Monday, December 01, 2008

Felling Great Trees

The other day I found myself thinking about my Tang Soo Do training, and my impending dan testing (May, if all goes according to plan). I was thinking about how I've seen, time and again, people who seem so dedicated and committed to their training attain their dan status, receive their blue belt in recognition of their efforts and accomplishments, and then ... well, vanish. After 3-4 years of commitment, 10 tests of gradually growing difficulty and intensity, hundreds -- even thousands! -- of hours of training they receive a new belt and decide that they're no longer interested in continuing.

This happens a LOT with children and teens, obviously -- very often they and their parents, who typically do not train, see the blue belt as the primary goal of training. Their reward, if you will, or their graduation. We live in such a reward-driven society that this is certainly not unexpected: I know from my own experience that motivating kids to keep focused on training during the 6-month periods between tests at the higher gup ranks can be a chore. Once we hit dan, the wait stretches to years, which from a kid's perspective clearly seems almost infinite. When you've only been on the planet for 11 or 12 years, the idea of doing something without what is perceived as a reward until 2+ years later must seem incomprehensible. So, that I understand. I hope to keep my kids focused on training -- I think with my daughter it will be doable, but unless something changes in my son's attitude I have a feeling that training past dan will be iffy at best, at least for the foreseeable future.

So, kids dropping out I get. But what of the adults? Adults start training for such different reasons than kids -- very often, as in my case, it was an opportunity to jump outside of my comfort zone and challenge myself, to do something completely new. Others see it as a chance to feel safer and more secure. Or as a chance to do something with their kids that is beneficial for the entire family. Or it's just exercise. As often as not it's a combination of many or all of these things, to varying degrees. And from my fairly limited perspective, adults that make it past 4th gup and get their red belt seem likely to see things through to dan, and seem less likely to just stop training altogether as soon as they get the blue belt around their waist.

But yet I've also seen adults who were among the most talented and devoted martial artists I've trained with just ... stop altogether. They have valid reasons -- family demands, work demands, money pressures, and so forth. But frankly I think these are often the excuses folks make in order to excuse themselves from making yet another long-term commitment. So, if these folks, folks I looked up to when I began training as examples who I want to be and how I want to be in my approach to Tang Soo Do, can just walk away, what happened? What changed? More importantly, I wonder what my attitude will be after receiving my promotion.

As I've trained for the past 3 years, my attitudes have changed, deepened, grown in unexpected directions, but have largely remained undiluted by time and effort. I still love training, I still think of the dojang as a sort of a home for my spirit, a place where I am finding a peace and focus that I've never felt in my life. But is this any different than what these other folks felt? And yet ... they moved on.

So, I've been soul searching. And as often seems to happen, I find that when I soul search and look for answers they present themselves in unexpected ways. This time it was in running across an old blog entry by a woman named Rachel, whose blog is wonderful and far too rarely updated. Here's a link to the original blog entry -- I'm paraphrasing Rachel's story in a manner that better relates to how it spoke to me.
A Zen teacher from China moved to Tennessee and once he arrived he bought a little old house with a big old oak tree on the front lawn. On the day he moved in several of his neighbors told him "That tree's overgrown and old. You've got to chop it down or it might fall on your house."

He nodded, in his inscrutable Chinese way, and said, "Good. I chop."

The next morning he went to the local hardware store and bought a hatchet. One of his neighbors came by and saw him chopping away at the enormous trunk of the tree with the tiny little hatchet and laughed, saying "You can't do it that way. It'll take forever! I'll go get my chainsaw and we can have the tree down in half an hour."

But the old man shook his head and said, "I chop."

His neighbor rolled his eyes, but left him alone, figuring that after a few hours of this futile chopping the old man would have had enough and would come asking to borrow his chainsaw.

But the old man didn't ask for help. Instead the next day, and every morning after, at 9 am for exactly one hour, everyone in the neighborhood could hear a steady chop chop chop from the old man's front yard. It got so that if he missed a morning they'd come over to see if he was okay. He went from being "that crazy Chinaman" to being part of the community.

Eventually he explained to some of his new friends that this is how he taught meditation: every day you chop away just a little more, and sooner or later a great tree falls.

Well, after months of this it became clear that the great tree was finally due to fall. On what was clearly going to be the day the tree would finally come down the excited neighbors all gathered around to witness the last few hatchet chops. And after a few minutes of chopping with the hatchet, with a mighty creak and splintering noise, the tree crashed to the ground.

The entire town erupted into applause, everyone thrilled and excited to witness the culmination of the teacher's slow and steady efforts. Finally, after the cheering died down, one of the neighbors came up to the teacher and asked him, "Well, the tree is down. What will you do now?"

"Make firewood" was his reply.
Reading this simple story moved me remarkably. Now, that in itself is not a big accomplishment, really -- I'm easily moved. Ask anyone who's ever sat through a Disney movie with me and they'll tell you that I cry at the drop of a hat. But the story spoke directly to the concerns I've had about my approaching dan test, and my training going forward. I found myself grinning, and yet with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. I felt reassured.

I saw how my training can be so like what the teacher was doing -- slow, methodical, time consuming, and hard for those around who do not train to understand. I thought about how silly the neighbors must have thought the old man was, at first, and how silly I often have felt over the past few years, this big dude hopping and stomping and sweating on the mat with all these little kids around. I thought about the sense of community that the teacher's efforts brought to himself, and to those around him even though they didn't really understand why he was doing the things he did, and of how I've felt my own community grow and flourish in the past few years.

But most of all I saw that in achieving what can in some ways be perceived as the ultimate goal of undertaking a task in the first place, you can actually provide the basis for an entirely new goal, one that never would have been possible without the initial efforts. The symbolism of the goals -- although this is supposedly a true story, so the symbolism is in the interpretation, not in the tale itself -- really spoke to me: how much like adults who begin training in martial arts the initial efforts are more or less self-defense oriented (protecting himself and his house from the potential destruction that the tree posed), but in felling the tree he created a new journey, one that would enable him to live a better life (using the fruits of his earlier efforts to, through additional effort, warm his home).

And I saw that this next stage in the teacher's plan -- like training after dan advancement -- would be far longer, and require far more commitment in terms of hours. If it took the teacher months to chop through the trunk of the tree, it will obviously take years and years to break it down into firewood. But regardless of the time it will take, while it may take a larger total amount of time to achieve the actual commitment is essentially the same: one hour each day, until the task is completed. The goal is attained simply by returning to the task at hand again and again.

So now I'm left wondering: What would the teacher's next task be, after making the firewood? I like to think he uses the wood to cook supper for the town. Opinions are welcome....

Mood: Thoughtful
Now Playing: "Baraka," Original Motion Picture Soundtrack


Anonymous said...

Wow, Gregg. Your blog always cheers, reassures, or moves me. Thanks! Hugs, Toni

Gregg P. said...

You're sweet! Thanks for the compliment - I'm glad you enjoyed it. Hey, you should get on Facebook....