The Quantum Karateka

…step outside the dojo.


My Real Self

The permanent misfits are those who because of a lack of talent or some irreparable defect in body or mind cannot do the one thing for which their whole being craves. No achievement, however spectacular, in other fields can give them a sense of fulfillment. Whatever they undertake becomes a passionate pursuit; but they never arrive, never pause. They demonstrate the fact that we can never have enough of that which we really do not want, and that we run fastest and farthest when we run from ourselves. (pg. 47)

What ails the frustrated? It is the consciousness of an irremediably blemished self. Their chief desire is to escape that self – and it is this desire which manifests itself in a propensity for united action and self-sacrifice. The revulsion from an unwanted self, and the impulse to forget it, mask it, slough it off and lose it, produces both a readiness to sacrifice the self and a willingness to dissolve it by losing one’s individual distinctness in a compact collective whole. (pg. 59)

It is doubtful whether the fanatic who deserts his holy cause or is suddenly left without one can ever adjust himself to an autonomous individual existence. He remains a homeless hitch-hiker on the highways of the world thumbing a ride on any eternal cause that rolls by. An individual existence, even when purposeful, seems to him trivial, futile and sinful. To live without an ardent dedication is to be adrift and abandoned. He sees in tolerance a sign of weakness, frivolity and ignorance. He hungers for the deep assurance which comes with total surrender – with the wholehearted clinging to a creed and a cause. What matters is not the contents of the cause but the total dedication and the communion with a congregation. He is even ready to join in a holy crusade against his former holy cause, but it must be a genuine crusade – uncompromising, intolerant, proclaiming the one and only truth. (pg. 87)

– Eric Hoffer, The True Believer

I am running away from my frustrated self. My blemished self. I came all the way up north to pursue my “holy cause” of “practical karate”. I came here to find the right soil to grow in, but really I came here to get away from the disgruntled me, the me that does not have the talent or skill to make something of myself in this life. I am a “non-creative man of words”, a failed artist. This blog was partially created out of contempt for myself. I never really got anywhere with my martial arts. Not that I needed to get anywhere. But I never really got things. I am good at imitating others. Good at copying behaviors and physical movements. Not so good at being myself. Silently, I’ve hated those I’ve admired. Hated their talent, skill, athleticism, their confidence. The hatred was for me though. A deep self-contempt for what I don’t like about myself. I’m basically a sensitive guy. I cry when I get yelled at or called names. I cry when I get punched. These are not the desired qualities of a “tough” martial artist (ironically, I think the image of toughness is a joke, but somewhere along the way I got caught up in my own joke). I’ve hated myself for not standing up to name-calling, taunting and other forms of bullying. I’ve hated myself for being scared of other people’s aggressive or violent behavior. Through martial arts, I thought I’d be able to learn how to handle myself more confidently in a fight. I thought that by sweating hard enough and doing what I was told, I’d be able to accomplish this. But my karate training was “cultural preservation society” stuff. And while my Sensei may have been able to handle himself physically, I’m not my Sensei. I should have transitioned out of karate when I left my dojo over two years ago now. But I couldn’t reconcile the guilt I would feel if I gave it up fully. The guilt I would feel about paying a visit to my Sensei and having nothing to show for the time I’ve been away. Maybe the only real reason I’ve kept training was to keep up appearances, to look good in the eyes of others. If so, that just needs to stop.

I wonder though, does martial arts training have to be about being tough? Can’t it be about being healthy? About improving health? About feeling good (not necessarily about looking good – form follows function anyway) in your own body? I don’t want my training to be something I do because I hate myself (the self that cannot stand up for himself). I want my training to be functional; I like knowing how stuff works (there needs to be The Way Things Work for martial artists). I want my training to give me confidence in handling myself mentally (because the ass follows the brain doesn’t it?). Belts and awards and competitions don’t matter much. What matters to me is the everyday. The conflict that arises on the job, in relationships, between friends, with strangers. Maybe I’m delusional, but I believe that the right training can help a person to recognize the smallness of a man or woman being rude to you. The smallness of a man yelling and spitting at you. The right training can help you to make a choice to walk away, to disengage your monkey mind from their monkey dance.  Or again, maybe that’s just my fantasy. The story I tell myself to keep training, even though I will never find what I’m looking for, which is essentially to be something other than myself.

I was thinking about ending this blog now. I don’t want it to be something I’ve created out of contempt for myself. If it’s going to be anything, I want it to be from my heart. Not a platform to condemn or defy. Just a platform to express what’s true for me. I am attracted to the ancient in what’s modern. Which is why I’m drawn to karate I suppose, with its hundred year old kata. And what I really like about a so-called “practical” approach to karate is that it makes what’s ancient alive again. Instead of like cleaning the tomb and washing the bones, it breathes life into the practice. It makes it exciting and invigorating. It actually makes me feel more respectful to those tombs and those bones. This is something I’ve blogged about already with my experience in those private lessons with Sensei Wilder. I feel like I’m actually learning something instead of learning to obey someone.

What I think is needed is a living karate society. Not a karate “preservation” society. But I really don’t believe it’s necessary to abandon what’s old just because. The point is to understand what’s in the old so that we can utilize our modern understanding to make it relevant again, at least the parts that are relevant to our times. I think a campaign for “kata literacy” is what’s needed if karate plans to stay with us in the 21st century.

But I’m rambling again. Wishful thinking. Part of the desire to be here in Seattle is so that I could gain some functional legitimacy with what I’m talking about. Otherwise, I feel like I’m not qualified to start anything. I’m looking outside for some approval. Looking for other, more qualified people to give me the go-ahead. Looking for the experts to say, “Okay, you’re ready now.” So I don’t know what to do with myself here. I mean, if I want to box, grapple, yoga, I don’t need to be in Seattle for this. There’s plenty of that in California. Do I really need to be here? Maybe not actually. But can I get what I’m looking for here?

I don’t know. Haven’t articulated what I’m looking for as a student yet. Maybe I just need to go home.

-James


Martial LARPing and other tales

A visiting student to West Seattle Karate Academy used this term recently in conversation. I thought it was fitting:

LARP (Live Action Role Playing). Click here for a definition.

It seems many of us are martial larping. I mean, if we’re really honest with ourselves. We gear up in the appropriate costumes, pick up the appropriate weapons and kick, punch and scream, pretending to knock down invisible enemies with one powerful strike. Or some of us anyway. I know, I’m just poking fun. But seriously, for some people I’m sure the dojo is like Halloween 2 – 3 times a week. You get to pretend you’re a ninja, or a serious martial artist from way back in the day.

I think the equalizing element in martial arts has to be violence. Otherwise, how do you know what works and what doesn’t? What I mean is, if you cannot verify that what you do is combatively valid, then you have to make up information. The information source for martial arts is violence. Without a living flow of that, without real-world experience with that, then your practice becomes stale, rigid and obsolete. You start to resort to defending your martial lineage or your Sensei’s experience. As if those things are what make you legitimate. The only way I think to safeguard against cults of dojo personality and stupid training is to live-test the techniques. Of course, taking into account as many safety concerns as are necessary, but not denying the fact that you may get severely injured or even killed. It’s why Peyton Quinn has a section in his book “Real Fighting” entitled “Why Does the Karate Fighter So Often Fear the Boxer”. It’s because generally, the karate person has never had their lights punched out before.

There’s a sign over an Aikido dojo in West Seattle that says, “A Non-Violent Martial Art”. Can there really be such a thing? I mean not all of us can be a bad-ass like Morihei Ueshiba. I think the closest I can think to that is using Rory Miller’s/Marc MacYoung’s “ConComm” course. Otherwise, physical martial practice has to be appropriately brutal. The “non-violence” has to come form de-escalating yourself and the mental skill sets needed to recognize violence dynamics and avoiding them.

And I’m not necessarily talking about “real-world experience” like actually gouging people’s eye’s out or getting into fights. That would be pretty stupid. I’m just referring to how we can make our training simulate the reality we expect to face. If you are training to be an MMA competitor, would your training consist of kata and kobudo practice? If you are training for kata competition, would your training consist of full contact sparring? Obviously, your training has to correspond to what you want your skill set to work for. I am going to assume (with my limited experience) there is a good number of people out there, including me, who were looking for their martial arts training to give them confidence in handling themselves physically. I am going to assume (with my little experience) that much of the training out there is false-confidence training.

The martial paradox is developing the confidence with “fighting” in order so that you avoid fighting. This is really important to me because this is why I wanted to do martial arts in the first place. Not because I had a lot of fighting to avoid. But because I was afraid of physical or aggressive contact with someone when it came to being bullied or being targeted for violence (mainly to do with me being Asian). I really believe that with the right kind of training, shy guys like me (and gals) can overcome their fear of these things. And I don’t think it really matters the “style” you do or start out in to achieve this. It matters how you are training it. I’m sure Bruce Lee was not the first to articulate the four “ranges” of empty-handed combat, i.e. punching, kicking, grappling, trapping (which is is not unique to Jeet Kun Do mind you, it’s unique to human fighting). But if we use that insight, we can see that the student should have knowledge of all of those “ranges”. In today’s martial arts world, we have specialization in any one of those areas (boxing, BJJ, etc). Plus, we are not taking into account weapons, which changes the game significantly. I don’t think it’s wrong to have a preference for any of these ranges. But I think any martial art that can be expected to have real-world functionality (sporting contests do not count) is going to train in all of those areas. I mean, is a soldier going into combat sufficiently trained if all they know how to do is shoot a gun? What if they run out of ammo? What if their gun gets jammed? What if all they have is a knife?

But okay, for those of us who are not police or military, are we sufficiently trained to deal with threats in the civilian realm if all we know how to do is box? Or grapple? Most certainly, we may never encounter any experience with severe physical violence in our entire lives. So what’s most important then? That’s why I like Conflict Communications. It makes the most sense. Not only for those whose profession does not involve violence, but for humanity as well. To me, that is the  of karate. How do we expect to make a more peaceful world if we are scared of facing potential conflict and violence? More importantly, how do we expect to have a de-escalation of violence in the world if we cannot first de-escalate ourselves? This is very deep to me. It goes all the way down to self-confidence, self-empowerment, loving who you are, being okay with who you are, swallowing your shadow sides, among other things. Physical training without a “spiritual” base is brutality. Spiritual practice without physical training is like osteoporosis. What do I mean by “spiritual”? Well, I’m definitely not talking about levitating or flying. And I’m definitely not referring to any one specific church, temple, mosque, doctrine, philosophy or teacher. I guess what I really mean by spiritual is overcoming fear. Fear of the Other is what creates the conflict, division, animosity and hatred in the world. Fear is what we carry around inside of us. I’m not talking about amygdala fear, the kind of fear that can protect your ass when faced with a real Threat(s). I’m talking about Ego fear. The kind of fear that’s generated when your Ego senses it’s status being challenged. This is “spiritual” to me when we talk about this. Because it is a lack of spirit in our modern world that I think is a big problem and makes life meaningless and random for so many people.

-QK


Wishy Washy

Hmmm. This is weird.

Just yesterday night I was asking myself provocative questions like, “how would you feel if you quit doing karate? Would there be guilt? Shame?”

Partially this had to do with being tired and feeling grumpy but the questions were kind of interesting. It felt scary to be so honest with myself. Like, “what did you come here to learn? And are you learning that?”

No. I’m not learning that. At least not in the way I imagined. I came here to develop my “kata literacy” and I came to study with a teacher whom I thought could teach me this. I mean, The Way of Kata is all about that.

But there is no class for kata literacy. This is not how Sensei Wilder runs his school. Of course, I could’ve told me that the first time I went to visit. I knew what I was getting myself into.

Anyway, the point is that I was saying these crazy things to myself and feeling in tune with it. Like, “Hmmm. I don’t even like karate anymore. I don’t feel inspired by it or passionate about it anymore.”

And that’s how I was feeling all throughout the work day today. I was even reluctant to go to class. I was like, “Nah. This stuff just isn’t for me. Why can’t I just give this up already?”

But then…

Then I was in class. And another black belt and I were going over a kind of feed drill where we use a mawashi-uke against a left/right punching feed to entangle the limbs, pulling the head down, locking the shoulder, kneeing to the chest/face area, and then positioning the feet and legs so that a Tai Otoshi was executed.

Very brutal stuff.

And I found myself sweating a bit. And having fun getting thrown down and tangled up. And afterwards I thought of telling Sensei Wilder how I was feeling last night and all today. But I didn’t get the chance. But he doesn’t need to know that I suppose. Just me.

Isn’t that weird? Like, all today I was thinking, “Finally I’m moving closer to pushing karate out of my life, maybe martial arts altogether. Finally I’m done with this! I can go back home now!”

And then now, after class I’m thinking, “Hmmm. I like being here. I like learning from Sensei Wilder.”

What the hell is going on inside of my mind? One minute I wanna quit cold turkey. The next minute I’m okay with learning like how I am. The other weird thing is that I’m having to internally let go of what my Sensei (from So-Cal) taught me. I don’t really feel compelled to practice those kata anymore. I don’t really feel compelled to practice karate the way he taught me anymore. I feel like the more I struggle mentally to hold onto that original way, the more I feel stuck about continuing karate in my life. It’s like, then I’m looking for something not of my own – only what I think I should be looking for, instead of what I want.

Karate, like life, should be dynamic and alive. Not static and unchanging.

– QK


Yoga and Karate

Saw this article in The Seattle Times that was left in my delivery truck the other day. Reading it, I couldn’t help but think about the ways in which karate (and martial arts generally) are perceived here in the West. I thought it was interesting how one of the yoga teachers interviewed (Mehrotra) states that, “It’s always complicated to practice or teach yoga as an Indian or Indian American in the United States.” That seems to be the opposite of what’s true for the Western martial arts community, at least in my experience. People almost expect that an “Asian master” is going to somehow be more authentic or legitimate than a white person. It’s the reason I think so many teachers seek to be associated with Asian masters in their respective countries. What grabs my attention most about this subject is the way in which cultural practices from the East, like karate, have evolved here in the West. While much of it seems to conform to the materialist culture we have, I think there have been some actual improvements in the pedagogy. I’m thinking of instructors like Patrick McCarthy, Iain Abernethy, Rory Miller (although not a karate guy, but someone who did/does Japanese martial arts), and of course my current instructor, Kris Wilder. I mean, it’s the reason I moved here to Seattle. I like to point out this bit of irony to people: younger Asian guy who does karate seeks out older white masters to help him understand the true essence of his art. Haha.

Although karate itself is no longer the “craze” it once was some decades ago, it’s still relevant to consider how this “ancient practice” ended up at your ‘local neighborhood dojo’. Enjoy!

-QK

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[Originally published November 27, 2014 seattletimes.com]

Something is being lost in Seattle’s yoga craze

Sweta Saraogi, a local yoga teacher who grew up in Mumbai, struggles with how exercise-oriented yoga in America has taken on a “hard-core fitness” attitude that she says commercializes an inherently spiritual practice.

Special to The Seattle Times

If you’re not into the Seattle yoga scene that statement might come as a shock — given yoga’s spiritual, historical and cultural roots in India.

But if you’ve practiced yoga in this city for as long as I have (almost eight years) you know what my friend is talking about. Not only are yoga teachers rarely Indian, they’re most often white.

“That’s the face of yoga,” says Saraogi, sitting in the fitness studio of her apartment building where she teaches private sessions, “A thin, white, blonde … American teacher who can do crazy pretzel moves and pass for a supermodel.”

Saraogi, who grew up in Mumbai and has spent time studying yoga in India, says a lack of diversity in American yoga culture is only part of her critique.

She also struggles with how exercise-oriented yoga has become in America — a “hard-core fitness” and “sweat it out” attitude that she says commercializes an inherently spiritual practice.

She trained as an instructor in the Midwest and says that when she tried to include elements like chanting or philosophy in her classes she often was told it was intimidating — especially coming from an Indian woman who may be perceived as too serious or too religious in her approach.

“In Chicago, most of the time I was pushed back even if I tried to chant ‘Om’ (a common Hindu mantra),” says Saraogi, who is quick to add that she was raised Hindu, but identifies as spiritual, not as religious. “Indirectly I was told, ‘You need to back off … We don’t want to scare people with your chanting and your (skin) color.’ ”

It’s always complicated to practice or teach yoga as an Indian or Indian American in the United States, says Gita Mehrotra, who has practiced yoga for years and recently finished a teacher training.

Mehrotra feels alienated by yoga that ignores cultural and spiritual elements of the practice, but is also offended by the use of Hindu religious symbols and religious chanting by yoga studios full of non-Indians.

“You would never ask a room full of people to recite the Lord’s Prayer without context, or giving (people) a choice of whether or not they’d like to participate,” says Mehrotra, referencing the Sanskrit chants and prayers often incorporated into yoga classes. “Especially in Seattle, a lot of yoga studios take a kind of uncritical approach to using … Hinduism as part of their yoga studio and what they are selling.”

In response to this and other examples of a yoga culture that felt unwelcoming, Mehrotra helped co-found POC Yoga, an organization in Seattle that provides weekly classes and regular teacher workshops for people of color while also contextualizing yoga’s Indian roots.

Saraogi has forged her own path as well. Tired of fighting to fit into the existing scene, she’s started teaching private classes to clients (I’ve taken three myself). She says many of her clients feel uncomfortable in standard yoga classes, whether because of their body type, gender, race or culture, and prefer taking private lessons with her.

Yoga has long been a positive part of my life but I’ll fess up: I’ve chanted a lot of Sanskrit words I didn’t understand and have been to only a few classes taught by a person of color. So how can the practice be more authentic and inclusive in a city where yoga studios are becoming almost as common as coffee shops?

Saraogi and Mehrotra both say it isn’t about excluding anyone, but instead about finding ways to include different types of people in yoga culture. Oh, and taking the time to notice that you’re engaging in an ancient practice that took a long and, sometimes strange, journey to your neighborhood studio.

“I don’t feel like it’s an easy fix and I don’t have an answer about it,” says Mehrotra, “But I think there’s something about acknowledging that it’s complicated that would go a long way.

I know it just got more complicated for me.

Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist, http://www.seattleglobalist.com, a news site covering Seattle’s international connections. Sarah Stuteville:sarah@seattleglobalist.com. Twitter @SeaStute

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