Sensei

A couple of weeks ago, I was facing the Lake of Bays, practicing karate. It was a grey day. Goose excrement was everywhere, and I had to keep modifying my stances, hopping over greyish-green piles in order to avoid stepping in them—feeling like a flapping, ungainly goose myself. I was cranky because although we’d rented a beautiful cottage (to close the summer, before the start of the school year) facing the water, the water was too shallow to swim in. And I adore swimming.

Plus I didn’t want to practice. I started out that morning with the usual questions. Why karate, for example, and why not another sport? And why not spend the morning lounging on the beach, reading Chatelaine, instead?

I frequently redefine my relationship with karate.

Last year, when the Sensei who founded our school retired, several students questioned their own practice. Many people left the dojo.

One woman who was leaving said to me, “it was all about him.”

I was perplexed by her comment, but I understood it.

On one hand, her comment painted our old Sensei as kind of cult leader, unique and irreplaceable. This is a troubling concept, and, I think, an inaccurate one.

Yes, the old Sensei has a breadth of knowledge difficult to match. He dedicated his life to karate, undergoing decades of rigorous physical training and studying Japanese philosophy. He is also an unabashed human being. In class, he talked often about himself, using his own life as an example of self-development: he talked about how he handled his mistakes in order to suggest to us how to deal with our own.

Our new Sensei is an energetic, savvy person who has without flinching undertaken to lead a group in flux. I’m grateful to him for taking on a difficult task. But I grieve the loss of our original Sensei.

Our founding Sensei encouraged his students to develop their own way, their own relationship with karate. Leaving us behind may have been the most powerful thing he did to continue urging us in this direction. The head of a cult wouldn’t do the same: here is the difference between an excellent teacher and a cult leader.

This past year, I’ve noticed that several instructors embody some of our first Sensei’s characteristics. Several teachers have perfect, precise technique. Others know the etymology of the names of katas. Another instructor openly discusses his own life in order to emphasize a particular training point. In other words, the founding teacher’s teachings live on, embodied in individuals studying karate.

As for me, I’m still figuring things out. On the whole, it comes back to my love of karate. That grey, August morning, I practiced Wanshu. It’s one of my favourite katas, first because of the long movements that require flexibility and leg extensions. I also love it because its movements so clearly embody its name (also called Empi), often interpreted as “Flying Swallow”. I practiced Wanshu until I forgot where I was and why I was cranky. I practiced until the question of why I was practicing fell away.

 

 

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Waiting it out, with poems and children

There’s a good excuse for my long silence: I’ve been reading and writing poetry, which is consuming much of my spare time. More exactly, I’ve been taking an online course with Peter Levitt, poet, student and teacher of zen.  It’s a type of “translation” course that is not precisely a course in translation.

Here’s how it works: each week, Peter gives us the bare bones of a translated poem, and we “re-write” or “translate” it. To me, it feels like an ongoing, always changing conversation with a line-up of incredible poets: Wang Wei, Neruda, Dmitry Kedrin, and, my favourite so far, Cesare Pavese.  Through Peter’s teachings, I’ve learnt a great deal, about how I read, for example, or how I write. Or, more precisely, how I could read differently. Some of the things I’ve learned seem applicable to other areas of my life. Karate practice. Raising children.

Used to be that, when I read a poem, I would tear through it. When I was a graduate student, it seemed crucial that I come up with conclusions quickly. Often, I would formulate several points before even finishing a poem.

Peter does things differently, and, through his course, I’ve learned a practice of waiting. Instead of tearing through poems, I read them slowly. I read them repeatedly. I wait. I turn words over in my mind, on my tongue. I treat them as I would a friend: I tilt my head and, cocking my ear, I listen to what they want to say to me. Sometimes I understand them. Sometimes I don’t. But I keep listening.

Two weeks ago, my six-year-old daughter stalled at bedtime.

“I want to sleep in your room,” she said. She was harking back to one night a few weeks ago, when our street construction was so loud that I’d let her fall asleep in my bedroom, at the back of the house.

“No, I’ll be sleeping there,” I said. I was longing for an end to toddler and pre-schooler chatter. I was thinking of television. I longed to cauterize serious thought with the vacuous commentary of a talent show host.

“Please?” she said. “Pretty pleasy lemon squeezy?”

Typically, I would find my firm voice. I would tell her to go to bed. This time, I looked at her. “Why do you want to sleep in my room?” I asked.

“It’s less hot,” she said.

I believed her. My daughter, who in winter wears sundresses under her snowsuit, and who refused to wear pajamas until she was four years old, is always hot. And her room, facing west, gets more sun than the rest of the house.

“Ah,” I said, and waited.

“And,” she said,”your bed is more comfortable.”

It occurred to me that the bed she slept in was a cheap mattress we’d bought when she was born so that I could have a place to rest in between night feedings. “Should we be talking about a new bed?” I asked her.

She stared at me. Slowly, she nodded.

“So we’ll think about a new bed,” I repeated.

She burrowed into the bed, asked for a kiss, and wished me good night.

Turns out, listening works as well for raising kids as it does for reading poems.

Imagining Kata

Theoretically, there is always time for karate. In reality, this isn’t always the case. For the last few weeks, I’ve been sick (I’ve caught every virus the kids bring home from school, and other things on top of this). I decided to take a few days off karate to allow my body to rest.

Some time ago, I asked a wise friend and karate colleague who has a very demanding day job how he keeps up his karate practice. He told me that he doesn’t always have time to physically practice karate, but that he always has time to imagine karate. He suggested that I do the same.

The way to go about this is this: you close your eyes, pick a kata, and imagine each move sequentially. Don’t skip moves. Persevere until you reach the end of the kata. Initially—my friend warned—you’ll find that you get distracted from your task, that you can only complete two or three moves before your mind wanders.

No kidding.

I tried this technique months ago to overcome insomnia. I would pick a kata—for example, Ken Zaki Sho Dan—and I would close my eyes and try to picture the kata’s opening moves. I would get through the first few moves, and then I would start thinking of other things—say, whether I had brought in the stroller from the rain, or whether I was being too strict with my daughter when I made her finish her school lunch at snack time (I started imagining my children wracked by eating disorders—obviously I was being a terribly irresponsible mother).

If I was lucky, I would mentally get through the first five moves of the kata, right up until the last punch in the first series of blocks and punches. In my mind, that punch was strong. It was effective. It was like an exclamation point on the end of a sentence. The only problem was, I couldn’t get past that punch. I couldn’t imagine the turn that follows the punch.

I would try again. Again, my mind would tune out. Then, because I’m pigheaded, which occasionally has its uses, I would give it another shot.

I began to know the beginning moves of several katas extremely well. I could practically do them in my sleep. The problem was that the second half of several katas was missing. It became obvious that droves of imaginary attackers were succeeding in beating me up.

After several months, I’m getting better at my mental practice. Now, I can mentally practice a kata in its entirety. I can also picture increasingly complicated moves. For example, I can envision the double block of Ne Fan Chin Sho Dan. For a long time, I couldn’t do this.

I’ve noticed that being able to do kata mentally is correlated to my success at doing it physically. I’ve become better at effecting the double block of Ni Fan Shin Sho Dan because I’m now able to picture it. The converse is also true: if I can’t imagine a move, there is a strong likelihood that I can’t do it, either.

An interesting by-product of this practice is that I seem to have acquired a better working memory. I retain more stuff than I used to. This has improved both my ability to write (my descriptions are more accurate) and to navigate daily life (I can now retain street addresses, which means that when I’m our family’s designated navigator, I can do my job, which leads to less bickering with my husband, which, in turn, produces a calmer marital relationship—amazing, what mental karate practice can do)! I have no way of proving this correlation, of course, but I think it’s true.

So, here’s to imagining more and more complicated kata.

Harold Brodkey

I am eleven pounds heavier than when I left the hospital in May. Now, in the country, I can stand straighter; my breathing isn’t so noisy. I am not in despair or cracked open. Or drastically humbled. And sometimes when I first wake up I do feel my body as I used to feel it when awake when I was younger, that odd, flexible, long-limbed extent of reliability and all the tubes of sensation flashed a little in a silent fusillade, and, in private, one stretched in a courtship display. That old sense of luck, of at-least-I-have-this-whatever-else-happens, returns but not in that verb tense. I feel myself to be smoke. Or when my eye catches part of the arc of flight of a bird, I feel myself shiver and swiftly break into clusters of flight. Sometimes the wind seems to enter me.

This passage, from Brodkey’s AIDS memoir, This Wild Darkness, which tells the story of his life in the months leading up to his death in 1996, is one of the best descriptions I’ve read on what it feels like to be in good health. I love this passage: Brodkey’s reference to long-limbedness speaks to what I experience when I’m at my best in my karate practice.

Beginnings, and Ne Fan Chin Sho Dan

Lately I’ve been jogging to a local city ravine, practicing karate, and jogging home. Yesterday, I had a hard time getting out there. We’re leaving on a trip and I had suitcases to pack and a house to clean. It was hard to justify karate practice. I reminded myself that beginnings are always hard, whether it’s practicing karate or playing with one’s children (don’t get me wrong: I love reading to them and doing sports and music with them, but getting down on the floor and playing dolls/action figures with them does not particularly interest me). I have found, however, that once you get past the starting phase in anything, it gets easier, and you start to have fun.

So I went on my jog, and I did some karate, and I started having fun. I practiced Ne Fan Chin Sho Dan kata, which we’re working on in the dojo. The following is some of what I’ve learned so far:

Ne Fan Chin Sho Dan

  • fully complete each down block. It should extend past the side of your body.
  • Make sure each strike is powerful, even when you speed up the kata
  • The forward-facing punch, which may or may not be called a “reverse fist punch” (there was some discussion in the dojo as to its proper name – comments on this are welcome), should come straight out and aim for one’s nose
  • When you bring your leg up to dodge an attack, make sure to bring it up high enough i.e. Your foot should go up to your knee (you’re avoiding a sword, and you probably want to avoid getting your foot chopped off)

I welcome comments from all your karate-ka out there. All the best, LB

Struggles and a Sense of Play

I realize that I haven’t been entirely honest. Also, that I’m being too preachy. Mainly, I haven’t been open about my struggles. Among others (Haruki Murakami, Sarah Selecky, Anne Lamott), one of my greatest influences is Ayelet Waldman. What I admire about Waldman is her candour. I wish I had even half her chutzpah. Writing honestly is easy; facing your parents at a family dinner after they’ve read one of your “tell-all” pieces is something else entirely.

So, in the spirit of Waldman and some of her (possible) literary predecessors like Colette and Anaïs Nin, here goes.

The reality is that I struggle every day. Each day, I have to talk myself into doing simple things. Partly this is because I’m often at home, with young children. Most of the time, I feel exhausted, with a mountain of housework to be done (I hate housework almost as much as I hate living in mess. In the interest of full disclosure, I have help, but anyone who’s ever run a household knows that housework is Sisyphean). I have financial business to attend to and children’s activities to organize. In this atmosphere, karate starts to seem like another item to be ticked off, one of many tasks keeping me from curling up on the couch with Real Simple, or watching another rerun of Angel (and when is Game of Thrones starting up again, anyway?).

Some of my other struggles include:

    • Leaving my happily playing children at home while I go to karate class
    • Leaving my whining children and a cranky husband (sorry, husband) at home while I go to karate class
    • Practicing karate at 9:15 am after school drop-off, following a white night (I’ve had many of these lately, mostly due to the Toulouse terrorist attacks. Like the victims of this attack, my children are three and six years old, and go to a Jewish school. You can imagine the sleeplessness these resemblances have prompted)

In other words, these days, I approach most tasks with a feeling akin to making my way through molasses.

But I also think that many of struggles have to do with my relationship to performance.

Lately, I’ve noticed that I’m atypically afraid of doing karate, of, for example, trying certain techniques.

The other day, the instructor prepared us to do flying side kicks. For years I had been studiously avoiding practicing flying side kicks, for the very simple reason that I suck at them. Until Saturday’s class.

The instructor brought out two large, blue mats. Two tall men were instructed to hold them while the rest of us kicked them (the mats, not the men).

“Line up,” said the instructor.

Great, I thought. I’m weak (I’m still recovering from that darn neck injury), I have to do flying side kicks, and I have to do them in front of everyone.

We lined up. My turn arrived. I ran, I leapt, I executed a terribly weak sidekick. The mat barely moved: it gave a weak knee kind of tremble, the type you get when you haven’t eaten lunch and for a split second your legs give out. I went back into the lineup.

Watching the other students, I noticed that the kids had the easiest time with these kicks. Of course, being two decades younger than me, they have flexibility working in their favour. And the young men, especially, have a kind of helpful gusto, a brash confidence. But I think that in addition to these attributes, they have something else. And that is, a closer relationship with playing. Those young girls and boys kicked the mats with joy. They approached the exercise with a sense of play, and not with a feeling of dread.

I kept kicking. My kicks improved slightly, but not much. I’ll keep you posted.

I think that it’s also helpful to approach poetry this way. When I read poetry now, I think of Emily Dickinson’s line, “My business is circumference”. It speaks of measurement and linearity, but also to something circular: doing something with intent but without trying to master it, to hem it in.

I want to approach karate this way, particularly difficult techniques such as rolling, flying side kicks, and reverse crescent kicks. With a kind of circling or, using another analogy, in a kind of darting, humming bird motion. In other words, with a sense of play.

So, in this spirit, I pledge: 1. To be more honest and 2. To play more, in karate and in these entries.

Poem

On occasion, I’ll include poetry entries. Here’s the first:

Be soft in your practice. Think of the method as a fine silvery stream, not a raging waterfall. Follow the stream, have faith in its course. It will go its own way, meandering here, trickling there. It will find the grooves, the cracks, the crevices. Just follow it. Never let it out of your sight. It will take you.

 

Sheng-yen (b. 1931)