Finding My Way, But Getting Lost First

If you can bear with me, I’m going to try and decipher my struggles with the past few weeks of karate class:

In Chapter 9 of Kenji Tokitsu’s Ki and the Way of the Martial Arts, he discusses ki, the guide to budo. Remember that ki is the Japanese word for qi (Chinese) or “chi.” Budo is martial way. Seme is the act of disrupting an attacker’s ki.

The combat of ki is the combat that takes place before the exchange of any blows and it is said that when a practitioner begins to sense the role of her ki in combat, she has begun to practice true art of budo. In this way, it is possible to create your own victory before physical contact has even been made. “Nonetheless, it would be wrong to say that there is a level where the mind alone is determining force, because without physical technique, there is no combat,” (47).

Tokitsu writes, “…the practitioner’s focus progresses from a preoccupation with the simple technique of movement to working with a state of mind. Not letting yourself be disconcerted by seme and discriminating the false from the real in the actions of your opponent amount to acquiring penetrating insight that is sustained by strength of mind,” (47).

In the past two weeks I have clung desperately to the simple technique of movement, the building blocks of kihon. I have resisted a shift from print block letters to cursive, as Hanshi would say, and my muscle memory has hardly been weaned from the classical blocks, punches, and kicks I practiced so routinely as a white belt. I believe this is partly because I find comfort in practicing what I know and doing it well.

I also believe that, perhaps after acquiring the worst bruise of my entire life, this is what my mind did: “…as soon as you think of striking a blow and hurting your opponent, the superego whispers that this is not right. This whisper, as tiny as it might be, is big enough to put the brakes on the spontaneity of your act and you have just enough detachment to feel this.This is often interpreted in a moral way, but it is technical in origin…I would say that morality derives here from a pragmatism pushed to the limit. This is the particular quality of budo. It has nothing to do with associating moral values with the practice of weaponry,” (49).

The notion of morality that is free of judgment is absolutely difficult for me to fathom. If the morality in budo is pragmatic, meaning a philosophical view that a theory or concept should be evaluated in terms of how it works and its consequences as the standard for action and thought, then my state of mind should not flinch when I am asked to do more than I think I can do. It means that hitting someone is not about hitting someone at all, rather, administering the best and most efficient and correct movement in response to whatever came before. This movement can be a movement of mind or of the body, and will be most effective when it is a movement of both. This, of course, correlates directly with the notion of zanshin, which Hanshi has been teaching us about all along.

Tokitsu says it best: “When you engage in combat, you plunge into the problems of ego, but not just in any old way. For example, those who are passionately dedicated to winning are carried along by a will to dominate others in order to affirm themselves…they will discover, paradoxically, that this will to dominate can be satisfied only if it allows itself to disappear,” (50). To be certain, I have not yet even begun genuine kumite in the dojo, but I do believe I have been in combat with myself since I walked in the door, as every karateka must experience on some level. And I can see now that when I have written about the problems of ego in the dojo, I, too, am not discussing it “just in any old way.”

I am passionately dedicated to doing everything I do as best as I possibly can. I find this affirming. As Tokitsu predicts, I am finding myself, paradoxically, dissatisfied in the face of the tremendous amount of information and movements Hanshi has taught me, and my body’s subsequent inability to keep pace. Additionally, I am not very forgiving of myself and I don’t have anyone of lower rank on the tatami to remind me where I came from. I only have upper ranks, whose presence and strength constantly reminds me where I need to be, though I’m not there yet. This is the error in my thinking.

Further, this explains why, for the past two weeks, every time I step onto the mat I want to cry and every time I get home I feel fed up: “Encountering again and again in the process of practice the contradiction between this desire for realization on the part of the ego and the effacement of this desire that is necessary to actually achieve the goal, [the practitioner] will be led to a profound reexamination of themselves,” (50).

This also explains my growing affinity for kata, imaginary combat versus multiple attackers, and my reduced commitment to practicing kihon (basic movements) at home. As Tokitsu says, when we get older (or injured, or slowed by our bodies in some way), we can do one of two things. We can experience discouragement, or we can enhance our understanding of the art of budo and rely more profoundly on the combat of ki. If you choose the former, as I have unknowingly, “[many] quit or reduce their level of training, contenting themselves for the most part with the practice of kata,” (51).

How’d this guy get so smart?

And here’s the kicker:

“In this way, the activity of combat leads to a process of introspection and fundamental questioning that takes you in the direction of a reorganization of the personality, a reorganization that aims at making you more penetrating in your judgment, capable of not allowing yourself to be perturbed, capable of acting spontaneously and accurately and being able to draw on your greatest abilities. The process of this reorganization is the training that contains the striving toward self-development that constitutes budo…Through this sort of bird’s-eye-view of the evolution of a practitioner’s consciousness, we are able to understand that it is at the moment when practitioners become aware of the importance of that which is ordinarily invisible that their subjective education begins,” (52-53).

Not but a few weeks ago I demonstrated wunsu kata for Hanshi and he noticed my improvement, but commented that it was almost “too perfect,” and that I needed to “flow more.” In this, he was slightly opening the door to what Tokitsu is discussing here.

The wall I have to scale in order to surrender one understanding of myself to this more away, slightly more evolved other sense of myself, seems endlessly tall. And the more Hanshi “force feeds” (his words) me with knowledge and movements, the taller that wall seems to grow. It is too much all at once.

Or is it? Does it hurt a six-year-old to know how many miles around the Earth is even though she may never get to see the whole thing? Will such knowledge discourage her from exploring what comes her way, even if it is just one state, one region, one country at a time?

I don’t know what to do next, but I do have some faith that naming the problem is half the battle.

Showing 2 comments
  • Michael Kline

    Katey, I am really enjoying this thread in your karate discipline. I didn’t know anything, aside from the usual cliches, about the philosophy and mind body rigor you are going through. It’s pretty fascinating stuff. Thanks.

  • "Lis"


    Sometimes the fiercest battle in Karate is just getting through a class.

    I begged my former student to stay involved in karate for months longer than she really wanted. She was physically and emotionally exhausted from 3+ years of little sleep from essentially working 2 jobs — her regular one as well as renovating 3 houses for extended family and her own over that time period.

    You too are physically and emotionally exhausted. With karate overload, reading overload, writing overload, & grad school burnout.

    Keep giving yourself permission to miss notes and not worry about it, to blow off some work not due RIGHT NOW to spend some time in the sun, thinking about nothing else but the blue sky overhead.


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