Painting Death

TreebeardDitch all the drama of martial arts, and you are left with a reality that doesn’t jive with our spoken or even understood reasons for training. Mostly we spend time justifying our interest. A lot of the justifications I hear don’t stand up under some scrutiny, but we still use those justifications amongst ourselves to try and make ourselves more right than other practitioners. I train for reality, therefor your sport approach sucks. I train for historical accuracy, so your reality approach sucks. You train just for fun? Poser. Loser. Your art is empty.

Long term goals are always a bit of a fantasy. As the old saying goes, you can tell what you will be doing two years from now about as well as you predicted today two years ago. Nothing wrong with putting a little aside for a rainy day, but don’t waste today’s opportunities. For us martial artists, that means a little less thinking about the end result of our training, and paying a little more attention to what we are doing today in class. Do what you can to get a lifetimes worth out of what you do in two hours. If you knew your next class was the last one you ever took, what would your experience of class be? How would you suck every last little bit of worth out of the instruction?

I’ve written a few times before about the skill of listening in class. And it’s nice to talk about ideas and wrap words around them, and maybe think that people get something out of that, but what is the reality I’m talking about? I’m not a big believer in empty ideas. Ideas should be expressed to become art, and this is how the martial becomes an art. Sure, martial refers to war and killing, but if you are planning on killing someone with a sword you have bigger problems than I’m willing to deal with in writing. The reality of martial arts for most of us is that we practice a unique thing in the world of art…our expression of art is born of competition with another person.

When our partner tries to stop our expression of intent, and we answer that intent, we spontaneously create art. Often it’s an art only understood to fellow martial artists, but that’s everyone else’s loss, isn’t it? I’m briefly amused to imagine a painter trying to put oil on canvas while another painter struggles to stop them. At first the resulting painting would be utter crap, but what would happen to the painter given enough time and practice? What would happen to his art?

Once he understands that he might only get a few fractions of a second of paint contacting canvas, he will want to make sure that each stroke is going to count. Before approaching the canvas and his anti-muse, he will need to have the clearest understanding of exactly what he intends to paint. He will not only have to be insanely efficient with his brush strokes, he will have to reach as deeply into his core of expression as he can. He will not know ahead of time how many strokes on the canvas he might get, so each individual stroke may have to serve to express the entirety of his art.

Such a painter would have to spend countless hours working on individual technique. His understanding of what he is capable of expressing will change. He will have to reach deeper and deeper into himself to truly understand what he is trying to communicate. Starting as a classicist, he might have to try impressionism. And probably start with abstract. He will have to understand clearly what his own purpose is, and work very hard on being an expression of that purpose. He will also have to understand his opponent, and know that his final expression of art cannot help but be shaped by his opponent. To truly express himself, he must factor in the effect of the opponent. And so it goes.

For us, we start with the warmup. At Valkyrie, we start with moving across the floor, crawling, hopping…leaping. For me, the first crawl is the hardest. I come face to face with what my body has become. A smooth natural crawl doesn’t just happen after a day of writing or standing on concrete floors. Not after nearly forty-five years of trying to not crawl. I can feel my shoulders lock up. My hips click. My scoliotic back kills suppleness. I have to reach my awareness down into the joints as they move, and remove all that flotsam. Moving on to the follow-up exercises, I reach deeper into myself, kicking loose all the laziness and brittleness that a day of being a modern human has grafted onto me.

When the warm-ups are done, we move onto the strength exercises. Here I get back in touch with what I am capable of. I feel the strength of my muscles, and the first ache to see what they are capable of. I want to move…really move. I want to jump, run…come to grips with a powerful opponent, and feel my strength pitted against theirs. One set of muscles to another, I feel my strength come to life and grow, challenged by the exercises.

And then we tie it all together with the movement drills. I fuse my body together into a single powerful engine welded into the perfect structure. My mind guides and my body moves. By overcoming challenges of posture and balance, my body finally becomes awake and I understand what I am capable of.

That understanding is put to the test with the boxing and wrestling portion of class. Through the drills and sparring, I strive to push my body to it’s limits within the confines and restraints of the given exercise. I learn to use my partner as a means to express myself. I learn to understand what they are trying to express, and what they are capable of.

With sword in hand, my art is complete. All that is left is the act of creation. The narrow length of steel, with it’s implicit threat, dictates the bounds of creativity and expression. I must be obedient to it’s boundaries. I must embrace them in order to move past them. I see the edge, the point, and know what my opponent can do with them. In the lines between his art and mine, there is only a narrow window for creativity. For some, it’s enough. Their purpose in life lies within those lines. For me, I want to reach to another place. What is in me to express can’t be found within those lines, but I cannot ignore them. I must master them anew for each opponent and try to find my way beyond.

My long term goals are to reach beyond what I can express now, and I put a little aside each class for that. But in each class, I strive to express myself as best I can with I know of myself today. And that’s the only justification I need for why I train. It’s enough for a lifetimes worth of work.