957 Words About Beginning and Staying

31 Dec

I recently unearthed from my personal library George Leonard’s Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment. I purchased the book 15 or 20 years ago because I’d come across an article by Leonard, a precursor to the book, in the May 1987 issue of Esquire magazine as part of their Ultimate Fitness series. (Follow that link to the issue in the Esquire archives, if only to enter a Wayback Machine to 1987.)

I only started my current, serious round of martial arts training in 1993 (at age 33) and came across that article sometime thereafter while digging back for that Ultimate Fitness series. I wasn’t terribly fit and was grasping for any secret fitness leg-up I could find. The mastery article presented concepts pertinent to me at that point in my martial arts journey. With perhaps a year and a half or so of practice under my (Purple-Trim?) belt I was at the point where many students might drop out, due to the “Brown Belt Blues” phenomenon.

Getting to Purple-Trim belt — or Third Gup — means I had put in consistent practice and had progressed through six belt levels in that time, testing about quarterly. I’d done a lot, learned a lot, and realized that now things were about to get real. In a way I felt I’d survived but a lot more was yet to come. The students I’d observed from other, older schools who were at these three levels before black belt (Purple-Trim, Brown and Red Belts) were serious, talented and experienced. Now I was entering into that group?

I had a glimpse of possibility, but also a sense of getting out while I could. I’d come this far OK; why chance it? Get out while I was on top, be happy with getting to that point, and gracefully exit. That’s what I’d done in my younger years: four different starts and stops in two different Karate styles and Tai Chi. A couple of belts in (or the equivalent time in Tai Chi) and then convincing myself that I should stop with whatever was the excuse of the moment. Maybe the excitement of the brand-new endeavor was gone; maybe I was chickening out. Had I stuck with my training back then, I might have been a multi-level black belt in Karate by my mid-thirties, with the lessons and gifts that would have provided, rather than a Third Gup at thirty-five.

The experience at the senior Gup levels is not one of only learning more stuff and more difficult techniques; it is also an experience of further-developing in the techniques and principles learned so far. More time is simply spent practicing and working to get better. There is more time between those last promotion levels and then to Black Belt. It’s work and time.

I shared a copy of Leonard’s article with my instructor and we talked about it a number of times. I don’t think I ever told him that I was toying with a graceful exit; I’m not sure I was even fully cognizant myself of my inclination at the time. He and I talked about the three archetypes whom Leonard describes when referring to people who either drop out of their practice or who end up “treading water”, making no improvement. (The Dabbler, The Obsessive, and The Hacker.)

To whatever degree I was considering quitting, I never really considered it further after those discussions about the article. That was partly because I realized the degree to which I’d been a regular Dabbler and Obsessive; I didn’t want to leave and have my instructor think of me as a Dabbler!

More than simply avoiding those archetypes, I was reoriented to continue on by the mastery concept Leonard presented. Mastery means living on the plateau, the long times of no discernible progress while simply practicing for the joy of regular practice. The path of mastery is practicing. More than simply hacking or messing around, it is intentional practice, with the vision to improve over time. The reality is that much of the time there is no discernible progress. Until there is. Then there’s another long plateau. One must simply practice to practice.

There is no excitement of the new endeavor (what attracts The Dabbler) and no rush of new techniques or new belts or regular, noticeable improvement (what keeps the Obsessive). There is no hacking, just showing up and going through the motions. There IS intentional, regular practice, with lots of time of nothing: no improvement, many bad days, no new techniques, no belts or awards. Just practice.

I realized all that was required of me to go wherever it is I might go with Taekwondo was to show up and give it my best shot that day. I had instruction, I had support, I had opportunity to push it to my edge. Most of all my part was to simply show up and train. Again, and again and again. Roundhouse kick, roundhouse kick, roundhouse kick again. I was to train with whatever intention I could bring that day, each kick, each class, each time — and to enjoy those cool new techniques when they are presented!

I’ve still slipped into dabbling, obsessing and hacking in different endeavors since then, including in my Taekwondo. Still, the path of mastery has remained in me, in Taekwondo, in my marriage, in my spiritual life. I have it in mind as I continue with yoga practice, and as I try to follow each breath in meditation sessions, and as I take intentional small, regular actions to improve situations I am in with people, in my work, at church, in community service: show up, take action with intention, accept the place, repeat, repeat, repeat, appreciate the gift when it comes, then keep at it some more.

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