Coronavirus, online Karate training & toilet paper shortage; when will it all end?
It’s safe to say COVID has had a never ending impact on our lives, and adjusting to life under lockdown can take an immense toll on our mental health. It’s easy to get lost in the constant cascade of news updates reporting the latest death figures, being isolated from friends or family, stacking up on hoards of toilet paper (yes you know you’re out there) and arguably the most distressing fact; not knowing when this pandemic will end. I myself have struggled with the impact it has had on my academic, karate and work life. I have attempted to put together some advice based on my knowledge around mental health, insight from my karate journey and most importantly some reflections as a person.
As I write this, I would like to ask the reader to please take away one aspect and try to implement this into their life. If not, at least I hope it will be an enjoyable read. That is still something!
I enjoy travelling and when I do, it’s sort of a tradition to pick up an art piece in every new city. I’m quite particular; it has to have a unique story or be an interesting moment for it to be worthy of bringing home to the UK. When I travelled to Japan last year, it was no different except my expectations were high due to my love for Japanese art and design so I really wanted to get something special.
I was visiting a temple one morning to practise Zen meditation taught by monks. The head abbot, Daigo Ozawa introduced himself, and lead me into the meditation hall. The first thing that caught my eye, was this huge dragon painting that covered the entire ceiling (as shown on the right). There was something about the eyes that struck me, they seemed to follow me everywhere (not in a creepy haunted doll way but in a more judgmental parent way). I asked Ozawa what this represented, and he said “A dragon represents the true nature of Zen, the dragon asks you who is your true self when you strip back all the layers?” Unique story? Check. Interesting moment? Check. I knew I had to find this dragon somewhere and bring it home with me.
Look at the dragon. Look at it’s eyes. And ask yourself, who is your true self? It’s a question I’ve been pondering since we went into lockdown. Why? Well, simply because there isn’t much else to do but ponder. Ever since we have been confined to our houses, we have been tested through many things; how we deal with isolation, not having the freedom to travel wherever and whenever, adjusting to life without restaurants, workplaces or Dojos. Likely this lockdown won’t last forever so while you have the chance, ask yourself how you have coped with this new complicated environment, have you adjusted well and been productive? Or is there an imprint inside the sofa cushions from sitting and watching Netflix all day and eating junk? Remember, Dragon is judging you so be truthful with yourself…
“Think of a martial arts project that you would love to do but couldn’t due to lack of time, now is your chance!” That’s what my Sensei told me in April. “Yes, don’t worry I’ll be writing loads of articles. I’m going to use this time productively.” Fast forward two months later and this is my first piece. I’m telling you this because it is important to be able to face our own truths, no matter whether they make us appear less then our perfect selves that we like to show to the world. Whether you’re reading this as a martial artist or have just stumbled across this work, the most imperative thing is to be honest with oneself and look within.
As humans we struggle with this, however as martial artists it comes naturally to us. This is because throughout our training, we are constantly criticising various parts of the syllabus, kata can always be better, stance can always be stronger, kicks can always be higher. Therefore, when I reflect on my own shortcomings with productivity during this lockdown period I can be honest with myself. It’s ok to say I can do better. I feel the dragon judging me. Remind me why I wanted to buy that again?
Continuity and familiarity
Having something stable in your life can be a wonderful thing. I’ve been training in karate for over 13 years now and I can tell you the one thing that has been continuous throughout this pandemic has been karate lessons. No matter what happens every Thursday evening, we log in to our online platform and train. This helps us not only to connect with one another but it also gives us a sense of familiarity and grounds us.
When I travelled to Japan I visited the Budo centre and trained in the art of Kendo. The dojo was amazing, all of the four surrounding walls had these huge siding doors so that you could see into the courtyard from all sides (see image below). When I arrived, the instructor was finishing a previous class, demonstrating a drill. I was unsure of the etiquette regarding entering whilst a class was going on, so was standing by one of the entrances (as I write this, I realise lurking around was definitely not the most appropriate decorum but I was in the moment what can I say!). I was hesitant as I had just trained at the JKA headquarters, a place where etiquette and protocol was highly expected.
After class had finished, the lady whom the instructor was demonstrating the drill on, came over and took off her Men (a helmet used in Kendo), greeted me with a big smile and ushered me in. We talked about Kendo for a little while, she explained that she was the wife of the instructor and handled the admin duties as well as instructing alongside her husband.
It was at that moment I instantly became more comfortable and I didn’t figure out why until later, it was because of the familiarity of the situation. At the Dojo where I train, it’s also run by Sensei and his wife, who handles the admin, what a coincidence! This may seem a small detail, but having that familiarity is essential during lockdown as it is a strange new world. This can bring us not only a sense of routine and comfortability, but it also helps us adjust to the ‘new normal,’ a term that has been coined by the media over the course of this pandemic. We must find that somewhere, whether it’s through online training or having a Zoom call with your friends from work.
It’s ok not to be ok.. for a little while
Amongst the reflections I have had over this period, one thing I’ve learnt is that it’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to have those days where you just want to sit there and do nothing. I’ve been raised by my parents with the mentality that if you’re not doing anything you’ve wasted a day and wasted an opportunity. Let me tell you, finishing a six pack of donuts and watching TV from morning till night is not doing nothing, thank you very much.
Jokes aside, this is probably going to be the only time in our lives that we were forced to do nothing. So why is there so much pressure to do something? Learn a new language, take up baking, exercise every day. So I’ve actually taken advantage of that opportunity by not doing what I would normally do. And doing nothing is actually something. It’s this little thing called mindfulness, where we stay fully in the present and do nothing. There are plenty of mindfulness activities out there, but my favourite is sitting on my balcony at sunset as the clouds go by and imagining myself standing on top of the clouds and performing my favourite kata. It’s fun doing kata on top of a cloud, you should try it.
The day I returned to my training at the Dojo after coming back from Japan, was a strange experience. I remember my Sensei asking me how the trip went, “I bet you’re feeling so motivated and inspired after that trip, I know I felt that way when I went to Japan!” I nodded, “Oss Sensei” but inside I wondered what was wrong with me as it wasn’t excitement or motivation, I actually felt a little deflated..
When I went to Japan, I loved the culture of martial arts there. To be regarded with respect, I felt so inspired and invigorated, karate really was a way of life! As I trained, I remember thinking that this is what karate is; the standard of students, the camaraderie amongst those of us who trained in the art, the culture, it really was something.
However when I returned, I came back to the news that my last colleague in the class I had made the journey to Yudansha with, had left. I became uninspired. I began to question if my training was where it should be. When I instructed, the students’ responses didn’t reflect the enthusiasm I had seen in Japan. I wanted to go back. Months later, I realised the reason that I loved training in Japan so much wasn’t just the people, the culture, or the fact I was the last remaining student from my class. It was that I had completed the fairy tale that I’d always dreamt about; to one day train with masters in Japan and to sit with monks in secluded retreats contemplating the meaning of life. I had closed that chapter and I needed a new inspiration.
My challenge to you, is to find something that inspires you and make it your goal to accomplish this. Dream big, as those are the ones that are truly inspirational and can change our lives. I’m still reflecting on what my next aspiration is within my training. Sensei always says ‘I can open the door for you, but it’s up to you to walk through it.’ And he has opened a lot of doors, I have not gone through as many as I wanted to. I feel the dragon staring at me. I guess I have something else to reflect on then.
Lastly, I will say this. I’ve struggled to write something regarding this topic. My original article was going to be along the lines of; sleep well, eat healthy, don’t get stressed.. I think the reason I found that so difficult to write about was that it just wasn’t what I thought helped me. Let’s be honest, we all know we should sleep at a decent time, eat veggies and reach out to friends. But we don’t do it, even though it hurts us mentally and physically. Something for us to reflect upon.
Therefore, I hope you found something useful in what I have written, looking at moments that genuinely helped me get through this long lasting period. I’ll leave you with the art piece that was worthy of bringing home, that I finally found at a shop in Kyoto, completely by accident one rainy evening in Japan (see below). Can you feel that? It’s the Dragon asking you who your true self is…