A Rock and a Hard Spot

For Those Times When the Training Seems To Stop

One minute you’re Bruce Incarnate, the next you’re unable to tie your shoes without the danger of a self-inflicted eyeshot.

It’s easy to predict that each of us will have these. It’s impossible to predict when. They are the proverbial rock and a hard place, when the whole wagon train comes to a halt in the middle of Devil’s Canyon and progress is entirely halted.

Everyone gets stumped at one place or another. And everyone feels as though they’ll never get out of it. I’m not going to tell you when or how–that’s just a matter of faith–martial faith. But let’s at least discuss some of the signs of change we can look for. (If you happen to be in one of these martial dry spells right now, so much the better!)

The mature view, which we should consider anyway, is that you cannot possibly expect martial progress to be 1.) continual, or, 2.) even. In fact, it is neither, due to its requirements. Martial progress is like climbing a ladder, only one side of your body can rise at a time. For instance: your ability to understand martial concepts, we’ll call your left arm, and your physical skill level can be your right arm. These almost never advance at the same time and one of the most confusing and frustrating phases of a martial artist’s practice is when he wakes up the next day able to perceive at a higher level than perform. At that moment you become impatient with yourself–though it doesn’t help–when really you should congratulate yourself!

The opposite experience is not so disconcerting. When your ability (right) hand stretches to the next rung of the ladder you end up being even more skillful than you can expect. “Gee! Was that my punch that just fractured the sound barrier?” You’re delighted. You’re so good! One piece of advice: don’t think about it too hard or the magic may evaporate.

If you really think about it, there’s just no other way. You, as a martial artist, are juggling so much information and so many skills at the same time; how could you expect progress to move as smoothly as a raft on the Nile? But this type of unevenness you can at least analyze and condition yourself for. This, beside the practice and the thinking, is part of the art.

Progress also comes in an odd alternation of attention and chance. You’ve hurt your foot so you take some time off from sparring (after all, who wants to spar with blue shin bones?) Your interest in forms practice has suddenly peaked so you ditch sparring class for a few weeks and spend that time perfecting your forms. You really get into it, even though you can see that, at least initially, the forms don’t improve all that much. There’s just so much material to master! Concentrating on the problems raised by this intensive work you show up for a sparring class, just for the chance to throw a punch without having to cogitate too much. And what happens? Of course, your sparring is 100% better.

It’s really more than the chaotic nature of practice. Of course, results are unpredictable, improvement uneven. But there is also the rather mysterious fact that all of martial arts components feed into one another. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle but it’s also like a code. All the parts inform one another, and somehow work on a level that seems too subtle and inter-related to even believe, much less understand. Your progress, you realize, is not entirely in your hands. You will have to shepherd it as much as command it.

There’s one more troubling stretch that occurs. Sometimes and suddenly the thing you are struggling with reveals itself to not be martial at all. A dark cloud has manifested and hovers over your practice. It may be difficult but at these time you should recognize how lucky you are. You have challenged something deep and crucial and, confusion aside, you may find that if you stand with the determination of a rock that hard spot will dissolve.

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