Every time I sparred with my Taekwondo instructor, Glenn, I would get frustrated.
It was like he knew what I was going to do even before I did. Every kick, every punch…every block…was countered with ease and what seemed like enjoyment.
How did you know I was going to do that? I would ask.
You telegraphed it, he would say. I could see it in your eyes.
So, a martial artist must not only have the physical skill to beat an opponent, but she must also have the mental skills of a world-class chess master?
I had to develop a Mr. Mayagi kind of enigmatic vibe in order to spar like a master?
At that point in my development that seemed like a daunting task, but I was determined that at some point in my martial arts journey, he wouldn’t enjoy sparring with me quite so much.
Glenn was a fine teacher and I learned a lot from him, but it took me a couple of decades to learn his secret, which, as it turned out, was an art, but not a secret.
He had learned, over the years, the art of patience. That the most effective defense was in how he countered offense. He simply readied himself, observed me, and waited for me to act. I never surprised him, except maybe the time when one of my wild kicks connected with his shin…
There are other aspects to the art, as well, but he didn’t have to use them when he sparred with me.
I never found a way to counter his strategy because I was too intent on action.
Glenn simply watched me defeat myself.
It has been said that when a novice achieves the level of black belt, their training has just begun because now they know just enough to become a serious student.
Up until that point, the novice is facing a steep climb up the mountain of mastery. They must learn the moves and repeat, repeat, and repeat them, with intention and focus on the proper form until they can execute those patterns of movement with ease.
Practice strengthens the neural pathways in the brain that start to form when the student begins martial arts training. When these connections become strengthened to the point where it is easier to do it right than to do it wrong, it becomes what we call 2nd nature. The student uses the open and curious mind of the beginner (our 1st nature) to learn what will become 2nd nature.
With their physical form mastered to a significant degree, this is the point where the student can begin to enrich and deepen their practice.
Mastering moves does not make a master. One must also master the mover.
The master understands that the only opponent he/she has is themselves.
This person is always in control of themselves. This state establishes an observation point from where they can relax, breathe, and observe their surroundings. This vantage point offers them perspective.
The master is always at home. This can also be called presence or being present. The master is alert. He has intentionally widened the gap between stimulus and response and made a home there. Having traveled long on treacherous terrain, she honors this space because she understands its value. This is where authentic power is found.
Like an eagle surveying its territory, he understands that this is where he can be the most effective, conserve the most energy, and act with the most precision.
The Tao teaches us that humans live best in a state of calm with intentional bursts of action. Psychology also teaches us that if we live too long in a state of active vigilance, of fight or flight...that when our sympathetic nervous system is overstimulated for too long, we become exhausted. It can make us physically and mentally ill. Accessing the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and digest aspect of our humanity, allows us to return to a calm state where we have the presence of mind to relax, breathe, and observe.
According to the Tao, to live in a state of perpetual action, with occasional intervals of calm, is a state that goes against our 1st nature, our natural state of being.
Nature always wins because it knows nothing of winning and losing. It is what it is.
Those who challenge what is defeat themselves.
The Nature of Nature
When I became aware of the nature of nature, the way of the natural world, I began to observe it all around me. Astonished, I kept being both delighted to find it and confused because I hadn’t seen it before.
When the student is ready the teacher will come…I began to understand it’s meaning…
I became more and more fascinated by what I could see now that I had learned how to relax, breathe, observe, be silent, and listen.
As it turns out, the master instructor also utilizes silence – she listens, thinks twice, and speaks once she has gathered the information required for skillful action. For the master, effective action is the result, the reward for their observation and patience. No action is ever wasted. In this manner, success and defeat offer their own rewards, because the master understands the value of experience.
The master, like the student, is always learning. Every student is her master instructor, because, as the master teaches the student, the student teaches the master what she needs to learn to become a better master.
As I progressed through my belt levels in Taekwondo, it was interesting to spar with black belts because it made me step up. I got to test my limits because I knew they knew how to give me just enough to make me work hard, but not enough to (intentionally) injure or discourage me.
By doing so, they honored us both.
When I became a black belt myself it was interesting to spar with lower-level belts because it taught me restraint. They taught me how to teach.
By doing so, I honored us both.
All mastery is self-mastery. The moment the master stops learning is the moment he ceases to be his own master. It is, truly, the moment of defeat.
Every human being alive can attain this level of mastery…the mastery of the self. It takes daily practice – a calm state, a relaxed breathing pattern, enhanced observation skills, but most of all, patience.
If the journey is the destination, can you live with that?