When I first began training in the martial arts, I trained for lots of reasons. Because I wanted to lose weight and get into shape. Because I wanted to be able to fend off a mugger on the college campus where I was a graduate student. Because I wanted to earn my yellow belt and then my orange belt and eventually my black belt. I trained because my teacher was proud of me when I did, and I trained because I promised my fellow students I would.
And that was fine; it was enough for a long time. But then I achieved my goals – I got into better shape, I learned the techniques of self defense, I earned my black belt. What was I going to do next? Was I going to train only when I promised another student I’d be there? Only when I noticed I’d put on a few extra pound over the holidays? If I were only motivated to train because my teacher was proud of me, what happened when he wasn’t there and another instructor substituted?
Over time, I eventually learned that in the martial arts, you train because you are a warrior. That’s what warriors do. And they do it because they’re warriors. That’s the only reason they have to have.
So I began training this way, without any thought of rank promotion, or making the teacher proud of me, or getting any kind of external reward. I began to train because it felt good to train. That’s all. I wanted to train because I wanted to train. It didn’t matter if I gained weight or lost it, I still trained. It didn’t matter if I stopped going to the dojang I’d been attending for ten years; I still trained. All that mattered was performing the techniques.
But I didn’t just keep doing the same thing over and over. How uninteresting and boring that would have been! I tried to master the techniques. Each time I hit the heavy bag, I wanted to be a little stronger, a little more accurate than the last time. But if I wasn’t, that was okay, too, as long as I was doing my best for today.
I fully believe that when I started to train for the sake of training I finally began to understand the martial arts. It didn’t matter that I’d achieved rank over the years or that I’d done a lot of teaching; I didn’t really become a martial artist until I stopped training for outside reasons and began training only because that is what a martial artist does. I didn’t train because that’s what the next-door neighbors were doing or because other people expected me to. In fact, the neighbors thought I was a little eccentric and other people actually discouraged me from training.
The idea of doing something for its own sake is called kaizen in Japanese martial arts. It’s related to – although independent of – the concept of bushido, which is the ideal of the warrior, the way the warrior lives. Making kaizen and bushido a part of my life has been an ongoing experiment – and experience. Like most of us, I constantly struggle to balance all the demands on my time and the expectations – spoken and unspoken – that people (including me) have for me. But I am aided by my belief that the way of mastery will guide me in the direction I need to go, and I never stray from the path for very long or very far.
When I explain to my students that to truly succeed in any arena, they will have to train even if there are no rewards for training, even if they’re worse today than they were yesterday, they sometimes find the thought discouraging, even daunting. We’re used to being a goal-oriented society. Even if we don’t set goals, we think we’re supposed to. We think, if I achieve my goal of earning my green belt this week then I’ll have achieved something valuable. And that’s true. But too often being goal-oriented can be a cause of doubt, anxiety and frustration. We tell ourselves, I didn’t reach a goal; I must be a failure; in the past I’ve never reached a goal, so I’ll never do it in the future. However, when you pursue mastery in the spirit of kaizen, you think of each day as a clean slate, each moment as an opportunity to try again. In other words, the green belt is immaterial; what matters is whether you’re trying to be a better martial artist today than you were yesterday.
In fact, living by kaizen creates a life filled with pleasure, validation that comes from within (and doesn’t depend on outside sources subject to whims), a life that feels more fulfilling and rewarding.
But don’t we already seek perfection in our lives? Aren’t we all trying hard to be gorgeous and rich and thin anyway? Why pressure ourselves for more perfection – aren’t we already obsessed with perfection?
I’d say we’re trying to be perfect about the wrong things and going about it in the wrong way. Mastery isn’t about being a size four. Mindfulness isn’t about having a problem-free life with no diet disaster in it. Mindfulness means choosing to enjoy the delights of life despite the fact that you have problems and challenges. It is misguided to spend your entire life seeking to fit into a perfect size four, especially if your genes are telling your body otherwise. And it is truly sad to tell yourself, as so many of us do, I’ll be so happy when I’m a size four.
Moving towards perfection means deciding to care for your body as well as you can today, and then tomorrow and then the next day. It is about the process, not the end result. Each day, the attempt should feel good. You got enough rest for once; you meditated after work and that helped you feel relaxed; you had fresh-squeezed orange juice for breakfast and that felt nourishing. You’re taking care of yourself. It doesn’t matter if you ever fit into that size four. That is not the point. It’s how you do what you do that makes the difference.