On the Swept Plateau

On the Swept Plateau

   "When there is no wind, row."
                       -Chinese proverb      
Your karate training won't always progress at the same smooth pace. In the karate school we have a regular schedule of classes, curriculum, and tests; but your own personal growth in the arts will sometimes move in fits and starts. Sometimes you feel like you are on fire, like you pick up every new technique immediately. Other times you feel like you are plugging along, getting a little better all the time. You go to class, you hit the bag, and you feel yourself gradually getting stronger and faster.

And then sometimes you feel like you've been running and running forever. And one day you look around and it's been a long time since you saw any new improvements in skill and you start to question if it's worth it. Will my training ever pay off? Are all these repetitions, and bumps and bruises and scrapes, really making me better? You practice the forms and show up to spar but you feel like you're stuck. You can't see a horizon in any direction and you've gone so far without a major step that you've begun to lose context.

You're on the plateau.

The Way of martial arts is an upward winding path. Sometimes it is steep, and sometimes it is shallow, and there will be times when it seems to extend in front of you forever with no end in sight. It is easy during these times to become discouraged in your training. But that is just a part of the journey. The things that excited you about karate when the gains were easy and the time between rewards was minimal seem to have less of a draw now. Where you used to show up to class early chomping at the bit for the next technique or drill, now class seems a burden, and a part of you begins to justify not putting in the effort by focusing on how long it's been since you felt like you were growing.

Sometimes it happens at brown belt. Sometimes it happens at black belt. Sometimes it happens to a beginner. You keep doing what your instructors say, practicing the drills and performing the kata, but more and more it seems like a thankless chore.

The nights are dark on the plateau, and when the strong winds blow you have to make a decision. Do you keep training? Or do you stop training?

What you sometimes lose sight of when you are on the plateau is that there is only one secret technique of karate. Keep training. Regardless of how good you are or were or could be, if you keep training you will get better. The only way to stop getting better at karate is to stop doing karate. Left foot right foot. Better today, better tomorrow. Even when you're on the plateau the way to move forward is to move forward.

The wonderful thing about karate is that it works. And when you are on that plateau and you've been running and running, and you've been doing the repetitions and putting in the mat time, even though you didn't want to, you are training. You are training and training and training. And all that training pays off. You don't see it while you're doing it. But then another day comes, and you look around and realize you can suddenly see so much farther than you could before. Now you can see the long flat plateau below you, and how far you've come, and you can see the slope of the land from a perspective you didn't have lower on the path. The plateau is always followed by a massive leap in skill and understanding.

This can be a challenging time in your training as well. When you suddenly realize how much better your front kick can be you also suddenly realize that the front kick you felt confident and proud of before is beneath your new standard. It feels like all your skill has disappeared. But it hasn't. Your new understanding gives you the opportunity to grow further than you knew was possible before. But you have to keep doing the hard work that got you there. Right foot left foot.

When you are on the plateau it can be easy to lose perspective. You forget the gains you've gotten from your training before. You forget your victories. The plateau is not a place of victories. The plateau is not a place of defeat either. In some ways, that would be easier to deal with. FAILING means Finding An Important Lesson, Inviting Needed Growth. Instead the plateau is a place of interminable perpetuity. It is a challenge to the spirit. It is a battle with the self.

If you press, if you lean into that strong wind, you will leave the plateau behind you. Your mind will blossom, your skill will grow, and the scales will fall from your eyes. You will see karate as you never had before and you will express your new understanding and ability in everything you do. But the time for training is not done. You must continue to chop wood. And then, one day, you will look around and realize hot coals have fallen to embers, boiling water has grown tepid, long shadows cross the land and you can't see the horizon in any direction.

There are always more steps. There are always more plateaus. There is no ending to the challenges to the body, mind, and spirit. Karate is not a thing you finish learning. But when you have been through a plateau before you know what to do when you find yourself tired, empty, and parched.

Left foot. Right foot. Lean into the wind. Keep training. Keep showing up.

You will climb beyond the next plateau, and the next, and the one after that. Because karate teaches us to never give up. To apply ourselves to our training every day. To keep climbing.

You will find yourself on the plateau someday. You may have before, you may be there now. It is not the end. It feels like you've been running for ever and ever because you have been. You are getting somewhere soon.

Keep running.

Drills -
Beginner: Practice each of your techniques twice. Then practice them again three times each. Then again five times each. Then again three times. Then twice. Practice your techniques until you think you aren't getting anything out of it anymore. Then practice your techniques one last time. You will never finish practicing. You will never do "enough" repetitions. After a hundred, or a thousand, or ten thousand, you can still do five more and get better.

Intermediate: There will be times when you get tired of practicing the same drill or pattern again and again. You will want to skip around, or only practice your favorite techniques, or hurry through your kata practice so you can get to "the fun stuff." Remember, even if you've had this class, or done this activity, or sparred with this training partner time after time after time there is still a new lesson, right there in front of you. You will never stop learning from Short Form 1. Find joy in the drudgery. Embrace the chores and celebrate doing the daily work. The practice is the method.

Advanced: You have experienced training plateaus before. You know what needs to be done to break through to the next level, but you will still feel the miles as they pass beneath your feet. You will become parched, but you can quench your thirst with the sweat of your brow. You will grow cold, but you can warm yourself in the fires of your will. The plateau is no longer a frightening place for you. It is a predictable place, where the terrain is familiar and comforting and the time passes easily. Keep training. The next evolution is just ahead.

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