Guest post by Fingerlakes Shaolin-Do student, Kavi Rude.
“I am not prepared for this moment. Me, a divine martial master with everything this world has to offer and more, stilled by the weight of a single feeling. I have achieved perfect knowledge of myself and my enemy, with a single thought I can dispel any intention. Elements answer my call and I wear nothing but all the qi of the universe as a robe, stronger than the kingliest of battle regalia. Attack from neither flesh nor steel can reach me, I am no longer a prisoner of time and space. Yet my world turns and I am left behind. Disquiet chatters and a life once ecstatic, full of epic fights I am fated to win in spectacular fashion, dwindles and grows stagnant.
In the halls of my great warrior palace, I sit in meditation and I am immediately frustrated. The thrill of adventure lies in the unknown, after all, a place paradoxically hard to reach for the omniscient. But I have many tricks, so I do the next best thing. I imagine. And in my dream, I am not quite so powerful, I have a little less control. In surrender, I receive the extraordinary gift of being anxious. Dangers abound and for once I am relieved the burden of already knowing the outcome. And what pleasure it is!
In my perfect ability, I design a wrinkle in my meditation so that in my dream, I forget entirely that I am under spell, and with childlike conviction my vision is real. How far might I go? I dare myself. What dimension of abandoning my powers can I possibly stand? Farther and deeper I go, venturing in this gamble until who should I wake up as, but you. The piece of wisdom I was missing all along. In the infinite multiplicity of choices before me, your life as a student of this path is there, glistening, a size that fits perfectly in hand. So I leave the safety of wakefulness to stand where you are now, stance low and fists chambered. Ready. I am you. In your triumphs and doubts, every quiver of muscle and flight of breath, each harmonized conversation of your earthly vessel and a misremembered form teasing just out of reach. In my perfection, like you I stumble, and it is the only way I know peace.”
In childhood I often lost myself in fantasies of heroic combat and, naturally, I was always the perfect martial artist. Kai-Tsaagan Kasane, which has a more impressive flare than its English translation “Saber Raptor Firecat”, came to life as my hooded, dual blade wielding alter ego whenever stale afternoons called for a dash of inspiration. I would be whisked away to hidden mountain villages in enchanted forests or boulder fields in desert tundras, each universe furnished with its own capital city full of burdened citizens and a curious weekly susceptibility to siege by enemy armies. As Kasane I was an unstoppable force, overwhelming my adversaries with swift blows and fantastic displays of acrobatics time and again. You’ve had daydreams like these too, I bet.
When I later began to study martial arts, I reflected on the remarkable intensity of these internal scenarios and how effortlessly the youthful mind makes them absolute. How grand our training sessions would be, if we could approach our tasks with the kind self-assurance we granted our imaginary selves without thinking about it. This martial way of being we have invited into our lives shapes us and is shaped by us. As students, our paths occasionally leave us in spells of protracted entanglement with only brief glimpses of the straightforward, and in particular I have found that this feeling follows me whenever I allow a misleading idea about perfection to shape me. I’m sure you’ve had those days too – when you can’t do as many pushups as you wanted, your balance is nonexistent, you can’t remember what martial art you study and you feel like you got your rank out of a cereal box. At this point, you may as well go sit on the couch with a tv tray of defrosted loneliness and listen to country music. Fun exits the building pretty quickly when you harass yourself the moment you step onto the matts, encumbered by ‘if onlys’ and discouraged by ‘I should bes’.
Trying to change ourselves for the better is quite a puzzle and martial arts is certainly surrounded by accounts of achieving self discovery and improvement. But there is a certain sense in which the experience is nothing of the sort! There is no road that can bring you to where you already are, and in the same fashion, no amount of training will reveal a self upon which you can improve. That’s not the point. Realizing ourselves is certainly an invaluable consequence of our dedicated efforts, but it something to take note of rather than actively obtain, and if we attempt to make that the goal of our training, we will be disappointed.
The cure for this, first and foremost, is laughter. When we allow ourselves to toss out this misinformed determination to grasp and forcefully manipulate the concept ‘me the martial artist’ into the perfect fighter, and instead resolve to connect with and enjoy the martial artists that we are right now, we are free to rejoice in the lightness of returning to what training is really all about. I cherish the times when I’m practicing and thinking about nothing in particular, and I then experience that feeling of being in the far and tranquil worlds of my adolescent creation without losing present-ness. As mentioned in the story above, it is very difficult for us, the center of control in our experience, to truly surprise ourselves. Perhaps this is why there is such tremendous delight when we are able to catch ourselves – literally, to observe and intercept the truth of our being however cursory – in these moments of simple inattention. And in fact, because of these moments of inattention.
It can be as refreshing to revisit our fantasies as much as our curricular goals, if only to remind ourselves that we are expressions of our own imaginings. All the confidence in the world is already within and at your command. Maybe you are already a perfect martial artist dreaming that you are not, because without that push and pull of mastery and growth, how else could we realize ourselves in our entirety? In the quiet that follows such realizations, cessation emerges, or at least a humbling accord with the martial way, as simple and intricate as this playful thing we call the human enterprise.