In my second week of training at Fingerlakes Shaolin Do, I walked into class and felt the very great relief of finding another new student starting that day. Here I was, in shorts and a t-shirt, surrounded by uniforms and belts of various colors, and feeling very awkward in my attempts at something entirely new; it was a true comfort to have another new person with me! That student, Chris, has become a dear friend, a teacher, and my Kung Fu brother. He has also progressed through the ranks a fair bit faster than me.
I’ve been asked if that ever bothers me (never by anyone who studies martial arts, however!). My answer has always been, and always will be, a resounding “No!”; but I understand what drives that mentality. American culture is defined, in nearly every aspect, by competition – economically, socially, and even recreationally we are awash in competition. But I am never bothered. Partially it’s just my personality; I have always been someone for whom “The Journey” is most important, and I am rarely competitive with others. But it’s also an intrinsic part of martial arts that, I believe, becomes clear to anyone who seriously pursues this art, which is why I’ve yet to be asked about this by other martial artists. Kung Fu, as with all martial arts, is a personal journey – it’s about individual growth. It’s my journey to take, and my path will be different from everyone else.
I’ve never been one for team sports. Partly this is due to a lack of trust (in myself as much as in others) and partly a result of being generally shy and introverted. Mostly I’m just not very interested in any of the sports that are team-based. So martial arts is an ideal pursuit for someone like me – someone who wants the physicallity and challenge of a sport, but does not necessarily want to rely on a team. I am fascinated by martial artists – the coordination, the strength and the speed and the flexibility – the pure ability that is involved. Also, as a child of the 80’s and 90’s, I grew up on Kung Fu and samurai movies! (I’m watching one as I write this!) So naturally I looked for a school as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
What I found, and what I earnestly hope that everyone finds, was a philosophy and a lifestyle that is perfect for me. It is one that is centered around individual growth and performance but also brings with it a very tight-knit community. We all come to Kung Fu from different places and we all stay for different reasons, but we are all seeking the same thing – to learn and grow, and be the best versions of ourselves that we can be. When I practice alone, I try to practice hard. But when we train together, I work harder than I ever thought possible! We encourage each other, and drive each other to do better – to exhibit Maximum Effort. I get the best of both worlds – the benefits of a team, but the satisfaction of a personal pursuit.
What I’ve discovered recently is that the personal nature of my growth as a martial artist goes beyond the individual path I’ve followed. I am still the end result of my upbringing – a steady diet of martial arts movies, comic books, and fantasy and science fiction. So concepts such as Honor and Respect are more or less hard-wired – not just personal honor, but honor and respect for my school and for Shaolin Do. I want to bring honor and respect to my school. And the opportunities to do this are in two things – tests for rank advancement, and competitions. Both of these are opportunities to demonstrate my skills to those outside of our school. And, I felt, if I did not do well, that lack of performance would reflect poorly on my teacher.
But a recent conversation with a senior instructor from another school helped me to realize that these two philosophies don’t necessarily work well together. Can my training in Kung Fu be a personal journey defined by my abilities and efforts, while at the same time can my ability and effort be a reflection on my teacher and my school? Not really, at least not in the way I thought.
If martial arts is entirely personal – personal effort, personal results, and a very personal timetable – then my performance at the milestones of tests and competitions are also entirely personal. My teacher is an excellent and accomplished martial artist; he must be to have gotten to where he is now! My performance is only a reflection on my effort and my commitment, not on my teacher or my school. And why would we want it any other way? When I succeed, I succeed on my own merits. When I don’t succeed it is on me, but I have a team – a family – on which I can depend to encourage me, help me improve, and hopefully to see me succeed in the future. What more could anyone ask?
What I’ve learned is that it’s not only the journey that is entirely mine, but the destinations as well.