The Rock, The Stream, and Dirty Socks

We have an L shaped sectional couch in our living room. My son, Isaac, usually rests at one end of the L, I at the other, and my wife, Sue, in the middle. Inevitably, at some point in the evening, an eerie silence falls over the room …. Peace? … Nope. It is a telling silence, and you best be listening for it when visiting the Roberts’ homestead. Without warning, the unmistakable “FWAP” of a sock hitting Isaac or Sue square in the face marks the beginning of the almost nightly ritual.

I have no idea how or when it started, but the ritual involves an all out, no holds barred war of sock and pillow throwing until such time as easily accessible ammunition exists no longer. Being the eldest statesman in the house, I, of course, am above such juvenile shenanigans …. UNTIL a seemingly unintentional ricochet or errantly aimed projectile invades my airspace and connects with my person. Oh, it’s ON then baby.

So, I told you that story so I could tell you this one. When everyone in my household is getting ready in the morning, it is a miracle if you can find ANY socks, no less a matching pair. My son and I view life much the same way – the function of socks is to keep one’s feet warm; two of any variety will do the trick. Sue asked Isaac the other day, “what do you do when people ask you why you are wearing two different socks?” Isaac’s response, “I usually ask them why they’re not.”

Hold that true story in your mind while you ponder this equally true story.  We have a great little mom-n-pop convenience store just down the road that is the go to location for Sue and Isaac if they are missing a crucial ingredient for the evening’s meal or activities.  Some sketchy individuals can sometimes be found in the vicinity after dark.  It is not a particularly well lit area and would require a few minute response time from our police department.

Isaac and Sue were on their way back to the car one evening when a questionable individual approached Sue and asked her for a quarter.  Isaac had already made his way around to the passenger side of the car.  Now I am usually the cynical one in the family which makes it amusing that I did not even think of the highly likely scenario that the individual wanted Sue to move her purse to a more snatcher friendly location.  The way Sue told the story however made it clear that a possible robbery was exactly the vibe that she had gotten.  I looked over at Isaac, and, like part of a well-oiled story telling machine, he picked up without missing a beat. “Don’t worry, Dad.  My body had already started moving and I knew exactly how I was going to get across the hood of the car in time to protect Mom.”  Isaac then described a sequence of actions that indeed would have been quite effective and well within his Nidan arsenal.

Ponder both scenarios from the perspective of a karateka and you can see how karate-do is as much, if not more, a mindset as it is a set of violently effective combative actions.  Self-confidence, an internally-based sense of self-worth, and a calmness that allows prudent response versus reaction are all characteristics fostered and cultivated in the dojo.  Such has been true from the very beginnings of the Shorin Ryu style.

In his book Empty Hand: The Essence of Budo Karate, Kenei Mabuni tells a centuries old story regarding karate legend, Matsumura Sokon:

He was then 41 years of age. It was a day in autumn when a young man in his early 20s came to [Matsumura] asking to be accepted as his student. He was tall, more than 1.80 m (about 6 ft) 141, with a strong stature. Matsumura was already a famous man and many young men wanted to become his disciple. But he chose his students very carefully. While the young man was begging, Matsumura noticed that there was something ill-bred in him that he did not like. He grumbled a few words and finally refused his wish. The young man left with a rather angry face.

A few days later master Matsumura went home from his service in the castle of Shuri together with two of his disciples. Suddenly they were ordered to stop by a group of about 10 young men who had waited for them in ambush. The place where this happened is today the road behind the Shuri high school.

“Oh, am I seeing Master Matsumura?” The young man who had stepped out of the group and said this was taller than the others. Matsumura thought this voice reminded him of someone. Calmly he answered, “Right, I am Matsumura.” When the moonlight let the young man’s face emerge more clearly Matsumura recognized him as the big guy who had visited him a few days ago.

“If you want to pass you must crawl between my legs!” As if by command, the men started to surround Matsumura. His students stood silently aside and watched the scene.

“If you say so.” Master Matsumura nodded and without objection kneeled down in front of the young man. While sitting on his knees he bowed his head down to the ground. Suddenly, the tall guy seemed to be puzzled because he did not understand what Master Matsumura was really intending. But then he straddled his legs to let him crawl through. He looked very strained. Sweat was running from his forehead. In the moment Matsumura put his hands on the ground to crawl on all fours he could not stand the tension anymore and jumped back shouting: “Ok, ok, I got it. You are free to go.” Angrily he spat on the ground. He was panting with a pale face, his shoulders trembling. Matsumura … left the scene as if nothing had happened.

Both students who went behind the master had to struggle to control their emotions. But finally they could no longer restrain themselves: “Master, what we were just seeing, was this really “Bushi” Matsumura? Wasn’t it just terrible being humiliated that way?” The other one added: “Right, even if there are so many enemies you must not allow them to bring such a shame and humiliation on you and force to creep like a dog.” Matsumura listened to their words with a gentle smile. …

Of course the other students heard about this matter soon. So did Matsumura’s wife Ume. She is said to have told the students: “Look, you should understand that Matsumura has just won without fighting.” Of course, he could have chosen to fight. One strike would have been enough to knock out the tall gang leader. Then he would have knocked down four or five of the others and the rest would surely have run away. But he was accompanied by two inexperienced disciples. There was the risk for his students to be injured. He would have had to protect them. So the situation was more difficult than if he had been alone. But even if he had been alone, fighting against so many people would not have left him much room for modesty. Probably he would have had to injure a few of them. Maybe one of them would have even come to death. His king would never have forgiven such a behavior. This is why he chose “winning without fighting”. But again this was not a deliberate decision but a natural and spontaneous reaction to the situation. (pp. 166 – 167)

The concept is ubiquitous in Eastern thought. A Daoist may speak of a flowing stream that encounters an immovable boulder.  The boulder stands rigid and firm, resolute that none shall pass through it.  The stream simply yields to the boulder, flows around it, and continues merrily on its way.  The boulder believes itself to be all powerful as it forces others to alter their path.  The stream almost feels sorry for the boulder as it knows the boulder will always be anchored, stuck in the same place in life based on its mindset. 

So, when facing the sock mockers in your life, be the stream and not the boulder.  Keep your eye on the goal of being happy in life and experience as much of its infinite wonder that you possibly can. Allow the boulder its illusion of power – to engage it yields no benefit to you and only sucks you into a battle of the wills over insignificant minutiae.    As Bruce Lee once said, “be like water my friend.”

If your reaction to such a thought is “why should I bother studying karate if I am simply going to yield to all such obstacles,” then you need to come to class twice as much.

In a prior post , I pointed out:

one of my favorite karate posters involved a tiny bird perched on a katana (sword) that was attached to a samurai’s waist area.  The quote read “Never think that because I am peaceful that I have forgotten how to be violent.”  Way cool … Definitely need to hang that one in my home dojo … After cringing at the fact that I had just written the term “way cool,” I also felt some embarrassment about thinking so highly of the poster. Neither confidence nor strength were being depicted.  The ugly faces of arrogance and insecurity lurked beneath a false veil of nobility.

A new year of training is upon us.  Set aside time to reflect on the lessons that lie beneath the punching and kicking.  Do not be ashamed if you do not yet see them.  I honestly have grown to believe that the lessons reveal themselves to us when we are ready, or, more frequently, when we most need them.

As you ponder the deeper meanings of your own experiencess in karate-do, always remember that, unfortunately, the world can be a dangerous place.  So, train hard and with focus.  What you will find is that your body and mind subconciously will come to live the philosophy best summed up by Theodore Roosevelt:

Don’t hit at all if it is honorably possible to avoid hitting; but never hit soft.


Two men bowing in a tunnel

Feet together, eyes down, use both hands to shake hands with your training partner. Say “Onegaishimasu.”  This ritual begins every partner drill in our dojo.  Why?  Well, to avoid nuclear Armageddon of course.  …  Perhaps I should back up one step.

My wife, son, and I started a tradition a year or so ago where we take at least one karate-related photo when we travel places as a family.  This year marks a decade since martial arts first invaded our household.  I must admit that a flood of thoughts and emotions overcame me as I edited this picture from a recent trip to northern Maine.

In the northeastern corner of what was once Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine, a couple dozen concrete bunkers built into the barren countryside still remain.  The area at Loring served as the first operational US facility constructed specifically for the storage, assembly, and testing of atomic weapons  (About Loring).  Standing at the back end of one of the storage bunkers, my wife took the photograph above –  my son and I executing a standard bow and handshake as we stood in the doorway to the outside world.

The remarkable duality depicted in this photo struck me this morning.  To one side of our position lived the cold, dark, brooding emptiness of a bunker once home to the capacity to wipe humankind from the face of the earth.  Yet, to the other side lay the brightness, beauty, and potential of a world of infinite possibilities.  And there we stood, my son and I, bowing along the delicate nexus of dark and light … despair and hope … life and death.  We were not perched precariously on some razor thin cliff, but rather existed as a harmonious and necessary link, or perhaps barrier, between the two sides.  My son and I stood there as two individuals – each with our own unique strengths, weaknesses, and life experiences – exhibiting two of the most recognizable symbols of mutual respect  – the bow and handshake.

And that is the lesson of “Onegaishimasu.”  In our dojo, karateka shake hands with both hands  simultaneously to show we hide no weapon from, or malice toward, the opposing party.  We offer trust by voluntarily constraining our most potent defensive options – our hands – through the two handed handshake.  We bow with eyes down in a non-confrontational manner – a gesture of commitment to the belief that the opposing party’s motives and actions are honorable and will not harm us.  Onegaishimasu roughly translates as “please,” or, as we translate it, “please teach me.”  This ritual exemplifies the mindset of putting aside who may be better than whom, acknowledging that both parties bring strengths and weaknesses that will be valuable learning tools for all involved, and committing to one another to work together towards mutual growth.  Developing respect for others often serves as the poster child for the positive character development thought to be associated with karate-do.

Take a moment to ponder what “respect” really means.  Can you define it?  What does possessing the character trait of respect look like?   Are the common definitions of respect seen in our culture the same as those meant within the martial arts world?  I would argue that the respect associated with karate-do, with Onegaishimasu, bears only marginal resemblance to how the term is often used in American culture.

Americans often view respect in terms of one of two mindsets.  The first mindset is one of awe. “I have such respect for the my Sensei, some actor, or some world class athlete.”  Appreciation for another’s mastery of some area should remain just that – appreciation for the beauty of the actions.  When one speaks of respect versus appreciation for another, however, one runs the risk of letting awe, or even envy, drive one’s feelings.  Perhaps a subtle difference, but vitally important to understand.  Envy or awe-driven respect necessarily causes the observer to place him or herself into a subordinate role relative to the observed.  Again, there is nothing wrong with appreciating one with skills superior to your own in certain areas – such appreciation can serve as a healthy goal towards which to strive.  Inherent feelings of self-worth allow one to avoid having appreciation morph into a less healthy envy or awe, or even into a potentially destructive jealousy.  We will return to this thought in a moment.

“You don’t have to like him, but you’d better %$&* well respect him.”  Such a statement exemplifies a second way respect is often “mis”used in American and other cultures.  When one tacks the implied “or else” onto the end of this statement, it becomes clear the speaker means fear, not respect.   Fear is a powerful tool that actually is quite functional in certain situations.  To an inmate, a person who lives in a crime-ridden area, or even a nation with enemies who would seek to do you harm, having others fear you may mean the difference between life and death.  This fear, however, has nothing to do with respect.  Your opponent would just as soon poke you in the eye as do what you want if he or she could get away with it.  Respect implies a mutually positive experience; whereas, fear represents posturing meant to achieve a superior positioning through avoidance or compliance.  Is the use of fear a necessary tool in the world?  Perhaps.  Fear is not the respect of which we speak in the way of karate, however.

So where does that leave us?  I would argue that respect is a construct of absolute neutrality.  When participants confuse fame, fortune, or being feared with being respected, the balanced nature of a neutral environment is upset.   If we spend all our time trying to discover and highlight an opponent’s weakness, we’ll either find it and embarass the person or force the opponent’s hand to demonstrate his or her own power.   Either way, one side loses.  In reality, both do.  A self-perpetuating destructive cycle results.

It is the nurturing of the absolute neutrality of the environment that IS respect.  Huh?  Karate-do seeks to build internal or intrinsic feelings of self-worth rather than allow external criteria or achievement to hold self-esteem prisoner.  When one comes to believe all life holds intrinsic value, especially one’s own, you offer the opportunity for respect to, and from, all those you encounter.  And it is when your partner approaches you in the same manner that the magic happens.  Both parties come to the table with their own unique awesomeness, yet neither feels the need to belittle the other by trying to use it to gain an advantage.  What each person gives and receives will be different from the other, but none less valuable.  Because being better or worse at something due to natural ability or practice does not define your worth as a human, you are left only to gain from coming to the party and participating.  The funny thing is, you’ll be effortlessly giving at the same time and probably not even know it.  It is this selfless, reciprocal give and take that is respect.

To those in my life – my family, my coworkers, and especially my fellow karateka at our dojo – are you not quite there yet in knowing and believing in your own unique awesomeness?  Take a chance and come and ask me what I see for strength within you.  Dare to come and stand with me, feet together, extend both hands, bow with your eyes down, and whisper “Onegaishimasu.”   You may be surprised what you learn.  I guarantee you that your presence in that moment and beyond is the most precious of many gifts that you give to me.


Why I Want to Be a Black Belt?

Why do I want to obtain my black belt?

I don’t. When I started studying karate several years ago, I, like many non-martial artists, thought the black belt symbolized absolute expertise and marked the holder as a person with whom one should not trifle. Phrases like, “he’s got his black belt” or “he IS a black belt” held meaning in a standalone fashion. With my testing for Shodan rapidly approaching, I frequently field questions about whether I am nervous or excited. Upon careful reflection, I must honestly respond, “not really.” Why? I don’t want to get my black belt.

Before I incur the wrath of my Sensei, let me explain a little about my history. The greatest gift, and curse, imparted upon me by my mother and father involved their modeling an unyielding work ethic. Identify a goal; identify the steps necessary to reach the goal; complete said steps; achieve the goal. One’s ability to successfully navigate such a process can lead to fame, fortune, recognition … success.

Until it leads to misery that is. You see, I allowed my self-worth to be both a goal and the driving force behind success. Equating success with happiness then put the final nail in the coffin. I enjoyed great “success” in high school – first in my class academically, All-State in indoor and outdoor track, and All-Conference in soccer. Yet driving my academic and other success was not a love of learning or a thirst for knowledge, but, rather, an unwillingness to be second best to my brother (also first in his class), by feelings that my classmates did not believe that I had earned what I had achieved, and by desire to get into a good college.

The pattern continued into college and beyond. I practically lived in the Bowdoin Psychology Department during college. I authored research articles as an undergraduate, graduated summa cum laude and with highest honors in my major, and worked hard to gain the respect of my professors. Driving each of these goals, however, was yet another goal – getting into a demanding graduate program. Absent was the experience of a process that was rewarding in and of itself. As a doctoral student, the goal then became to be employed by a reputable University and then would have become to obtain tenure and then …. Well, you get the point.

Successfully achieving a goal brought little satisfaction as it simply gave way to the next goal. Self-worth did not improve – how can it with success being a constantly moving target that could never be achieved? The process to get to the goal had always been something that had to be powered through instead of enjoyed on its own. If I had trouble powering through, I simply was not good enough or not working hard enough. No achievement was ever enough. Some degree of misery, even with achievement, always persisted. I had achieved great success in life, but little happiness. In the process, I had forgotten to live.

And then karate came along … Things started the same way. I faithfully attended class, always thinking about how cool it would be when I get my black belt. Even at brown belt, old habits persisted. Frustration set in when I learned I would not be testing at the 2016 Annual Training with the United States Director of our Federation. Black belt testing occurs only once per year. I would simply have to wait another 12 months.

That delay was exactly what I needed. An amazing thing happened. Everything slowed down. An opportunity materialized – a chance to evaluate what I really enjoy about our dojo, and martial arts training in general. I found new outlets for my research and writing skills. Reading and writing suddenly seemed enjoyable again as I explored topics for no other reason other than they interested me. The goal was not to impress anyone with knowledge or skill, but rather the joy of the activities themselves. I realize a massive bonus any time my writings put a smile on someone’s face or inspire a reader to go learn more about a topic of interest. Hmm … I do not need a black belt to continue to do that. Our nonjudgmental dojo learning environment allows me to falter as a normal and important part of the learning process. Learning how to fail is a lesson I did not start to come to grips with until fairly recently. Of course, learning to fail often serves as a more valuable lesson than learning to succeed. Helping others discover such wisdom by playing my part in creating a positive atmosphere makes me feel good about myself …Gosh, I don’t need a black belt to appreciate our dojo, and the people in it, as a classroom. I greatly enjoy watching out for the well-being of my classmates and their engagement in our dojo family. Life has taught me what a nasty bastard self-worth can be – especially to teens. If I can encourage others when they are most discouraged, and help them see the beauty and strength in who they are absent any external measure, than years of psychological scholarship, ultimately abandoned, will not have been in vain. If my life experience provides a shortcut for others to learn that the process is just as important, if not more so, than progress, then I am pleased to have played a part in someone not having to spend years missing the bigger picture. A powerful lesson indeed – do not miss the chance to experience where you are during your journey to where you think you should be. Jeez, I don’t need my black belt to do that, either. Most importantly, karate provides guaranteed family time with my son. Getting my black belt will increase the time that he and I spend together in the dojo as I will be eligible for classes that he currently attends. Yet, not having my black belt does not prevent our family time in the classes we already have together, nor does it affect the martial arts stories that my son, my wife, and I share around the dinner table and in the car.

To share freely knowledge gained through research and hard work, to stand beside those who feel beaten and help them nurture the unique flame that lights their path, to introduce humor and laughter as appropriate in times of greatest need, and to teach by example the importance of family – whether related by blood or common purpose; these are the things that bring me most joy from my martial arts experiences. These are the qualities I offer to the OSMKKF Federation and comprise what I see as my place in our dojo.

And with this offering, I am asked to address if I am “in good health and able to properly perform the required techniques that you will be responsible for teaching your students.” The honest answers are “not where I need to be” and “most, but not all,” respectively. Both remain an important part of my martial arts journey; both provide a unique learning opportunity to my fellow students. We have students of all shapes, sizes, and talents. For me to share my weaknesses in all their glory as I walk the path to improvement only reinforces the safety of our dojo for all who seek to learn. My weight needs to come down, my balance needs improvement, the quest for knowledge and perfecting one’s technique is a lifelong journey. Yet while I celebrate my weaknesses as part of an attempt to address them, I also gladly share my strengths in an attempt to enrich further my own life and hopefully the lives of those around me.

And so here we are … full circle. Obtaining my black belt serves as a benchmark during my travels down a continuing path towards self-awareness and self-improvement through karate-do. Clearly my views of a black belt have evolved from when I first began karate. A black belt is an object, not a definition. An object will never dictate who I am or how I treat others. Those things will always be up to me. As Michael Clarke writes in his book regarding Shin Gi Ti,

As you move ever deeper into the study of real karate, you will discover the need to give more than you take, to listen more than you speak, and to strive for a sense of balance that brings with it a deep and meaningful sense of contentment. From such a place, it is possible to chart a course through life that is peaceful. From a position of strength and confidence you can choose to be humble and considerate, making the world a better place to live for you and those you come into contact with. Is this utopia (?), hardly; just an opportunity to change how you think and interact with those who populate your daily life. If you don’t fight, you never lose …

So why do I want to get my black belt? I don’t. … But isn’t that the point.

Respectfully submitted by:
Shawn Roberts, Candidate for Shodan
Maine Traditional Karate
August 14, 2017


"In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength" - Isaiah 30:15

Let me tell you about Sophia.   Sophia is a beautiful young teen with long brown hair, a dark complexion, and a bright smile that will melt your heart if you are fortunate enough to catch it.  She is tall and seemingly mature for her age so she often attends the adult class after sweating it out in the youth class before it.  She is a skilled martial artist with a gentle soul.  Her soft-spoken nature allows her to blend into the background without being noticed should she choose to do so – a social ninja if you will.

A little while ago, our Sensei commented about what a model student Sophia is as she goes quietly about her business but with such confidence and skill.  The quote in the image above immediately jumped to mind.  I had read it once in the Bible … or was it on a Bazooka Gum wrapper?  I don’t remember.   At any rate, my mind began a wandering pondering about the role of confidence in karate and the role karate can play in building confidence.   Answering “what is confidence”, and “how, or even if, one can achieve it through studying the martial arts” are much deeper topics than they first appear.

Until I started writing this post, one of my favorite karate posters involved a tiny bird perched on a katana (sword) that was attached to a samurai’s waist area.  The quote read “Never think that because I am peaceful that I have forgotten how to be violent.”  Way cool … Definitely need to hang that one in my home dojo … After cringing at the fact that I had just written the term “way cool,” I also felt some embarrassment about thinking so highly of the poster. Neither confidence nor strength were being depicted.  The ugly faces of arrogance and insecurity lurked beneath a false veil of nobility.  … Huh? … Let me offer a more concrete and obvious example.

Centuries ago when I was just starting karate, I read a disturbing forum comment made by a former high ranking practitioner from our Federation.  The comment basically reflected the author’s feeling that one of the current United States Directors (at that time) was not particularly skilled and would not last very long in a real fight.  I’ll never forget the wording and tone of my Sensei’s response as I conveyed how the forum commenter basically stated that studying under the referenced director was a waste of time and that the black belts who trained under the person commenting could easily kick the patooties of any and all the black belts who trained under the Director.

My Sensei’s response … “Who cares?”

Now, I know you weren’t there, so let me clarify what my Sensei meant by “who cares.”  Yes, a student should seek training from a qualified instructor.  Yes, an instructor should  care about being well-versed in the areas in which he or she provides instruction.  Yes, all involved should care about possessing a common understanding of the goals of training and the methods to be used to achieve said goals.

BUT … and this is a BIG BUT (insert joke here about those, like myself, who are gravitationally challenged).  But, other than during a tournament or if you are a MMA professional, who cares if a student from one dojo can consistently beat a student from another.  The standard of “who can beat up who” is not one employed in our Federation.   Expressing one’s capacity to harm and control others is not a display of confidence. It reflects insecurity – the need for external validation of some twisted value …  Never think that because I am peaceful that I have forgotten how to be violent translates into yes, I am cool, calm, and collected, confident and peaceful.  Go ahead and dare to challenge my self-grandiosity and see what happens.  Arrogance – yep.  Insecurity – you bet.  Confidence – no.

Confidence gained through the martial arts is:

  • feeling security in possessing skills to protect one’s self and those one loves
  • feelings of enhanced control of one’s thoughs and body gained through hard work and practice
  • an inner peace generated by knowing that one possesses the inner strength to withstand any physical, spiritual, or emotional challenge life throws one’s way
  • the ability to watch videos of three to five year old karateka and truly appreciate the beauty of the crispness and perfection in their technique
  • observing and appreciating  a fellow karateka or a coworker do something amazing and not feel inferior
  • believing you have knowledge or skills worthy of being shared

In a nutshell, confidence is possessing positive feelings of self-worth and self-efficacy, but feeling no need to prove that worthiness to others.

As martial artists, we must actively rebut arguments that equate confidence with perceptions of superiority relative to another’s skill level or rank.  Confidence most certainly should never be defined by threat potential, nor maintained by implied threat or ability to control another.

And so we are brought back to the lovely and talented Sophia.  I am so honored to have the opportunity to watch you grow as a martial artist and a human being.   I’ll never be able to balance as well as you my young friend.  Perhaps someday you can teach me how you do it so well.  In the meantime, know with certainty that I consider you, and our other dojo members, family.  Whether you like the attention or not, you, and the others like you, will continue to be watched … supported … guided … protected.  I do hope, however, that you will freely share all your emerging skills and gifts with the world.    I am sorry that it has taken me a year from when I first warned you it was coming to finish this blog post.  I pray that you will never have to use the lethal skills we help you understand.   Regardless, it gives me such hope for our planet’s future to watch you and the other young karateka benefit in body and spirit in the way my son and my family have.

Indeed, in quietness and in confidence, we ALL possess strength.







My Fiercest Enemy Yet

Do you ever just have one of those days? …. No, not that kind – the other kind.  Well, I’m having one of those. The fiercest, most terrifying enemy I have ever faced stealthily approaches.  I can feel it even if I cannot yet see it.  I feel the rage, frustration, fear, and helplessness all bubbling up inside me.

Is the enemy a person who physically threatens me or my family? No.  My Sensei teaches me effective skills to first avoid, and then, if all else fails, to confront such threats.  Hmmm……  Oh, I’ve got it.   My fiercest enemy must be inner demons then, right?  Not exactly.  Light cannot exist without darkness.  Studying the martial arts is helping me learn to embrace the darkness as part of who I am and use it in a productive way to fuel the light.

What then? What is the fiercest, most terrifying enemy I have ever faced?  I figured it out this morning.   In retrospect, it was last Saturday at about 12:45 pm when the fiercest, most terrifying enemy I have ever faced rose up and revealed itself to me.  There it was standing in the middle of the ceremony held to promote karateka to new ranks in our dojo.  If you dare, read on.  But prepare yourself.  The fiercest, most terrifying enemy I have ever faced is …

Well to be completely honest, the fiercest, most terrifying enemy I have ever faced is …



You met Bridezilla and Rump in a previous post (

Add, the player we’ll call “Blades” to the mix and you have the Triad of Terror. You see, Bridezilla, Rump and Blades are among my favorite members of our dojo. Bridezilla and Rump are affected by the horrible disease known as cystic fibrosis.  The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation describes the disease in the following manner:

Cystic fibrosis is a life-threatening, genetic disease that causes persistent lung infections and progressively limits the ability to breathe.

In people with CF, a defective gene causes a thick, buildup of mucus in the lungs, pancreas and other organs. In the lungs, the mucus clogs the airways and traps bacteria leading to infections, extensive lung damage and eventually, respiratory failure. In the pancreas, the mucus prevents the release of digestive enzymes that allow the body to break down food and absorb vital nutrients.

Bridezilla and Rump also suffer from a severe case of debilitating cuteness and charm.

Blades is also a remarkable young person.  She has a fabulous parent who is currently doing battle with cancer. Blades is emerging from being a shy young one filled with uncertainty to a confident young woman.  She will be well served by what she has learned when she navigates adolescence in a few years. She has a remarkable sense of humor and is one of those people you cannot help but like and care about.

As a senior member of our dojo, I am very protective of my fellow karateka.   But how do you help protect against an invisible enemy who attacks with impunity and cannot be brought under control consistently by the world’s best and brightest?  How do you stand and be counted as a practitioner of the Way of Karate to aid those who are suffering when there are no known means to combat the cause?   I don’t understand why martial arts require me to live and teach a lifestyle of integrity, respect, courage, honor, compassion, honesty and sincerity, and duty and loyalty when none of those qualities or skills will impede the fiercest, most terrifying enemy I have ever faced, let alone stop it.   I don’t understand how to help these kids or to whom to turn to learn how.  I don’t understand how to make the rage I feel at my own ineptitude and ineffectiveness go away.   I don’t understand who or what else to be angry at or to punish for what I see as an injustice.   I don’t understand how the world can be so cruel to those who least deserve it.  I DON’T UNDERSTAND!

And then a little voice inside my head whispered an old Zen proverb:

“If you understand, things are as they are.  If you do not understand, things are as they are.”

To be honest, it wasn’t a little voice.  It was kind of more like the booming voice of James Earl Jones.  (Hey, would you want to mess with Darth Vader.)  Substitute just about any emotion or feeling for “understand,” and the wisdom still applies. Whether you are angry or frustrated or feel that life is not treating you fairly, “things are as they are.”

When the time comes for you to face the fiercest, most terrifying enemy – that is, the foe that cannot be controlled by any means available to you – what should you do? What would you do?  I asked Sensei a version of this question once.  His response was short and to the point:

“Tai sabaki”

Tai sabaki, or change body in our system, is a crucial and central tenet to our style of self defense. The general idea is that we shift our body positioning off the line of attack of the aggressor, usually at a 45 degree angle.  As a result, our vital areas are protected while providing  a direct line of counter-attack targeting those of the opponent.

Sensei was absolutely right. I had never really thought about change body as an effective response to a non-physical dilemma.  I am not a biochemist, respiratory expert, or oncologist, so I will never discover the cure for CF or cancer.  I am not a billionaire, so I cannot buy any involved the best medical care that exists.  Yet, I ignored such facts and chose to meet the direct line of attack of an uncontrollable adversary with a head on attack of my own.  No wonder I was getting pummeled.  No matter what I did or felt, “things are as they are.”

So what can I do against the unbeatable foe?  Change body, or in this case, shift my perspective.  I will never be able to control the diseases of which I write.  I can, however, control my responses to the people that such diseases affect and do my part to alter the environment in which the enemy operates.

In the case of Bridezilla, I avoid scooping her up and hugging the stuffing out of her.  That would just freak her and her folks out.  Instead, this Saturday, May 20, 2017, I will again participate in the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s Annual Great Strides Walk for the Cure (  Bridezilla’s and Rump’s team can be found at

If any reader would like to stand and be counted as part of the fight against this disease, please consider donating a few dollars through the Donate to a Team Member link.  If you can give even a dollar, I would appreciate knowing that my attack on CF and my support for Bridezilla and Rump is helping at least a little.  Donate under any team member listed.  My name is Shawn Roberts if you wish to indicate you donated after reading this post.  If you cannot, or choose to spend your own resources elsewhere, I respect that.  After all, “things are as they are.”

Similarly, while I know I cannot cure CF for Rump, I can help make the environment in which he lives as positive as possible.  He is one of the youngest members of the Brown Belt Class in our dojo.  I try to joke with him and make him feel comfortable as much as possible.   To me, it is important for him to know that we train hard at the dojo, but that it’s okay to be a kid as well.  Plus, developmentally, I’m pretty much at the same emotional/psychosocial level as he is.  Rump has an awesome sense of humor.  A few weeks ago, I asked Rump if he had brought me a pizza as he came into class.  Without missing a beat, he responded that he had.  So I asked him where it was, only to be told it was in his athletic bag at the back of the dojo.  Not to be outdone, I told him, “gross.  I didn’t order one topped with your smelly gym socks.”  Rump told me to make my own next time if I didn’t like what he brought.  Clearly outmatched, I conceded.

And finally, Blades seems to be kind of a private person.  I need to express care not to confuse my need to be supportive with what Blades may need, if anything.  So, for Blades, I try to help make our dojo as normal an experience as possible.  Sometimes when we face something beyond the everyday person’s normal life experience, it is nice to have a place to go where life is predictable.  I am enjoying watch Blades grow emotionally and physically.  Support her current course and stand ready to take on a more or less supportive role if asked.  Her Mom is a great lady who deserves our support as well.   For any who want to be more involved, the American Cancer Society offers guidance on how you can help at

The simple truth is this: no matter who you are or how awesome you may be, no one owes any of us, anything.  None of us are immune to having uncontrollable, negative events enter our lives.  When adversity presents itself, whether you understand it or not, whether you are angry, sad, indifferent, things are as they are.  But don’t despair, sometimes with a change in approach and perspective, you can become a positive entity within another’s realm of uncontrollable things.  After all, you are the only controllable aspect of the universe of things.  Choose to wield such power wisely and with purpose.




The tiger knows only the earth.

The crane knows the earth, the sky, and the sea.  

The tiger roars with anger and defiance.

The crane merely flies away.

Poem by Ronald Lindsey.  Artwork by Shifu Hwang.

(Used by permission.  Copyright Ronald Lindsey)

Martial arts expert and author, Ronald Lindsey, graciously allowed me to reproduce the above poem and artwork from his excellent book, Okinawa No Bushi No Te.  Sensei Lindsey studied directly with our Grandmaster, Fusei Kise.

While Sensei Lindsey’s poem is quite deep with multiple meanings, today’s sharing relates to a remarkably quick disheveled individual approaching with zombie-like gait while squawking like a giant parrot who doesn’t want a cracker. Huh?  Seriously?

Yep.  You see, Isaac, my son, loves to explore almost as much as he enjoys climbing things.  Late last summer, Isaac and his mom, Sue (my wife), ventured down a lightly travelled path running along the Penobscot River. They happened across the underside of a bridge adorned with some extraordinarily artistic graffiti.  The remarkable sight, when paired with the necessity of scaling a steep embankment to reach it, proved too much for Isaac to pass up.   Sue decided to admire the scene from where she stood.  Isaac reached the wedge where the embankment met the bridge only to discover some bedding, clothing, and other personal items.  Isaac, of course, had no interest in another person’s stuff.   He did pause for a moment to enjoy the fruits of his labor by examining the artwork up close.

THEN … down in the bushes, there arose such a clatter, Isaac whipped around his head to see what was the matter.  When what to his wondering eyes did appear, but a incoherent adult screeching with anger and fear.  I wish I could remember the exact words Isaac used to describe the scene.  He painted a disturbing picture that I could clearly envision in my mind’s eye.  Now, there is nothing remotely funny about homelessness and the folks who struggle for survival while living on the streets.  Equally unfunny, however, is that two human beings lawfully exploring a public area could be chased away or attacked when they had no interest in disturbing anything or anyone at the scene.

Isaac and his mom, of course, could have chosen door number one by calmly waiting for the individual to reach them and then explaining in a non-threatening way that they had no interest in bothering the man or his things.  Given the frantic flailing and non- verbal screams coming from the individual, they correctly assessed that such was probably not the best course of action.

With the man approaching Sue at the bottom of the embankment, Sue’s maternal instincts kicked into high gear as she turned and yelled to Isaac, still at the top, to run.  Well, that wasn’t going to happen.  Isaac bounded down the slope to protect his mother while suggesting she run.  Yeah, good luck on that one as well.  And they both think I am the stubborn one.

At any rate, I stopped Isaac at this point in his story telling to ask if he had to actually use any of the vast karate skills he had been taught.

His reply was priceless.  “Yeah,” he said, “we both ran when I got to mom.”  Isaac explained that he knew his mother was in shape from jogging, and the potential attacker had not yet reached striking distance.  Now, he’s currently 15, but quite rugged.  We spar so I can honestly say I am aware of how hard he can hit and/or kick.  He is also,  almost disturbingly,  passionate about bladed and improvised weapons and is more than capable in bringing them to bear on an aggressor should the need arise.

Isaac pointed out that, once he reached his mom, the course of action was obvious.  The approaching individual was limping and could likely be outrun.  Isaac noted that he had no way to know if the man had a knife or any other weapon, or if the man was hyped up on some kind of drug.  Isaac had seen what he wanted and knew he had not disturbed any of the belongings about which the man was probably concerned.  Away they ran to safety.  They continued to enjoy the beautiful day.

…  The next time you find yourself eye to eye with an angry tiger – physically, emotionally, or intellectually – consider your goals and if direct confrontation is truly the only option to meet them.   Gichin Funakoshi once observed “when two tigers fight, one is certain to be maimed, and the other die.”   While I certainly have not internalized this important lesson yet, I have come to learn that pride is often the only factor driving the need to confront a tense circumstance head on in order to bring immediate resolution.

In karate-do, of course, we speak of being humble as a means to achieve peace and harmony.  The next time you feel anger at another, consider disengaging as a method of healthy resolution rather than some childish, schoolyard notion of being tough.  Unfortunately, for some, the environment dictates a tiger’s approach if one is to survive.  Outside of a war zone, prison, or gang infested territory, I imagine such is seldom truly the case.  I am willing to wager that in most instances, the courage to spread one’s wings and fly away will provide a better perspective on whatever the issue may be and a much wider and wiser range of options for addressing it.

Shin Gi Tai

Okay, I’m cheating a little on this one as I had already written most of it for the our philosophy section of our webpage.  With an influx of new students, I thought now would be a good time to impress upon our newest members, and any potential members, how we roll at Maine Traditional Karate.  Anyone who wishes to add to, or subtract from, my thoughts, please post a comment here or post a comment on Facebook.  Please be aware that I cannot always see Facebook comments once the blog has been shared, so please tag me if you can if you have something to say.

The dojo is a special place, where guts are fostered and superior human natures are bred through the ecstasy of sweating in hard work. The dojo is a sacred place, where the human spirit is polished.

Shoshin Nagamine, founder of Matsubayashi Ryu Karate Do


Traditional martial arts instruction embraces the concept of shin gi tai. Literally translated as mind-technique-body, shin gi tai stresses development of the mind, body, and technique as necessary to understand, and to benefit most completely from, the way of karate (karate-do). With the advent of sport karate, some schools have shifted instruction to focus only on getting in shape (tai) and perfecting technique (gi) as a way to ensure tournament success. While such efforts can result in beautiful performances requiring great skill, removing the shin (development of the mind/spirit/character) prevents one from fully realizing the true path and benefits of karate-do.   As noted in his autobiography “The Spirit of Okinawan Karate,” our Grandmaster, Fusei Kise, responds to students’ description of training:

[of my teachings] everyone said “Mind (Spirit) comes first” When I heard this I realized that my teaching had not gone astray. … I often say that training the mind is more important than kata or technique.

At Maine Traditional Karate, we are committed to preserving for future generations the teachings of Master Kise, his son, Isao Kise, and the lineage that came before them.

Karate is excellent exercise. You will sweat. You will get tired. You may get muscle aches in places you did not know you had muscles. You will overcome. We will help you. Development of the body (tai) requires not only exercise, but perseverance. The goal of our instructors is to help each student develop to the full extent of that student’s capacity. Students of all ages and fitness levels attend our dojo. Some could not do a single pushup when they started. Others could not punch 10 times in a row before needing a break. Yet others have no problem doing one-handed pull-ups. Such diversity in fitness levels exists in harmony due to the mutual respect shared between students. All who attend our dojo share a common interest in self-improvement. All students possess strengths from which we all benefit. We want each other to succeed. We know no other way.
Development of gi (technique/skill) closely parallels improvements in tai. Ability to perform a technique only increases as one becomes more physically fit and flexible. Competence in technique permits pursuing more strenuous, advanced techniques, thus producing higher fitness levels. Repetition of proper technique yields muscle memory – the concept that given a certain event, your muscles and body simply respond with little or no higher cognitive processing. Consider the adaptive role of reflexes, and the benefits of muscle memory become obvious. There is no denying the interdependent nature of gi and tai.
For those who feel coordination impaired, the dojo structure promotes safety – both physically and mentally. Group exercises generally occur in decending rank order from front to back of the dojo. Instructors face the group from the front. Lesser experienced students benefit from observing the more expereinced students in front of them. Self-consciousness is minimized as those behind you are just beginning to learn material which you have been taught. Observation of senior students learning a new technique allows newer students to see that everyone experiences awkwardness when learning something new. Higher ranks are able to model how receiving feedback on a sub-optimal performance is truly a gift from the Sensei or instructor. One of the very first lessons all students learn is to bow and say “domo ariagato goziamus” (ie. thank you very much) when receiving constructive criticism from a higher rank.
Important to note here is that learning occurs independent of rank – not just in a unidirectional manner from higher rank to lower rank. Every class and every partner exercise begins with a bow of resepct to one’s partner as well as the instructor with the request, “oneigashimus,” meaning please teach me. Such a bidirectional request demonstrates proper respect to one another through acknowledgement that we always can learn from one another regardless of rank or position.
Removal of ego as a possible barrier to learning is futher seen in situations where a lesser experienced student is paired directly with a senior student. Whether in practice of technique or in sparring, the lower rank student dictates the pace and level of the activity. Techniques are performed based on skills the lower ranked student has already learned or is in the process of learning. Again, the goal is not to promote superiority of one student over another, but to give all a genuine environment in which the full potential of every student may be realized. Every student is taught from the very early stages of training that it is an honor and obligation to assist others in their journey.

As begins to become apparent above, attitude/mindset, character, spirit, values (i.e. shin) is a critical component of any true study of karate-do. Author and martial artist Michael Clarke writes with great eloquence:

As you move ever deeper into the study of real karate, you will discover the need to give more than you take, to listen more than you speak, and to strive for a sense of balance that brings with it a deep and meaningful sense of contentment. From such a place, it is possible to chart a course through life that is peaceful. From a position of strength and confidence you can choose to be humble and considerate, making the world a better place to live for you and those you come into contact with. Is this utopia (?), hardly; just an opportunity to change how you think and interact with those who populate your daily life. If you don’t fight, you never lose …


Mindfulness Over Matters (Like Broccoli and Whoopie Pies)

My full-time job requires interacting with Northern New England and Eastern Canada’s elderly and disabled populations.  Budget cuts, hiring freezes, staff retirements, and increasing workloads have made the work environment very challenging lately.   Both staff and management officials are struggling with stress levels.   A staff meeting a few months back became especially confrontational and heated.

After the meeting, an office management official seemed to believe that closing me into a private office and subjecting me to an expletive-laden verbal assault constituted acceptable behavior. (The official felt chewing me out and swearing at me would make the official feel better.)  Interestingly, I experienced frustration, but no desire to respond in kind.  The official’s face literally turned red with anger as I steadfastly refused to return fire.  Had the official’s behavior escalated into physical aggression, no doubt existed in my mind that I possessed the skill and ability to address any contingency.  As I turned to leave the office, the official demanded to know “where the $^%@” did I think I was going.  An almost unnerving calm washed over me.   I simply expressed to the management official that the behavior and language being exhibited was unprofessional, unacceptable, and would not be tolerated.  I then left the situation in order to return with an employee advocate.

To our younger readers, think of it like if the school lunch lady lost her temper with you because you simply did not like the broccoli she was shoveling … er, serving.  Granted, eating your vegetables is expected.   Even the most compliant student, however, would be on solid ground to question being asked to swallow it stuffed in cabbage and wrapped in spinach.  BUT, instead of turning up the heat when the lunch lady boils over at your suggestion for some unhealthy melted cheese to be poured on the broccoli instead,  you choose to leave the situation and get the Principal for help with finding a peaceful resolution.

Now, this blog post could go on as a discussion of self-control, self-confidence, and avoiding a violent encounter, but that would be ridiculous.  I mean, seriously?  Do you really want a post about how it is through karate-do that one can best handle the lunch lady’s temper tantrum over one’s dislike of her veggies?  It would be a disaster.  You would get pummeled.  You would be laughing too hard to defend yourself against the lunch lady’s need to start a fight about your preference for Whoopie Pies over greens in general. (To our southern US readers and those abroad, a Whoopie Pie is a uniquely New England, yummy, sandwich-like desert where cream is spread between two chocolate cake-like ends).

Today’s blog actually focuses on the events of the following day.  I arrived at work to find that about half our staff were out for various reasons.  Their absences left us extremely short-handed.  Answering the phone and trying to handle walk-in customers would be the only workloads accomplished.  It was probably the best day I have had at work in the last 5 years.

You see, the reality of the situation forced us to completely abandon any hope of getting to any backlogged workloads.   Our sole focus that day involved meeting the needs of the moment and not worrying about anything else.   “Liberating” best describes the feeling that resulted from the unwavering concentration on the present moment.  Free from (a) having time to think about piles of unfinished work and/or (b) the chance to ponder frustration about what had transpired the day before, I was left with only the here and now.  I provided some of the best customer service I ever have.   Complete immersion in the present moment proved to be the key.  Buddhists call this concept mindfulness.

(Okay here comes the karate part.)  Being mindful in the dojo produces the best training experiences.  For me, the possibility to turn a regular class into an opportunity for enlightenment exists in that brief moment right before we pay our respects to our lineage by bowing to the Shomen wall.

Every Maine Traditional Karate class led by our Sensei begins with the same ceremony or ritual.  Students may socialize and stretch before class starts.  When our our Sensei issues the command Seiretsu (say-de-tsu), however, karateka (students) line up according to rank and stand at attention.  At the time, I ranked as the second highest adult kyu student (non black belt) in our dojo.  As such, I usually stood in the front row, second from the right.  In a nutshell,  smack dab in front of the Sensei.  Believe me, there is no hiding if your are having an off night.  The senior student in the dojo will then issue the command Ushiro O Muite Gi Toh Obi O Naosu (u-she-doe-O moo-ee-tay gee to obi o nay-o-sue) which means to turn around and straighten your gi and make yourself presentable for the Sensei.  The commands Shomen (show-men — turn to face the Shomen wall/front of the dojo) followed by Seiza (say-za — kneel) leave all students kneeling, clenched fists on thighs, elbows in, back straight, heads up and facing the front wall of the dojo.

Sensei commands Shomen Ni Rei (showmen nee ray — bow to the showmen wall/pay your respects to the centuries of knowledge represented by pictures of the masters in our lineage).  Students bend forward at the waist, stretch their arms and hands forward, place the left hand then the right on the floor, and finally place the forehead in between.

What few students may know is that it is at this point that Sensei very quietly whispers Onegai Shimasu (Oh-nee-gash-I-mus) which means please teach me.  This is extraordinarily serious and not hokey.   It is a request to our karate ancestors for knowledge, strength, and guidance in the training about to be undertaken.  The students later make the same request of the Sensei.  The bowing in ceremony then continues with a few more steps.

That brief instant between Sensei commanding “Shomen Ni Rei” and my beginning to bend forward is the moment of truth for me.  I take a deep breath in through my nose.  As I exhale through my mouth, I do my best to expel any frustrations, anger, anxiety, depression, joy, or sorrows that I have carried with me to the dojo.  My ability to let go of my attachment to the day’s baggage is directly related to what my training experience is like on any given evening.

On nights when I cannot let go of the day’s events, my balance is off, my technique sloppy, and my ability to be articulate suffers.  I still enjoy my time.  I still benefit from my experience, but not to the same degree as when I can clear my mind and focus on the here and now.

Shoshin Nagamine once said “the dojo is a sacred place where the human spirit is polished.”  It undoubtedly is … in many ways.  You have to work for it though.  No one gives it to you.  You can’t simply bury frustrations and anger.  They will destroy your soul if left to fester.

Karate-do is helping me learn how to expel anxiety and anger that serves no purpose. Personally, I try to actually visualize negative energy leaving my body as I breathe out and bend forward.  In my mind’s eye, I see red, sewer green, yellow, and brown fumes projectile vomited from my body.  (Well, almost.  I mean, it’s not like I had eaten too many hot dogs before class or anything.)  At any rate, some days I am far more successful then others.  But, just like with my punches, blocks, and kicks, proper practice makes perfect.

Sometimes we have to eat our broccoli.  It doesn’t mean we have to like it.  Sometimes we get to eat a Whoopie Pie.  Yummmmmmmy.  Good AND bad come and go – many times beyond our control.  One can and must learn to expel the aftertaste of the bad however to make room for complete immersion in the good when it happens.  It is not easy.  I have a long way to go.  How successful I am tomorrow is beyond my control right now.

Right now, listening to my son laugh at the iFunny video he is watching, knowing my wife is enjoying her book on the couch behind me, listening to my kitty purr behind the monitor while I type the final words of this blog post,  This exact moment is AWESOME but will never be here in exactly the same way again. … See, it’s already gone.  I guess I am glad I was here to experience it.


This one time, at karate camp …

Sweat, swPOSSIBLEBACKLOWRESeat, sweat, pant, pant, pant, pant, creak, creak, creak, owwwwwwieeeee. Ah, these are what have become familiar sounds at the Okinawan Shorin Ryu Matsumura Seito Karate and Kobudo Federation’s (OSMKKF) training seminar in Bangor, Maine this weekend.  Okianwan karate master and OSMKKF President, Isao Kise, along with the OSMKKF’s United States senior leadership, has provided a weekend of knowledge sharing, mentoring, quality control, and good old fashioned hard work.  While I expected to hear the sounds associated with intense exercise at the seminar, I certainly did not expect the level of exasperation and feelings of inadequacy expressed by one of our students.

You see, in addition to Kaicho Isao Kise, our teacher’s teacher, United States Director Hanshi John Shipes also led the weekend seminar.  High ranking students from across the country descended upon Bangor to train with their federation brothers and sisters from eastern Maine.  For any non-martial arts readers, what you need to realize is that, in exchange for benefiting from the years of training and experience of their teacher, karateka are often fiercely loyal and protective of their Sensei and their school.  Significant time and quite literally blood, sweat, and tears are spent as one strives to better him or herself and master techniques being taught.  Despite seeking humility as a goal in life in general, students still want their Sensei to be proud of them.  Students want to perform well to show the senior leadership that their Sensei is providing quality instruction.   Hosting students want the event to go smoothly as an expression of the respect for the system they have studied and those who represent it at its highest levels.  Finally, serious training in karate-do leads to personal change and thus becomes a part of how the individual defines him or herself. So, basically, no pressure at all, right?

Meanwhile, back at the training … The stress level of the referenced student apparently rose throughout Friday morning’s workout.  With students representing schools from all over the country, it quickly became apparent that our dojo’s students performed certain skill sets in a completely different manner than that being promoted by the instructor and the other schools’ students.

This is a big deal.  One of the strengths of a traditional martial arts school, or at least ours, is that the system being taught and the methods used have been passed down and maintained across centuries.  A student literally should be able to walk into any OSMKKF dojo around the world and feel at home with the material being taught and the manner in which it is being presented.

So, our student started to experience self-doubt.  “I must not be doing it right,” “maybe I did not pay close enough attention in class,”the dog ate it,” etc.  With repeated discrepancies in what the student thought he or she knew and what was being presented, the self-doubt apparently grew into racing thoughts and a self-perpetuating cycle.  “How could I be so far off on so many techniques associated with my rank; ” “others must be thinking, ‘who has been teaching THIS student’,”  “I hope my teacher’s teacher does not see my incompetence because my Sensei works hard to teach me,” “Oh geez, I don’t want to be responsible for my Sensei and his teacher looking bad in front of the head of our system,” “maybe I don’t deserve to be at the rank I am,” “what’s that mean about the part of me that IS karate-do?”

Self-confidence and self-worth are now under full-fledged attack.  So the student, in an attempt to restore balance to the world, thinks “okay, karate begins and ends with respect.  If nothing else, I can be sure that I do what I am told to do, when I am told to do it, and how I am told to do it.”  About this point, the group of 80 or so need to split into two smaller groups as the whole floor would be needed by each group.  Half those in the room were told by our Sensei’s teacher to stand against the wall while he organized the first group.  Apparently some miscommunication occurred as one of the other high ranking expert teachers began to organize the second group.  Well, our Sensei’s teacher turned around to find the space he intended to use for the first group filled by the second group.  The second group then received a reminder of the original directive.

“Well poop,” the student thought [Okay, that isn’t exactly the term that was used, but we do have a responsibility to our young readers].  The student now perceived complete failure was imminent.  The one thing that the student believed really should be under his/her control, proper protocol/behavior, an expectation for competence that rises above all others, apparently just was not going to happen either.  The student felt that not only did he/she fail to do what, when, and how something was ordered, the failure was regarding something ordered by his/her Sensei’s teacher.  [Please reference two paragraphs up from this one.]

At this point in the blog, I’d be curious to know how many of the Maine students think this blog is about them.   I think people generally know that I write about real events with real students.  I know of at least two who have had similar, if not exactly these feelings this weekend.  Well, to those horrified souls who think I am about to out them, you need not worry.

The student in question in the present story is me.

By the end of Friday morning, I felt like I had even less knowledge than a brand new student, a white belt.  I don’t even know what lower than a white belt would be.  It’s not a black belt obviously.  Maybe a black hole instead of black.  Yeah, that’s it.  I felt like a black hole belt, complete with a big old suck (ie, the metaphorical byproduct of the black hole belt gravity.)

We’re almost to the point, I promise.  Before we get there though, the reader needs to understand one more thing.  About 6 years ago, I had been a student of Sensei Steve Apsega during a very difficult time in my life (I know, boo hoo.  Cry me a river, build a bridge, and get over it Shawn).  That story will probably be a blog post in a few years.  At any rate, the important part for now is that amidst a bunch of yuckiness in my life, our dojo had been my safe haven.  Unfortunately, a series of events unfolded across a summer month that destroyed that safe haven for me.  I felt angry, alone, and abandoned.  Instead of working to preserve one of only two things in my life I felt were positive, I pushed away the dojo and those in it and left in a highly disrespectful fashion.

In the immortal words of Hermione Granger in the first of the Harry Potter films, “what an idiot!”  Why would you push away one of only two good things in your life at that point?  Exactly my point.  Think of the amount of internal chaos that must have been present to cause such an irrational choice.

Back to present day.  My morning workout then ended as I got struck mildly to  moderately hard during a training exercise in an area that it really does not take much of an impact to cause paralysis or even death.  It was an accident, one that I have made with others to different areas.  The strike caused immediate dizziness and was compounded by the fact that I had had a serious injury to the protective portion of this area years prior.  I left the training floor to shake off the physical, but I could not shake the mental.  I felt exactly the same emotions I had when I left the dojo before.

It scared me.

Enter my amazing wife, who this Tuesday will have stood by me in marriage for 19 years, and my awesome son, a second degree black belt in our system.  It was lunch break and they sat in the car with me as I expressed a desire to just go home.

A curious thing happened.

Kyle, one of my fellow brown belts, was on his way to his truck to go for lunch.  When he noticed our car, he paused, took a few steps towards us, and mouthed, “are you okay?”  I gave him a half-hearted thumbs up.  One of our dojo’s instructors, Sempai Tommy, and his wife and fellow student, Leah, then climbed into their car which just happened to be parked beside us.  Sempai Tommy kind of looked at me sideways and asked if I was okay.  I gave him the same half-hearted thumbs up.  He correctly sensed to just leave it at that at that point.

As we ate, I talked with my son about his experiences that morning, both good and less good, only to learn how he deals with similar frustrations when he feels discouraged.  My wife gently pointed out that I could go home if I was physically hurt, but otherwise I had to go back inside and confront what is clearly a reccuring theme in my life of shut out the good to deal with the bad.  She, of course, was right … as usual.  I hate that.

Just then Sempai Tommy and Leah arrived back from lunch and stood outside in the hot sun for 15 minutes while I told my story.  Sempai Tommy related how he had come back from his very first training camp a few years back feeling like a white belt due to the wealth of knowledge he experienced at the seminar.

I decided to head back inside and ran smack dab into my friend and fellow student, Vic.  I plopped down in the chair next to him to talk about how overloaded we felt with all kinds of new and sometimes conflicting information from the training.

I pause and look up from my conversation, and there is Sempai Kristi, a second degree black belt from the Orland Shorin Ryu Dojo, sitting across from me.  Sempai Kristi was scribbling notes about corrections presented at the morning’s training.  She is a hard worker and an exceptionally talented karateka.  She reminded me that you take the gifts given to you in the form of corrections back to your Sensei for sorting and clarification.   Oh, you mean like what you do with a TEACHER. We talked about Sempai Kristi’s experiences at prior camps at length.  By the time we were done, the intense negative feelings that had invaded my morning were completely gone.

Son of a bit …. Uh, I mean golly.  I had come full circle but with a different ending.  I dared to lean on those who share my passion, and they all came through for me big time.

The graphic at the top of the page is the training camp graphic I designed.  It displays the Okinawan Sun with a shape of Maine carved out of the middle.  The kanji in the middle reads “kizuna,” which means bond, as in family bond.  The design is meant to reflect the bond of friendship and respect between Maine, Okinawa and the rest of the OSMKKF that exists because of, and is held together by, the Kise family’s karate-do.

The message of the day, then, is if you feel discouraged, confused, or conflicted while learning amazing things from amazing teachers like those from this weekend, dare to be vulnerable with the senior kyu students and black belts.  I think you’ll find you are not alone.  I know you’ll find support.  After all, we do it for each other as well … like a family.


You would think that I would be smart enough to have taken a dose of my own medicine.  Again, as Hermione pointed out, “what an idiot.”

Bunkai Schmunkai – Part II – The NItty Gritty

Okay, I don’t know what gritty is or how important it is that it be nitty, but part II of our bunkai schmunkai blog involves some things for you to ponder as you learn and practice kata.  I, like many of you, am simply a student of the martial arts.  The contents of this post mostly represent interpretational theories from others mixed with a few of my own personal views. I present these ideas as a starting place for your own personal exploration of the kata we are taught.  As the all-knowing Yogi Berra reportedly once said “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”

What is the purpose of kata?

Internationally known “bunkaist,” Iain Abernethy, adamantly opposes the idea that kata represents a defense against multiple attackers. I agree with him. Do kata contain techniques useful against multiple attackers? Absolutely. Do kata help you to learn balance, breathing, body weight distribution, footwork, etc. that can be applied in many circumstances? Yep. Does a kata that has the student moving in 8 different directions represent being attacked by 8 different opponents simultaneously? I personally do not promote that view. Multiple attackers are simply not going to stand idly by and wait their turn to attack as you dispatch them one-by-one. Sensei Abernethy notes that his similar conclusions are based on the 1930’s writings of Kenwa Mabuni, founder of Shito Ryu.

To me, kata represent a means for transmitting centuries-old knowledge and techniques. Analysis via repeated practice and refinement helps build a strong body, teach proper balance and footwork, and move technique toward the point of being almost reflexive. To what extent Okinawans used kata to hide the practice and transmission of forbidden arts, I have no idea. Our own dark history of slavery in the United States contains reports of slaves using song in the cotton fields to disguise the transmission of escape strategies and routes.  Accordingly, I am content to accept the views of the Okinawan people regarding the marvelous culture they graciously share.

Operating on the premise that kata serve as a means of transmitting knowledge, the question then becomes “what knowledge is being transmitted?”

The Contents of the Kata Vessel

Ever been frustrated when sparring similar-ranked students because they are well versed in many, if not all, the techniques you are attempting to employ? A match becomes like a dogfight between two expert pilots. Maneuvers by one aviator are skillfully matched by counter-maneuvers by the other. Victory often ends up a function of who errs first rather than who knows some super-secret technique.

For now, put aside the imagery of two martial arts masters engaged in battle to the death using kata techniques seeming almost magical to the layperson. Instead, imagine kata as a vessel transporting techniques effective against the most common kinds of attack one would see from the general public. A whole world of analytical possibility presents itself. Huh? While techniques embedded in kata certainly would be effective against another martial arts practitioner under the right circumstances, what happens when you look at kata based responses to how a good old fashion street or bar fight might go down?

A raw, primal attack is likely to involve bear hugs, pushing, attempted throwing, grappling, grabbing, biting, spitting, headlocks etc. Try visualizing kata technique(s) against the different ways you can imagine being attacked on the street. Picture how effective different movements or combinations of movements would be in repelling the attack. “Shawn, you idiot,” you say, “That approach is useless and would take forever. There are almost infinite ways someone could attack you.” I respectfully respond, “idiot maybe, but actually not really on the rest of such assertions.”

Famed karate historian and martial arts practitioner, Patrick McCarthy, developed HAPV theory as a framework for understanding kata. HAPV stands for Habitual Acts of Physical Violence. HAPV theory posits 36 basic ways one may be attacked. While there may be endless examples of how one human being assaults another, Sensei McCarthy feels that any attack simply reflects a variation or combination of one or more of the HAPV. In what he sees as a kind of reverse engineering, Sensei McCarthy analyzes kata techniques in relationship to their effectiveness against one or more of the HAPV/common attack scenarios.

Karate demonstrations beginning with the “please grab my wrist” approach frequently elicit complaints of a lack of a realistic attack applied by a compliant partner. Criticism centers on the idea that such simple “attacks” do not occur in the real world, and never in such a docile manner. Really? Training exercises are just that … training. Slowly, speed and realism are increased as one moves towards full speed and dynamic applications of technique.

Consider. You are involved in a verbal conflict with another human being. As things start to get heated, you decide that violence may occur so you try to walk away. The aggressor then has 3 choices: (a) allow you to walk away – SUCCESS – you avoid physical conflict, (b) the aggressor immediately strikes at you in an attempt to harm you – unlikely if you leave the encounter early on, or (c) the aggressor grabs you in an attempt to keep you engaged in the conflict. Get it? The most likely method to be used by an aggressor intent on escalating the situation is to grab and hold the person who is attempting to leave the conflict. Where is the aggressor likely to grab you to keep you physically present? Your trailing arm or shoulder as you turn to move away. Similar to HAPV approaches, there may be many slight variations, but really there are a finite number of ways one can grab and restrain another. Of course, as we know from our Shorin Ryu training, being grabbed by an attacker is a gift that we will gladly accept and put to use.

Kyusho Jutsu (Pressure Points) and Human Anatomy

Other than having an excellent teacher, my study of human anatomy serves as the single most important aspect of my developing understanding of kata. I am but a tiny grasshopper (figuratively speaking for those who know me). Despite my naivete, I say with certainty that you need to research human anatomy if you are to truly understand the techniques embedded within a kata. By enhancing your understanding of the nervous, musculoskeletal, and circulatory systems of the human body, you will accelerate your understanding of the “secret” hand positions, striking patterns, and target choices “hidden” within a kata.

Sometimes we bombard our Sensei with questions based on ultimately meaningless details. “Sensei, what is the significance of wiping the sweat from your brow with your left hand on Tuesday, but with your right on Wednesday?” With the exception of such an absurd exaggeration, look at kata as containing virtually no useless movements. For example, the first thing I always consider when receiving a correction on wrist angle or hand position is “where does the correct position put my knuckles, fingertips and grip.” Perhaps you were hoping for something less obvious and more insightful. Very well. “On what pressure point, nerve cluster, artery, vein, or anatomically weak point of the body does a correctly positioned hand land and with what effect?” Am I still wasting your time?

Okay.  Have you ever wondered why backfist strikes in certain kata seem to target much lower than the temple or chin?  Have you have ever been told the strike is too high and needs to involve just a little bit more of a backwards bend on the wrist.  Perhaps such a strike is targeting the superficial branch of the radial nerve. Look at the two diagrams of the radial nerve presented here.









It is not coincidence that certain katas or independently presented techniques teach using a knuckle or other bone to strike where the radial nerve crosses over bones “connecting” the elbow and wrist joints. Pinching a nerve between a bone and a hard object delivers fabulous sensations with interesting effects. Just think about how banging your funny bone really is not funny at all (different nerve, same concept). If you were already aware of all such things, do you know why striking the forearm point mentioned in just the right way causes your opponent’s knees to buckle?

Still find anatomy to be boring or unimportant?  We know the neck and head are packed with vital target areas – no secret there.  But do you know what baroreceptors are and what techniques target them?

baroBaroreceptors are like sensors that provide feedback to the brain on blood pressure.  Striking the carotid sinus area in the correct manner tricks the baroreceptors into mistakenly telling the brain blood pressure is spiking dangerously.  The brain then sets in motion a series of events designed to lower blood pressure immediately and to restore balance.  The rapid drop in blood pressure, and the events associated with it, cause fainting/knock out or worse.  Such strikes are very dangerous and should not be practiced except under the supervision of a qualified instructor.  They are discussed here for information purposes only and to convey that kata is not simply a collection of graceful motions.

So, spend some time researching Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture, and basic 21st century anatomy resource materials.  Such knowledge could be extraordinarily useful to you in understanding certain parts of kata.  In the example of the baroreceptors above, think of all the kata that have multiple, consecutive hand blocks.  Challenge assumptions of what each component of a hand block technique might represent including what part of the technique, if any, actually represents a block at all.

When one delves into the connections between kata and anatomy, the knowledge possessed in 14th century China, and later Okinawa, is truly mind-blowing.  And perhaps a blown mind is a great place to end this second installment of bunkai schmunkai.  In the coming third and final installment, we will look at a schmorgesborg of practical theories for interpreting kata.  Stay tuned for angles of attack, hikite, turns, and much, much more.