- Cheonkwon (skipped a technique at the beginning while thinking about the difference between the Kukkiwon standard and the way we do this form in our school)
- Bassai (stepped forward on third suto block instead of backward)
After a messy session yesterday, I decided to eliminate the distraction of music and train normally. Instead of intentionally creating confusion with music, I’d just experience the distractions my mind normally creates on its own! I was amazed to get through 36 forms before I finally botched one of the advanced poomsae in the Kukkiwon Yudanja series. Finishing the first half without errors felt like a real achievement, because it’s easy to make mistakes early when the mind is still transitioning from “normal life” to the focus of training. Since I start with easy forms that lack kicks, and am getting warm before I need to do side or crescent kicks, I usually don’t stretch or prepare for these marathon sessions. This makes the switch from sitting at the computer to practicing martial arts more abrupt and jarring than the normal routine of getting in a car, going to the dojang, putting on a dobok, and so forth.
It was nice to be able to hear my breath, the sound of feet stepping, sliding, cutting, or stomping, and to be more generally aware of both my interior state and my surroundings. This is the way martial arts are meant to be performed, of course, so no surprise that it was both more successful and more satisfying than usual.
As the string of successful forms started to add up, I felt a little like a baseball player on a hitting streak: I felt more fleeting meta thoughts like “don’t mess this up now!” where the fact of the increasing success became, itself, a distraction.1 Fewer mistakes meant less recovery time (no stopping between forms to log errors), so as the streak got longer and longer, it became more physically draining.
By the time I finished, I noticed that the day’s session felt like running a 5K race: the first mile I’m hyper aware of noting how my body feels, trying to maintain a specific goal pace, etc. and a lot of thinking to get into the game; the middle mile is the hardest because the body is complaining and it gets harder to sustain a fast pace, but it’s not as exciting as either end, just grinding out the distance; in the last mile, the thrill of getting closer to the finish and the difficulty of holding the body together actually makes it easier to stay disciplined.2
1 In A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace has a fantastic essay about his days as a regionally ranked tennis player during high school. “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley” discusses a turning point in his career, when he began to slip down the rankings because he would think too much during match after match. Wallace would go on to be, arguably, the preeminent writer of his generation, and his obsessive overthinking (along with a powerful intellect, playful wit and use of language, and cultural commentary) was one of the things that made his writing great. It was also fatal to his career as a competitive athlete: he talks about how the ice-cold composure of the best athletes comes from being able to switch off their brains in the heat of the match, or in many cases from not being very bright in the first place. Athletes call this “being in the zone,” and we martial artists, of course, call it the state of “no mind.” A tennis player with one fault, tossing the ball for a second serve on match point, or a relief pitcher with two on and one out in a close eighth inning. . . any thought whatsoever can be instantly fatal, and Wallace simply wasn’t able to keep his brain from getting involved when it mattered. His genius on the page translated into choking on the court. I know enough about myself to understand that this meta-awareness is one of my chronic flaws, allowing to let the meaning of what I’m doing creep into the mind that should stick to the doing. On this occasion, I was pleased that when I finally messed up a form, it wasn’t for this reason. . . it was a different kind of distraction entirely. Sigh.
2 In most of these long sessions, I start with the easiest forms, then work my way up through those that are more difficult or that I don’t know as well. However, I always finish with the eight Pal Gwe poomsae, which are the first I learned and which I’ve practiced many thousands of repetitions. Finishing with the forms I know best gives me a burst of energy and good feeling. To stick with the 5K analogy, it’s like the exhilaration of the final kick, the last quarter mile, when you can see the finish line and burn all the energy you have left. If I can nerd out briefly, I’m reminded of a line from Susan Howe’s Articulation of Sound Forms in Time. I’ll be impressed if you’ve heard of Howe, because she’s an experimental poet of the type who’s mainly read by other experimental poets. Most people would consider the lines in this book unreadable, they’re “language poetry” and it’s a difficult read for anyone, even a creative writing grad student, as I was when I read this book. Here’s a link to Howe reading from her own book if you want a taste. Somewhere in the middle of all that tough language, the reader finds a more-or-less straightforward section, which you’ll hear about 14 minutes into the recording linked above, should you dare to go there:
I was in grad school for fiction writing, not poetry, and this comparatively lyrical passage was a welcome interlude. When I read the line “These are the old home trees,” I viscerally felt the narrator’s relief. The familiar syntax of the lines, and the comparatively clear outward meaning felt like returning home down a familiar road, where you know and recognize every tree and plant, curve and rock. The feeling was compounded by the fact that the action of the poem (such as it is) is in western Massachusetts, and at the time I was living far away in Houston, homesick for the trees and rivers, mountains and fields of our beautiful landscape. To drive home the point: after wandering in a less familiar landscape of forms from other traditions, it feels calming and heartwarming, lifting my spirits, to turn back to the familiar Pal Gwe series. I’ve been doing two of these forms since I was a teenager (19, but still!) so they’re my home, they’re in my bones, and it just feels good to do them.
Hey, are you still reading? For goodness sake, why? Ah well, such is the risk of wading into someone’s journal, even a training journal ;)