Beyond self-defense: The way of life

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Defense against the dark arts. Pixabay

Karate a strong support system for campus researcher

By Garrett Lillie

“The true aim of karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants” – Gichin Funakoshi

I find that when people think of karate, they often first think of the battles of Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, or the “wax on, wax off” teaching of Mr. Miyagi in The (original) Karate Kid. Hollywood has been pumping out martial arts movies for decades and while they have certainly given us a representation of traditional karate, it has not necessarily been the correct one. At its core, traditional karate is the pursuit of mastery of one’s self: of one’s mind, body and spirit. Karate is more than just a sport; it is a way of life that brings out the best in yourself both in and outside of the dojo and has helped me grow into the person that I am today.

To perfect one’s self, one must develop their body, mind and spirit. Conveying the physical aspect of karate is fairly straightforward; it should be no surprise that karate features a significant physical component and classes usually begin with both aerobic and anaerobic workouts to warm up. One can then expect to do a multitude of techniques ranging from punches and kicks to various partner drills and other exercises specific to the topic of the night. What is harder to explain, is the mind and spirit that one must work to develop in karate.

When I consider how to represent the mental and spiritual aspects of karate, I like to think of a particular scene in the first Matrix movie. In the first, Laurence Fishburne’s character, Morpheus, is trying to explain the rules of the Matrix to Neo played by Keaneu Reeves. Morpheus instructs Neo to jump from the ledge of a skyscraper, across a busy street, to a skyscraper on the other side. A seemingly impossible feat that Morpheus accomplishes without a second thought. Trailing behind, Neo tells himself repeatedly that he can do it and that he just needs to “free the mind.” Now, being a movie where the hero is explicitly referred to as “the chosen one,” and “is capable of anything,” it should be pretty obvious what happens next. After a few deep breaths, Neo runs, jumps and . . .

Falls to the street below (Is this a spoiler? The movie has been out for two decades. I’m saying it’s not). Dismayed, both the audience and Neo ask themselves “why didn’t that work? Why couldn’t he make the jump?” The answer is simple: he didn’t believe that he could. This brings me to a revelation that I have had, and continue to have, regarding not only karate, but life itself: it is not enough to simply tell yourself that you can do it, you need to believe that you can, but it’s alright to fail when you can’t.

Failure is an unavoidable aspect of life and karate certainly gives one plenty of experience in it. Aside from the plethora of difficult physical challenges one will face (like the three sets of stairs to even get to class), karate will continue to challenge you as long as you continue. At gradings, one performs in front of representatives from the international governing body in hopes of earning a new belt. Similarly, provincial tournaments offer the opportunity to compete against athletes from all over Saskatchewan. These events taught me from a young age to deal with failure and although it may sometimes feel like it, failure is not the end, failure means that you still have room to grow and more to learn.

One of the core principles of traditional karate is that you never stop learning and this principle manifests in the black belt system. Many people are surprised to learn that there are actually ten black belts to earn in karate. Even more people are surprised to learn that, in order to obtain your tenth and final black belt, you must have your ninth-degree black belt and die. The reason for this it to promote the idea that we are always learning, we will never learn everything.  These philosophies in traditional karate are easy to forget, but can and must be applied to everyday life; karate and life are not separate but rather, karate is a way of life, a way of being. That got a lot deeper than I intended. Let’s move on.

When kids come to their first class, they are often eager to try flying kicks and punch through boards, but their classes usually start simpler as they learn basic stances and movements. Adults, on the other hand, usually begin their first class more reserved, happy to have just survived the climb up the three flights of stairs leading to the dojo. Upon stepping foot on the dojo floor, everyone will be greeted by a large, open room with mirrors covering one wall, an opportunity to reflect upon the self. The dojo kun hang above the mirrors at the front of the room in both English and Japanese, a set of rules to guide us in the improvement of ourselves: “Seek Perfection of Character. Respect Others. Be faithful. Endeavor. Refrain from Violent Behavior.” Right in the centre of the front of the room hangs a picture of Master Gichin Funakoshi, founder of traditional karate. When I was younger, I was told that this picture was magic: when you were happy with how you did in class, Master Funakoshi would smile, and when you were disappointed, he would frown. For me, however, what I see most when I walk into the dojo, is home. Having been training for most of my life, the dojo is a second home to me and my instructors are a second family.

Those that know me will often remark on my energy and sociable nature, but I never used to be this way. In high school, I thought that I was introverted, shy and timid, but this wasn’t really me. As I trained karate, I eventually started teaching and through teaching, training and competing for years, I was forced to be myself to succeed, my true-self, someone who is sociable and not afraid to get up in front of a crowd. Karate helped me become who I am today, who I really am.

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