Centuries ago, it was discovered that rubbing metals on dark stones such as slate left visible streaks of color. The color varied depending on the purity of the metals. This led to an explosion of commerce because now people had the ability to standardize the value of metals and thus establish consistent methods for pricing goods. These dark rocks became known as touchstones.
Today, the term is used to describe a reference point, a means of establishing value. In my life, I have found my martial arts training to be a touchstone. I began my training at the age of twenty. Now that I am forty, I look back at a life half-spent in the study and teaching of martial arts and I see amazing tumult and change. Who I was at twenty-five was very different from who I was at thirty-five. Over the past twenty years, I have seen changes in my own interests and priorities, evolution in my passions and capacity to love, and fundamental transformation in my understanding of my own sense of purpose.
Through it all there has been training. Martial arts has served as an anchor that has held me to the ground as the winds of change swirled around me. Or perhaps, more specifically, the struggle of martial arts was my anchor.
This is more accurate because my training and who I am as a martial artist has changed just as much as the rest of my life. But the struggle has always been there. As a White Belt, I had to overcome feeling self-conscious in front of other students (it took me a few weeks before I tried to really Kiap, the yell that we do in martial arts). As I approached my first Black Belt, I had difficulty with my own arrogance, full of how strong I had become. When I first starting teaching, it took all of my effort to not be paralyzed by the fear that my students would figure out that I really wasn’t that good of a martial artist. And now, as I enter my third decade, I struggle to understand how to push the limits of a body that is no longer twenty years old.
It is the struggle that is constant. Though training is full of fun, exciting and interesting experiences and relationships, it is the ever presence of inner-struggle that makes it worthwhile.
That may sound a little masochistic. But I don’t seek out difficulty. It simply is there, just like difficulty is pervasive throughout life. Training gives those of us who really love martial arts the opportunity to not only engage the struggle, but to embrace it.
And it is in this way that you practice one of the most important lessons in life – embrace the struggle. People work so hard at making their lives easier. To me, this is masochistic. But if you acknowledge and then embrace how hard life actually is, you free up so much energy for joy.
In this way, the struggle of training is a touchstone for the rest of your life. If you are going to train, there will be difficulty. If you accept this, then your training will be very fulfilling. By applying this outward, to the rest of your life, then the difficulty you find elsewhere will be a familiar source of fulfillment. All you have to do is embrace it as you have so often done inside the Dojang (martial arts school).
For some, martial arts is not an attractive pursuit. For them, finding other activities such as yoga, meditation, tai chi, qigong, or even more common disciplines like running, will give a steady center to keep them balanced. Any of these activities will provide inner-struggle for a person to embrace.
The centering effect of embracing struggle is supplemented by another aspect of training—responsibility. If you train, and you take it seriously, you have to take responsibility for your health. Eating, sleeping and exercising well all contribute to your ability to train effectively. As life swirls around you, this responsibility remains constant. Having a rough week at work? You still need to take care of yourself or else you may not be able to participate in class at your full potential.
Parents may be able to relate to this. Having a child, your whole focus can shift to the responsibility of caring for him or her. In a bad mood? Feeling stressed out? Having trouble getting motivated? Your child still needs to be cared for, no matter what. For some, having everything shift and reorganize around this new responsibility can be a burden. But for others, it can push them to rise to the occasion and reveal their best potential.
The same is true for training. As you push to take on the responsibility of caring for yourself, you push to realize your full potential. From this center of responsibility, the desire to excel radiates out to the rest of your life.
Training is a touchstone for the struggle of life. It is also a source of responsibility to oneself. Both of these aspects of martial arts are centering and encourage us to cultivate excellence in our lives. This is why, when I am teaching martial arts to children and adults, I end classes by saying, “Train hard, go in peace.”