Sunday, May 06, 2007

Looking Good


Novice trainees in the martial arts are notoriously self conscious. And who could blame them? All decked out in a strange outfit and having to abide by unfamiliar rules and foreign etiquette enforced by a rigid hierarchy can make any newcomer feel ill at ease. Then, as we commence training, we quickly learn what we can and cannot do. I remember my first attempt at a crescent kick that practically put me on the seat of my pants. We all want to get it right the first time, but the martial path is pitted with humbling and even embarrassing experiences along the way. New students tend to get wrapped up in what others might think about them, but this trait is really common in everyone. Regardless of rank or experience everybody screws up or looks silly from time to time, no matter how much confidence or ability they normally exude. "Even monkeys fall from trees" is an Asian aphorism that illustrates this point.

Peter Urban, an American goju-ryu karate pioneer and martial arts author once wrote that a true karateka always "looks, acts and feels sharp." I don't think I care for that notion, as this suggests martial artists should put on airs to look impressive. Believe me, if you're trying to look cool, people will pick up on that right away. Humility, selflessness, and a good work ethic make a far better impression than "looking sharp" in my book.

Still, the martial arts are a dignified calling. Martial artists should feel special, but not at the expense of acting pretentious. There's a way to approach this without bringing negative attention to yourself. Unadorned distinction and excellence refers to a quality called shibumi. Shibumi is never expressed in trophies, belts or awards. In its simplicity and elegance, shibumi is about modesty and strength with no regard to appearances. Looks can be deceiving, as the martial artist's resolve and virtues are always developed within, never without.

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20 Comments:

Blogger frotoe said...

I've done that more than once- tried to kick way higher than I was physically capable of and ended up on my butt. I'm sure we all have at some point or another. It is humbling and pretty funny at the same time.

3:15 PM  
Anonymous Dave said...

One of my first classes in Aikido was a bokken class. I remember holding the bokken in my hands, and thinking: "Yeah! I'm keeping up with the class. I'm wielding a sword! I'm a martial artist!"

It was then that my practice partner looked at me and said: "Excuse me, did you know your pants are on backwards?"

9:42 AM  
Blogger Charles James said...

Self-consciousness is something I contend with daily. I agree that some put it in terms that are not realistic and true to budo.

I have ego issues all the time and part of my way is to try and overcome myself especially in that department.

Great post!

10:44 AM  
Blogger Miss Chris said...

Your post is so accurate. We all remember what it was like being the newbie in class. And that all white gi with white belt, no less. We used to call the newbies the "marshmallow brigade".

1:33 PM  
Anonymous Amanda said...

One of the things I like most about my current school is that Master joins in with us. I've watched him try difficult kicks and not make it, and I've seen him forget part of a form once.

We have a new Sabumnim who used to be on Korea's national demonstration team. Master showed us some videos of her doing a striking demo. She was doing some impressive kicks but failed to break the last board.

It makes them both seem like the humans they are. Korea is so, so, so face-saving...it's nice that the guard can come down somewhere.

10:28 PM  
Blogger [Mat] said...

Getting past that "looking good" part is very hard.

I struggle with that in every day. It's an aspect of life, not just budo.

Good post. Be well!

9:57 AM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Frotoe:

It is humbling and pretty funny at the same time.

Of course it's funny! This is a good point: The ability to laugh at yourself is not only a sign of maturity but also happiness. Everybody needs to lighten up that way at one time or another.
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Dave:

It was then that my practice partner looked at me and said: "Excuse me, did you know your pants are on backwards?"

I had a similar experience with my sparring helmet. Maybe the manufacturers should put "front" and "back" on martial arts gear for beginners!
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Mr. James:

Self-consciousness is something I contend with daily. I agree that some put it in terms that are not realistic and true to budo.

Well, I'd have to say that self consciousness can be at times pretty unreal. One of the ultimate goals of budo is to see things as they really are, including and especially ourselves.
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Thanks, Miss Chris.

We used to call the newbies the "marshmallow brigade".

Ouch - I'm sure the newbies loved that! Actually, I know some black belts that still look like marshmallows (another post?).
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Amanda:

One of the things I like most about my current school is that Master joins in with us. I've watched him try difficult kicks and not make it, and I've seen him forget part of a form once.

You know, some people don't like the idea of the teacher joining the class to train along side the students, but I don't have a problem with that. One instructor I had would occasionally get lost midway through a form, and it didn't seem to bother him or anyone else a bit. It happens. We're all human.
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Thanks, Mat.

Getting past that "looking good" part is very hard. I struggle with that every day. It's an aspect of life, not just budo.

That's very true, Mat. I guess we all get wrapped up in that sometimes.

10:53 AM  
Blogger MrX said...

"Regardless of rank or experience everybody screws up or looks silly from time to time, no matter how much confidence or ability they normally exude."

IMO, screwing up is a good sign that you are trying out something new or pushing yourself a little more than usual. Better to look silly from time to time and evolve than to look good and stagnate.

"New students tend to get wrapped up in what others might think about them, but this trait is really common in everyone."

I'm stuck on : What does my Sensei think?

Great post!

Marc

11:58 AM  
Blogger Windsornot said...

Self-consciousness, I think, is always present, whether it's worrying about what others think, or what you think about yourself. At first, it's just feeling uncomfortable with the new way that you are trying to move your body. After a while, it gets to be more natural. Something my primary instructor will tell me is to trust myself, because in most cases, I am doing it right. This is true in forms/kata. Sometimes it just feels natural to turn or move in a certain way after a while, but I think it's wrong when it's actually right. The other side of that is that sometimes I know that something isn't right because it doesn't "feel pretty". What I mean by that is not anything to do with being feminine, but rather that while it might have been executed right, it doesn't feel like it looks right. I feel awkward as I do it. Sometimes that feeling is right- it doesn't look pretty. But that's when you ask for help so that it looks smooth and effortless, even though it's taking LOTS of effort. ;-)

6:45 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Thanks, Marc.

I'm stuck on : What does my Sensei think?

Probably, "I never get to train anymore" or "I've had to watch this form 5000 times today!"
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Windsornot:

Something my primary instructor will tell me is to trust myself, because in most cases, I am doing it right. This is true in forms/kata.

When I was competing I would have my wife video my kata. This is a good way to check your progress over a period of time, and you may be surprised at what you see.

...sometimes I know that something isn't right because it doesn't "feel pretty".

Didn't Muhammad Ali used to say he was pretty? He'd say that because he rarely got hit as heavyweight boxing champ. He was so fast that when he turned off the light in his room, he'd be in bed before the room got dark!

12:24 AM  
Blogger supergroup7 said...

All of karate comes from within.. if your center is unbalanced, and focused on the wrong things the rest of you will not "look good" regardless as to how 'sharp' you can physically express yourself.

Quality reveals itself.

8:07 AM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Mireille:

...if your center is unbalanced, and focused on the wrong things the rest of you will not "look good"...

Good point. This is the essence of haragei, or simply "moving from the center". I strongly agree that this quality - which is also responsible for developing posture and grace - needs to be cultivated from the inside out.

10:08 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

By Chuang Tzu:

The Fighting Cock

Chi Hsing Tzu was a trainer of fighting cocks
For King Hsuan.
He was training a fine bird.
The King kept asking if the bird was
Ready for combat.
"Not yet," said the trainer.
"He is full of fire.
He is ready to pick a fight
With every other bird. He is vain and confident
Of his own strength."
After ten days, he answered again:
"Not yet. He flares up
When he hears another bird crow."
After ten more days:
"Not yet. He still gets
That angry look
And ruffles his feathers."
Again ten days:
The trainer said, "Now he is nearly ready.
When another bird crows, his eye
Does not even flicker.
He stands immobile
Like a cock of wood.
He is a mature fighter.
Other birds
Will take one look at him
And run."

12:12 AM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Rick:

Very good. Here's another one by Chuang Tzu that I like that's in a similar vein that I'm sure you've seen:

The Need to Win

When an archer is shooting for fun
He has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind
Or sees two targets –
He is out of his mind.

His skill has not changed,
But the prize divides him.
He cares.
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting –
And the need to win
Drains him of power.

10:15 AM  
Anonymous blackbeltmama said...

You hit the nail on the head with your assessment about humility. The inflated martial artist ego is rampant in a few of the white belts in our dojo right now and it's very annoying. Along with that humility is also a respect for those who have gone before you. I've never had a problem with either of those concepts (I'm always finding something to improve on and am in awe of those ahead of me) but some people certainly do. I think those are the ones who are there for very different reasons than committed martial artists and it shows in the drop out rates.

2:22 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Hi Black Belt Mama:

The inflated martial artist ego is rampant in a few of the white belts in our dojo right now and it's very annoying.

A few? Great. As if one wasn't enough! Well, when people like that get under your skin, just consider it part of your training. How does your sensei deal with these types? I find the best way to deflate an egotistical type or toughguy is to just train 'em hard. Not so much to put them in their place, but they're forced to redirect their energies elsewhere. Very effective. Of course, this could lead to...

...and it shows in the drop out rates.

Exactly. Enough said.

11:36 PM  
Blogger Jill said...

I really don't remember clearly my first pratice...
I know this has not really a relation with first pratice, but something in your post made me think of this!!
I think that there is two kind of karateka:
-Those who are too sure of themself, and don't see their mistakes
-Those who always doubt theirself and see every little mistakes they make.

10:10 AM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Jill:

There are those two extremes: Those that overestimate themselves and the ones who sell themselves short. The first trait is usually a coping mechanism. Ironically, the ones who appear to be "too sure of themselves" are just as susceptible to the same inadequacies as the second kind. Thanks for stopping by.

12:42 PM  
Blogger FrogMan said...

You wouldn't believe how well you hit the mark with that post. I was so self conscious when I started out practicing four years ago, but I eventually got over it, at least enough to be able to present forms in competition and in a christmas show last December.

The same applies to my son who started a year before me and who's not a super show off kid but who also got over his nervousness and all to be able to compete and also to present his bo form in the same Christmas show.

You'd think those two would be enough for me to relate to that post, but now we got something more. Mommy has taken up to get in shape and has decided that she'd give karate a try. The first night she got back from class was pretty funny as she looked like she wanted to talk to me about it so much, but she looked so shy, as if she was a little girl. Already, only two weeks into it, she's slowly starting to let go of that self consciousness.

I don't comment often here, but I do read every one of your posts and I recommend your blog to my martial artist friends. Keep posting and putting the same kind of thoughts into every post like you've been doing for a while now. It's appreciated.

Take care, Steve.

2:13 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Thanks, Steve.

Glad to see your whole family's involved in the martial arts now.

Good to hear from you again.

4:03 PM  

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