Practicing karate and writing seriously

me dodge punch.jpg

The way of karate is open to everyone. But that way is not for everyone. In these times, karate-dō goes directly against what are widely presumed as self-evident truths. That’s just my personal opinion, one that I admit most karateka, some of whose karate is vastly better than mine, would reject. Yet I hold fast to it nonetheless, which may prove my overinflated sense of self. I choose instead to see it as ganko 頑固, the old man’s stubbornness essential to shokunin kishitsu 職人気質, the Japanese spirit of the craftsperson.

A popular karate saying, shared by other endeavors, is that the point is not being better than someone else; it’s being better than you were the day before. But that sentiment defies the very basis of self-defense: if you’re not better than the person attacking you, you’ll get injured or maimed, or even die. The whole point of training is to be better than someone else. Your life depends on  it.

A serious practice of karate motivates objectivity. Thinking you’re a much better fighter than you really are is an excellent way to get killed in a violent encounter. On the other hand, false humility is the same: thinking you're much worse than you really are, so you're sure you’ll lose, will get you killed, too.

A serious practice also motivates continuous comparison with those who are better than you. They show you your faults and weaknesses; they show you what you need to work on; they show you the path forward. Real karateka look to the very best in the world for learning and inspiration, even though for virtually every practitioner, that level is unreachable. Real karateka judge themselves by impossible ideals for the most pragmatic of reasons.

For me, it’s exactly the same with writing. I like to write and I am deeply in love with great writing, across its multivarious forms. Every time I read authors who I greatly admire, like Jeanette Winterson or Kazuo Ishiguro 一雄石黒  or Julian Barnes, the gulf between them and me, even at my best, is made obvious and irrefutable. This is why the rant against impossible ideals which was held up as progressive when I was an academic was always a despicable failure. Winterson et al are the shining polestars for a mediocre writer. 

From this perspective, humility is less a particular virtue than simply an acknowledgement of truth. In the way of karate I follow, it’s the general condition of practice and learning. It’s the way of someone trying to be honest, rather than self-affirming.

Which is why, from the same perspective, those who use social media to brag about their accomplishments, whether minor or genuinely magnificent, are such failures. Boasts about what they've done and the psychopathological need to be applauded for it get revealed as pathetic desperation. It's like a karateka gleefully recounting how they scored a point in a sparring match, when a genuinely skillful practitioner could effortlessly flatten that “winner.”

The way of karate is simply a way of seeing, with the strictest possible eyes, who and what you are, in a world where there will always be people greater and lesser than you. It means, regardless of how good or not-so-good you are, putting on the keikogi (practice uniform), and training to get better, instead of pandering for praise or admiring yourself.