Thirty Years, a Funeral, and Ikigai

Posted on: Sat, 09/05/2015 - 23:49 By: Tom Swiss

It was September 1985, thirty years ago, that I began my training in Seido Karate. That's longer than I've done anything else in my life that's not a basic biological function -- longer than I've been driving a car, longer than I spent in school, longer than I've lived in any one place.

(Ok, I did go on my first date before then. So I've been dating longer than that.)

I was planning to talk today about some of the lessons over those thirty years, interesting memories and all. But this morning I had to go to a funeral. It was for a friend of my family, a woman who died young -- she was only in her fifties. We don't have all the medical details of what happened but we know she had some health problems, both in physical health and in terms of mental health.

She had a difficult life, and to some extent that was because of some bad choices she had made. Sometimes when a person dies you can look back at their life and say that they really made the most of it. But sometimes you can't. It's as if there was something that they were never quite able to find in their life.

I've been thinking a lot about that, because I think my life is pretty cool. I'm not rich or famous, but I've had some pretty great experinces. I've been to Japan, I've written a book, I get to do karate and play music and go out dancing and write poems. There's a lot more that I want to do, but if I get run over by a streetcar tomorrow, it was a pretty good run. I won't say there are no regrets, but all in all, I did it my way.

So why does my life seem to have come out so different from our friend's? It's not that I'm a better person or anything. But she never found that spark to set her life on fire.

In Japan they call that thing, that spark, ikigai (生きがい, or sometimes written 生き甲斐). It's that thing that makes life worth living. It's related to the verb Ikiru,"to live", which is the title of an amazing Akira Kurasawa film. (It's one of Kaicho Nakamura's favorites, so you adult students should watch it sometime. Kids, it's long and slow and subtitled, it's not a samurai movie, you're excused.)

To live a good life you've got to have some kind of passion, something that excites you, that keeps you going when things are difficult, that pulls you along. A few years ago the writer Neil Gaiman gave a speech that's become a little famous, in which he told a bunch of people graduating from art school that what they had learned could get them through the tough times:

Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art. I'm serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it's all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn't matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.

That's ikigai.

And karate, too, is an art. We call this a martial art for a reason. And just like in singing or painting or dancing or sculpting or playing an instrument the real goal isn't the music or the piece of art, so our goal isn't the kata or the punch or the kick.

All of these arts are about helping you learn to live a life of passion. Live like you give a damn! How do you move? Do you move listlessly or with intention and focus? How do you kiai? Is it quiet or are you like a roaring lion?

If you keep training the rest of your life, maybe karate itself will be part of your ikigai. Deeply studying an art of living, teaching and passing it on to others, can be part of what makes life worth living.

But it's also ok if karate isn't something you do forever, but just teaches you how to live better, if it helps you find that spark -- that's not bad at all! Just like studying painting or music can help you connect with life even if you never become a professional or dedicated painter or musician, same way with karate-do.

For me, though, karate is part of it. And so I owe very big thanks to everyone who has help me what that. That includes Kaicho Nakamura, and all my teachers over the years: Jun Shihan Kate Stewart, Sensei Marion Ciekot, and Sensei Neal Pendleton. But it also includes my students. No students, no teaching.

So. Maybe I'll see some of you here in another thirty years. Maybe not. But I hope that all of you, thirty years from now, can look back and see that your training here helped you live a deeper, richer, more full and more connected life.

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