Saturday, June 02, 2007

Martial Arts Reflections (5): The Aging Martial Artist

The stories are legend and part of the narrative of the martial arts community. There's this old geezer and the young guy hyped-up martial artist tries to trounce him, but the old geezer is never where the young guy grabs or punches or kicks. After a while the young guy gives up in despair and duly receives an explanation of what happened in the humiliating events preceding. The explanation usually involves elements of 'experience', 'replacing power by skill' and stuff like that. There's a whole lore surrounding what it entails getting older as a martial artist. Slogans like 'train smarter, not harder' abound. In some martial arts styles/schools the whole thing has been systematized; the training has been deliberately structured so that, for those who do martial arts from, say, their early 20s on, there are distinctly different ways of training and things that are being taught. The matter is considered an advancement through stages, which are mapped onto the 'stages' of life, as it were.

When the 8th Dan sensei from Australia was here a few months ago, the theme was evoked several times. There was a large age-range at the seminars, and it was quite obvious how that mapped into a range of styles, from full-on hard-out to a more moderate evade-and-defeat. And this makes perfect sense, because as one gets older the body's capabilities decline and need to be replaced by mental agility, experience of action, fluidity of motion, precision of action. I've yet to meet the mysterious 'old master' who just is 'never where you think he is when you try to grab/hit him', but I have no doubt the likes of him exist. Our visiting sensei demonstrated that quite clearly. Though only my age, he exhibited many of the qualities of the more 'wily' style of the old and experienced. Just when you thought you were winning, you realized that things weren't at all what you thought they were, and you weren't really winning at all. That kind of thing.

The notion of adapting one's martial arts training to one's age is valuable, and, let's face it, I've practiced it since I started 'martial arts' at a somewhat late stage in life. Not that I really consider myself a 'martial artist', which I think is a somewhat pompous term; but people like to belong and naming oneself and classifying oneself is a form of belonging. I call myself a 'storyteller' and/or a 'writer' at various times and that is a kind of assignation of belonging, to a group of people doing this but not that, and a tradition associated with that group. But I also call myself a lot of other things—plus have people call me a lot of things, I'm sure; not all of them complimentary!—and identification with a group is a tenuous thing. Still, 'martial artists' have a strong identity-image and part of that image consists of a mystique that makes it a good and valuable thing to do this going-hard-out when one is younger, but becoming wilier as one gets on in years.

Very often this happens, of course, because the older martial artist was going hard-out in his younger years and it turns out that he's paying for it as he gets older. Broken bones, torn ligaments, tortured joints, deliberately micro-fractured bones, over-trained muscles, excessive spinal compaction and shock, plus a whole lot of other insults inflicted during one's younger—and, not to put too fine a point on it, stupider!—years, finally come home to roost.

These things are often considered a matter of pride, like old war-wounds; but in truth they usually aren't. They are injuries inflicted upon oneself doing something that had no truly serious purpose. By and large martial artists are no warriors but merely pretend to be. It's basically 'recreation'. 'Sport', even though martial artists mostly detest the notion of being thought of as sportsmen, on whom they often look down. And, yes, there is more to a session at the dojo than there is to a session at the gym, even though both share a lot of commonality— depending, of course, on the dojo, the gym, as well as the attitude and purpose of the practitioner. Still, when it all comes down to it, the vast majority of martial artists are practicing recreation and 'sport'. And most of them injure themselves for no purpose at all. A bit less hard-out and a bit more intelligence and judgment at a younger age could see most of them far further into their older years with far less pain and need to feel that they need to take it so much easier.

But they don't, and by and large that's considered perfectly all right. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between. This in turn feeds into the whole lore associated with the older martial artist and his way of training and practicing the art. By contrast he—usually 'he' and very rarely 'she'—truly needs to 'wind down'.

From the point of view of one who was too lazy in his younger years to practice serious sports or activities that might have damaged his joints, ligaments or bones, this all seems a little silly. From the point of an emortalist it has a ring of self-defeating submission to a paradigm that can only have one result: to make matters worse. Practiced appropriately if wouldn't of course, but people seldom do things 'appropriately'. The notion that sheer experience can lead to economy of action more appropriate to an aging body isn't wrong per se, but only when comparing it to the wasteful punishing and damaging of the body often practiced at earlier stages of life. An old man who can move with grace, economy, a great sense of balance and timing, is till an old man, and his body, while in good shape compared to those poor souls confined to 'old people's homes', is still going downhill; a bit slower than they, or maybe significantly slower, but it's still going down, down, down.

It's possible that the average aging martial artist hasn't got much choice. He's been so battered and bruised and damaged that his joints are truly f...d for good and that elegance and grace and experience is all that's left, because there a lot of pain doing anything else. That is the price he pays for doing silly things when he was younger.

But not everybody is like that. And those who aren't need to be careful about buying into the mythology. There are ways for the younger martial artist to be a good and proper martial artist without doing stupid things and screwing up their body for their later years. It just requires more foresight and better judgment than you'll find for the most part. And for those people who haven't battered themselves into wrecks, it is possible, even into what's euphemistically called 'advancing years'—and for some that starts at 40, let's face it—to continue to push their physical envelope without at the same time being punished for doing so. Indeed, doing this will ensure not only that one's bones do not become brittle, one's ligaments remain flexible, one's muscles do not lose their tone, one's reflexes remain at the top of their form, one's cognitive and motor faculties integrate optimally.

Mens sana in copore sano
applies to aging bodies as well. An old body that is decaying, in pain, falling apart, will not be conducive to harboring an alert and well-functioning mind. It can happen, but it is unlikely. Our physical being and what we are in our minds is too tightly bound together to allow ready decoupling. Body image and self image by and large are one. Hence the need to continue to build the body—a need that actually increases as one gets older. Smartly so, mind you, and definitely without doing the plain silly kinds of things one tends to do when young(er) and stupid(er). There are ways of pushing the envelope without doing it in a punishing way. The recipe is simple: if it is very hurtful or likely to injure you or make you worse, don't do it!—but in all those things that don't have that effect go as hard-out and envelope-pushing as you can. It's the same, you know, as buying clothes. As one gets older and wider, if not wiser, one tends to buy clothes that fit one's current stature, such as to be 'comfortable'. Bad idea! Buy clothes that are just a tad too small, so you have to shrink into them. That'll keep you honest—and if you don't you will expand! This is like a law of nature, almost as compelling as your average law-of-physics. There are few, if any, counterexamples. I have not met any in my lifetime, and I've been around a few years.

The thing is, if you don't push the envelope all the time you're lost and on your way out. 'Yielding' has its uses, but it can all too easily lead to yielding into oblivion. And it often does. I hesitate to say 'usually', because I might overstate the point. But sometimes I think 'always' is closer to the truth than 'sometimes'.

Yudan Nashi. Never let your guard down. Never relent for a moment in your focus on, ultimately, surviving, and whatever it takes to accomplish that. And if you think that's selfish and even egomaniac; well, think again. Unless you're some total loser whom nobody likes, there is probably at least one person in this world who would hate to lose you. Do you really want to bow out and leave them without you around? Think about that!

No comments: