AIK Kenpo Seniors: Until the Last Day

Kenpo Seniors Blog - Until the Last Day #1

As you know by now, martial arts training isn’t just about punching and kicking. It’s not even just about being healthy. It’s about becoming a better person, and using the strength you develop from that to make the world a better place.

Most testing cycles in your training, you study one of the seven ethical principles of Bushido: Truth, Bravery, Courtesy, Compassion, Sincerity, Discernment, and Loyalty.

This cycle, you will study one of the guiding principles of the American Institutes of Kenpo, a principle we feel is vital to meaningful training in the martial arts, and to successfully practicing Bushido as part of your life. That principle is:

“Until the Last Day.”

What does that mean?

“Until the Last Day” means pretty much what it sounds like. It means to continue your training in the martial arts until the last day of your life. It means making a life-long commitment to improving yourself, stopping only when your body and mind stop functioning and you go on to whatever happens next for all of us. It means never giving up on your training.

To illustrate this concept, we’d like to tell a brief story about our teacher and mentor Lee Sprague.

Mr. Sprague had been at a training camp with Sigung Steve LaBounty. It was out in the boonies a bit, and they were sharing a ride back into town. As old warriors do, they got to talking about martial arts, and training, and the warrior lifestyle.

After a time, Sigung LaBounty asked Mr. Sprague, “When was the last time you trained?”

Mr. Sprague answered, “I’m training right now.”

Mr. Sprague didn’t mean he was kicking and punching in the car, obviously. He also didn’t mean that he was visualizing kata while having a conversation with Sigung. He didn’t even mean that his talking with Sigung counted as training, because he was learning from a master while they conversed.

What Mr. Sprague meant was his awareness of the world around him, the way he chose to view the drive, the conversation, the world as it passed by his window, was steeped in a warrior’s mindset. He was learning even then about the fundamentals of martial arts, of personal protection, and of how he interacted with the world.

That kind of training takes decades to reach a point where you can do it consistently, but it allows a person to continue training even if health means they can’t go to class all the time. It means you can train even if an injury or illness makes you bedridden. Most importantly for us, it pretty much eliminates any excuse at all to stop pursuing your training in bushido and the martial arts.

Don’t get us wrong. This isn’t a hard sell to convince you to keep paying your tuition here at AIK for the rest of your life. We would love for you to be with us for decades, because those lifelong friendships are one of the best benefits of martial arts training. But we also understand that life isn’t for everybody.

Some students will stay with AIK kenpo training their entire lives, and we embrace them as students, black belts, and eventually fellow teachers.

Other students continue training in martial arts, but find their home in another dojo. We love that they continue to make the martial arts part of their lives, and hope Bushido follows them throughout that journey.

Still others find their passions lie elsewhere, in some other endeavor that doesn’t involve kicking and punching. Whatever that endeavor is, we hope they pursue that Until the Last Day. And we hope their time in martial arts, however long or brief, infuses that passion and helps them do it better, longer, more effectively, and with more compassion, patience, focus, and determination than if they had never set foot on the mat.

So. Whatever you do. Whatever passions and pursuits and relationships and responsibilities you make part of the core of who you are. Pursue them “Until the Last Day.”

Kenpo Seniors Blog - Until the Last Day #2

“Until the Last Day” means practicing your martial arts every day until the day you die.

That seems like a pretty morbid concept in lots of ways, but it doesn’t have to be. To understand why, we’ll borrow another note from the practice of Bushido.

In the Hagakure, a guide for warriors living in feudal Japan and practicing Bushido as part of their daily lives, Samurai were encouraged to “live with death in mind.” That didn’t mean they were supposed to be depressed and sad and fearful.

It meant the opposite.

According to bushido, to live with death in mind means to consider each decision as though death were something that could happen that day.

For Samurai, that was reality. Even when not at war, the Bushido lifestyle in feudal Japan meant a duel or an angry king could kill a Samurai at any time, even for slight offenses. When a Samurai left his home in the morning, there was no guarantee he would return.

So the Samurai would “live with death in mind,” making decisions based on that hard fact of their lives.

And your life isn’t that different. Even if you’re not a police officer, soldier, or other professional who goes into risky situations as part of your livelihood, accidents can happen to anybody at any time. It’s a good idea to “live with death in mind” even if your job is finding spelling errors in essays while working at home.

But what does it mean to “live with death in mind?” Like we said, it’s not a depressing and sad and fearful state where death overwhelms all of your thoughts. Instead, think about this.

If you knew you might die today, would you keep having that fight with your spouse about whose turn it was to do the dishes?

If you knew you might die today, would you put off saving that money to take care of your family after you’re gone?

If you knew you might die today, would you skip that evening out with your parents?

If you knew you might die today, would you forget to tell your children you loved them when putting them to bed?

If you knew you might die today, would you miss out on an experience you really wanted?

The answer to all of these questions is “no.”

This isn’t even an alien concept to people who’ve never heard of Bushido. “If this were your last day on earth” is a common enough sentiment in life advice. There’s even a pop rock song about it. The “Bucket List” concept is part of this, too, a list of things you want to do before your last day happens.

Which brings us back to “Until the Last Day.” That sentiment isn’t really about your very last day alive. It’s about all the days between now and that last day. It’s about making martial arts training part of your life every day. More importantly, it’s about making every important thing in your life a priority every day, until your last.

During the second month of each training cycle, we encourage our students to perform an exercise or experiment to help them understand the Bushido value of that cycle. For this cycle, let’s explore those things that are most important to you, and how frequently you make them a priority in your day.

Your mission is to choose four things in your life:

1. A person who is important to you

2. A skill you want to improve

3. A habit you want to make part of your life

4. A habit you want to get rid of

For 30 consecutive days, do whatever it takes to make those four things a daily priority. Define specifically what you will do each day to do that. For example:

1. “I will kiss my husband hello and goodbye whenever I leave or return to the house.”

2. “I will practice one kenpo kata every day.”

3. “I will make my bed each morning, even when I don’t want to.”

4. “I will drink no coffee after 1pm. No other caffeine drinks, either. That’s cheating.”

Once you’ve chosen your specific statements of intent, keep track in your day planner, calendar, journal, or notebook how you do on each of them every day. By the end of a month, think or even write about the difference this intentional practice makes in your life.

After that, give some thought to things might change if you keep that level of focus and intention for all the rest of the months in your life. All the way “Until the Last Day.”

Kenpo Seniors Blog - Until the Last Day #3

Enrichment Topic - First, Second and Third Person

Remember middle school english class? Remember learning about first, second, and third person points of view?

In case you don’t, it worked like this:

First person point of view was like a person telling a story about themselves. “I went to the bar.”

Third person point of view was being told a story about somebody other than the narrator. “He went to the bar.”

Second person point of view was pretty rare, and was like you yourself were the person in the story. You most likely remember it from Choose Your Own Adventure books. “You went to the bar.”

Martial arts training has this, too, but the terms each mean different things. If you understand first, second, and third person practice, you can make faster and better gains in your kenpo by applying the right tools to the right jobs.

That works like this.

First person practice applies to techniques. It’s the simplest form of kenpo practice.

Second person practice applies to forms, as it adds complexity of consideration. 

Third person practice applies to sparring, the most complex form of kenpo practice. 

Just like with your middle school points of view, “first person” doesn’t mean there’s only one person to consider, nor does “third person” mean you have three people involved. It’s instead an expression of complexity, and of how your awareness expands with each type of practice.

First Person Practice: Technique

Techniques, as you know, are a lesson plan based around a specific physical response to a specific self-defense situation. They require very little thought while you perform them, allowing you to focus on yourself as much as possible. When focusing on yourself in this first-person practice, you begin to perfect the individual elements of excellent basics.

While practicing in a first-person zone, the tighter your focus the better your results. Begin by paying attention solely to what your body is doing, until your body is operating as near to perfection as you are able to make it operate. After you reach that point, you can widen your focus a little to visualize (and ultimately work with) what happens to your opponent’s body as you perform the steps in the technique.

This first-person practice is the core of kenpo karate, a tool that lets you build the physical attributes of an excellent martial artist.

Second Person Practice: Forms

When you practice your kata, you practice your physical attributes but your awareness must expand beyond your body for several reasons.

First, katas take more room than techniques. You must be aware of a larger amount of space to avoid bumping into somebody, or stubbing your toe on a coffee table.

Second, katas don’t always come with scripted opponents like techniques. To visualize the impact of your motion, you must expand your imagination to fill in the blanks.

Third, katas done well include breathing.. Incorporating this into your practice requires you to become aware of things people aren’t typically aware of, and that awareness takes some getting used to.

One of the biggest mistakes kenpo students make is practicing their kata while remaining in a first person zone. Instead, you need to expand your awareness into this larger space and practice focused intention on the new aspects of training.

You won’t be able to focus on all of them at once, but if you first focus on one at a time, then blend your focus points together, you will soon be running your forms in a second person space.

Applied well, this second-person training is a tool that helps you build the mental attributes of an excellent martial artist.

Third Person Practice: Sparring

Sparring is one of the most fun, but also one of the most challenging, parts of martial arts training. It’s where you put your skills to the test against a live, trained, thinking opponent.

Basic safety in sparring requires second-person training. You have to be aware of the space, your breathing, and the impact of your motions, and of the first and second person status of your partner. But that’s just the beginning of what safe and effective sparring requires.

People who think sparring is like actual fighting have either never sparred or never been in a fight. Sparring isn’t practice fighting. It’s an opportunity to practice emotional awareness and control.

This starts with acknowledging and mastering fear. Sparring means standing in front of somebody who is (a) a trained martial artist and (b) about to punch you in the head, and not running away. Beyond that, it’s mastering the flashes of anger that come from getting punched in the head, and any other emotions that run through you while you spar.

And it doesn’t stop there. You also need to be aware of the emotional state of your partner, monitoring him or her for fear, frustration, anger, aggression, and other emotions that can impact the safety and effectiveness of your training.

This is extremely difficult to do, especially if you yourself are experiencing the strong emotions associated with sparring, but learning to do so during sparring can help you do so in other parts of your life.

Applied well, this third-person training is a tool that helps you build the emotional attributes of an excellent martial artist.

Kenpo Seniors Blog - Until the Last Day #4 (Assignment)

The fourth month of our training cycle is upon us, which means in less than four weeks you’ll be testing for rank.

Whether this is your first test, or your last test prior to black belt, you’ve already taken responsibility for your physical and curriculum requirements. You’re in better shape than you were four months ago, and you know your techniques, basics, and katas cold.

You know where to show up, and when, and you’ll remember to iron your gi before you show up. You’ll have invited a couple of your favorite people to spectate and help your celebrations. There’s only one thing left to consider: your Bushido assignment.

As with all other testing cycles, your assignment is to explore one of our Bushido Values in depth as part of learning about yourself and your growth in the martial arts. As you surely know by now, the topic for this cycle is “Until the Last Day.”

Your exploration assignment is to read a biography. Specifically, choose somebody who, in your opinion, lived the notion of “Until the Last Day” throughout their lives. Some examples we’ve seen in our years of studying this concept:

Mother Teresa, who continued her work until the day she died (even though we found after her death that she had lost her faith in God almost a decade earlier). 

Terry Pratchett, an author who wrote until the last weeks of his life, and live-tweeted his journey to a country with legal assisted suicide as alzheimer’s disease eroded his faculties too much to continue. 

O-Sensei Keiko Fukuda, a woman who brought Judo to the United States and taught classes well into her 90s before passing on. 

Janessa Byers, who died of cancer at age 9 but blogged about hope and healing until the last weeks of her life. 

Lee Sprague, one of our ancestors in kenpo, who taught martial arts and protected people his entire adult life, up until dying of a heart attack while on duty. 

Countless soldiers, police, and relief workers who died helping others in zones where physical danger is ever-present. 

Steve Jobs, who pursued excellence in design and invention without even thinking about retirement. 

Victoria Soto, who died in the Sandy Hook shootings after hiding her students and telling the shooter they were in another room

We’re certain you already have some personal heroes or other significant people in mind whose biographies you would like to read.

Once you’ve read the biography, we’d like you to write a brief essay (just two or three pages is fine) outlining how the subject of the book lived and died the notion of “Until the Last Day.” What motivated this person to continue work after retirement, or through hardships? How did that continued work make the world a better place, or help the people impacted by her?

Most importantly, what techniques and inspirations did the subject draw on to continue the hard work despite reasons to stop? How did he continue “Until the Last Day” even when it was challenging?

Alternatively, you can interview a family member, friend, mentor, or personal hero and write a brief (two or three pages) biographical essay about that person’s life. If you choose this option, tell the tale of that person’s life and how he or she continues to practice whatever it is they embody, and why you expect them to continue doing so “Until the Last Day.”

In either case, make sure you have someone proofread your work, then print it out and turn it in the week before testing. You may or may not be asked to discuss your essay before, during, or after your test, so be ready to talk about what you’ve written.

As always, the staff at AIK is here to help you with your assignment in whatever way you need. We can suggest people to read about, help you find good biographies, and chat about angles or approaches for your essay.

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