I ran across a question recently about long term motivation, and why people keep training year after year. It was on George McCall’s excellent site Kenshi 24/7
Budo, like any Way, is certainly a lifetime activity. There are quite a few teachers in Japan with 70 or 80 years of training under whatever is left of their belts after all those years. By comparison, I’m still just a beginner, with something over 25 years of budo training. I’m still excited to go to the dojo every practice though. What is even more surprising is how excited I am about training again when practice is over. I bounce with excitement and enthusiasm (no, really. I’m known as Tigger in some circles).
Practice is clean. Whatever I did the last time I was in the dojo doesn’t matter. The only thing that counts is what I’m doing right now. That alone is a great feeling. Each practice is an opportunity to create something new out of myself. I go in and don’t have to worry about the baggage of work or finances or other commitments. In the dojo, the only commitment is to my training and my training partners.
We should all be there for the similar things. We want to train hard and correctly. We want to maximize the effectiveness of our technique through optimal body mechanics as well as mastery of timing and spacing. We want to learn effective technique. We want to polish both our physical and our mental skills.
There are days when I really want to train hard and push myself physically and other days where I’m completely wrapped up in the mental aspects and may not even break a sweat. Training offers a variety of aspects of myself that I can work on. There always seems to be something worth working on that brings me into the dojo and the longer I train, the more things there seem to be for me to work on. With all the different facets of budo to work on, I can always find at least one that I want to polish on any given day.
I started budo in a college judo class in 1986. I wanted to learn about Chinese philosophy in action, and that was the closest thing I could find. I had some vague ideas from having read the Tao Te Ching but I really didn’t know what I was getting into. Though I smile at some of my naive ideas I had back then, I really could have done a whole lot worse.
That class introduced me to budo. Everything was exciting and fascinating and really, really difficult. I had to learn how walk and move and fall down all over again. I mean really, who needs to learn how to fall down, right? But that was the very first lesson, and it’s one I’m still working on. Oddly enough it’s still the practical lesson I’ve used more than nearly any other. I’m clumsy, so I still fall down a lot, but I will admit, I use the walking lessons slightly more than the falling lessons.
Any good budo has so much more depth than just learning some effective fighting techniques (but if the base isn’t effective combat techniques for the situations being studied, than it can’t be budo). Effective combat techniques are the first step, but all the really fascinating stuff happens after that first step. Being effective is just the beginning. That’s why really masterful budoka seem to have magic powers. They didn’t stop studying at just effective. They keep polishing and learning, making their effectiveness more and more efficient, until it looks like magic.
For me, the wonderful thing is that everything is still exciting and really, really difficult to do right. As I progress in the arts I practice, there is no level that is “good enough” because getting “good” isn’t the point. The point is continuous improvement. I have had teachers in their 90s who still practiced regularly and were working on improving right up until their bodies gave out.
My teachers were, and are, still learning, still making progress, and still improving. That’s a great challenge. It’s also a wonderful realization. It means I’m never finished growing. While I live there will never be a point when I am finished, a point when I am done. That fact, that knowledge, that I am not complete, and that I can always get better is a fabulous motivator. I can’t ever say “That’s just what I am.” Because I know it’s not. It’s only what I am now. It’s not what I’ll be tomorrow.
It’s a wonderful feeling to know I have always have capacity for growth. That’s my real motivation. Yes, I’m working on cleaning up my kirioroshi these days, and yeah, I noticed that my foot is flaring out on some techniques so I’m working on correcting that. The little puzzles are there all the time. Every once in a while I manage to tie a bunch of them together and make a large leap all at once. Those are great feelings, but I don’t really pursue them. I just appreciate them when they happen. What keeps me coming back are the little steps forward, the small epiphanies, the knowledge that, to quote a good friend, I can suck at a higher level tomorrow.
Budo is gratifying that way, and it doesn’t matter how much time I have to give it. There have been times when I was able to train 5 or 6 days a week. There have been times when I had to fight to get 1 practice a week in. These days I’m usually getting 2 or 3 practices a week in, plus some weight and cardio training to keep the old body in good operating condition.
There is one other thing about budo that I love. That’s the fact that it’s not really about martial arts. The martial arts are really just the container. Budo is really about developing and improving and mastering the self as a human being. That’s what being a way, a
道 is about. If you just want to learn to fight, there are faster, simpler, more stripped down ways to it. Not necessarily more effective for fighting, but certainly more efficient for learning.
I’m motivated to get up and go to the dojo because it helps me be better at being me. As I said, I know that what I today is not what I am. It’s only what I am now. Practicing budo teaches me about how to refine my physical and mental budo technique. These are lessons I apply directly to the rest of my life. I know that if I can learn to not let uke play mind games with me in kenjutsu or jodo, that if I can learn to not let my opponent get under my skin and cause me to lose control during judo randori, I can learn to do those things outside the dojo.
Budo is the container for the lessons, but the lessons are universal. This is true of any Do 道, but I find it to be particularly true of budo. In budo, we deal with conflict at its most basic level. Whether it is unarmed or with a sword or a staff or kusarigama or a spear or some other exotic weapon, we’re dealing with conflict. The techniques for dealing with conflict in a particular system of budo seem to be specific to the particular situations that are practiced. In the case of many koryu budo where the training is with archaic weapons, the lessons might not seem to be relevant to anything anymore. The principles for dealing with conflict haven’t changed though. They can be applied to any sort of conflict, whether it is has devolved to physical conflict or not.
Even if budo didn’t go any higher than teaching principles for conflict, it would be fascinating. You’ve got the physical practice which challenges me every day, and which I expect to continue being challenged by for another 40 or 50 years. Then you’ve got the mental level of learning to work with partners and opponents. Above that are the fundamental principles of conflict that you can learn and discover ever more subtle depths to. This might well be enough to keep my motivated and occupied for the rest of my life. That’s just the “bu” 武 portion though.
Beyond “bu” there is the “do” 道. That’s a big motivator for me. The lesson that gets drilled home every time I practice, that I don’t have to be satisfied with myself. I don’t have to settle for being no more, no better, than I am today. The lessons of budo give me a path, a way, for becoming better so that I will suck at a higher level tomorrow. With budo I get to do this with some great people in lessons that challenge me on every level: physical, mental and spiritual.
Those people are another motivator for me to drag myself into the dojo even when I’m not feeling it as much as I can. They help me and push and pull and sometimes drag me forward. There is tremendous camaraderie in the dojo that is refreshing and simple. I like these people and I like being around them. I trust them and they trust me. In the dojo we have a wonderful time together practicing something that can be deadly serious. Having wonderful people to train with really does help pull me back even when I think I’m too tired.
I’m not sure these are the same things my teachers are getting out budo now. I know that my reasons for training shifted subtly over the years. At first it was Chinese philosophy, and then I really liked learning the techniques and skills of fighting. For quite a few years now I’ve been focuses on refining my budo and my self. Looking out at the next few decades of training, I wonder what other things might motivate me in the future.
For now I love going to the dojo and discovering more about myself. I love pushing myself to do things that are physically and mentally challenging. I love working with all the people I train with to mutually reach a higher level than the one we are on today. I love learning about myself and learning how to push myself to do things that are mentally and personally challenging outside the dojo. I love learning how to reshape my mind over time so that I each day I can be a better me than I was the day before. All these things motivate me to get up and got to the dojo as much as I can.