For some years in the late 1980s, I did karate with a small group in Austin. The way we did it was perfect for someone like me. We were never more than five or six at any time. We'd meet three times a week in the attic of a crumbling community centre and simply practice. None of us particularly cared about belts and medals, which is the reason it was perfect for me. (Though two of the group had black belts). We were there for the discipline, the workout, and the strange satisfaction, at the end of each session, of being utterly worn out.
This was Master Gichin Funakoshi's shotokan karate, originally from Okinawa. Whether because of the nature of shotokan itself, or the character of thoughtful Lee who led us, or (as I suspect) some of both, our emphasis always was on form. Gentle, elegant movements rooted in a firm connection to the ground. Power cleanly transmitted from planted feet through strong hips to the fist, or forearm, or foot, that blocks or strikes. Yet with that emphasis, and when we got those basics right, we could feel that power in ourselves without needing to actually hit something.
Or someone. Though that, we did. Every now and then, we'd break off into pairs for kumite, or sparring. Lee's only words of instruction were really for the other black belt in our group, or the more senior man in each pair: aim to hit and hurt with your blows, he'd say. The only way to learn your power is to use it, not hold back. The only way to know the value of those blocks is to have to ward off an attack, not a man trying to be kind. I struggled home many times with nasty bruises up and down my forearms, but I learned.
There were lessons there, in that focus on form, lessons I've since found myself applying to tennis, my work, and more. These years later, I'm not sure any more that I'd be able to fight off an attacker. But I know something about the value of form, of getting those basics down, of planting your feet firmly. In karate or not.
There was one more lesson.
Nearly always, our sessions went this way: we'd start with 45 minutes of exercises, addressing muscles from our little toes to our shoulder-blades. Then we'd do an hour or so of actual karate.
But once in a while, Lee would come in and announce: today we'll do 1000 kicks. (Or punches, whatever). The number itself was fiercely daunting. Before we began, especially the first time Lee did this, my mind would fill with despair. How am I going to get through a thousand of these? What kind of pain am I going to be in at the end, if I reach the end?
Yet Lee left us little time to think. He'd line us up and get going. Ten kicks at a time, up then down, back again, on and on, through the pain that started somewhere around kick #312, until we were done. Change and totter home.
The lesson? What I know about willpower, I owe to Lee and those sessions. Faced with some huge, apparently insurmountable problem, it's not about gritting your teeth or pumping yourself up; and if you wait and think, the despair overwhelms you.
No, willpower is about simply getting going. Nothing more. But nothing less either. And to me, that's what those years of karate were about.