How has karate changed my every day life?

This essay was a requirement for my Sho Dan Black Belt grading in Zen Bu Kan kempo karate.

These days, I prefer to wear stretch denim pants.

Cancer is an individual experience. Every cancer is different, every patient presents in a different way, every cancer requires different drugs, each body reacts to the drugs differently, and every person copes with the assaults to their body and their dignity differently. I coped with inner strength, the inner strength that martial arts teaches, the inner strength that gets me through gradings and tournaments… and bone marrow biopsies… and chemotherapy.

One of the diagnostic tests for chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is a bone marrow biopsy. The routine blood tests are secondary evidence of what the bone marrow is doing, but primary evidence is required. One of the things we learn at kempo is that pressure points occur where nerves lie accessible from the surface, and also where muscles or tendons or bones join. The preferred location for a bone marrow biopsy is the posterior superior iliac spine, a knob of bone to which posterior sacroiliac ligament and some of the gluteus maximus anchors. This is effectively a an uber pressure point, and the biopsy needle passes directly through it. The needle has a 2mm inside diameter, and once inserted has to be wriggled back and forth to break off the end of the sample before it can be withdrawn. This is not done by a nurse, but by a doctor, as it is a highly specialised procedure. Large forces are required[1], the doctor must push hard enough to break bone (of course) and your knees are necessarily braced against the wall. It also hurts like hell, even with liberal amounts local anaesthetic. The good thing about your second bone marrow biopsy is that you know what to expect, the bad thing is… that you know what to expect. I’ve had five. Each and every one required a quiet mind and calm acceptance.

On one occasion, on the way to chemotherapy, the driver asked what martial arts had to do with chemotherapy. My reply was that fronting up to the chemotherapy ward was like stepping into the sparring ring. You don’t know what will happen, you don’t know if you will win, or if the other guy will win. And yet, you do it anyway; you may even smile.

The last chemotherapy cycle in 2010 was the most difficult. At the beginning of treatment, at the first cycle, I was obviously unwell, with little physical stamina, and I just wanted treatment to start, to get better, and to get it over with. Over time, over several cycles, I started to to recover, to get better between treatments instead of worse, to cope with more and to do more. The last cycle was the hardest, because I was starting to feel good, not just better, but actually good. Knowing what chemotherapy would do to me felt like a backwards step. Knowing that it was necessary was an intellectual reaction, the emotional reaction was more primal. Stepping into that ward was like sparring with Robbi or Glen: it was going to be confronting, but you appreciate it afterwards.

Wear comfortable clothes to chemotherapy, you are going to be there for a while.

Back in 2009, when I was working towards my 1st kyu grading, I was at work with my headphones on, deeply involved in the software I was working on. Unexpectedly, I was tapped on the shoulder. My reaction was to rotate the swivel chair, bringing my guard up, knocking the hand away. The guys were very startled, stepping back rapidly. They never interrupted me that way again! I got to thinking it was just because of the amount and intensity of training I was doing. But little things like that keep happening. More recently, early 2012, walking to the station, something on the road beside me made a weird noise as a car passed by; my reaction, with no thought involved, was to turn towards the threat and bring my guard up; then my brain caught up, and it was a false alarm. Seems that some things don’t wear off.

A while back, I was on a short camping trip with my local bush walking club. On the way there I’d been nattering on about karate, and one of the guys must have been thinking about it for the whole weekend. During a break on the way out, he asked “so what would happen if I threw a punch at you?” Straightening up, my reply was simple: “I don’t know. Throw one and we’ll see”.  I explained that self defence has to be muscle memory, because the conscious mind is too slow. He never threw the punch. Stretch denim pants are good for bush walking, too.

The lesson here, for me, was that my body language had changed significantly. There is an old joke about how a well-adjusted geek looks at your shoes when he is talking to you. These days I’m more centred, and you can’t do that looking at the other guy’s shoes. But more than that, I’m more aware of what is happening around me.

I was recently in Prague for a conference. Everyone had been telling me horror stories about pick pockets. The guy I was travelling with is ex Canadian infantry. In the airport, there is the usual array of people with signs, waiting for people off the plane, looking at everyone. One guy was looking at everyone, but he didn’t have a sign. He was brown: brown hair, brown leather jacket, brown trousers, brown shoes. When he noticed that I had noticed him, he tracks the two of us with his eyes. When we got into the cab, I said to my mate,

“Did you see the brown guy in the airport?”
“Yeah. Security.”
“Huh. I guessed thug.”
“Same thing.”

A few times, riding the underground trains around Prague, or wandering the streets of old Prague taking photos, we picked up a tail. But when we started actively scanning our environment, they dropped away. We never had a problem with pick pockets, our body language wasn’t the “mark” profile.

I’ve been an atheist since high school, when the hypocrisy of “convert enough people and you will go to heaven” proselytizing pushed me away. For years at martial arts, my instructors always asserted that it had a spiritual side, and I always said “yeah, right”. Certainly, when you read about martial arts, there is a noticeable Buddhist leaning in the writings. But the “inner strength” stuff is very real, the same state of mind that lets you step onto the mat at tournament, knowing nothing about your competitor, not knowing if you will win, or lose, or bleed, or hurt, but you are grinning all the same. This same strength is required to sit in the chair and get chemotherapy poison in your veins.

A while back, a new kid started at the dojo (I say “kid”, he was mid 20s) he was a quick learner, quite strong, and very very fast. During a merit badge, this kid was in the middle and everyone around the outside is calling encouragement and suggestions, and I’m sparring him. And I found that in the midst of all this craziness, and all this shouting, and him hammering on me, within me there was a still calm analytical core, watching him for things he could do better, and there I am, defending on autopilot, shouting suggestions at him for how to attack me better. And suddenly, everything is in the moment, and everything is right, and I’m feeling good. That quiet calm centre is what got me through chemotherapy. And now I know how you can have an apparently oxymoronic Buddhist order of fighting monks, in a belief system that abhors violence: it’s a form of meditation, and an euphoric one at that. So now we come full circle, and I find that I am a spiritual person after all.

The Buddhists call it nan tien and if it happens three times you are said to have reached nirvana. The first time is an accident, then of course you want it again and it doesn’t happen and it doesn’t happen, and only after you accept this and genuinely stop wanting it again does it happen again. The third time is all that again, but so much more. I’ve almost had it a second time at karate, but I tried to force it, and of course it winked out.

This is, of course, a well studied area of neurophysiology called a “religious experience” and it relates to messing with your own serotonin levels, usually through meditation (you can also do it with drugs, or brain injury). I learnt how to induce it in high school (not easy, mind you) so when it happened at karate I recognised it.

Black stretch denim jeans are a good emergency substitute for black gi pants, and quite comfortable when sparring and kicking.

Teaching kempo to children has changed the way I teach adults. Before treatment started in 2010, because the CLL was not fully stage 2, there was a period when I was too physically drained to work, but not yet sick enough to be treatable. I would commute to work, sleeping on the train, and then face-plant into the keyboard at work, asleep again; eventually I had to stop working altogether. In those months between stopping working and the start of treatment, I decided that I should use the time, and take every opportunity to teach. The result was teaching juniors and teens with Kyoshi Marika three times a week. When treatment began, the treatment weeks made teaching impossible, but I would teach whenever I could drive for long enough; sometimes teaching was the only thing I did in the entire day, the only thing I could do that day. Teaching experience is a necessity for a person who wishes to become a sensei, a teacher. Teaching isn’t an innate skill, and the black belt doesn’t instantly make the recipient a teacher. Since this is what I want, practice and experience are a necessity. What I didn’t expect was to enjoy it.

There is something interesting about being an old bald fat guy. I tend to fall into one of two categories: people tend to treat me as either invisible or safe. Kids and teens don’t really see adults at all, we usually have nothing to do with their world. When I do actually get noticed by them, amazingly, despite the size difference, they seem to put me in the “safe” bucket rather than the “scarey” bucket. It is quite a surprise when, out of the swirling mess of kids before training starts, a tiny six year old emerges to give you (well, your leg) a lightning hug, and then darts back into the chaos. How is it that, even when they have watched me rumble with adults on a Thursday night, ungently, they still put me in the “safe” category? Could it be that my emerging inner calm is reflected in the transparent reactions of children?

This “safe” categorisation isn’t limited to children and teens, adults also react this way. Commuting, or spending any time in the city, forces upon you the awareness that you are an anonymous walking meat sack from the point of view of everyone around you. One evening, coming home from a late meeting in the city, I was sitting on Hornsby station at 2AM, waiting for the last train to the Central Coast, feeling wary. Another passenger arrived, waiting for the same train, and sat down beside me, despite having the whole platform to choose from. Why was he anywhere near me? Was he a psycho druggie, or something? It was strange to realise that, on body language alone, this person had dropped me into the “safe” category, and that next to me was the safest place he could see. Similarly, when I was in Prague, I was wandering the Old City, alone, taking photographs of the architecture, and a few times I looked so safe that tourists came up to me asking for directions. Stretch denim pants are good for taking photographs.

Students often fail to notice that, at least twice each training session, once at the beginning and once at the end, the sensei bows to the students. Respect is a two-way street, or it isn’t respect. To see your students for who they are, for how to teach them, for what they need, you must first respect them. And most of all, you must respect the gift of their time and attention.

Running a training session requires many things: knowledge, planning, flexibility, repertoire, ego-less-ness, and leadership. Teaching informs me of the portions of the curriculum I know, and also the portions of the curriculum I need to revise, or simply add to my personal practice. Teaching requires planning to teach the necessary information in the available time, but knowing what this pace will be requires experience. Teaching requires flexibility, you have to adapt to the students who actually attend, and react to what you see as the class progresses; to see and take advantage of “teachable moments” when they occur[2]. Teaching requires repertoire, not only of the techniques enumerated in the curriculum, but of more than one way to teach each technique, because every student will learn differently, they don’t all have the same learning style as me, and what worked for me all those years ago will not work for all students. Teaching is about the student, it isn’t about the coolness or awesome-ness or medal-winning-ness of the teacher; to give each student the attention they deserve, you must put them first, before yourself, and teach them as an individual; and it’s quite possible you will be relegated to the “invisible” category again when class ends.

None of this is specific to kempo, or karate, or martial arts. Teaching adults, for the most part, is exactly the same, except they usually hide their feelings better, behind their “social face”. Teaching kids three times a week has changed how I teach adults: I have more patience, I work at seeing when the student doesn’t “get it”, and try different approaches, looking for the learning style that works for them. I have found that this even crosses to other areas of expertise, such as teaching bush-walking skills or even software programming skills.

Back in 2010, I ran a four-day trip to map blackberry weeds at a particular site in a national park, with NPWS backing. Because the way we were using GPS to do the mapping was unlikely to be familiar to any of the 12 participants, even those with their own GPS, I planned for a training session each day, along with progress  maps twice a day. Due to the CLL, I had no choice but to sit and collect results, and not actually do any of the GPS leg work. However, the training sessions conveyed not only the techniques but also the objective. In the end, the mappers were individually making correct decisions about where and what to map, because the training and leadership allowed them to. This is one of my personal challenges: how to give directions and tell people what to do, without fearing they will consider it an imposition. My personal epiphany was that the reverse is actually true: people like to be told what to do, if they have confidence that the person issuing the instructions knows that they are talking about. For kids, this is pretty automatic: parents, teachers and authority figures are by definition allowed to do this, but adults are less inclined to automatic acceptance of authority. And yet, once an adult has decided they will take instructions from you, it isn’t an imposition, or inconvenient, and they like knowing they are doing the right thing, and doing the thing right. This has changed they way I work with teams of people in my profession, for the better.

Teaching has also afforded me an opportunity to discover just how much I do actually know of martial arts, and kempo in particular. For many years I was looking at higher dan grades, and thinking how much I had yet to learn. This is, of course, an excellent lesson in humility, but I failed to look in the other direction. Teaching allows me to look back, and to see just how far I have come, that I have earned every grade, and that I have a wealth of knowledge to pass on.

In considering what I have learned, I realised that I know numerous ways to injure and maim and kill, and yet this knowledge, far from turning me into a thug, has simply given me options. When at training, higher grades must take into account the knowledge and skills of their lower grade partner. That we can spar and ground fight without injury to our partners, to check a blow when the partner moves to the exactly wrong place, is self control. Within me, there exists the self control to wield my knowledge as is appropriate to the circumstances. This is an interesting outcome, for me this is what all martial arts are about, the techniques and strikes and kata and weapons and ground fighting are all just hooks: the true lessons are self control, self confidence, and self discipline.

How has karate changed my every day life? These days, I prefer to wear black stretch denim jeans.

 

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[1] The doctor remarked that “young people like you” (it’s a long time since I was a “young people”, but these things are relative) “have tough bones, and make me work hard, especially when they do plenty of weight bearing exercise. Old people’s bones just crumble.”

[2] For example: in one class, a student fell out of a throw badly, and complained that her neck hurt. One of the more senior students was reaching to haul her up. In first aid, suspected neck and back injuries should assessed before a first-aider moves them, preferably sitting and standing by themselves. Despite the lesson being on throwing, the teachable moment was first aid. The student was OK