Falling Down, Getting Up

I've screwed up.

I don't mean anything specific by that, because I could certainly come up with a long list of examples. But the point at hand is that this is a universal experience. Making mistakes is part of the human condition. (My dad sometimes jokes, "I thought I made a mistake once, but I was wrong", which is a great little self-referential paradox.)

It will happen in your training. You'll do a kata or drill wrong. You'll make a mistake in dojo etiquette. You'll forget the Japanese name of a technique.

The relevant question is, after the mistake, then what?

On our little "portable shinzen" up front of the room, next to a photo of our founder Kaicho Nakamura, is a little red figurine with cartoon scowl. It's shaped so that if you tip it over, it rocks back upright -- sort of the original Weeble. These are ancient toys in both Japan and China, but somewhere along the way in Japan this one sort became fused with legends about Daruma -- the Japanese name for Bodhidharma, the mythical founder of Zen -- and took on cultural significance far beyond just being a toy.

According to one legend, Bodhidharma sat in mediation for so long that his legs withered away and so he was left as this roly-poly sort of seated figure. Now, according to another legend, he taught the monks at the Shaolin Temple the techniques that evolved into wushu, so I'm not quite sure how we resolve the guy with no legs with the original kung-fu master. But this figure has become an icon in Japan. See how his eyes are colored in, not part of the original paint? That's a tradition, a little magical ritual: when you set out to do something, you take one of these figurines and color in the left eye. When you accomplish your goal, you color in the right eye. So he's watching you with one eye, reminding you, "Hey! Get to work! Make this thing happen so you can give me my other eye!"

You'll see politicians doing this ritual when they win an election -- though not with a little guy like the one we have. They come in much larger sizes. I've seen ones that came up to my waist.

Because of the way they get up when knocked down, these figurines have come to symbolize a proverb: "Nana korobi, ya oki." "If you call down seven times, get up eight times."

There's a poem by the Sufi mystic Rumi that I think captures some of the same spirit, though you have to filter for the specifics of his religious faith:

"Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, idolator, worshipper of fire, come even though you have broken your vows a thousand times,
Come, and come yet again. Ours is not a caravan of despair."

Whether we've failed once or seven times or a thousand, the thing we need to do is the same: get back up. Come again. Don't despair.

Now, that doesn't mean we shouldn't learn from those mistakes! Get back up, but avoid the trap that made you fall last time...if you can. Sometimes there's no option to change things and it's just a matter of bearing up, of not giving up under the load.

But -- and this is important -- even if you do give up for a while, even if you do buckle under the load, you can come back.

One of the many ways that I've screwed up over the years was to stop training. This was when I was a brown belt -- and that's common enough that people talk about the "brown belt blues". Your promotions, your checkpoints, get further apart, and the progress you're making is about polishing basics and can be hard to see. So when you get to that point, beware!

Anyway. I was in college at the University of Maryland, College Park, in the DC suburbs, and the dojo was back a little north of Baltimore suburbs. I had a summer job and found it difficult to fit the drive and training into my schedule, and when classes started again I had already gotten into a habit of not coming up to train. I trained with a Shotokan club on campus for a few months but after a difficult holiday break -- my grandfather died on Christmas day -- I came back to the spring semester in a bit of a depression. And so I gave up training entirely for a while.

Fortunately I was re-inspired by my good friend Mike Gurklis to get my butt back to the dojo, and after that break of a year or so I've kept it up pretty well for twenty-three years. I know people who have come back to training after much longer hiatuses, years or even decades.

So no matter how many times you've fallen down, once or seven or a thousand, and no matter how long you've been down, five seconds or a year or a decade, even if you think you've fallen down forever, it's not too late to get back up. To quote the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, "Do not say too late". Begin again. And if that doesn't work begin again, and if that doesn't work begin again.

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