Monday, November 28, 2011

A Temporary Hold

It has been a very long time since I last posted to this blog. There are a number of reasons for this. The first reason is that I took a trip to Japan over the summer to aid in the tsunami relief effort. I spent a month over there and it was pretty life-changing for me. There is nothing like helping other people. Truly. It changes you. I would go back right now if given the chance. They still need a lot of help over there.

The second reason I stopped writing is because school began right as soon as I got back from Japan. This semester was my first semester as a university student. Being a music major, my course-load has been crazy. Ten classes. 30 hours. Rehearsals, practice sessions, concerts, performance requirements, more life has been school with a little bit of karate sprinkled in.

The third reason I stopped writing was because Martial Arts Refinery, my school, closed. That didn't mean the end of my karate journey, but it meant the end of something great; something that changed my life and helped me discover who I am. It was too painful to try and write about all of the feelings that came with my school closing. To be honest, it has been really hard to face up to the emotions that have been brought to the surface. Sensei Frank and Ammar and all of the kids I helped teach...they changed me. Training with them has been the highlight of the past few years of my life. I don't think I've ever learned more about myself than I had while I was training at the Refinery. So I'm experiencing a mixture of emotions right now, as well as some grief.

A few days ago marked my two-year karate birthday since I started training again. I haven't trained since the last day that our school was open. I miss it. But I'm unsure as to whether or not I want to train anywhere else right now. I have many options; I can start virtually anywhere. But I sort of feel homeless right now...and I think there's a time for that. And I think my time for that is now.
I have no doubt that I will continue training. I want to. I miss it so much. But I need to take a break first and reflect on everything that I've learned over the past few years.

Therefore, martial arts is now on a temporary hold. It won't be there for long because my body is itching to get back to training...but I will take this time for my mind to come to terms with the situation. It's been hard; I loved training at the Refinery. In many ways, training defined me. Going to another studio right now would be unwise; I'm not ready to move on yet. I would be preoccupied with thoughts about the Refinery and my training would suffer for it. I will return to karate when I can do so peacefully and with an open mind.

But I WILL return. I have to. I just need time to heal.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Great faith, great doubt, great effort

It's been awhile since I last posted! A lot has happened since then. First of all, my college spring semester just ended and I was accepted into the local university's school of music, which means that I'm less busy now and I should be able to write more often. Secondly, I'm preparing for a month-long mission trip to Japan to work with refugees from the Tsunami/Earthquake and to teach high school and college-age kids English. Thirdly, I'm about to teach my first ever martial arts class by myself.

Part of brown belt requirements is that the student has to teach a class focusing on one particular technique. I chose spinning-hook kick because...well, it's my favorite. The way I plan to teach it is to give the students a chance to practice a regular hook kick with partners, so they can get the feel of the kick before they try and spin. Basics are great; foundations are crucial. Really, I could stop at hook kick and spend the entire class learning that, but kids have short attention spans. They'll enjoy spinning with the kick, even if it's not absolutely perfect the first time.

As for how I feel about teaching a class by myself? I am nervous, but in a good way. Sensei has been giving me a lot of practice teaching individual students, so I'm confident that this will be a great learning experience for all who are involved. I don't always feel this way about it, but that brings me to the entire point of this entry.

I stumbled on a quote that read, "Great faith. Great doubt. Great effort." and at the bottom, it said, "The three qualities necessary for training."

It took me a few minutes to really understand what the quote was saying. I saw 'great faith' followed by 'great doubt' and thought, "Well, wait a minute...that's confusing. How can you have great faith and great doubt at the same time?". I think what the author meant was that at times during training, it is necessary to have great faith and at times it is also necessary to have great doubt. It depends on the situation.

For example, it's important to have faith in yourself and in others while you're helping each other learn techniques. I can think of a few situations where trust in yourself and your partner is crucial. Sprawling, back-bends, and throws require trust, just to do the technique! In addition to those things, you also trust your partner to execute the technique correctly, but also safely. You trust them to help you learn by training seriously, rather than goofing off. You trust them to constructively correct you when you're not doing something right or when you don't understand something.

These are situations where great faith is necessary in training. It's also important to have great faith in yourself, as well as in your fellow students. If you don't trust yourself; if you aren't able to commit to pushing your palm-heel all the way through the wooden board, you won't be able to break it.

Now, the 'great doubt' part also has its place. For example, take sparring. If you go into a sparring match with arrogance or pride, it will definitely get in the way of your decision to make a smart move. Making a smart move doesn't always mean attacking first. It means doing what the situation calls for. Another helpful thing about doubt, at least in my experience, is that it pushes us forward in a way that faith can't. When we look at a situation with skepticism, the natural step forward is to go searching for the truth. Skepticism and doubt often create determination to get to the bottom of something. If I doubt that I can do an aerial cartwheel, I subconsciously have an inclination to try harder in order to prove myself wrong (this can also be used to prove oneself RIGHT, but I don't want to be right, in this situation!). The doubt that I feel causes me to train harder, to practice cartwheels, and to basically stretch myself until I can do it.

You may argue that that's not actually an example of doubt, it's an example of faith in the face of overwhelming odds, but here's the difference: if I were to have total faith in my ability to do an aerial cartwheel right now, and I tried to do it, I would get hurt. Why? Because I can't do it yet. I haven't practiced. If I practiced and trained and strove to condition my body so that I could do an aerial cartwheel right now, it would be another matter. But the fact that I doubt I can do one right now will set those events into motion. I will train and condition my body to learn how to do it because I have GREAT doubt in my ability to execute that particular move at this moment, and I want to be able to later.

As for great effort? That speaks for itself. Great effort is necessary in anything that we do if we want to become great at it. To excel is to continually perform, not for a moment or moments, not for a day or days, but to perform day after day, month after month. If we make great effort a habit, it will no longer seem great to us...but we will feel the results!

That's my interpretation of the quote. I really like those three necessary things because I've personally experienced all of them multiple times in my training. I think this means that whether one is conscious of them or not, they will always show up as good personal teachers: Great faith. Great doubt. Great effort.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Facing Up

When a fight goes to the ground and your opponent is on top of you, you should never, never, never end up on your stomach. Being stuck in that position causes all kinds of problems. It exposes the back of your head and your neck, it keeps you from being able to see or predict your opponent's actions and, worst of all, it makes it impossible for you to defend yourself or react in any way to what's going on.

Instead of rolling onto your stomach, you should turn your body so that you're either on your back or on your side. You should face your opponent dead on. Not only can you see him now, but you can also protect yourself and find ways to turn the situation around. In general, on your back you have more control and more options.

Of course, rolling onto your stomach might be easier and might even seem like an instinctual thing to do...but it doesn't help you. It only leaves you exposed and vulnerable to attack.

I think it's important to face up to the things that take us to the ground in life, as well. It's a scary thing having to face an opponent that has the obvious advantage of being on top. Acknowledging that there's someone on top of you means that you have to fight; that you have to trap a foot and an arm and exert the energy it takes to turn the situation around. Sometimes that's hard to do because we don't feel like we have the energy...or maybe we're just afraid of the guy on top and we don't want to have to look and acknowledge that he's there.

But the alternative is to leave ourselves exposed and in a position where we can get hurt. And that's not really an option. It takes courage, I've found, to choose to look at your attacker just like it takes courage to face up to a problem that is holding you down. But we all have that kind of courage inside of us. It's hard to harness sometimes, but if there's one thing that I've learned from training it's that we often have to do hard things--things that are uncomfortable, painful, and even downright scary.

That's martial arts...and the only way to improve is to practice those hard, uncomfortable, painful, scary things. In the long run, we're training to be better people through and through, and that journey makes doing hard things worth it.

In life, we're training to be better people, too, hopefully. It's hard to have the courage and wisdom to stare your problems in the face and tackle them head-on, but it's better to have some control while lying on your back and facing your attacker than to have no control while blind and exposed. We want to always have options. Facing up to your problems gives you more options than denying them or running from them ever will.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Bacon and Shrimp

On Wednesday, Sensei said something that incapacitated me with laughter for a few minutes. We were working on 'shrimping' which is the technical term in Jiu-Jitsu for making space between you and your opponent when he has you in side control or in a full mount.

Here's how shrimping works: you stretch your body out as far as it can go with your hands pointed above your head and then, very quickly, you scrunch up like a shrimp with your knees to your chest and your arms tucked in and use the push-off afterward to propel yourself forward and out of your opponent's reach. You can even use their body to push off, along with your feet. It's hard to describe what it looks like in words, but there's a reason that it's call 'shrimping'. Shrimp are all curled into themselves. You have to curl into yourself as well and then quickly push yourself back into a straight position in order to get the momentum needed to free yourself from the mount. Sometimes you even have to do it a few times to get out!

Anyway, we were practicing shrimping across the room and suddenly, out of nowhere, Sensei yelled, "BACON! SHRIMP!" And I couldn't help it; I laughed so hard. I guess that when you're straightening yourself out, you look like a slab of bacon...versus when you tuck in and look like a shrimp. It was so funny, mostly because I wasn't expecting it.

The point of this entry is that martial arts can be a very serious thing, especially with the responsibility of knowing how to seriously injure people. But when people ask me why I do it, I tell them it's because I think it's fun. And that's 100% true. The self-defense and discipline and physical conditioning is great, but it's all just a bonus. The real reason I practice and study so hard is because it's so much fun. I probably laugh more during karate than I do during other activities that I'm involved in...not because I don't respect the discipline or the seriousness of what we're learning, but because I'm having a good time doing what I love to do.

It's important to do what we like. Other things are important too, but if we aren't laughing at least a few times a day, something isn't right. There are a lot of opportunities in martial arts training to be serious, and appropriately so...but there are at least as many opportunities to laugh. It's good for us to experience those as well.

Monday, March 28, 2011


March was sort of a bad month for writing blog entries. We're in the middle of the semester and I have more than a full course-load, so I've been writing less...but I HAVEN'T missed any class, which means that I've learned quite a bit even though I haven't written about it.

A few things have changed at the Refinery over the past month. Bruce went to a different Shotokan school to try and earn his 4th degree black belt, (which we can't supply him here at the Refinery), Zak's work schedule has made it impossible for him to come to class, and Blake's mom was pretty severely our classes have been kind of lacking in advanced students. Also, since school is in full swing, there has generally been less attendance over the past month, so on many days it has just been me and Sensei during the last class of the day.

Now that nobody is able to attend the 4:30 advanced class, it's just Sensei and I, as well. Let me tell you: if you want to really learn a lot, one-on-one training is absolutely the way to go!

Anyway, today during the 4:30 class, Sensei spent most of the time pushing me around. He told me to take a fighting stance and the object of the exercise was to stay on balance, no matter what. He pushed me, pulled me, tried to throw me, tried to sweep me, arm-barred me, tripped me, and the whole time I had to keep my base wide and my weight dropped in order to stay on balance.

Sensei has this new way of telling us to drop our center of gravity. Instead of saying, "Bend your knees" he says, "Be humble". Humility means serving, and in order to do that, you place yourself beneath those you serve...and it's also a lot quicker than saying, "Bend your knees".

Anyway, the wider my base was and the lower my center of gravity, the harder it was for Sensei to push me/pull me off balance. He said that this is because when you have a strong foundation, you have a strong stance. We practice stances all the time, but it really put things into perspective for me to be knocked over a few times.

Foundations are really important. Ask any home-builder. If your house isn't built on a strong foundation, when the hard times come, it will sink into the ground and collapse. This is why we spend so much time practicing the basics in karate. Every advanced move has basic moves in it...and every basic move will help prepare for advanced moves. Just imagine a jump-spinning-hook-kick without a bent front leg! Guess what that sounds like? WHAM! It feels even worse than it sounds. Trust me.

It's important to build our lives on strong foundations, as well. Sometimes we see something good and we realize that we really want to make our whole lives about that thing. Sometimes it becomes our job. Sometimes it becomes a well-treasured hobby. Sometimes, it's even a person!

But at any point in our lives, those things can be taken away. We might lose our jobs. We might become sick or injured. Our houses and possessions might be destroyed in a natural disaster. Friends and family eventually grow old or sick and die. Our lives and the very things that we believe to be so strong and steadfast...aren't. They are fragile and finite. Eventually, even the human race will cease to exist on Earth. Nothing lasts. Everything passes through the natural cycle of life and death.

So what foundation of this world can we hope to build our lives on? Nothing on Earth will last forever...but God is not of this Earth. He created it and lived on it, but he is not of it. He is not finite; he will not die. He will not even shake or stumble or sway in the wind. He is a solid foundation...the ONLY solid foundation. God is the only one that will not grow tired or crumble to the ground. He won't decay. He won't lose his luster or his strength with time. He won't even be out of breath from a series of sparring matches. He is not of the Earth, which makes it difficult to base our Earthly lives around him, but nothing else in the world will hold. Nothing else will last.

All of it will someday fade away...but God will always remain. Our orange belt verse is Proverbs 18:10, which says, "The name of the lord is a strong tower. The righteous run into it and are safe". There is no greater foundation; no better place to build your life than on God. God, who commands the oceans and calms the storms; at whose whisper mountains shudder and nations fall to their knees...God, who is on his throne; who is reigning and who is never shaken; who never falls. Never fails. Never abandons.

The ways of this world say that we will die and ultimately lose...but God's promise is that we will win, either way...because through him, we cannot lose. If our God is for us, then who can ever stop us? If our God is with us, what can stand against us? Nothing, because our foundation is everlasting, eternal, true, and good.

We will be pushed and pulled in our lives. We'll be swept and arm-barred, thrown to the ground, choked, pinned, and rolled. We will be hurt. We will fall. But we will fall on something greater than the nicest martial arts mat, and we will stand back up with our base wide and our knees bent. And nothing will defeat us, because when the day is done and our time here is gone...we win.

And that's that.

Monday, March 21, 2011


I think that when most people think of martial arts, they think about techniques and kata and nunchaku and cage fighting. I don't think that the thought of being helpful to other people comes to their minds right away. But most martial artists, if not all of them, can probably recall a time in their training where they needed the help of someone else. Perhaps it was to better understand a technique or to begin a form. Perhaps they needed assistance with properly conditioning their body for the physical fitness level that martial arts requires...or maybe they needed help with something more esoteric; maybe a struggle with a life issue or coming to terms with something outside of their control.

I can name many examples of each of those struggles that I've had while training, and I've only been training for a little more than a year. At some point in class, everybody needs a hand with something. It's inevitable when there's something new to be learned.

For example, who can practice a throw on their own? Without a partner, it's difficult to really prepare for that situation, because you're only moving YOUR body and not someone else's. Who can practice a choke defense without being choked? Sure, you can go through the motions until you have it perfect each time, but you need fingers to grab. You need to feel deprived of oxygen. You need to know where to look for air.

When we train, we need other people...and they need us! Since everybody needs assistance with something at some point, this means that most people have an opportunity to give that assistance. Senior students help younger students. Younger students eventually become senior students and continue that cycle.
But whether younger or senior or sensei, everyone has a chance to help someone else.

Right now, in Japan, there are a lot of people who need help due to the earthquake and tsunami. While they might seem stoic and calm, this is because Japanese people have been raised to appear as though they can bear the unbearable (this concept is called 'gaman'). Accepting help is sometimes very hard, but for the Japanese it is much more difficult. Their culture raises them to accept hardship without complaint; to persevere through extremely difficult things with poise and a general "can do" attitude. For a Japanese person, accepting help often feels akin to dumping their problems on another, and that is completely counter-intuitive to their way of life.

Sometimes, we have a hard time accepting help because we're proud; we're embarrassed to not be able to do everything on our own, but in Japan this is just the way of things. With such widespread devastation, so many people are now in need of help, though they will never ask for it. In some cases, they will not even appear to need it. But we all know at least one person who behaves the same way in martial arts. Maybe we ARE that person. I know I've been there.

So my message in this entry is, when you see somebody struggling, help them if you can. When someone hits the mat, I try to help them up. When someone is struggling to learn a technique that I have some understanding of, I try to help them learn. Sometimes others will need help, but they won't ask. That may be a good indicator that you should take the initiative. Whether Japanese or American, we are all human, and humans are not meant to do everything alone.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Losing and Gaining (And avoiding a fight!)

Tonight, a friend of mine and I were walking in a McDonald's parking lot on a side of town that we usually don't explore. It was late and there was only one other car (a van) parked in the lot, but I didn't really think anything of it because nothing seemed suspicious. It's a Sunday night. Most people are getting ready for work tomorrow.

Anyway, we got out of my car and suddenly, this guy appeared from inside of the van and asked us if we had a second. Of course, I said yes because he seemed like he might have been having car trouble or something. It turned out, he was looking for money. He asked me for about fifty dollars and when I hesitated, he got really close to me and it really made me nervous. He seemed very desperate and the way he was walking/talking/moving suggested to me that something wasn't quite right. He may have had a weapon. I'm not sure. Anyway, I was glad to find that I had about fifty dollars to give him.

I would've given it to him anyway, even if I didn't feel threatened. As a matter of fact, I was reaching into my pocket to get my wallet when he got inside of my personal space. His wife got outside of the car, too, seemingly to thank me, but she was moving strangely as well. It seems that I might have avoided a fight tonight by simply giving the guy what he wanted. I just have this feeling, based on the way the two were acting, that had I told them 'no', they would've taken it by force.

I am broke now, and I probably will be for the rest of the month, but at least I'm not broken! I still have my head. I'm not hurt...and neither are they. Any kind of fight may have cost someone their life tonight. What if that guy had had a gun? What if he really did have a knife? The way he was moving suggested a weapon of some did his wife's movements. The way that he invaded my personal space suggested that he was desperate and perhaps willing to take drastic measures to get what he wanted. There was no need for that since I gave him what he wanted willingly.

The lesson here is that it's better to lose something that seems important to you than to lose your life. We have to die to ourselves in order to gain eternal life in heaven. This means that we must sacrifice what we think we need, here on Earth; we must change ourselves and leave behind who we were in order to become who we need to be.

It's much better to lose your life and gain heaven than it is to gain the entire world, but lose your soul. Likewise, losing fifty bucks means that I'm going to have some trouble paying for some essential things that I need this month, but I still have my life. I am not hurt. I am not dead.

Overall, a very obvious success.