The hopeful state of mind in the martial arts seems to be something we need to cultivate no matter how long we have trained or how advanced we are (or think we are). The hope that when we meet a new player, student, friend or Master that they will dazzle us with their brilliance, resilience, insights and skills. This has to be something we always strive to see in others. However many times we are not met in these times with such people. Instead we find ourselves disappointed in some way that other people do not measure up to our own expectations of them. Which is of course a form of attachment that we need to address internally but we must remain hopeful that there is more to the arts we love than what we ourselves see and understand, to do otherwise is a slippery slope indeed.
Many times people who begin to find disappointment when they meet or visit other martial artists become bitter and more entrenched in that what they do or know is THE one true method. Remaining hopeful allows us to remain open in our minds and hearts to other points of view and other arts or styles views on things. The ego will always easily find fault with others to make ourselves feel good but we must remain suspicious of our own minds in these cases, our standards must be higher than self congratulating about being “better” or “more” than another practitioner. It is the standards and hope that we must understand here to allow us to remove the ceilings of skill we all run in to as we advance and train.
I see the training of the martial arts as a series of climbs up a mountain, a steep incline exists for instance at the very beginning of training when everything is new and the basic skills are easily understood and captured. The first few months are wondrous as we advance and learn so quickly what the Master is teaching. But then we reach the first plateau where it seems that our advancement slows down to a crawl at best and only the hard work remains of practice, drills, crossing hands and so in with little to no sense of advancement. Then another climb begins and so we reach another plateau and so on. But it seems that there are more pitfalls in training here than people realize and they become very hard to recognize. True some of these plateaus may last only weeks while others may last months or even years but there is such a thing as not being able to advance any longer. A barrier, a glass ceiling exists that we keep hitting our heads on without even knowing it is there, each of them more insidious than the last.
One of the first ceilings I find people hit is that of the ego. This is a major barrier that few people ever pass and I always have called it the “Black Belt Disease”. Usually at that special rank people start to think they have arrived and as such are now at a higher place on the mountain with a beautiful view. The problem is the more our ego is enlarged the more we want others to continue to stroke it. So instead of looking forwards and starting the next difficult climb people turn around and look back down the mountain at all those students who are behind them in skill and out of ego, not compassion, they begin to teach and “help” other students learn. These victims to the disease become teachers too early only for the purposes of gaining power over others and stroking their own egos. Many worshippers keep one looking down from their lofty peak and make it easy to rest and simply teach. How many times have I seen 25 year old Black Belts playing the role of “The Master” after their arduous five years of training? These people typically become school owners and never even notice they have more mountain available to climb. The glass ceiling firmly in place they rest on their laurels and slowly slide into the fat master role.
Some people see the view from that first plateau and are not satisfied, they realize there is so much more to learn and by looking up the mountain instead of down they see there is farther to go up than there is behind them, they have barely started! These people find a new path in their training, which may involve teaching but with the hopeful attitude that it will reveal more understanding to themselves. Indeed many times teaching a student is more about teaching yourself about the subject than them. These people climb higher than most until they reach another plateau. A better view here of the mountain and all those clambering below and a more difficult ceiling above their heads. Here we find the people who are usually in the upper echelon of their style, the fifth degree and so on black belts who have earned a great deal of respect from those below them, distinguished themselves as the new generation of Masters and are worshipped by a good many more people. Here the ego again rears its head but they have beaten that demon before though it is more clever than before. Here they see there is few of people like them and so they ARE something. It is not fantasy, their skills and deep knowledge are much wider and deeper than other peoples in truth. They have earned their position by sweat and years of toil. The ego is dangerous here as it begins to crush the attitude of hopefulness since they never seem to run into other people better than they are. Here the ego tends to isolate them in their schools and temples. They have so many students to take care of and organizations to run that they forget to realize they have been placed in a vacuum. Only interacting with those of their own style or sect, mostly lower level students. How clever the ego is! Hopefulness is extinguished since only their Master is their superior and he/she is too old and about to pass on to be of much use. Surely they are poised to be the next true inheritor!
This ceiling is difficult to break through as it has to do with our own standards we set only for ourselves. Even without a higher level teacher to help you at this point you should be skilled and wise enough to see where the training must logically go. In order for that to happen you must set standards for your own training. Here simple standards such as faster, more efficient, more effortless power and such must become your goal. To climb further up the mountain now you should not need someone to hold your hand. You must find the path forward on your own or forge one anew. Look up the mountain not down. The students and worshippers will still give you the ego boosts you should desperately need at this stage as the training should become so difficult you need them to rest upon to continue moving upward. Start the next difficult climb with higher standards. What is good enough for your students is absolutely NOT good enough for you.
The next place training ends is much like the last. Skills plateau and although you have become very skilled it is not, deep in your heart, what you thought the to level of skills would be. What about the old stories? The legends of iron palm masters breaking the backs of horses? The monks that can control their heart beats? Legends you start to tell yourself, not reality. Here you have trained decades and in ranks systems have become close to or are the highest ranks in the chosen style. Peers are either few and far between or never found at all. But find a ceiling and a loss of hope in people hearts where they have “arrived” and as such stop their training and look down the mountain to help their students. They see they have not quite reached the peak yet, but it is a vertical climb it seems from here and they are no longer young men. Here the great teachers build their huts and have students climb the mountain to find them and complete their training. Here is where we imagine the great gods of our arts to reside, waiting for people to find them. Here we find the ego again and the disheartened attitude that the legends are just that, legends. But what then is left to accomplish? Once again we must change our standards, not just to become better than we were but now the standard of course must be perfection. Although it may be an unreachable state in truth, it cannot simply be a lofty goal but our actual standard of training. Nothing now is good enough, we must become brutal with ourselves. Our students are the ones we show compassion to, no matter what they think, it is ourselves that are treated with brutal honesty. Ewe do not accept that the legends are made up stories, instead we go out to prove why they either can or can’t be true. No speculation, no mistakes allowed. Brutal honesty and only looking upwards to the peak of the mountain we have been climbing our whole lives.
With this in mind the brutal climb continues and yes at the peak of the mountain the greatest among us find themselves at some point. But this is the rub, those with the patience tenacity and discipline to arrive here simply look out onto the mountain range around them and leap from the peak for a true adventure. Styles are ways to climb to lofty peaks and become truly useful when you leap off into space, leaving it behind. Finding deep principals from your lifetimes work and of course more to learn and explore. What a shame it is to see so many people with no hopefulness in their training. Do not be disappointed in others, be more aware of yourself and push yourself farther. The purpose of learning any skill is to let it go so you become naturally able to exercise the ability the training has given you.
The truly great masters names are all forgotten, they left nothing behind for us. The lesser Masters feed upon the ego, believing their own press releases, their media. This becomes them and they stop to admire their accomplishments no matter how small they might truly be. Move forward and keep climbing the mountain, to do otherwise is to disrespect your art, your teachers and most of all your own potential.