The Hardest Thing

There are many things about the martial arts that are just plain hard. The training can be rigorous, the stances agonizing, the competition unfair and disappointing, the raise in skill levels infrequent.

But without a doubt one of the hardest things in the martial arts is to leave. Paul Simon had a song, “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and in martial arts you need a truckload of ways. The calls for retreat or detour are just that frequent.

The time comes when some particularly beloved or even just obsessive development in your training requires you to cut ties, difficult but also mandatory. It is like that shot you don’t want to take, that herbal concoction you hate drinking, that rehabilitative exercise you can’t stand. There are bumps—hard bumps—in the road, often leaping at you out of the void.

cloudWhy leave your teacher? You realize, sadly, that he or she has nothing more for you, that the player has looped and you are watching the beginning of the movie again. Or there is some deep divergence in your views, especially regarding the future of your practice. Sometimes, though he had given you a lot, you realize that he is holding back or, just as bad, holding back the truth, his lineage, some favored practice he refuses to share. It’s like leaving home, only you can’t return a half hour later and pretend it was a joke.

Sometimes you must quit the school when you realize that this particular family might be a tad on the dysfunctional side.  The sparring class is like a yard full of birds spending all its time displacing those with less skill or drive. You have to exit when you realize that you are basically in a dating club with not that much martial stuff happening. You have to vanish when you suddenly get the inescapable fact that your beliefs are at odds with just about everyone in attendance. Perhaps there is a hidden problem: racism, exploitation, a morality like the enemies in Karate Kid. Some calls for action are undeniable.

You also may have to leave a style, or a practice or even just a certain form that no longer satisfies you. This is the natural price paid by the individual’s soul for the assurance of deeper understanding. There are times the thing you like the most becomes a burden, an obstacle, a hidden nemesis. This is not just a case of out-growing something, but the revelation that the perfectly smooth and straight road has turned itself inside out and become a crazy maze of a short cut. It is simply human to try and navigate your way out but, at some point, the game is up and the only thing to do is either backtrack or look for a short cut out of the short cut.

I have never known a top level martial artist who did not have to abandon some style, or skill or teacher at some point. The growth process requires making choices and then incorporating the results as best you can. Even those who  stay with the same martial family for years will admit that some things had to be lost for other benefits to arrive. It is a tricky business that often only reveals itself in hindsight, like so much of our destiny.

4 Responses to “The Hardest Thing”

  1. So,So,True. Wonderful Insight. Thanks. Elliott.

  2. Jeff says:

    Or, like me, you could have started too late in life with a style that is simply too physically demanding. Taekwondo, for example. Once you reach a certain level, the kicks that are required become impossible for someone who isn’t 20 years old or been doing it all their life.

  3. Steve W says:

    Thanks Ted,

    That article really resonated. I left my teacher in 2006 after 12 years of training. I got a lot from him …. especially watching his body movements (Yang and Sun style taichi, Hsingyi, and bagua), but I realized that I wanted to focus on the internal and he kept on presenting more forms …. even when I scheduled private lessons.

    Earlier he himself had said “when your boat gets to the opposite shore, get out of the boat.” It took me awhile to realize that I had reached “the opposite shore” with respect to the prospects for our future interaction, but when I did realize that, I “got out of the boat” and have never regretted that. I have made significant progress toward MY GOALS in the interim.

    Thanks again for the article.

    Steve W.

  4. I love the insights, the way you remind us that our martial arts are about contributing to our development as people. Thanks for this, for making me think about life (and hi Debbie, thanks for your email acknowledgement, I know it was a while ago sorry.)

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