On the Road to Sisyphus Falls

Sometimes the hardest thing is the world is just to keep in there. Refinement of the self can be a lonely business as Travis Rath contemplates while listening to music…

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Hunter S. Thompson Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:
A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream -1971

It’s easy to give up, to let it all go: to turn on the TV. There’s no real reason for the practice of Martial Arts anymore. I don’t care what you do – Judo, Kenpo, Tai Chi, Ba Gua, whatever. It all adds up to a lot of time and energy spent alone trying to perfect the movement of ones body so that it becomes your own, so you can stop drowning — a hand up, a round with rope attached at best, tugging and floating in all of this.

Each movement is impossible to master; each is chewed up and spit out in disgust and frustration. You don’t get recognition, you don’t tell anyone and no one’s listening even if you were telling, no one is asking you, how was your practice today? What did you learn today? It’s all awash. You get hours piled upon hours perfecting a move, a sequence, a set and then you turn to do it once more and there: it slipped away again when just yesterday you had it in the palm of your hand.

The tarmac feels cold from the evening fog that’s been pouring over the building above you. The lights start to click on and you know another winter’s come and you still don’t have it. Slink back against the wall and watch the waves falling from above. Try again tomorrow or the next.

Then there’s the new stuff. The new that is passed to you and you cherish it and add it to what you already are frustrated with and are at once returned to the school yard lineup for kick ball and you know you’ll be picked last. You’ll savor it, you’ll keep it, and you’ll put it under your pillow.

There’s really no reason for It.

Sometimes I find it all like tears in rain. I lay out segments of moves, maybe sets, maybe sequences, maybe basics, combinations of both, sometimes creating in the space between them all, and practice. I’m asked, what’s my goal in all this? What’s the end game? When are you finished? Aren’t you a Master yet? When does that happen? Can I come to the ceremony? I assure them there will be a parade…

Kind of like the note you keep on your desk reminding you to pickup the LP of Sam Cooke down in Florida in ’63 giving more than the Harlem Club deserved, or we deserved, any of us. Then he was laid out at the Motel Hacienda, whiskey crazed and hooker drunk, saying “Lady, you shot me…”

I practice in the morning not so much because I like it but because I know that if I do it then I’ve gotten to it. I’m finding a certain stillness in it all, in the motion, I can hear the river, I watch the dawn break, I freeze sometimes, I’m warm others and I’m out there, outside, keeping time. I know there’s no end game here. I collect and practice these things because I like them, because they make me feel good, because they make me feel sane. It’s the process that clings to me. There’s no party favor at the end of a session, no award for showing up to class, for learning more. There’s no profit in it. I’m not getting rich off it, didn’t pay for my TV or movie tickets with it, not funding a retirement fund.

I was sixteen working in a warehouse when a guy took a swing and when it was over one of the other guys said, “So you take Martial Arts? I’m learning tennis. I can see how yours could be a bit more practical…” Maybe. When I was sixteen. There’s been many years come between then and now and at this point a tennis racket might be much more practical.

I think Bobby Bland said “I’m drifting, I’m drifting, I’m drifting…”

The American Dream. Arthur Miller and Hunter and Us. Finding It.

Following a daily practice breeds insanity if you let it and something else, I’m sure, if you don’t. At least they’ve told me that. Koi live longer if they swim in circles. Dogs love tennis balls. The only thing I’ve managed to do every day of my life is breathe. It’s the missing of practice that batters me down, that brings me to the point of why keep trying? I failed at it yesterday, so why go out and do it again today? I’m traveling all next week and won’t really be able to move. Maybe it’s all about averages, maybe there’s no keeping score. Maybe the most important thing in keeping a daily practice is to recognize that it’s anything but daily: the only thing daily about it is struggling to do it and embracing the reality of doing it on some days and not others.

So Hunter leaned back on his kitchen chair and ate a bullet and Miller died of heart failure in bed, the incidents separated by a couple of months. Miller moved on and Hunter turned on the TV. I think practice keeps you moving on.

And I can hear Sam Cooke on the radio singing, “The world turned upside down and making not a sound, nobody else around, baby that’s where it’s at…”

Travis Rath: Loves good music, good literature and his Ba Gua poles. Recently married to another serious martial artist, his life is almost complete barring the acquisition of a few more vinyl collectibles.

One Response to “On the Road to Sisyphus Falls”

  1. Travis, Though I read (and will re-read) your article 7 years late, it was just what I needed. The deeper I go into my neijia practice, the more isolated and – paradoxicallly – connected and disconnected to the people around me I feel. I think most of what we’re taught to pursue by civilized society is illusory. I am working very hard to get a Kwoon going. It is my dream of 23 years. I am even bringing a Professor and Guro of F.M.A. and Gung Fu from out of state to do a Seminar soon. So far I have received zero interest. Nevertheless, I never, never, never, never give up. It is encouraging to know I’m not alone. Thank you. Sincerely, Aaron

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