It Gets Better

I was so very yoart_mancusobetter3ung. I practiced long hours, sweated a lot, and suffered much pain mentally and physically. And for what purpose? To serve others: meaning to beat them, pound them, well, even kill them.

Adam Hsu
Lone Sword Against a Cold, Cold Sky

Unlike my toothbrush, my Kung Fu is always packed and ready to go. I’ve taken it on every vacation for the last 25 years. I take it wherever I go and it keeps getting better and better.

Some things preserve well. Martial practice should be in that group. People spend too long, practice too hard and just plain care too much for any other story to be acceptable.

Exactly how this longevity is accomplished differs for each player. After all, martial arts produces very few objective, tangible remains: a new piece of equipment, an altered weapon design; these aren’t the real artifacts of the martial endeavor. Given thousands of years of history, very little physical evidence has actually survived.

So just as the face of each practitioner is a map of his of her particular history and travels in the mundane and martial worlds, so is the way in which each person practices.

This is as it should be.

The Outside World of the martial community is a completely different place. It thrives on controversy. Must every fight go to the ground? Is there something wrong with traditional forms practice? Are crop-tops legal in tournament competition? Can I bring a boom box to my forms event? How much PSI can be generated with the crescent kick on TV? Black Belt Magazine has turned from an overly conservative pseudo-scholastic, pro-Japanese-style, poorly printed trifle into a full color, slick advertising, fashion-centered, blaring wrestling mag complete with gossip and obsessed fixation on the champ of the next ten minutes. Lest we think such faddish concerns are real we should recall that ninjitsu was once the art of the year. Remember?

The truth is that, in some ways, the less an individual knows about the Outside World of various forms, the better. There is a certain middle phase when a wide knowledge of the arts delivers to the aspiring expert a view of the field and where he stands in it. If he stays too long standing he may learn which way the wind is blowing—true: but he will also learn that the fickle wind changes every few minutes. At one point the photographer learns so many technicalities she can no longer click the shutter and the spontaneous transforms to the obstinate. The martial artist, too, can be sucked into a world of considerations without a core.

art_mancusobetter4The most profound practices from the Inside World, the cream of the work, reinforces this version and view. It takes years but it invariably dawns on the dedicated artist that a graceful kick and an effective choke are both—in some indecipherable way—nothing more than gestures. And the meaning and soul of these gestures lies in the torso, the heart, the brain. In mathematics this is called ‘mapping from a domain to a range’. Each movement, especially the huge, dramatic and “impractical” ones, really aid in the process of using the hand, or leg, or whatever to teach the shape of the outside gesture that will become the inside feeling, to encourage the body to dance to the same tune the toe is tapping.

At some point, when the huge circles have transformed themselves into subtle undulations, everything becomes as clear as dawn. The moment of pristine clarity is also the moment of final isolation because as the tune rises and you can recognize the melody you also realize that it will be difficult in the extreme to communicate to anyone else. At this point you are sharing, at least, a bit of the implication of being a true artist: not just a craftsman who produces work understandable to anyone who can recognize a cabinet, a mandolin, or anything else as utilitarian as a well-made bed. When you’ve reached the first crook in the road of this internalization process you suddenly become a painter showing his canvas to people who are continually asking, “What does it mean?” which actually translates into “What is it good for?” Stubbornly you refuse to answer. Stubbornly you say under your breath like a maniac mumbling into an imagined cell phone, “If I wanted to explain I wouldn’t have painted the picture!” All the kind questions of interests from your friends and relatives dissolve here into the realization that you are actually serious about this stuff and your father still calls what you do “Karate” instead of Choy Lai Fut or whatever you’ve been telling him about for the last decade.

There is a feeling of at last tossing the hawser. The boat is no longer docked. The art you realize, with a slight shock, is now yours to make, abandon, alter or…what? Instantly it is better if for no other reason that it must be yours. You now know what the inheritance is—no more anticipation. Most of those who have left the floor—you can see—had their hearts broken, their fantasies smashed long before. Much may happen to you from this point on but heartbreak looms not on your astrological chart.

Practice in the middle period can be frustration in a maze. You range the tundra like a lost dog through all your areas of knowledge. Should I practice my form? a weapon? basics? applications? A workout with a single kick repeated 200, 300, 500 times is a relief: so simple, so few decisions. But the art requires more.

art_mancusobetter6You carry all your instructors, all your teachers in that box on your head. Looking back you see memories that now make sense in review. When you were young you saw that look, that complicated glance your instructor made even when observing the prize students. You see now that he was measuring them, taking the tally against an invisible ruler which you could not—at the time—recognize. A ruler where natural talent meant little and perseverance meant much. Now you can guess what he saw, sighting from this point along the measuring stick from the other end. You think he probably saw that you would last, where Jerry Jump Kicker would not. You are an instructor now, or a senior student, or a hermit: whatever. You practice something that you can barely describe to anyone.

It doesn’t sound “better”, but it is. All you are doing right now is realizing the price on the bill. At this moment, you have a stun of buyer’s remorse. Starting tomorrow you will realize you own this house and not only can you move in but you can do what you want with it: hang a picture or break down a wall.

“An inch of meditation, an inch of Buddha,” is the old expression. Now it’s inching along but every inch is yours, fully and completely, better and better.


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