Lilac. Sage, Lavender, Mint, Cedar. Grass, and the scent of leaves, with a hint of ocean and river just under all of it. If you pay attention, you can actually smell the different scents put out by the different trees. More birds than I know how to name are chirping in front and back, and gulls and crows are off in the distance. A single croak of a raven, and a solitary bumblebee making his rounds. If I care to listen, cars and planes…footsteps from the upstairs neighbour, and one of the cats scratching with a bored focus at some poor insect on the inside of the window.

The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.

Li Bai was one of us…a swordsman and duellist. A poet.

Self-defense is a pointless skill if we don’t practice having a life worth living. It’s the first essential question we should ask ourselves: Why is my life worth saving?  Actually, that’s not the right question. We don’t have a choice but to die a some point. If you don’t live correctly, there is very little difference between dying right no, and dying ten thousand years from now. If you do live correctly, there is no difference between dying now and a hundred thousand years from now. The correct question is: Why is my life worth living?

There is nothing outside your own skin that can truly be the answer to that question. You own nothing in the world. Everything can be lost or taken from you, and if you put value on a thing that can be taken, you are living an empty life. The only real freedom we have in life is the freedom to choose how we react to things…we are in control of our thoughts and emotions. At least, we are if we are taught correctly how to do so, and practice constantly.

Freedom, though, isn’t a life. There is an absolute peace to be found in complete control, letting your emotions come and go without leaving an impression on you. It’s the best joy, to just exist…but we are more than that. We have to live in accord with our nature.

Nature, however, doesn’t mean just running around naked and not bathing. Sure, that’s a free state, and an ultimate state of just living…but again, we are more than that. We have conscious minds, and the will to make decisions, aware of consequences, and act on them. Our nature is the end result of all of those decisions and there consequences. We wilfully choose our nature, even if we aren’t aware of it.

Training in martial arts is a wilful expression of what we want our nature to be. It speaks to our desire to move through life in a specific way. It shows that we have a desire to be a certain kind of person…the warrior who stands alone at the edge of the village, spear in hand, waiting night after night for the lion…knowing full well that some in the village will resent the warrior for sleeping in the next day, knowing full well that if the lion sneaks by, the warrior will take the full blame for every injury a villager suffers. It’s the nature of the warrior to love the villagers anyway.

Duty and obligation are things we choose. We should respect that in our training. We choose this path, and we should make the extra effort every day to honour that choice. There is always the desire to take things easy, to take a break, to reward ourselves…but there is very little value in these things. Leisure is often seen as the ideal sign of a free life, but complete leisure denies nature. It avoids the purpose we have given ourselves. Our freedom is found in following our nature, which in the case of the martial artist, means always working on the art.

The little choices add up. The escalator beckons, and your body says “Rest. Take the ten seconds and let the stairs carry you up. You worked out already, you earned this, save up your energy, you might need it later…” Rest is a moment stolen from your purpose in life, at least in this case. If you let escalator do the work for you, you miss out on the alignment practice walking up will give you. Every step is an opportunity to find a better way to make your calves work. Every step teaches you about keeping your hips postured, your piriformis working to keep things tied together, shoulders just so. That tiny little burn in the muscles is your reward.

Class work is the test, but real practice and learning happens every day.