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Koi climbing the dragon's gate

I’m shark bait standing in the center of a ring formed by people attacking me. They attack one after another as fast and hard as the can. When they don’t attack right away, the instructor yells. When I don’t react swiftly the instructor yells. If they don’t try to really hit me, he yells. This is my sanctuary, my dojo, my quiet little koi pond. It is where I’m safe.  When it’s done, when the sweat is drying, my gi is off and my shoes are on, when I’ve bowed to everyone and shaken hands, I open the dojo door and step into the cold and dangerous world.


How is it that a dojo is a safe place? How is it that a place where you are “shark bait” is a safe and quiet place to swim like koi? The simple answer is that it is not real. The sharks are my friends. The instructor is my friend too. The situation is constructed.  It’s a simulation. It is designed to walk a student to the edge of something real but not let them fall over.  In this place we can fail and walk away.


So let’s look at real life. It has real life consequences. An attack in real life has deadly consequences. It’s not the time to learn, it’s the time to survive. Failure may mean you don’t walk away.  Unless they’re paranoid, however, gaining the skill to handle an attack on the street isn’t why martial arts students spend hours in the dojo. It’s a nice benefit to the training but is not and should not be the primary motive. It would be like taking the time to put on a flame retardant suit, five point harness and crash helmet every time you got in your car to drive to the store.


So why put in the hours at the dojo? The reason is the self-defense or fighting skills you learn are just the surface. Under that surface are life skills. The cool thing about the dojo is that they aren’t just learned but are practiced every day. Practice makes something you’ve learned useable.  If you’ve ever read a self-help book you know how quickly its principles can fade.  The dojo offers up those same principles then it gives you reinforcement and practice. The trick is you have to realize its happening.


Many of these skills are direct and obvious. When you see the little guys shuffling around in their white gi’s and bowing into the dojo, to each other and to their instructors, it obvious they’re learning something about respect. As a student works to earn the next color belt, you know they are learning how to work toward a goal. Some of the skills, however, are more elusive.


Are there life skills in a drill like shark bate? It’s easy to walk out of the dojo satisfied that you’ve improved your fighting skill. But really you’ve also practiced some solid character traits. The fact that you’ve just performed under pressure may elude you. When you get to work the next day and sweat just a little less than your coworkers while under pressure, do you attribute it to your martial arts training?  When we look deeper into a drill like this, we see that the attackers are learning something about controlling and directing power. We could also look at what the defender is learning about redirecting power, speed through relaxation and much more. Then we can draw analogies from these lessons to our everyday lives.


So now we can really think about the dojo as a safe place. Not just a safe place to practice those physical skills but a safe place to practice life skills – our quiet little koi pond. If you don’t handle the pressure well in the dojo the consequences are minimal and your friends are there to support you. Don’t handle the pressure at work and you could be looking for a new job.


In one legend about koi, if they were to venture from the safety of their pond and succeeded in climbing the falls on the Yellow river at a spot called The Dragon’s Gate, they would be transformed into a dragon. Their propensity for swimming upstream and up waterfalls has made them a symbol for achievement. They were compared to the samurai because if they got caught on the way up the falls they would end up on the cutting board – a fate similar to a samurai’s when they failed in a real battle. So now their pond becomes our safe dojo and the dangerous falls become real life. If you realize what you are learning in the safety of your koi pond then you are better equipped to handle the perils of the falls

2 Comments, RSS

  • Pastor Mark Lingenfelter

    says on:
    November 29, 2011 at 7:45 am


    I trained with you in my late teens and then again elsewhere later in life. The “challenge” of standing before large audiences barely causes butterflies after having been thrown around (safely, carefully and controlled – but nonetheless, thrown around)by a bunch of blackbelts. Unless physically threatening, the challenges of everyday life lose their power to cause stress and anxiety when you KNOW that you can handle ten times worse.

    I say this with humor: it’s easy to smile while someone yells at you when you’re thinking in the back of your mind, “Yeah, I could take you.” :-)

    Pastor Mark

  • Kay Miller

    says on:
    November 30, 2011 at 9:59 am

    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on what the martial arts does for you. I have always felt that being in the martial arts gave you such confidence and insight. So proud. Mom

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