What’s a Nice Anarchist Like Me Doing in an S.E.S. Like This?

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Alternatively titled as Making the World a Better Place, Part the Second. (And if anyone needs/wants a refresher on what “S.E.S.” stands for, here you go.)

This particular S.E.S. is pretty brutal. We’re required to be physically and mentally sharp; and if one of us isn’t, a frequent result is pushups for us all. There’s a lot of protocol one must adhere to as well; and bowing—a lot of bowing. Just in case my comments haven’t given it away to everyone, the S.E.S. of which I speak is karate; and what I’m doing in it can best be summarized as, “Loving it!”.

Wow, I’m improving—but not much: it’s been over a year since I promised to write on my training. Truth is, I’ve been very close several times to writing about it, but each time that happened, one of my Sensei would say something that caused my thinking to shift so much that I needed time to ponder and integrate the ideas. Recently, I had my re–enrollment meeting with Sensei M (the owner of the dojo and our most senior Sensei; his wife, whom I’ll refer to as “Sensei F”, is our other instructor), and over the course of our wandering conversation he said something that I had noticed fairly early on in my training. That prompted me to set some of my observations and thoughts down.

The dojo (Pacific Martial Arts) is a traditional karate dojo—what that means is both “martial” and “art” are emphasized in our training; and our training includes many elements of Japanese culture. We count in Japanese; we learn both the Japanese and English names for the techniques we perform; and we are expected to display proper etiquette at all times in the dojo, and to respect the hierarchy (including, among other things, bowing to our Sensei and our sempai). So deeply does this run that the first lesson addresses correct posture for standing at attention, sitting in seiza, and bowing correctly. If these things are not observed, Sensei will correct the karate ka—and if a students gets too many corrections, he may be demoted to white belt for a time.

These things alone may have some of you scratching your heads and wondering, “Why does she put up with all that?” I can’t explain completely, in large part because I’m still discovering facets of my answer; but the most obvious reason is that I choose to train at the dojo—it’s an entirely voluntary action. Although it may appear to be largely an ego thing for them, all the bowing to our Sensei, it truly isn’t. It is part of the mental discipline essential to being a good student. I don’t think it’s merely another show of curmudgeonliness on my part to say that American culture has been losing the mental discipline our forebears had to have to succeed here; much of the popular culture shows that to be true.

And that is a large part of why I chose to train at the dojo, and why I enjoy it so much. I was seeking both mental and physical rigor; I wanted to be challenged in an environment where the standards are high and not relaxed for anyone (which is not to say that only perfectly healthy, physically normal individuals can train there). I wanted there to be no doubt in my mind that when I advanced in rank, it was because I earned it, and not to boost my fragile ego or self–esteem, or to keep me with the people who started training around the time I did. The mental discipline is helpful not only in karate, but in many other areas of life, of course. Moreover, in a fundamental way, the standards allow us a deeper, more valuable freedom: by stripping away the outer vestiges of individuality and choice, we are encouraged to delve deeper, to explore why we’re there, what we’re doing (and how we’re doing it), and to do our work without our egos being invested in it. Some may be there primarily for the self–defense aspect; others, for the spiritual elements; and others, for the physical workout or a love of karate: but it doesn’t matter. We each have our own reasons for being there, and our own work in our practice; by stripping away the layers of ego that compare and contrast and assign emotions to outcomes, we are free to do our work—whatever it is—and advance our practice. Our Sensei are part of this too, although they are obviously much further down their paths than we students are.

Even though I had been exploring spiritual ideas for some time before joining the dojo, I didn’t expect that to become part of my training, but it has. In the fall, Sensei M leads sitting practice (Zen meditation) sessions for any adults (students as well as parents/family of students) who wish to participate. Although I’d been trying to develop a meditation habit, despite the help of my dear peanut–butter–addled friend I hadn’t been very successful. After last fall’s meetings ended, I continued to sit on my own at home, and more frequently than Sensei’s sessions were held; and I began to see the rewards of regular practice. Conversations with both Sensei, as well as others at the dojo with whom I’d become friendly, further expanded my thinking.

There’s much, much more I could say, but I have probably gone on more than enough as it is. In wanting to train in a martial art, I was seeking exactly what I ended up finding at PMA: an environment where I am pushed to excel, but not compared to others; discipline that tests and improves my character; and physical training that is not too easy, too hard, or too boring, while also not being competitive. In addition, I found instructors of the highest caliber, who show the utomost integrity in their lives while also being humbly human and approachable; and others who grok at least some elements of all the above, as evidenced by their ongoing commitment to training, too.

In many ways, what I’m getting is what I’d hoped graduate school would be, but wasn’t remotely close. It is an S.E.S. that is scarily close to ideal for me, at this time in my life. To say that I’m happy and satisfied barely touches on it: and it almost certainly makes training sound much easier than it really is. I feel tested every day I step on the dojo floor; and some days I wonder if I’m up to it. I wonder why I do it ... especially when I come home, and struggle to get up and down the stairs because my thigh muscles are rebelling against all the stance work and kicks they were just put through. It seems crazy ... yet I love it; and I do it.

Oh, I forgot to say how this relates to making the world a better place. As my previous ramble addressed, making the world a better place necessarily begins with improving oneself. I am doing that at Pacific Martial Arts. (I shall expand on that more shortly.) There is a lot of greatness there.

Addendum 11/04: I realized something yesterday, after training and having a hard time because of an asthma flareup: although karate is itself an S.E.S., our dojo is structured in a way that minimizes its potentially limiting effects. Students are never compared to one another; nor are we expected to complete the curriculum in a certain time span. Within the framework of the martial art, we each have our own strengths and weaknesses, and as I said earlier, our own reasons for being there and goals for training. Both Sensei work with students, and encourage them to find things that work for them, if a physical limitation makes certain things challenging. So even though I’m deeply involved in an S.E.S., it’s a rather unique one in crucial ways.


I can see elements in this that reflect what my nurse's training and practice did for me. Striving for excellence and balancing that with self acceptance. Heady stuff. :)

Testing... testing...

Thanks for writing about this, Sunni. I've been curious ever since you said you were doing it.

Gives me a bit to think about.

Speaking of testing ...

I failed to mention that I was promoted to ninth kyu in early September. All that really means is I have to work harder, and remember that I am an example for new students and those in tenth kyu.

If you have any questions after your thinking, Mr. Bill, I’d be happy to try to answer them. It’s a surprising place for me to be, so I may have a difficult time articulating many things, but I’m willing to try.

Plenty of time to get it right :-)

Not exactly on karate topic here, but...

This woman is 92 y/o.


I've noticed that with age I'm "slowing down", that is I'm more relaxed about what I'm doing and what I need to do, and am taking my time to do it.

I've re-started learnig Tai Chi, which I did a number of years ago (and really need now in order to stay strong and become more flexible); and am approaching it from that more relaxed state of mind that concentrates on health rather than the "fighting" approach. And enjoying it more.

[Edited by Sunni to make link hot]

Definitely on topic

Thank you for the very inspiring link. Here’s one back atcha: The Incredible Flying Nonagenarian. Your more relaxed approach sounds like a wise one, and not just for individuals of a certain age ... I would have been well–served to have had that attitude decades ago.

I’ve given serious thought to learning tai chi, but—and perhaps this is my ignorance showing—I don’t want it to interfere with karate. I’m still getting the basics of our style down, and have many more stances and techniques to learn. We do have a “breathing kata” in our style; Sensei F taught me the first third of it, thinking it would help my breathing. And I’m sure it would, if I could remember it ...