Friday, February 24, 2006

Put One Foot in Front of the Other

You know, I've discovered something about participating in the advanced classes: Exposure to too much knowledge can be terribly discouraging for a novice. A lot of the initial stages of my training, for me, have been like learning to walk. Teaching my body to reproduce a series of movements performed by someone else or visualized in my head.

Try, and fail. Try, and fail. Try, and sort of succeed.

This try-and-try-again routine is not discouraging at all, anymore. At first I got frustrated and angry with myself when I couldn't perform what I perceived to be simple actions, but I know now that I've made significant progress. I can see it when I practice, and when I compare myself against other students of my own rank, even against some students of higher ranks as well. I am more disciplined than a lot of the other students, I drive myself harder than most, and I've come a long way in a fairly short period of time.

Needless to say, these gains are not without cost -- my legs and ankles are friggin' killing me most days, and ever since I began free sparring I have to walk like Frankenstein's monster for about 2-3 minutes when I get out of bed in the morning before I'm limber enough to move comfortably -- but at least I know the effort has not been for naught. Far from it.

But man, do I know I'm 38 these days. My entire body is like an insistent, sadistic chorus, dedicated to reminders of this simple fact.

Even so, the pain and recovery time I've added into my life these past 2-3 months is fairly inconsequential. I'm used to achiness and pulled muscles, and while the locations of the aches and pains has shifted around, the severity of discomfort is nothing I can't handle. However, last night's class was a little ... overwhelming. Not in what I was asked to do, but in what I've yet to do.

During the regular white/orange belt classes the tasks the sorts of drills and techniques we practice are, obviously, more typical of what I am currently capable of achieving. But when I take an advanced class, that all goes out the window. Typically, when I attend the advanced classes I am the only white belt who is doing so. There are two other "beginner" students, orange belts (Kelly and Mike), who sometimes attend as well, but they are both a) more advanced (obviously) than I and b) have military/police and/or martial arts and/or boxing training to supplement their Tang Soo Do training, which clearly lends them a greater degree of confidence in their physical movements.

So, as a result, typically I wind up being the only person doing certain techniques, because the rest of the class is doing far more advanced techniques. Aside from feeling a bit self-conscious this isn't really an issue either: I worry far more about the other students feeling distracted or annoyed with the time Sa Bom Nim has to spend giving me alternate instructions than I am about looking silly, unskilled, or uncoordinated.

But what did freak me out last night was seeing and hearing some of the skills that I will need to master in the process of advancing toward dan membership. The complexity and physical/psychological demands of the more advanced hyungs. The huge variety of blocks and punches and kicks I'll need to learn to integrate smoothly into cohesive attack and defense sequences. The pure physical demands and testing requirements for red belt advancement.

There was one moment when I felt my resovle to train shake a bit last night. There was some goofing around going on during our warm-up, and one of the advanced red belts was doing some very high jumps in place. Astonishingly high jumping. This guy, Mr. Pfaff, is like 6'4", at least, all arms and legs. Great guy. Teaches Trevor's "Li'l Dragons" class at the dojang. So anyway, he can jump really high, which isn't discouraging at all. Some people can, some people can't. But then, in fun, Sa Bom Nim asked him to do some sort of a double jump split kick -- basically jumping straight up and then kicking both legs out in a wide "V" directly in front of you. OK, hard, but I can see learning to do that as well, given a lot of practice.

And then Sa Bom Nim mentions, casually, that breaking two boards, held aloft, by doing that kick, is part of the requirements for the dan test. And my stomach just sort of ... fell. I literally had a moment of something like vertigo.

I can't imagine being able to do that. Ever.

Now I know, rationally, that when Mr. Pfaff was a white belt he would probably have felt the same way. I know that this is a process, a gradual accumulation of skills and ability gained through repetition and guidance. I know that there was a time, less than two months ago, that performing Ki Cho Sam Bu seemed almost impossible to me. Jeez, 3 months ago I could barely figure out how to do a low block correctly. I know, inside, that learning this art is a life-long, uphill journey. And like any journey, it begins with a single step, and all it takes to complete the journey is to follow that first steps with as many additional steps as you have to take before reaching the end. Nothing more to it than that. No need to get ahead of myself. Just worry about the next few steps.

And this is the reason why. I got a really good look at how far I have to go, how much I have to learn, how hard I'll need to work over the next few years. For a second I grasped the enormity of how much I have to learn when contrasted with the thimble-full of knowledge and skill I've scraped together, and in that brief moment I heard something in me say ...

"Give up."

"You don't belong here."

"You can't do this."

It wasn't easy, but I didn't listen. And I won't listen.

But I can tell that I'll need to prepare myself for these sort of doubts a bit better in the future. This is a side effect of immersing myself in the more advanced classes, one that I hadn't anticipated, but one which I should expect to recur periodically. This will be far from the last time I see the advanced student's doing things that are so far beyond my current abilities as to seem almost superhuman. Almost magical. I need to learn to not let this sense of relative inability undermine my resolve to continue training.

Happily, my confidence was restored somewhat at the end of last night's class, when we did some free sparring. I sparred with 4 opponents. One dan member, Mr. Vasquez, who I am fairly certain I never even touched. One green belt, who I actually did pretty well against. One red belt, a very skilled but thin young teen who I was able to use my height, strength, and reach advantage over to great effect, and Mike, the orange belt with extensive military, martial arts, and boxing training, who spanked me good. I didn't dominate anyone -- far from it. And I was totally owned in two of my four matches. But I held my own in the other two, and actually managed to get a few hits in that I planned. Unlike last time, this time around I actually was able to initiate some attacks, do some basic combinations that enabled me to score a few tags, actually force my opponents to defend.

And that's progress. Two weeks ago, I couldn't see myself here. The idea of free sparring made me nervous as hell, and yet here I am, free sparring, and actually sensing improvement. My doubts are just that: doubts. They mean nothing. I need to appreciate the gains I've made, and let the future take care of itself.

Mood: Ouchie. And I still have training tonight and tomorrow!
Now Playing: Brian Eno, "Lightness: Music for The Marble Palace"


Rachel said...

Somehow your voices of doubt reminded me of Mara's attack on the Buddha on the eve of the Buddha's enlightenment. It's beautifully described and illustrated here
but the central bit is this: Shakyamuni sat down beneath the bodhi tree, making the vow to sit until he reached enlightenment. Mara, the demon king of Samsara, wanted to keep Shakyamuni in Samsara and not reach the freedom of Nirvana, so he immediately attacked Shakyamuni , threatening him with all kinds of horrible dangers that could be avoided if only Shakyamuni would get up from his meditation seat. But Shakyamuni sat unmoved. At last Mara said to him, "What right do you have to even try to reach enlightenment?" Shakyamuni's response was simply to touch the ground and say, "The earth is my witness.--the earth bears witness to the countless lifetimes I've spent developing kindness and generosity and patience and all the other perfections of a Buddha." And at that moment he awoke.

That story is supremely moving to me, partly because when I myself am attacked by Mara, my response is usually to say, "You're probably right. *sigh* I'll just go sit in the thistles." So good on you for resisting Mara.

Gregg P. said...

Hi H! Thanks so much for the comment and story -- that is quite similar to the way I felt, it's true, though clearly to a far lesser degree. I imagine this is just the first in what will be an ongoing cycle of self-doubt that I'll just need to work to anticipate, ignore, and dismiss.

It occurs to me that there is a sort of backwards vanity involved with surrendering to self-doubt when confronted with the abilities of others. Noit too unlike the "comfort" of self-pity. It's like saying that your own inability makes you special and that because of your lack of skill and practice you have earned to luxury of letting yourself off the hook (does that make sense?).

That's sort of what I tell myself to remind myself when I feel doubts growing: that giving in to these doubts is really just a selfish reflex to bend over backward and kiss my own lazy ass.

By the way, I owe you thanks: a not-insignificant part of what got me to the point where I could finally take the plunge and start learning this art was a lot of self-reflection that I undertook after reading your blog over the past year or so.

So, thank you. I'm glad to see you back!

Rachel said...

Aw. Thanks! I'm happy if what I'm putting out in the blogosphere has a positive effect of some kind.

And yes, I completely agree that self-pity and self-doubt can be a kind of vanity. The Buddha acutally broke down conceit into three categories: comparing yourself to someone else and saying "I'm better than them," "I'm worse than them," or (and this is the interesting one) "I'm the same as them." All of those opinions about yourself are equally unskillful, just because they're opinions about yourself. There ain't no call for you to be having opinions about yourself in the first place; just get on with it. --that, at any rate, is one possible reading of the Buddha's teachings.