As most of the readers of this blog know, I am constantly taking classes in various martial arts in hopes of gaining some new insight into my practice. Currently, I have been taking classes at a local Aikido school. When I attend classes at that school I wear a blue belt. That is the rank I hold in that school’s style of Aikido.
People always ask me about what it is like putting on a color belt and taking classes? It is great because there is no pressure, there is no expectation, there is no confrontation, there is just being a student. I will admit that it is sometimes difficult when a higher-ranking color belt tells me I am doing a knifehand strike wrong. My ego takes over and I think, “You are telling ME how to do a knifehand strike?” I immediately crush that thought and gratefully accept the instruction. The most difficult thing for me is watching the students and how they act. It reminds me of my past as a beginner student and all the mistakes I made (and I made a lot). That being said I did excel in one area that I see a lot of students falling short in.
I tried to drive my instructors crazy (well not really). I would constantly ask them questions when we were together outside of class. Not questions on how to do a physical techniques but on the mental aspects of the art I was learning from them or simply about their past within martial arts. Every time I would get into a car with them, have lunch with them, have free time between classes with them, I would ask questions. I know what you are thinking, that must have driven them nuts, but it didn’t. I can only remember one time that I was asked to stop. Granted, Grandmaster Gallano would simply fall asleep in the car when we were together. I suppose that was his way of shutting me up.
The problem is that most martial art students, after years of spending time with their instructor, start to take them for granted and stop realizing how lucky they are to have non-class time with them. Instead of picking their instructor’s brain, they simply “hang out” with them (in a respectful way). I constantly see students quietly sitting with their instructor, either to frightened to ask questions or not even thinking to ask questions. In addition, I have heard a lot of very high-ranking instructors comment on students not taking the opportunity to ask them questions and how disappointed they were.
Even some of my students (thankfully not many) fall into the trap of taking their instructor (me) for granted. They will go on long car trips with me to seminars and not ask a single question. What a waste. I realize I might be to blame for this. Either I should have stressed the importance of always taking advantage of these moments when they were lower ranking or I have failed them in the level of understanding I have achieved within the martial arts and there simply isn’t anything more they can learn from me.
A master I know very well, told me of a trip he recently made to one of his branch schools. He took three of his black belts with him to teach a couple of classes there. He arrived early and got to spend some time with his black belts the night before the classes. He had subtly suggested that the black belts take that time to ask him questions about his past. This is a common way for instructors to teach their students how not to make the mistakes they have made: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Anyway, to make a long story short, the black belts ignored the suggestion and instead played a board game all night long. This master played the game with them and had a lot of fun, but what a waste.
Don’t ever fall into this trap. If you ever have the opportunity to spend time with your instructor outside of class, don’t waste the opportunity.
My wilderness survival instructor, Tom Brown Jr., who I would place in the category of my most influential instructors, tells the follow story:
“… I was on a beach, awaiting the sunrise. The ocean was still black, the waves accented by the pale glow of first dawn. The silhouettes of gulls appeared at the edge of the darkness. Lonely cries of gulls, the soft wind moving the sand in a gentle hissing, and the light clap of waves created soothing music for the soul. Prayers seemed to reach to the skies, penetrating the scant cloud cover, now etched in the liquid gold of dawn. The beach was deserted except for a lone fisherman who sat on a beach chair a dozen yards from me.
He was gray and weathered, his skin showed overexposure to the sun and surf, and his clothes were of styles long forgotten. He stared intently at the tip of his rod, watching it bob and shift with the rise and fall of the wave and wind. He seemed to concentrate solely on that rod tip, looking away only to his watch, probably out of habit.
In time, I moved closer to him, the sun now fully breaking the horizon. It had grown warm. Gull voices increased, and the old fisherman and I slipped into a light conversation. We talked of fishing and tides, weather and fishing beaches, but mostly about him. He said that he had been fishing these beaches for over thirty years and since his retirement a few years ago, he’d bought a house near the beach. Now he fished everyday without fail. The only time he said he didn’t was when the beaches were crowded, on cold winter days, or when storms made it impossible.
Our conversation soon trailed off. I went back to my sunrise and he to his rod tip.
As my thoughts drifted with the tides, I unconsciously picked up a handful of beach sand and began studying its texture and color. I smelled it awhile, then held it up to the sunlight, watching it sparkle and change color. I’ve always loved beach sand and how it changes its size, color, shape, and texture with each new beach. I guess I was so caught up in what I was doing that I didn’t notice the fisherman staring at me. He must have thought I was holding some kind of shell when a asked me, “What you got there?” Taken back somewhat at his question, I answered matter-of-factly, “Beach sand!” “It’s all the same, white and gray; sticks to everything,” he responded. I wouldn’t have paid this statement even a second thought except that it had been uttered mockingly. “White and gray?” I asked. “Old man, please pick up some beach sand and look”. He grumbled something and went back to watching his pole.
I got up and had walked a few steps away when some feeding terns caught my eye and I sat back down to watch. While I was watching them hovering and diving near the edge of the jetty I happened to glance back at the fisherman. In his weathered hand he had a handful of beach sand, stirring it around with his finger, and holding it close to his face. I heard him talking, half out loud and half to himself. “My God,” he exclaimed, his voice bitter and breaking, “My God, I never realized.” As I left the area I glanced back at the old man to wave good-bye but he wasn’t watching me. In his outstretched hands he held a bluefish to the sun. I could see the color glistening in the sun and I could see the tears on the old man’s cheeks. His hands trembled. Dropping the fish he hunched over, sobbing silently to himself. I wanted to go to him, but I knew there was nothing I could do.
The horror, I thought. Here was a man who had spent the better part of his lifetime fishing these beaches but who did not know what beach sand looked like. Here was an old man, who in the twilight of his life had seen a bluefish for the first time. A fish he loved so much to catch but never really knew. The words of Marcus Aurelius thundered in my brain. “It is not dying that a man should fear, but a man should fear never having lived at all.” This is what had brought the old fisherman to tears: realizing that at this late time in life all the things he had missed, all the things he would never see, all the wasted time; time that has been spent, never to be made up; the horror of it all, the absolute senseless waste of life, the living dead. I learned from that man more than he could ever know. I learned not to waste my life, living to die, but rather live a life of rapture and wonderment.
I never saw that old man again, though I have been back to that beach many times. He will always be with me, however, and I think of him often. I carry him in my heart as one of my greatest teachers, and I wonder how many more people are out there just like him, people who will never really see a sunrise or sunset, who will never know the sands or the sparkle of bluefish. How many will never know how to savor water, touch, really touch someone they love, or know the rapture of life? I wonder how many people are rushing through life blindly, never really sensing what living is all about. Every day, several times, I ask myself: am I being the fisherman? The choice is always up to me. Everyone has to make that choice, sooner or later; hopefully, not so late in life as the fisherman.”
Something to think about….