Thursday, March 15, 2012

What Keeps You Going?

Jake asked me a challenging question this evening. "What do you look forward to?" he said. What he meant, after a bit of question-and-answer clarification, was the old puzzle: why do you bother getting out of bed in the morning? Why do you keep moving through life?

It's a good question. Great question, actually. Because if you haven't got an answer for it, then either you're living like an automaton -- and yes, I know a lot of people do -- or you're in serious trouble. It's certainly a hell of a question to get from your eleven-year-old kid.

We talked. And his viewpoint was easy enough to understand. He sees me cooking on a daily basis. He sees me around the house, doing relatively mundane stuff. And of course, a lot of the things I do which mightn't seem mundane to an outsider, like running a small martial arts school, for instance - well, he's grown up around me. It's routine, isn't it?

I solved this one for myself a long time ago. I don't spend a lot of time 'looking forward to' anything. I have learned the Buddhist lesson: I love the moments of my life. I try to pay attention. And I try to ensure that the choices I make belong to me, and allow me to be myself. (If that doesn't make sense... ah, well. A lot of stuff near the core of Buddhism - particularly Zen - is slippery, and difficult to put in words.)

So what do I do that's worth continuing? Well, hell. 'Most everything. I love writing. Creating characters, stories, wrestling with ideas. Making a story work, and work well - that's a hell of a thing. Cooking. New ingredients. Old favourites. Good wine. Games. Building and maintaining things so that they work well, look nice, and will last. Planting trees, and then picking the fruit from them. Learning new things: languages, skills, philosophical concepts... it's all good.

It's all small stuff, innit? But what is a life if not a collection of small stuff? Yes, there are people who lead Big Lives, and change the world. Can't say as I'd like to trade places with most of them, though. And the ones that I do admire -- well, mostly they got there by sticking to their personal principles, and living their lives as they saw fit. Except, of course, that they happened to be in a time or a place where behaving that way put them at odds with the world at large -- and they also happened to have enough leverage to make a difference.

Small stuff.

Yesterday, one of my young ju-jitsu students worked her way up to a brown-belt level rebreakable board. She's been working on the thing for a few weeks now. After class, she balances it neatly between two chairs, and she goes after it with a hammer fist strike. When she started this routine, she was working at the orange-belt level board. I let her hammer away at it for a week or so before I suggested to her what she might be doing wrong, and how she might do better.

Why? Because it was her project. Personally; something she chose for herself. The student in question is about fourteen. She's not particularly sporty, physical, or superfit. She's always been a little reluctant to commit herself in attack, always a little nervous about the possibility of being hurt in defense. And faced with challenging physical tasks, she hasn't always had the confidence to go after them with everything she's got. All of which is okay, because I figured if she stuck around long enough, we'd work through that stuff. So when she started hammering on the orange/red board, I simply let her - because she needed to know it was her choice, and the first thing she needed to learn was that even if she didn't have the technique to break the thing, she still knew enough to hit it safely, and not be injured.

 A week or so of that, and then I quietly pointed out that she was really only using her arm, and not focusing her weight and the power of her body through the strike. We talked about balance, and breathing, and about bringing the whole of your movement to one point, and the next time she went after that board, it snapped without fuss.

I didn't realise she was going on to the brown board, though. Rebreakable boards are tough plastic slabs, made in two parts, which join in the middle. They're calibrated to snap when appropriate levels of force are applied. You can get them from white through to black, and by the time you're working on the brown board, you're supposedly snapping something like four cm or so of pineboard. I wouldn't know, personally - but I can say this: you have to hit the thing hard, and you have to hit it accurately, and if you don't hit it properly you can seriously hurt your hand.

(Breaking boards isn't really part of ju-jitsu, usually. But I learned years ago that young students absolutely love breaking shit. Okay, fair enough. They learn to focus, they learn to concentrate, and they learn that they can generate useful amounts of striking power - and they really enjoy doing it. Rebreakable boards are, in the long run, a lot cheaper than buying a sawmill...)

Yesterday evening, when the class was over and we were putting the mats away, I heard a yelp of triumph. And when I turned around, my student was holding up the brown board, in two separate pieces. I congratulated her -- and then I told her I hadn't seen it, and she should do it again.

Which she did.

Yes, it's just a slab of plastic. No, it's not an attacker determined to kill. But that's not what it's about, is it? That board is a symbol. It's a thing she couldn't do. It's a thing she couldn't bring herself to do. It's a thing she was afraid of, a thing she thought was outside her physical abilities.

Today, her world is a fraction bigger than it was yesterday. Today, the word 'impossible' is smaller. And once you start that process -- once you get people to recognise that many of the limits on their lives exist only because they haven't been questioned and challenged -- why, that person will never be the same again.

The girl in question is deservedly proud of herself. I know that when she went home a few weeks ago having failed at the red board, her hand was stiff and sore. I also know that she came back, tried harder, and broke through into a space she'd never been before: and I know that for a while, at least, until she forgets and lapses into the more usual way of thinking, she will be wondering what other of her 'limits' she can smash.

I know also that the class I run encouraged her to do this, and gave her the space and the confidence to keep at it, and though I claim no credit whatsoever for her achievement, nevertheless I'm proud of her, and I'm pleased with my role in helping her get this far. And more: I believe in her. There's more to come. She still doesn't know her own strength, both physical and mental, and I think I can keep giving her incentive and encouragement and a bit of guidance for a while yet -- and maybe one day, she'll be one of the people who doesn't lapse back into accepting the imaginary limits which imprison 'most everybody.

That, to me, is a hell of a goal. Helping to free just one person from the mental prison that cages most of humankind... I believe that's a true and worthy task. More than a good enough reason to get up out of bed in the morning, even if I didn't have ten thousand other reasons already.


  1. I am driven by my obsessive need to be able to provide for my family and be of help to my friends. I know that sounds trite, but I can't help that.

  2. Trite?

    Nah. Sometimes "trite" simply means that the words aren't really big enough for the concept. This is one of those.

  3. Love that sort of question. The Spawn recently asked me about how long the world was going to live. Not quite as existential, but still not the question I want to get as she's trying to get to sleep. I like your reason(s) for getting out of bed in the morning. On a bad day, what keeps me going is my lists. On a good day, well, there's so much to learn! There's so much to try and to explore. I want to learn more about botany and soil science. I'm running an experiment with tomato plants. I have a child to raise who has things to learn too. She also has experiments, though hers tend to be more gooey than mine, mostly. I could do without the dishes and laundry though, even if they are part and parcel of the other stuff.

    1. Dishes and laundry... yeah. Hmmm. There really ought to be a way to get rid of those.

  4. Doing stuff that going to work pays for. See my latest blog to see what I mean.

  5. hmmm, yes. Capping muppets or at least directing some volume at them. Its satisfying on a guttural level!.

    Interesting post though..dam interesting Q