Monday, September 02, 2013

Shodan Essay: Confidence

Confidence and its Necessity in Karate-Do

By Eli Jones

Image of the various brush-stroke styles for the kanji for self-confidence

Religion calls its faith, commerce calls it security, athletes call it tenacity, and general society calls its self-assurance. The Japanese word for it is jishin which, depending on the kanji, can mean earthquake. Regardless of moniker, confidence is an element of the human mind that is dependent upon a combination of two factors: an individual’s perception of a given scenario (whether spontaneous or routine) and his or her perceived ability to take appropriate action as necessitated by a situation. In daily life this can mean anything from trusting family and friends to provide emotional, spiritual, or financial support when required (general confidence) to a warranted standing of one’s ground with peers, colleagues, or superiors on the basis of a technical, practical, or personal issue (self-confidence). Generally speaking, an amalgamation of common and life-changing experiences and how they are handled is what ultimately shapes an individual’s self-perception while establishing a perpetual pattern of action, or lack thereof. That is to say, if a person learns to handle undesirable situations with quick resolve, they will retain the confidence to do so, and if one becomes used to mistreatment, it is unlikely that he or she will ever gain enough confidence to break the cycle. 

        With that said, confidence presents itself in a number of ways with regard to martial arts. In karate specifically, karateka are often given opportunities to demonstrate their ability before sensei, students, and spectators; challenged to learn new forms and applications; charged with the task of sharing knowledge with others seeking karate-do; required to apply learned skills in a controlled environment in both prearranged and free-style scenarios; and, with time, tested to gain the privilege and responsibility of acquiring new knowledge. Needless to say, as the student spends years learning his or her respective style, self-assurance tends to be a product of the physical, mental, and spiritual growth that karate-do affords its practitioners. Such confidence typically translates to the student’s life outside the dojo as a tendency to welcome new experiences, handle daily stresses in a productive manner, take leadership roles in his or her community, strengthen ties with family and friends, establish healthy relationships, and, should the unfortunate situation arise, defend one’s self and loved ones to the fullest extent. 

        I am thankful to say that the cumulative product of my twenty-one years in karate training has led to a more confident me than would have resulted had I never discovered the Okinawan art. As with many who find their way into the arts, my interest was sparked by way of American commercialism. In my case, it was the 1984 movie
The Karate Kid – which I first saw in 1987 – that sent me relentlessly begging my parents to let me take karate. Five years later, I found myself in a traditional Shorin-ryu dojo training under Major J.D. Perry, USMC (retired) who was then a fifth dan in Nakazato Shugoro’s Shorinkan style. 

        As with most kids starting off in karate, my initial goal was progression – to ascend the ranks, learn techniques to impress friends, and essentially become the next Daniel Russo. I very quickly discovered that true karate was not designed as a mode of status or entertainment, and, as one might guess, lacks the commercial elements presented by inspirational underdog movies of the 80s, comedic anthropomorphic reptile cartoons of the 90s, and (as recently noted) octagon-oriented ultraviolent free-for-alls of the new millennium. Conversely, karate is a personal commitment and lifelong pursuit to better oneself through training; a term that typically refers to a continued dedication to the analysis, interpretation, practice and overall comprehension of the form. It was through these points that I was able to understand, even at a young age, the substance of empty hand and the emptiness of preconceived substance. 

        At around age twelve, I witnessed other kids boast about black belts they had obtained a year after joining whatever commercial dojo they were a member of, only to lose in the numerous fights they inevitably got themselves into. Upon speaking to one of these young karateka, I found that their dojo trained with safety proofed and artificial weapons, based a great deal of importance on competition, and encouraged its students to speak out about training – likely for the sake of commercial attention. The underlying issue with this type of dojo was that its students developed a false sense of confidence hinged upon poor training and a belief that they were more capable in combat situations than was actually the case. When these young karateka discovered that they were unable to “use” karate as originally thought, the resounding effect was a lack of confidence in their training and ultimately themselves. 

        Perry Sensei, on the other hand, insisted that no child should hold a yudansha rank. His belief was, and still is, that even a well-trained child cannot physically defend his or herself in a direct confrontation with an adult, and, as such, is incapable of handling the responsibility that comes with a black obi. Similarly, he disagreed with the use of “toy” weapons on the grounds that a child will never learn respect for the implements of kobudo, and will harm themselves or others should they ever use authentic articles. On the subject of openly discussing one’s ability as a martial artist – he highly discouraged it, once comparing the notion to an individual of inadequate intelligence warning everyone he crosses that he carries a concealed hand weapon (Sensei added that even with a gun, a fool rarely knows how to use the weapon appropriately and will likely harm himself and others). It was such fundamental differences between Sensei’s approach and most others’ that gave me confidence in both Shorin-ryu and the dojo at which I was training. 

        I continued through the remainder of public school with a sense of self-assurance granted by a martial arts experience that placed me under several gifted sensei as a student, and before classes of fellow karateka as sempai – this is essentially where I discovered my love of communication and speaking to large groups. Shortly after graduating high school, I found myself in college training to be a skin therapist where, interestingly enough, I discovered that many of the same body areas used to incapacitate an attacker can be used to encourage wellness in a client. After graduation, I went back to school, became a teacher, and taught skin care at the college where I had learned. Soon, I found myself married, taking a job three states away from my home state, and enrolled in college yet again – all of this occurring in just ten years’ time, and all requiring personal confidence to carry through. 

        For the first two years after the move to Florida, I found myself in a town that seemed to be dominated by what I have so affectionately come to call “buy your belt here operations,” or as my friend Dave Higgins likes to call them, “McDojos.” It was for this reason that my training became very personal during this period. The reason I note this is because it requires a sufficient amount of confidence in one’s karate-do to understand that, in certain cases, it is best to train on one’s own than to risk the influence of bad information or improper training with others. 

        Nevertheless, my wife and I soon moved to Tallahassee where, after about four months, I found another Shorin-ryu dojo. Here, Sensei Bill Lucas teaches Kishaba Juku, a martial arts study group founded by Chokei Kishaba where Katsuhiko Shinzato now serves as the Juku Cho. Although this form of karate is indeed Shorin-ryu, the techniques seemed somewhat foreign to me as I originated in a style that focused on the generation of power through body mechanics and the augmenting of strength; Kishaba Juku, however, places a similar emphasis on body mechanics, but utilizes a combination of koshi (hip) technique and relaxation to generate power. At first, I wasn’t sure how this karate worked – or how it could work rather – and after three years of training, to be completely honest, I’m still not one-hundred percent certain. But I did become certain of one thing very quickly – Kishaba Juku is authentic Okinawan karate at its best, it works, and is most definitely effective. 

        Over the course of these last few years, both Lucas Sensei and Paris Janos Sensei have demonstrated the importance of relaxation in karate which has, by extension, finally started to translate into my daily life. When I first came to Kishaba Juku, I often remained rigid in my demeanor, techniques, and applications, and was constantly told by Lucas Sensei to “just relax.” At first I thought this difficulty was confined to my martial arts training, but soon found that I was equally as tense in life outside the dojo. It really was not until a doctor’s visit several months ago when a nurse told me that my blood pressure was once again high, and the doctor diagnosed me with a stress-induced issue that I realized, “I’m not relaxing.” With this revelation, I decided to practice deep breathing techniques, eat healthier, train more, and focus exclusively on issues that are solvable. In doing this, my most recent checkup showed that my blood pressure had normalized (without medication), the symptoms of my issue were minimal at worst, and I felt that my overall outlook on life had improved significantly. In other words, by relaxing I was able to build energy and generate more power on a life level. The reason I mention all of this is because there is really nothing more of a confidence-booster than realizing that the ideas and values learned from an essential component of one’s life, such as karate, has implications on such a broad level as to affect every other component. It is for this reason that I am confident that my current method of training will continue to improve all aspects of my life now and well into the future. 

        On a final note, it is important to understand that confidence should not be confused with arrogance, just as assertiveness should not be confused with pushiness. As mentioned earlier, confidence relies on the individual’s perception of a situation (typically a gauging of situational gravity) and his or her believed ability to act in that situation. Arrogance, on the other hand, generally stems from the notion that the beliefs, knowledge, or skills possessed by one are innately correct and superior to those held by others. In truth, the misguided arrogance of one can shatter the progressing confidence of others. And if we accept that a shattered confidence is not easily reassembled, we can understand why such frames of mind have no place in the karate-do. Confidence, however, is not only a good idea – it is fundamentally necessary.  

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