The warrior’s way is to say yes to life, yea to it all (Joseph Campbell).
I had been training for a couple of years within my dojo and thinking I was doing great. Not only great, I was a bad ass karateka, especially for a 40 something-year-old woman. I was talented, I was strong, I was serious, and I wasn’t a girly-girl. But, it got to the point where none of the men wanted to work with me in partner exercises anymore, and I didn’t want to work with the other women and children because I had to take it easy on them and I was expected to scale back my ability. I wasn’t growing. It was frustrating.
When a different Sensei and his bunch of burly male black belts from another dojo came to train with us, I was to have a painful awakening: not only was my karate flawed, I had been learning Uechi-ryu incorrectly. Sanchin kata, the core training kata of Uechi-ryu, is designed to strengthen the physical, mental, and spiritual body. While the kata is being performed, the Sensei, or a senior black belt, hits and strikes various places on the body with the intention of testing and correcting the student’s posture, stance, technique, and strength. But the deeper goal of this kind of test is to train the mind to be calm in the chaos of combat: to meditate and focus from the inside out under duress. It tests one’s capacity to get beyond fear. A good Sanchin test purges the ego.
This new Sensei was a stout, dense, red faced, grey haired Massachusetts Italian man who reminded me of a Jack Russel on steroids. I was eager to be tested by him, and yes, I wanted to show off. I was the only one in my class to stand up in front of him to receive a Sanchin test-everyone else just picked their “favorite” black belt and so would be sure of receiving the “same old” test. I began my kata. With a martial glint of pleasure in his eye, he walked up and hit me. Hard. With the ease and methodology of a combat surgeon on the battle field, he ripped me apart: my technique, my stance, my form, and my ego. He opened my guts, spilled them on the floor, and ignoring the blood and gore (and the fact that I was female), instructed – expected – me to do my own appendectomy. I wanted to cry. I was so mad. But underneath the ego wounds, I realized I had a choice, to ignore his lesson and retreat into being offended and keep on learning and practicing karate the wrong way, or to accept his lesson and learn karate from him the right way. I chose the latter.
I traveled three hours round trip twice a week for the next couple of years. I trained with five men. They didn’t treat me like a “girl”, which was good because I didn’t want to be treated like a “girl”. For the first time in my life, I was able to fully stretch my neck out into the wind and run as hard and fast as I could. And not one of them was ever “offended” by the fact that I was an excelling female in a traditionally male warrior art form.
When I tested for my Shodan (first degree black belt), I was able to express my karate abilities at a level above and beyond what was expected – not only of my sex, but of my rank – and I was able to do so in a way that was true to my warrior self without the limitations of gender. I was able to do this because I trained with men. Not only men, but men that were better than me, and better than most. They were good men.
Regardless of, but maybe specific to, being female, if we want to become stronger and better writers, we need our writing ripped apart by others better and stronger than us. But, it matters greatly who does the ripping: be they male or female. There are writing instructors out there who know their stuff, and there are writing instructors out there that don’t. We also have to cultivate the mental fortitude to survive and thrive from it. This is hard for most of us. Especially as we get older. And maybe especially for women who are not “expected” to achieve on the same “level” as men. Rather than opening ourselves, our work, our viewpoints, our achievements up to challenge, we tend to isolate in ourselves, from fear and doubt, and we stop growing.
But, sometimes, when we remember to remain calm and strong in our core while the “blows” fall, we recognize and accept the wisdom that there will ALWAYS be someone, somewhere, out there who is wiser and stronger than us, as long as we stay open to challenge and shuffle the ego off to bed, and isn’t that marvelous!
And so we must say yea to all that life throw at us, not just the bits we like, for often it is in the bits we don’t like that we find treasure. My Sensei had a saying: “you can be beat physically and keep going, but if you are beat mentally, you’re done.” Life is Sanchin.
Thanks for reading.
This is a link to a video of Okinawan Sensei Shinjo delivering a Sanchin test. My MA Sensei trained with Shinjo and so, I was the beneficiary of the East/West connection. An FYI: women wear tank tops.