“Some people are born with good physiques, a sense of speed and a lot of stamina. That’s fine. But in the martial arts, everything you learn is an acquired skill. Absorbing a martial art is like the experience of Buddhism. The feeling for it comes from the heart. You have the dedication to get what you know you need. When it becomes a part of you, you know you have it. You succeed at it. You may never fully understand all of it, but you keep at it. And as you progress, you know what the true nature of the simple way. You may join a temple or a kwoon. You observe nature’s simple way. You experience a life you never had before.”
– Bruce Lee
The path of learning martial arts is as diverse as the individuals taking the journey. Some choose to study one style, others choose another style. There are no “right answers” for what pathway of study is the best for everyone.
Regardless of what path one chooses to pursue, the path must be walked with “heart.” We hear this idea often, and many assume its meaning or definition while others are confused as to what this actually entails. As Bruce Lee says, “the feeling for it comes from the heart.” What does this mean?
For some it means dedication, commitment and devotion. For others it means respect for the lineage, one’s Master and Teacher and the upholding of tradition. For some it means all of this!
I don’ believe there an exact answer for this idea, any more than there is for finding a perfect style of fighting despite all the claims of exclusivity from certain circles. However, one important idea comes to mind when one explores this discussion:
The journey of learning martial arts is deeply and uniquely personal.
There is a beautiful French phrase which powerfully conveys this idea, “Le Coeur Avant Le Chrono”, the heart before the watch. This essentially means that what’s important is not some generic standard but rather one’s personal satisfaction in the journey of learning and participation.
This idea is not often popular in the modern world of martial arts where people seek instant gratification via the color of one’s belt or the winning of a tournament trophy. And these are important valid goals!
The landmarks of achievement such as belts and trophies are earned with sweat and blood and should be cherished in a politically correct world where “everyone is a winner” or “everyone is equal”. Any martial artist who has trained hard knows this is NOT the case! Someone is always stronger, faster or more experienced regardless of the democratic dreams of the opposite. But, this should not dampen one’s appetite for participation nor can it dampen the fires of transformation found upon the pathway of martial arts practiced with dedicated enthusiasm.
The legendary runner Steve Prefontaine would often state that he only raced the clock, not the others on the track. Often during his races he would literally not even look at the other runners, mesmerized only on his own personal goals mirrored within the clock on the stadium wall. He was running his own personal race.
This example may seem strange to some as I mentioned the goal of “Le Coeur Avant Chrono”, the heart before the watch, and martial arts is concerned with fighting and not running. But this metaphor was actually embodying by Prefontaine even while he raced the watch; he was running against himself, against his own goals, against his inner opponent. He felt that if he accomplished this, he would easily beat the other runners! And more often than not did just this becoming an eternal symbol for runners and athletes.
The metaphor of the “heart before the watch” is a powerful message of individual goals and individual transformation which is not so easily standardized. Someone may obtain a higher rank, yet remain unchanged in life and spirt; someone may lose a tournament fight but transform in deeper ways than the victor!
This is the power of the “heart” in one’s life and training. The systole and diastole of one’s journey is not the same for everyone, each person being unique in mind and body. The study of martial arts allows us to experience this in deep transformative ways allowing each personal the unique opportunity to become an individual.
We cannot hold ourselves to the same standard as someone else, but we can hold ourselves accountable to personal growth, personal transformation and personal adaptability. This creates a unique individual in a world which seeks to make us all the same!
When we reach our own inner goals and not get caught up into ego based competition we have the potential to develop a unique type of individual intelligence which can allow us to adapt to any situation or event that life throws at use. Despite our best laid plans, life rarely follows our wishes. Martial arts studied with “heart” allows us to cultivate a type of intelligence eloquently and succinctly described by Bruce Lee:
“Intelligence is sometimes defined as the capacity of the individual to adjust himself successfully to his environment or to adjust the environment to his needs.”
This type of intelligence is a rare gift in today’s world. How does one learn this via the pathway of martial arts? There is not a clear cut answer for this, no standardized approach for all. Each student may learn the same form but hidden within the form are secrets which each student must discover for himself through dedicated patience, practice and the guidance of an authentic master.
As a result, each student’s journey on the same road is different, unique, and the student can experience “a life you never had before.” This can only be discovered if we realize that our goals must be unique, individual and adaptable.
This is also why we need the guidance and literally protection of an authentic master! Often it’s the teacher’s role to “watch the clock” so the student can practice with a heart unencumbered by false or unrealistic expectations.
As the student slowly walks the path in this manner, the inner and outer transformation becomes transparent to the Sifu initially and eventually to the student. Then powerful changes can occur for the student, changes which are uniquely achieved and cannot be taken away.
If one seeks the help of an authentic master and contemplates “Le Coeur Avant Le Chrono” the potential exists for the student to experience a life in its purest form: unique, beautiful, spontaneous, and unpredictable.
This is more precious and rare than any belt or trophy and the ultimate true gift of the journey.