thing, instead of going with the flow.

Leadership, when done correctly, influences people to do the right thing, but does not enforce it. It helps people see the path, but does not drag them along it. It helps people unite for a common goal, but forges deeper experiences than simply the achievement of a goal.

Students have the opportunity to show Leadership as they reach the more advanced grades in the martial arts. The highest ranked student in each class is the lead student. They are the student who calls the class to attention for the start of the class, and they are usually the student the instructor demonstrates on when techniques are shown to the class.

The lead student is the highest ranked student in each class, however in most classes, there will be students who are lower grades than you, or who are younger than you even if you are not the lead student.  This means that they look to you for an example of how to be a student. There are so many things that a new student will not be familiar with – words we use in class, where we stand, how we line up for certain activities – and the way a new student learns most effectively and comfortably is by following someone in the class who has just a bit more experience that they have. We have the opportunity every class to show leadership to the other students in the class.

To be a leader in a martial arts class means first of all to be a good student. This means having respectful behaviour, a positive attitude and good listening skills. A leader models the correct behaviour, instead of talking about it. The only way to lead is by example. With a good example, others naturally follow and everyone has the opportunity to grow and progress. With a poor example, no matter how many good words are shared, there is no reason to follow a person’s example based only on the words they say.

Leadership is about showing other people the right way. Once we have found the right way and follow it, others will learn from our example. A leader will model the way, however they will also allow the people around them the chance to discover things for themselves – to find their own strengths and weaknesses. They accept that they have one way of doing things that gets results, however they are open to the idea that there are a number of ways to get to a result, and not everyone has to follow the exact same path. If sometimes people seem to need help, a leader will find the opportunity to positively remind them that they already know the right way, and perhaps help them on the path.

The King on the Hill

There was once a king who lived on a high hill above a town. He was highly beloved by his subjects in the town below. He was a kind ruler, who looked out for their interests and was known as a wise man. The people were glad he was their king, and would leave him presents on his birthday.

Japanese style water feature with bamboo spout and lantern in the background, UKThen one day a tragedy struck the town. The town well became poisoned and all the townspeople became mad. Only the king, who had his own well on the hill was saved from the tragedy and did not go mad.

Over time, the people in the town grew used to their madness, and used to comment to each other about how the king seemed to be losing his wisdom, and was no longer a wise man. They stopped leaving presents on his birthday. Then one day the king came into the town to visit on a hot day. He became thirsty and drank from the town well.

From that day onwards the townspeople noticed that the king had regained his sanity, and was once again a wise ruler.

This story shows us that being a leader can sometimes be about being popular, however a true leader will not allow the opinion of other people distract them from the path they know to be correct.

Mastering Other is Strength. Mastering Yourself is True Power.

how-to-develop-practice-self-discipline-L-NVr1MjThe study of martial arts is the study of control over your mind and body. We work on this every class we come to, gaining more physical skills for our bodies, and more control over our minds.

In our martial arts classes students follow the instructions set to them by their Instructors. The self disciplined student will take the instructions and try to carry them out to the best of their ability. They will work on getting their bodies to do the movements their instructor asks of them.

Sometimes the work will be hard. We might understand the instructions, but our bodies might not be able to do it yet. The self disciplined student will not slow down at this point, they will continue to push through until they can do what they have been asked to do.

As we learn to control our bodies to do what we ask them to do, we start to control our minds to become stronger too. We control the urge to slow down or stop. We control the urge to strike a target as hard as we can when a smaller student is holding it. We control the urge to call out in class, or ask questions at a time when action is more appropriate. We are able to make ourselves do that is right even if we would rather do something different.

As we develop this control, we also gain new skills, sometimes without even noticing – the new abilities creep up on us while we are busy immersing ourselves in our training, enjoying the process just as much as the eventual outcome.

These skills can be applied at home as well. We can practice thinking first instead of saying the first thing that comes into our minds. We can practice doing our part around the house to the best of our ability, instead of waiting to be asked. We can practice doing the things that we need to do instead of the things we want to do. Then we will become masters of ourselves.

Hard Work

Once a martial arts student went to his Instructor, and asked earnestly, “I am devoted to learning your martial arts system. If I train hard, how long will it take me to master it?”

“Ten years” replied the master.

Impatiently the student replied “but I want to master it faster than that. I will train as hard as you ask me, every day, for ten hours a day if necessary. How long will it take me then?”

The master thought for a short time. “Twenty years.” The master finally replied.

This story shows us that sometimes it is not enough to want something. Sometimes things take time. The learning and mastering of martial arts is something that comes with time. It requires Self Discipline to continue with our training. Sometimes we become frustrated, or bored, or we feel that we have learnt a lot already. Sometimes we feel we are not being recognised as much as we would like, or as much as we are used to, for the new skills we develop.

5626626_f260Part of the martial arts training, as we progress through the ranks is designed to teach us patience and self discipline. The road at the start of the journey, in the foothills is relatively smooth and easy moving. As we progress, the path becomes steeper, the signposts are further apart and the path is harder. When know with our mind that we are closer to the top of the mountain, but it seems just as far away as ever.

Our Self Discipline will tell us to keep going through those times, and we will get the rewards of long hard work when we achieve our Black Belts, and our mastery over our own selves.

As martial artists, we need our self discipline not only to stick to our goals until we achieve them, but also to make sure we make good choices, and keep those around us safe. We have a responsibility to make sure we sure our skills when they are needed, not simply because we want to. We also have the responsibility to become the best version of ourselves we can possibly be, and our self discipline will lead us to make the decisions that will get us there.

Go Placidly Amidst the Noise and Haste

Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. This is the opening sentence from the prose poem ‘Desiderata’ by Max Ehrmann.

zen-meditation_67367911Some days there is plenty of noise and haste, and it seems that the peace of silence is just a distant memory. On days like this, I am reminded of a story told of two students, boasting of the dedication of their Instructors. One of the students said “My master is so advanced in his training that he lives in retreat from the world. High up in the mountains over the city he sits in meditation, only interacting with the world when he teaches our classes. He finds the business of the world distracts him from his focus on higher things”

That is interesting, replied the other student, my master lives completely in the world, we walks through the markets and the busiest part of the city, and he is one of the calmest, most advanced masters I have ever met.”

The students, on hearing the other’s stories, went back to their masters, and spoke of what they had heard. Each master decided that they would then try and share the experience of the other. The master who lived in the world went high up into the mountains to meditate in the silence of nature. He came back to his student ‘That was a very pleasant day, but not any different to my other days. There is  peace on the mountain, there is peace in the city.

The master who was in retreat from the world went down in into city, among the people and the chaos of the market. After only a short time, the master became visibly anxious and agitated, and quickly asked to be taken away from all the noise and agitation of the world, which distracted him from his calm and peace.

8745788ecf8a91adabafa8e54bddb0b5This story shows us that the external circumstances do not allow us to access peace. If peace is within us, we can access it regardless of the circumstances. If we do not have peace inside us, even if we are in the most calm of circumstances, we will bring worry and disturbance to that place because it is there in our mind.

This is where martial arts steps in. By participating in a martial arts class, we have the opportunity to break free from the worries of our lives and get to a place where they scale back in their importance, and we can breathe a little more freely.

In martial arts, there is a word that describes this sensation – Mu Shin. This can be translated as ‘No Mind’. This is a state where you are completely physically engaged in an activity which occupies just enough of your mind that you can escape other thoughts and concerns and find some peace and some quiet in your own mind.

This is one of the powerful benefits of training in the martial arts, the ability to immerse yourself in something that is greater than you, and then have the art flow through you. You are not practicing martial arts, you are living martial arts, and your body is occupied, your mind is free.

Many activities can give you this feeling, however martial arts, with it’s emphasis on mental development as well as physical development is especially suited to achieving this state of mind. As we come to our martial arts class and train, pushing our bodies to achieve new skills, pushing our minds to  come up with new combinations and arrangements of techniques, we can learn to achieve this state of mind more quickly in class.

This is a very practical form of meditation, and with time and experience, we will be able to carry the peace that comes with training with us even when we are not physically training.