***A caveat: I’m very much aware that this is the nerdiest post I have ever written.
In September of 2011 I joined the Karate “Dojo” at the CEPSUM gym in Montréal. I had repeatedly heard of the benefits of studying a martial art. I remember a woman with whom I worked who started Kung Fu and would repeatedly rave about the empowering qualities of the discipline. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done” she would declare ever so often.I found numerous ways not to join. The gym was too far, the costs too expensive, the schedule not right and so on.
Years later, last fall, the circumstances fell into place for me to take my first session of classes. Twice a week I went to the gym for an hour and a half and followed our senseis as they had us repeat the different moves and combinations that make up the discipline.
My first impression was one of instant pleasure. I laughed to myself upon hearing some of the more experienced students yell out “OUS!” after the sensei’s teachings and comments. “OUS!” is the term used to declare understanding to what your sensei says, and it should generally be pronounced loudly and clearly, with confidence. Hearing a choir of OUSes seems comical at first but one quickly falls in line with doing so: that wall of self-consciousness disappears and one adjusts to this new world with its own unique social mores.
What’s clear in a Karate dojo is the hierarchy of power. There are a set of traditions and habits that one must follow in order to respect the sensei and the discipline itself. I took pleasure in acquiescing to our 2 senseis’ demands. I find North America generally suffers from a lack of respect towards the older generations. There’s a generational divide within society, and the youth don’t often seek to learn from those with more life experience. While this is a generalization, our society nonetheless celebrates the individual, and mythologizes his accomplishments as his own and not the product of a conducive social environment. A consequence of this is a self-absorbed, often naively arrogant youth content to proudly blaze ahead in their endeavors without taking the proper amount of time to assume the responsibility in analyzing the consequences of their actions. I am a child of this generation and certainly not immune to its influences…
I think we’ve forgotten the satisfaction in learning from those with experience. Ideally a balance in society could be struck where a respect for traditions and older generations doesn’t trump to importance of innovation, creativity, reason and critical thought in younger generations. We must avoid subservience to past ideas when they have become out-dated or are shown to be inadequate or worse, oppressive, but this doesn’t mean that we should proclaim our self-righteousness without considering the self reflections of those who have once gone through the same trials and tribulations as we inevitably will.
While I don’t think that wisdom necessarily lies in age, I do think that aging provides people with a form of knowledge and wisdom that can be gained in no other way. There’s a humility in aging that needs to be respected; even celebrated. I think that a more engaged dialogue amongst generations would enrich our societies greatly.
At the Dojo I have the pleasure of following the advice and teachings of 2 amazing senseis. I find their simple presence to be inspiring: calmly assertive and aware. I’m more than happy to bow before them, because I know that they are not my betters, only my teachers, and that what brings us together is Karate. As senseis, their role is to communicate the practices of the medium, not to impose them, or alter them for their own purposes. My empowerment stems from personal improvement and the feeling that I may one day be good enough to also share my experience with a younger generation of practitioners. I fully intend on getting my black belt, which has a ladder of 10 Dans, or grades, which represent a practitioner’s level of experience. My sensei Fethi is 5th Dan, and my sensei Katsumata is 7th Dan and apparently the highest level Shotokan Karate practitioner in Canada. The 2 of them, and other black belts from among the students who have led classes or assist the senseis, provide the kind of inspirational framework that we CHOOSE to follow. There is no goading or repression.
What strikes me when I’m in class practicing is how much more there is for me to learn: not only in terms of combinations or moves, but in terms of physical control and awareness. In fact, most of Karate is about awareness. Our group is comprised of people aged anywhere between 18 and I’d say over 75(although I wouldn’t dare to ask the man in question just yet…). The physical aptitudes of each practitioner is unique to his work ethic and experience. While sensei Fethi is more physically imposing and thus understandably strong, sensei Katsumata can’t weigh much more than 130 pounds, and yet against almost everyone in the Dojo, his understanding of the way to accentuate the strength in his body is such that he remains completely dominant even with those much heavier and stronger. The black belts from our dojo demonstrate a physical and mental self control unrelated to age. The awe inspiring quality of karate is that control: the focus particular to very few activities when a complete awareness takes over one’s actions. This is where Karate strives to get you: a kind of transcendent consciousness of mind and body. And while complete control may never be attainable, if you were to see my senseis practicing you would understand how impressively far one may get in striving to reach that goal.
The world is a highly stimulating and chaotic place. Living in an urban environment as I do only accentuates that state. For a short period of time, in my classes, I work at erasing all that chaos and focusing on the moment. Ironically, being that I’m submitting myself to a set of very precise activities, it’s incredibly liberating. There’s something so very human about Karate. It’s not about god, nature, or some transcendent power: it’s about your body and the limits of who we are as human beings.