I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but the world took a sharp turn for the dystopian. Governments declare states of emergency across the globe, people are dying left and right, and the media – true to their prime directive – stoke fear with warlike talk against an enemy we cannot see, but whose power we most definitely feel.
Covid-19 is just a name – a symptom if you will – of a problem much deeper and much more endemic to the lives we’ve chosen. This enemy, measured in micrometers, was foreseen, warned against, and thoroughly ignored until it was too late. There are many “enemies” following it closely (some preceding it too), and they are way nastier. Authoritarian states. Economic recession. Environmental collapse.
And the big question looms: Why the hell do we train amidst all this chaos? Does it even make sense? Isn’t it just …futile?
Yeah, it is. And training is still not an option.
Life has always been about fighting. Not the military kind, the one that’s good, bloody, self-destructive business. The other kind; the one that makes me get out of bed to face a universe that couldn’t give two shits about my troubles, without any meaning aside for the one I create for myself. You might disagree, but it’s all good. All opinions end in silence, but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy a good fight. Bleak, perhaps, but martial arts are not among the fine arts. We study violence and conflict, but trust me – it’s deeply spiritual. Visceral, yes, but spiritual. Life-asserting actually, one punch at a time.
I don’t know why any student of mine trains. Don’t get me wrong; I’m curious, but ultimately, it’s not my burden to know the reason. It took me over a decade to find out why I train (it’s because I define my self-worth by my ability to withstand hardship – and fear). Some train to feel powerful, some to protect themselves, some to pick up girls (or boys) at the beach because, hey, ninjas are cool. “Why” is not important. Training is. You come in, do the work, shed the sweat, get punched, kicked, thrown, choked, share a few laughs, and come back for more – until you don’t. A perfect theater of the human condition, if you ask me.
There lies the “deeper meaning” of martial arts. Not meditating on a mountain until your teeth fall off, not chanting mantras, making mudras, drawing mandalas, but grappling with Death, in a macabre simulation, three times a week, every week. What did you think it means when you tap? You’re dead. Or you would be if you weren’t just playing with your training buddies. Sometimes you have their life in your hands, sometimes they have yours. Full circle. There is a simple beauty to this, different from that of a painting, but no less true. We are all in this together, and our lives depend on one another.
Tell me of one other human enterprise where you get to learn that so clearly. The lessons of the body cannot be denied.
That’s what martial arts are all about. To play with mortality, grapple with fragility, mock death, and have a good time. To possess that fabled, sparkling jewel of being human – the fighting spirit. Same as our ancestors when they scratched their way across frozen tundras, stalked by beasts, and lashed by the elements. If you think we’re past that as a species, I’d say you’re about to get a crash course on the symbolic structure of reality. Our tundras are concrete, the beasts wear suits, and the elements (*cough* climate change *cough*) are about to get a whole lot angrier with the tricks we’ve been pulling post-industrialization.
Martial arts are futile, and so is everything else. That’s the nature of our being; fragile, ephemeral, mortal. We cannot win, and it doesn’t matter. But we can fight. It’s great fun. To be human is to fight. You make great friends and great enemies too. In the end, we’re all invited for dinner. What else are you going to do? Go train.
Inside a personal room and the internet it’s easy to create an imaginary world that has never been tested against both colleagues and opponents. But, what determines the next era is the ability to communicate online. This is not ideal, this is already the case and it will only get worse.
The Takeaway: Do learn to communicate online but do not be a amateur.
Some martial arts will lose students
Martial arts that emphasis close body contact will lose students. In the post-Corona world, despite the desire for human touch and physical embrace, the risk of close breathing and bodily fluids will be reserved for those who ignore risks.
The Takeaway: If you are centred in a Grappling, diversify.
Other martial arts will gain students
Martial arts that can build or have a syllabus of contactless training will be more popular – see section 2. In times of uncertainty many want and need to learn martial arts, the question is which ones. Defensive abilities give us a better quality of life because the fear of the other becomes an emotion in control. I expect a rise in historical weapons, karate, kung fu, and some forms of ninjutsu.
The Takeaway: Change syllabus to adapt to post pandemic world. Use the Methodical Pyramid.
The intimate session is back
AKBAN’s teachers, and myself, usually teach a few dozen students. It’s intimate and allows a reasonable number of students to Zoom learn. Seminars abroad with the physical presence of tens and hundreds of attendees will have to wait a long time to resume.
The Takeaway: Intimacy and closeness can be discovered in a large group and an online class. It takes sensitivity and work.
Streaming is not just for the experts
Any teacher who wants to teach now must learn how to overcome the technological hurdles and learn well how to stream. This is the situation.
The Takeaway: Control the technology or be its pawn.
Streaming will build a deep student audience
The human ability to communicate will bypass the limit of presence in the same room. Students who study in streaming can go deeper in some places than students who attend.
The Takeaway: The urban, easy access dojo is relatively new, many more models of learning used to exist. Embrace change with an easy heart, this is a challenge.
Streaming needs to evolve
Streaming needs to go beyond the basic video – we’ll find ways to teach better with streaming, methods we don’t know at the moment, from cellular reminders to specific merchandise for training – I’m waiting for our human creativity here.
The Takeaway: Do not wait on the sidelines for the technology to evolve. Play with it, learn and maybe, contribute.
Not everyone will survive professionally
Not all teachers, not all organizations will survive the crisis – a strong community is just as important as a fighting spirit. There will still be times when one of us will feel down. A strong and close community is key. A spiritually and physically strong community is the most important help now. Writing this Again: Community (Friendship, Humanity, Participation, Patience, Tolerance, Openness).
The Takeaway: Give more than you receive.
Those who survive the crisis will flourish
Martial arts, no matter which ones, show ability. Those who will show ability in crisis (clarity, speed, generosity, fighting spirit, emotional balance) will reap the reward afterwards.
The Takeaway: Frown strong. Breath deep.
More students, more things, more money – that belongs to previous era. This is changing to better students and less things (but good and useful).
The Takeaway: An axe never runs out of batteries. Five good students are better than fifty mediocre ones.
The local will replace the international. Online will replace the physical. Good or not good, it’s no longer to us to decide. It is what it is.
Some will naturally freeze and hesitate, others will deny and go to escapism and nostalgia.That is not the best reaction. We need to put our natural emotions in check.
The Takeaway: Stop, asses the situation and then start doing.
The Individual and telling a story
An academy, like AKBAN, is more than the sum of its parts, it exists in each individual. Each of the teachers and practitioners should be strong to hold both the practice and the knowledge. In this multiple task scenario on multiple platforms it is easy to loose yourself.
The Takeaway: Learn how not to dilute the personal story when telling it to others.
Corona is a social crisis, and I am not talking about COVID-19 as a disease, but about it’s social consequences. The crisis is not the Corona virus, the crisis is the automatic visceral reaction of communicated amplified individuals.
SARS-CoV-2 is an anomaly. It’s been many years since humanity had to process such a communal surprise and right now, middle of March 2020, processing is going on, consciously and automatically, at full speed. This processing is amplified by our interconnectedness and the visibility of things happening far and near. News that would be local and could be digested in months and years in the early civilisations are now processed in a matter of days. The speed at which humanity and society are meeting this anomaly, is a huge factor in what is going to happen now.
Anything more complicated than a fruit fly deals with anomalies in the same way, it freezes.
In a sudden and big enough anomaly the reaction is almost always freezing to digest the information and to avoid possible harm. This happens not only in fruit flies, it happened to our society. Freezing should not always be taken literally, sometimes it is the vacant stupor of complex automatic daily activities.
Not every sudden phenomena is an anomaly. When someone attacks a soldier it is sudden, but it is a category of surprises he grew accustomed to. For these kind of surprises, we have a set of reactions that have been wired into the system.
This COVID-19 is a surprise on another level. Few countries have been preparing for this pandemic, and even if those that did, are not prepared for the scale of this one.
‘Fight, flight, freeze’ reactions are not limited to individual organisms on the micro level, these reactions appear on the macro level of societies too.
On the Corona crisis, the first thing many societies and individuals did is freezing, some for weeks, some for months. So many advanced countries chose not to prepare that it is astonishing. The Fight, Flight, Freeze reaction only played its first part – freeze.
As we all know, it take two to tango, but one is enough to start a fight. This street wisdom works on the personal, regional and global scale.
When the surprise is bad, but it has been dealt with before, we can sometimes use pre-learned reactions to deal with it. When a ‘once in a century’ anomaly like Covid-19 hits, and is combined with hyper connectivity, the reaction it will elicit is lunacy.
I expect social deterioration in many fields. No doubt that the fear potentiated startle reflex we are having as a society will reverberate for years. The Fight part of the unholy trinity ‘fight, flight, freeze’ will take precedence to higher, rational, thinking.
If a good and cheap cure, and later on a flexible vaccine, will not be found then the visceral reactions of individuals and societies will cause greater suffering than the virus will.
I have been teaching since 1985. AKBAN dojo didn’t stop for nothing, no war, no man, no rain, we just kept coming and training. All this has changed today, I just sent a message in our private groups that there will be no training. It was tough on me, a lonely decision.
We shouldn’t stop for fear for ourselves, we are strong and healthy and we have herbs and practice on our side. We should now stop for a different reason, we should stop to protect our weak, for our high risk friends or family.
That should be our highest motive, to protect the old the weak or maybe, the unfortunate.
This virus is dangerous and limiting physical contact is our, my, responsibility. This will delay, give time and maybe even lower the possibility of getting sick.
I am sorry about the session loss, I already miss the dojo, miss you, my friends, but, I haven’t stopped training. I will upload it, I have already started uploading part of my morning routine and we will use technology to meet in spirit but maintain this discipline of protection.
Doron, my teacher told me, “When a martial arts practitioner enters the room, everyone is a little bit safer” now is the time of the paradox. The weak will be safer if we DO NOT enter the room.
I have been telling the veterans since January, this will be a hard fight, but we must win it.
Take care and carry your independent training kernel with you, daily.
I make sure a student pays tuition on time. A student should not owe money to his teacher. Paying tuition makes the student-teacher system simpler, I fulfil my obligations to the student and the student fulfils his/her duties: attendance and payment.
About two months ago, a student I did not see in many years came to the Dojo and said he wanted to pay me an old debt. He is now an adult, and it has been many years since he trained, but while recently talking to his mother, he realised that when he was a child they only paid me a very small fee because his family had no money. A nominal fee for a student who has no money is also a fee! And so, during the years I teach, I got paid in children’s paintings and in flowers from those who did not have any money. That’s fine, symbolic payment is a valid payment and a student who paid doesn’t owe me anything later.
The reason for this economy in Akban is related to the inner freedom I want. If, after a student left the dojo, the teacher thinks that the student owes him, that causes big trouble for the teacher, suffering.
A relationship should allow for exhaling and inhaling. If it is not possible to release then it is impossible to put in new air. I try to let go, and succeed. That’s because I like to breathe, one of the survival secrets I teach. This is how I come to Dojo with a happy heart.
Debt to the community
Akban is not me, Yossi the teacher, Akban is a precious and rare community of human beings, in the best sense of the word, veterans who have been training together for three decades. The debt to me, to the teacher, amounts to tuition and attendance, the debt to the community is not that simple and is indeed very large.
Community debt is not a financial debt, the community has not lent us money, the community has inspired us, helped us persevere in difficult moments, imbued the techniques we practice with meaning. Repayment must be accordingly. Paying off debt to the community is a complex work reserved for the emotionally stable, for very powerful people.
For example, the Ninjutsu database, the documentation project, is repaying a debt to the community in which I grew up, Bujinkan. It’s not about money – the cost to maintain the Bujinkan pool of techniques is not excessive – it’s about work, many hours invested in documenting our syllabus.
In order to repay an inspirational debt to the community, attendance is needed, it’s like gardening, like teaching, like raising children, repaying debt is a practice that requires attendance, presence.
Paying back such debt is an extra bonus, it allows us to grow as strong human beings and change roles – from children to guardians.
A veteran who teaches repays huge debt to the community. He continues the line of knowledge and contributes his unique perspective and interpretation.
A veteran who keeps coming and practicing even though he is old and injured – repays debt because he gives us all a better frame of reference and inspiration to keep on practicing.
A veteran who uses the knowledge he learned in AKBAN to build a business and explains how – returns debt of knowledge. Specifically, how to use martial knowledge in completely different areas and settings.
A veteran who understands how to be a seaman, knows how to surf, sail, understands the winds, the clouds and the sea and knows how to bring his expertise to us, repays debt to the community, he increases our knowledge and enriches us all.
Every contribution makes us all in this person’s debt – we owe him. And since in our community we’ve been together for decades, we all owe a lot to such people, me too.
Not everyone has the luck and the power to be able repay debt to the community, I think it’s fine, as wrote at the first paragraph, at this point nobody owes me anything, but when a veteran repays a debt to the community it’s a great thing, it’s wonderful. I have accrued great debt to Akban and I love this very much.
1. Video is a way to teach, even if only few people watch. True, this is not the ideal way, but I did learn things from videos and I think that others can too. We must Capture and distribute video to give away the knowledge we have acquired.
2. Video distribution requires courage. That’s the difference between writing a poem and putting it in the drawer and showing it to someone. In the case we show, we will have to live with the new reality and with the possibility that what we have created is:
a. Not good,
b. Too complex and not understandable
c. Clear and excellent, but not suitable for the reader.
The medication for fear, as we all know, is action!
3. Video photography, and critical observation, is a painful but excellent way to improve technique – both a technique of execution and a technique of verbal explanation. The engine behind my technical improvement are the movies I uploaded. You need to video and distribute to get internal and external feedbacks and improve.
A student asked me: “Why can’t I do the warm up with a T-shirt and then put on the Gi? It’s too hot in this heavy apparel. ”
“What a weak question” I thought.
With this thought I could have ended this dialoge, but I wear a heavy black canvas Gi and a combat skirt, the Hakama. That’s what I wear for work.
“…” say the horrified looks of students who, on weekends, pedal on bicycles wrapped in colored tights. “I’ll wear tights, I’ll put on branded sunglasses, a yellow Lycra hat, but a black skirt and a heavy jacket? It is unnecessary”, say the disdaining looks on the face, I’ll be a loughing stock.
It is unnecessary, but there is a reason why we are a loughing stock, a reason that relates to the concept of Respect. Practicing respect is always unnecessary, always superfluos.
When I related this exchange in the dojo, one veteran later told me: “In the trenches, at the Yom Kippur War, it was obvious that this was the end of us: we would soon die or be prisoners of war. It felt like the end of the world. I did not know if we’d see the sun the morning after”
I looked at him, I did not know what to say, I’m old, but on Yom Kippur I was in elementary school, so I listened.
“We cleaned our weapons and machine guns, then we polished our shoes.” I gave him a deep look, he never misses a training session, and on Yom Kippur war, under a smoky black sky, with artillery fire landing next to him, he polished his shoes. It seemed appropriate to me.
If one asks “what’s in it for me?” I will not supply an answer. In the old school the question is, “How do I do it?” When I try to answer the first question, I turn silent. What comes out of it? Nothing comes of it, nothing, it’s unnecessary.
It is possible that the late Professor Amotz Zehavi would have thought that this was an extension of the Handicap principle, maybe. I think it’s powerful.
Doing essential things is good, but it’s not like doing unnecessary things: treating elders and children with respect, not stealing even when no one is looking, putting on a Hakama and Gi on a hot day, being a mensch. Unnecessary.
During the thirty plus years I have been teaching, so many students have gone through groups, so many students, that I feel that the data I present is not anecdotal, it has a statistical significance.
Grit predicts success.
Success is also personal. Each practitioner starts from a different point, equipped with different initial quantities of courage, intellect and money. A different starting point affects the end point. Those who come to groups from a low starting poing will find themselves after thirty years in a better place, compared to their own starting point.
What is the unit of measure of grit? Years.
Grit is founded on decades of persistance, grit manifests in resistance to external difficulties. Grit maintains focus in front of disruptions. We sum up grit toward the end of life. Period.
A practitioner who trains for ten years is at the beginning of the road. Ten years is about tenth grade. A practitioner who has been training for thirty years is getting nearer.
Should the training be in Akban? Of course not, but there must be a comprehensive practicum, not just practicing but an initiation practicum that the apprentice is a part of.
When I look at the student’s cards, I do not see a statistically significant deviation. Long-term training predicts a student’s personal success – success relative to his starting point.
And those students who have a good starting point? Money, high IQ, crazy courage, the same students create success that can be measured in absolute terms, not only relative. Academic achievements, excellent family life, money or if the apprentice wishes to – an enterprise that improves the quality of life of many other people.
Grit means a simple but very difficult thing – training is not an option.
Exarcheia neighbourhood in Athens is Tel Aviv, 50 years ago. The faces of the old people in the streets, grandmothers carrying baskets from the market, slowly climbing the steep streets, the bookshops, the aromas of family cooking at noon, I am sure I smelled Kaptadakya and Pastitsio.
I came for the winter seminar armed with Gaby Frischlander. Gaby is the senior teacher in Niradin, a Doron Navon Shodan and an AKBAN Nidan. Gaby came to test Vasilis and Aris for senior instructor level together with me.
Gaby and me have been friends for more then forty years. We are older now, but we used to play hide and seek in the workers’ neighbourhood, fought in the same elementary school, heard music in the same high school parties and stood in awe in the same dojo. Simple things, same old Seiko watch, same old shoes that I mend all the time, same jeans, same morning training routine.
Will power, courage and dedication. This combination of characteristics is not rare, we see it in many dojos. What is rare is something that we saw in the Detant workshop, something unique to the Greek dojo, a degree of spirituality. Economical hardship, creates, in some people, wealth.
I honor this combination of courage and spirituality. Alchemists’ gold is not dependent on loans from corporations, it stems from correct work, respect and awareness.
New year is coming, with new challenges. Whenever I go on a new hike I take many looks back, to see where I came from, old knowledge, old techniques, old friends.
For the new year here’s what I send to all who work: Get over difficulties, practice daily, breath deeply, thank you, Ευχαριστώ πολύ!
So, this is a Kurd riddle: A farmer has to cross the river with his only sheep, a sack of cabbage for the winter and a big wolf. What he sees when he comes to the river is one tiny boat with place for two. It’s either him and the wolf, and then the sheep eats the cabbage, or if he takes the cabbage, the wolf eats the sheep.
You get the picture…
So it’s a simple kid’s riddle and the guy can solve it with some extra rowing, some extra work.
When my teacher told me this, I just figured it’s a lame riddle.
“Nope,” he said, “the point is not how to juggle the passage, the point is that the wolf comes with you”, he said: “you have to take the wolf”.
So I am watching my wolf, sometimes it scares me, there used to be a time it got me into trouble, many times it protected me, but for sure, my students, and many of my friends here in Israel have a wolf.
So the riddle is not one of transportation, instead it points to the necessity of being the master of the things you carry with you, voluntarily or not.