Saturday, April 17, 2010

How not to fight, pt I


So as you may have guessed, I like karate. I consider it the closest thing to a system of faith, a philosophy that I believe in. The reason I like it so is because 1) it doesn't explain everything and 2) what it does explain, it explains through sweat. Not abstraction but concrete example. Marx, Hegel...they could talk your ear off about how the world works and a lot of what they say would make sense. But reasoning, no matter how powerful and able the mind always becomes faulty because at one point people rely on it too much. They rely on deductive methods when induction is needed, or they try to solve emotional issues with rational solutions or they become fascinated so much with theory that they ignore practice. Basically, something starts working, an idea, a strategy, and they try to apply it to everything. "-isms": rationalism, materialism, dialectism, humanism...Always remember my beloveds - ism is what you put on the end of an idea that's been taken too far. An idea that has lost perspective, lost an appreciation of it's place in an immense world. An idea that has lost Balance.

Karate (the physical system) and karate-do (that is, the philosophical underpinnings of the 'when' and 'why' and 'how' of violence) is all about balance. Physical balance is essential to properly bring to bear the forces of the body. Mental or spiritual balance is essential to using violence in a limited way. And I feel that quality karate training is set apart from other competitive and sporting endeavors of high caliber by this dual nature (I specifically mention 'quality' and 'high caliber' to distinguish good teachers from people whose claims exceed their abilities). How many times have you played chess with someone and known they were going to make a bad move? At these special times you can see someone's mind at work, you can see what they see and what they can't. How many of us have felt the exhilaration of diving to catch a ball, taking a man off the dribble, throwing a tight spiral on a slant, crossing a finish line first? We get a measure of ourselves in our competition with others, an honest appraisal of where we stand, completely devoid of self-deception.

I'm not saying that karate or martial training is better than chess or baseball. I'm not trying to say that a chess player can't be athletically gifted or that a baseball player never sees the game one step ahead of the other guy. The point is that you can go extreme and excel at both of them. You can 'juice' in baseball and be the best home run hitter of all time, and never be considered one of the greatest players. Likewise, we see big men in the NBA with no basketball IQ, surviving on genetically given height and athletic skill alone. A grandmaster in chess need never have done a pushup in his/her life. No balance. I like karate training because you can't be good in karate with either just your body or your head. You have to have both - you have to be looking to strengthen both all the time.

This is a unique aspect of fighting. In solely athletic or competitive pursuits the consequence of losing is slight. A damaged ego and disappointment - the occasional, unintended injury at worst. Because the stakes are relatively small, reflection and contemplation of the undertaking isn't necessary. But there's something about physical violence, pain and the threat of bodily harm that sharpens the mind. That calls it to service and opens an awareness that other undertakings simply do not. In fighting, physical skill set always takes you so far. Roy Jones Jr immediately comes to mind. The speed diminishes, the success follows. Contrast him with Ali who fights dramatically different early and late in his career. Butterfly floating and bee stinging gave way to roping and doping. His physical gifts dominated early, his mental strength won late. Both are indispensable to any meaningful combative training.

"You cannot truly know someone unless you fight them" is the saying from the Matrix sequel that Seraph utters to Neo. That line embodies much of my thinking about the merit of Karate. In looking into someone's eyes, seeing them move, gauging their intent, understanding distance, moving economically there is a form of honesty between two people that I haven't seen anywhere else. Just like chess, where you can see what someone is thinking, but like baseball, where you're moving and physical. Who someone is when they fight - when skin is in the game - is who they'll be when the chips are down. Do they plod headlong, irrespective of the chance of losing? Do they smile even when faced with defeat? Do they give ground, shying away from confrontation? Do they hit you repeated after you've been downed? Do they help you up once you've fallen? Here a person's character comes naturally to the fore, unrestrained by rules reserved for other sports. It becomes easy to see what kind of person you are because your personality is reflected in your fighting and by extension, how your personality harmonizes or clashes with other personalities. It's more than just dealing with violence. Essentially it is about dealing with people.

In discussing karate (as with many things) it is always important to distinguish between a thing and the teaching of a thing. Karate is ultimately more than just a word, or a set of actions, a way of thinking, or a compilation of postures. Karate is what a karateka, a practitioner, makes of it. It would be convenient to say that it is one thing that is unchanging and static, easily identified and characterized. But with each karateka, a little of themselves is rubbed onto the body of knowledge and through its future dissemination, what karate 'is' is altered going forward.

This distinction, between what it is and how it is taught, establishes to my mind the difference between training and 'quality' training - 'quality' training being obviously the goal of any karateka. Because of the industrialization and commercialization of the practice, undoubtedly much of karate training does not satisfy the criteria for quality training. First to go is usually the philosophical underpinnings of fighting, karate-do. Much karate training is just that, training to fight using karate motions and physical fitness methods passed down through time. To teach only the physical aspect of karate is to teach even less than half of what karate is: the mental and physical dimensions synergize to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. To teach someone how to fight without teaching them when to fight, why to fight or what to fight for doesn't make the world any better, it may make the world a little worse.

I suppose it would be more accurate to say that while karate is about how to fight, karate-do is about how not to fight - that is, how to avoid and prevent violence. It is a distinction that seems lost on many – even those who have devoted years to studying karate (more to come). But when both are taught together and feed off one another, it becomes one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever known.


- KD