The struggle in pursuit of perfection
When I was an art student, studying in college, my lecturer – the brilliant welsh artist Brendan Burns – told me that “Art should be a struggle”. At the time, due to inexperience and I suppose a lack of intellectual maturity, I could not grasp what he was getting at. Now, with hindsight, I can see that he was explaining that the process of immersing yourself wholeheartedly into the study and creative practice of art making should not necessarily be easy. There is the need to push yourself, beyond your own capabilities and expectations, challenge your ideas and abilities and confront them. The process of art-making should be a struggle, an uphill climb, never settling and chilling on your laurels, but always demanding more of yourself. You should, in truth, hold a mirror to yourself, your thought processes and ideas and be honest with yourself. This is the struggle.
Like anything in life, when you feel passionate about something, you want to do your best within its realms. This passion gives the incentive to strive longer, harder, deeper. But what happens when this passion is met by your own heartache due to perceived shortcomings? What is the consequence of this?
Karate, I feel, has many parallels with this. From the perspective of a ‘full time karateka’, as I tend to think of myself (due to the fact my entire life seems to revolve in one way or another around karate), karate is most definitely a struggle.
I am never happy with myself. I am never satisfied. This is a feeling I have become so acquainted with over the years that it almost feels completely natural. It’s very much a central part of the process of my study and training.
It is however as constructive as it is a curse.
We all have karate heroes that we look at and want to be as good as. For me, my biggest inspiration is Dave Hazard, who in my opinion, is the finest example of shotokan karate that I have ever been lucky enough to experience. He sets a standard, a very high bar that I look at and hope to work towards. It’s a very steep hill however, and I am more than aware of my shortcomings and the inevitable likeliness that I will never reach even half the standard of what I would hope for.
Karate for me has highs and lows. I am notoriously black and white in my thought processes with pretty much everything in life, something Emma always tells me off for. I am either “yes” or I am “no”...never “maybe”. Similarly, my feelings towards karate mirror this. I am either high (full of positivity and confidence) or feeling very low. So is this necessarily a bad thing?
I know a young man who is a very naturally talented karateka. He has an ableness that often takes others a long time to achieve, he however with seemingly little effort seems to just get it. Nevertheless, he beats himself up to the point of self destruction. So much so that his training schedule is very unreliable, and I would seriously guess it has something to do with the pressure he places on himself. I do understand this feeling!
We are always encouraged, as I also encouraged at the beginning of this article, to raise the mirror to ourselves and take a long hard look. This is very important as we come face to face - with absolute clarity - an honest image of ourselves. To do this in karate means that we look at, analyse and critique ourselves to give ourselves ammunition for training. Look for too long however and you will read too much into this reality and possibly subconsciously plot the demise of your self esteem. I have seen this happen so many times. This is very much the case of the young man in question.
I, as an instructor, encourage introspection and self analysis. I explain to them “Anything I correct in you, I have without doubt had to correct in myself”. I try and lead by example and show that I, even though leading the class, am still every inch the student. I want them to appreciate that I do lead by example and am continuously striving to develop myself.
I must admit however to leading by example in the other, possibly more detrimental, part of my learning experience. I am ridiculously hard on myself, especially in private, when training alone. Emma, bless her, knows that when I am training alone, I am best left to my own devices, as I can get quite low. Isn’t this a bad thing? My students perhaps are following my own traits of being harshly critical.
I have had to analyse my reasons for feeling this way. Is it fear? Fear of never becoming good enough? Is it frustration? Frustrated that I am not getting it right? Who knows, perhaps a little of both, but all I know is that this feeling always looms close by when I am training.
From the perspective of being an instructor, I know that it is not merely my responsibility to teach them karate. I know that there is also the need to control the learning environment within which they train. It is my job to create an atmosphere that facilitates their expression and development.
By this I do not mean pandering to someone’s weakness, but encouraging them to look deeper, pose more questions and search more thoroughly.
I think it is quite interesting to note that far too many people tend to sit at the other end of the spectrum; hands on hips, arrogant smirk with the countenance “Yeah I am the bollocks”.
Harsh to say, but I think there are many people that maybe need to step a little closer to the mirror, for when it’s at the other end of the room, it has no use. They need to take a closer look, as in all fairness, they are not really feeling frustrated enough. They haven’t struggled at all and are merely smug because they haven’t failed in their attempt to jump the hurdle because they didn’t even bother to try.
So is the feeling of being at struggle, at war, with your karate a terrible thing?
This is of course a very personal issue. For some, having the constant annoyance with oneself is just too much to tolerate. At the end of the day, surely we should be doing karate for the enjoyment? For others however, it truly is just all in a day’s work as a karateka.
There has to be an understanding of your own - dare I say it with risk of sounding namby pamby - emotional limits. How much can you take, before losing it completely and walking away?
I can only speak from my own stance here, but I try to use this self-criticism to my advantage. I very rarely, almost never, walk out of a class and think to myself how well I have done. Is this possibly because I did nothing to warrant such self affirmation possibly? I’d better not answer that in case my self-esteem takes a crushing. At the end of the session however, although feeling utterly peeved with myself, I say to myself “Right, I’ll get that right next time”. Maybe next time I still don’t get it right, so I repeat the same to myself. I will keep trying however, and I will never give up.
We must have an objective. I have been told many times by many very senior instructors to “Visualise how you want my karate to be, and get it there”.
Karate however is about the process and not the outcome. Karate is the Ferrari that can take me to my destination. I try and tell my students ‘Karate is about the journey, not the hotel room at the end of ride’. The skills we develop by pursuing the objective are so transferrable that they affect everything in your life.
I wanted to write this article for all of those karateka who beat themselves up and are on the brink of possibly packing away the gi permanently. Don’t be too hard on yourself as karate should make you smile, but make it your goal to channel the negative feelings that you may have into the determination you need to become the very best that you can be.