Recently I had the honor of attending Master Ray Fisher’s test to become a 7th Degree Black Belt in the Goju Shorei Weapons System. I have briefly dabbled in several forms of martial arts including capoeira, aikido, and t’ai chi, but never for long enough to consider myself a practitioner. It was exciting to get a glimpse into the practice of an elite martial artist and discern the commonalities and differences between martial arts and my own practice in dance and yoga. The obvious one is a sense of purpose: martial arts exist as a form of self defense, even if one is taught to only use these deadly arts in a life threatening situation. In dance we aren’t trying to beat each other, though we often do so unintentionally to achieve an elusive creative idea. As moving meditations reliant on movement memory, all three forms require extreme mental and physical discipline to attain and retain one’s abilities.
As is my nature, I left with a plethora of unanswered questions. The master giving the test encouraged us to ask anything, but after seeing Soke McNeil attack someone by placing a cane around his opponent’s neck and flip him over I thought I’d save my inquisitions for later. I do hope to interview Master Fisher soon, but in the meanwhile here are some things I took away that can relate to any practice.
As someone testing for a 7th Degree Black Belt, Master Fisher could have stopped a long time ago. He could have taken classes recreationally for years without striving for more, or he could have decided that a black belt was enough. From what I know of him, he is the kind of individual that doesn’t settle for less of himself. More importantly, he is driven by an internal desire through doing to know more about his body and his capabilities. As a dancer, I very much appreciate this. The more I learn, the more I realize there is to learn. The attainment of knowledge only leads to more questions, which in turn offer the opportunity for more discovery. The belt system, much like dance training and yoga asana, provides a framework for learning about one’s body and self.
This test was for weapons training specifically, meaning that while Master Fisher is training to be a 7th degree black belt in this area, he has done the same thing in several other systems. Since none of these overlap, he has started at the bottom rung on each and worked his way to the top. As adults, most of us hit a certain stride with something we excel at doing. The humility of being a black belt in one area and a complete novice in another is like the humility we all have when embarking on something new as adults.
By fearing things that are new, we deny ourselves the opportunity to expand our capabilities and extend our perception of the world. New activities and demands open our capacity to think in novel ways. The phrase “think outside the box” has been overused, but divergent thinking is valued and often missing in most every profession, creating institutions, individuals, and teams unwilling to make important changes to help them move forward. On a personal level, being willing to try something new and fully commit to it creates richness in our daily lives. It makes us less likely to fall into ruts of boredom.
To be an artist, performing or martial, is to be humbled every day. There is the work of masters who have come before, the continual attention paid to craft with the hope of a payoff in meaningful process or product, and there is the general lack of understanding in our culture about what being an artist entails. I feel certain that Master Fisher’s prowess as a martial artist is met with equal ambivalence as most dancers outside of his martial arts circle. I know him to be very dedicated to the internal practices. These combine with equal weight to create the sum of martial arts. Much like the fortitude it takes for a dancer to keep a straight face when met with another imitation of a music box ballerina, Master Fischer remains resolved and strong every day in his craft in the face of the layman’s purely physical interpretation of karate.
3. Focus through Distraction
The test itself was incredibly difficult on both a physical and mental level. Master Fisher knew 28 fighting techniques, each of which he had to perform bare handed, with a cane, and with a knife. He also had to perform a kata, a long series of fighting movement, with an imaginary opponent. Or two imaginary opponents. Or three. The master giving the test could demand anything at any time and he did. The need for mental focus increased throughout the ordeal. The master attempted to disrupt Master Fisher’s performance with loud Polynesian drum music. He then chose 3 novices from the onlookers, one of whom was a white belt, and required Master Fisher to teach each novice one of the techniques on which he was being tested. During the kata, the master threw a baseball bat underneath him, poked into his space with a cane, had someone circle him in close proximity, and distracted him with questions that he wasn’t allowed to answer. If he answered the difficult task had to be restarted with more distractions than before.
Life continually throws us distractions and we must maintain our focus in order to achieve what we have set out to accomplish. To do so we need to be able to adapt in the present moment. Maintaining our focus and being in the moment now means that small changes accumulate over time and help us reach our goals. Master Fisher didn’t walk off and complain that he couldn’t test under these conditions, he went with what was happening in the moment, knowing that he had prepared well enough to handle the challenges out forth. The kata prepares a martial artist for potential situations, but it is understood that, like in theatre, anything and everything can happen on stage.
4. Movement Memory
When he finally made it through the lengthy kata sequence, Master Fisher identify the places where he did something incorrectly and what he should have done instead. These moments were quite small and compounded by the fact that he had performed the kata about five times before the test giver let him stop. As a dancer, I am very curious about how martial artists use movement memory, particularly since it seemed as though he often trains alone. In dance partnering sequences are difficult to envision let alone rehearse without one’s partner present.
When I take ballet class, there are moments that feel almost surreal because I have done those movements at the barre so many times. Each day that I do them feels different, but even on a bad day, there is a wonderful feeling when I realize how many movements live in my body, quietly waiting to be used. Like Master Fisher, a large number of specific actions are as much a part of my physical being as walking. I wonder how they live in his body, how and if they rest, and if his muscles twitch on days he doesn’t use them enough. I hope to soon hear his perspective on the body mind connection in martial arts and open a dialogue about the things we share.