Alive in the Moment

art_matchettmoment1When I think back, I can still smell the cheap shaving cream I used that morning in July 1984. I watch the flesh colored tracks appearing behind the razor as it scratched patterns in my soapy reflection. The steam rises from the sink in small twists as the cat winds her way between my bare feet. The color of the carpet, the smell of the coffee, the sleep heavy breathing of my girlfriend still in bed, all still clear in my head. Game day. This was the morning of my brown belt exam in the first art I studied. This would be a long, arduous day of fundamentals and forms. Like most martial arts schools, ours would start all students testing at the first level, and you would retest for each level as the day progressed until the extra material for your specific test was finally reached.

On top of the extra forms and techniques for this level, two things worried me the most; first, standing in horse stance while a single stick of incense burned completely down (20-25 minutes) and second, sparring each of the black belts in succession. If you were not mentally ready, it could be over early in the day (yes, many people failed rank exams in those days). Why do I remember this test above all others? Why is this memory so strong, while the test itself is lost in time? It was the first time I truly had to center myself in the moment. With slow deep breaths, every part of me focused on the task at hand. The test ahead became unimportant compared to the feeling of relaxation I felt in that moment. Time itself seemed to slow down.

In martial arts we hear a lot about the Buddhist concept (a similar concept exists in many traditions) of presence in the moment, but often it is only words that pass from instructor to student. Sadly, it can become an intellectual concept sold to the neophyte student to make the art somehow seem more exotic. While I will leave the conceptual details to the numerous Buddhist scholars that are far more competent than myself, being alive in the moment is perhaps more real than what passes for our own reality. How many times at work or while driving are we completely aware of every smell, every taste, each breath of that instant. Yet as we move along our own time lines, we will never have those moments again.

Sports are filled with these moments where time and space are somehow perceived differently. We often hear that a player is “in the zone”. We watch the basketball player with the hot hand virtually will the ball through the hoop from seemingly impossible angles. I once heard it said that Babe Ruth knew which pitch he was looking at because he could see the laces turning on the approaching ball.

In martial arts, it is this state of stillness and heightened awareness, which represents a key point along the path toward mastery. In this state the opponent’s techniques seem to slow down and are seen simply as motion and not threats. There is no greater need for this inner stillness, then when facing a weapon. When facing a knife we are trained to control the wrist and not fight the weapon. Relax, perceive, and flow. With a live blade, you must be alive in the moment.

I walked into that building knowing it would happen. I waited for it, alert and aware. Just as it was that day in July 1984, it was all about the mental preparation. Yet despite years of martial training, I offered no defense. The scar on my leg was 10 inches long and the wound deep enough that it took me 7 weeks to walk without a crutch or cane. So what does my recent hip surgery have to do with being alive in the moment? (Sorry, I could not resist). This summer I have had both hips replaced (resurfaced); one in May and the other in July. At first, I mourned the temporary loss of my kung fu practice. It was out of the question, I had to learn to walk again first. In front of me was a long arduous path to recovery and just when I was strong enough to walk again, I would have the second operation and have to completely start over. Confronted with the entire journey, one hesitates at the first step. Instead, what I found was the true heart of my practice.

Kung fu has been loosely translated as “accomplishment from time and effort.” It is an art predicated on the principle that small incremental steps practiced everyday lead to large changes in health and skill. Each day, I walked. With crutches for short distances at first, then just a little farther the next day. Slow, methodical practice yielding steady observable change. Most times, one recovers alone. There are people who encourage you, but you walk alone, alone with your thoughts. Soon, I looked forward to that time alone, to focus, to awaken in the moment. I have not kept track of how far I walked this summer, but I do remember the trees, the smell of the forest, feeling each of the changes in my legs as they ached and then healed. I can once again walk without crutches, but I hold onto these sensations just as I remember the morning of my brown belt test so many years ago. I hold onto each of my failures of heart (there are many) as well as my victories.

I think I have learned more kung fu in these last few months than I have learned in the last few years of regular practice. The kung fu that I have spent my life studying prepared me for the all work of rehab and the work that must still be done to return to my art. But that work and the journey it represents will be teaching me about myself for a long time to come. These lessons will strengthen my kung fu as long as I remain alive in the moment.

Steve Matchett is a student of martial arts as well as a college instructor. He is a regular contributor to this web site.

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