Late last year, I had the good fortune of sitting down and chatting with John Foster, mental health nurse, counselling support worker, and karate teacher/practitioner. I had seen in a local magazine for people with disabilities a small advert for a “Wheelchair Karate” class John was running out of the Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre, of which I am a former inpatient. Still coming out of serious depression and under some pressure, I needed to come up with another idea for an article, and the concept of martial arts being adapted for wheelchair users genuinely fascinated me. Also, I’m a big fan of the movie ‘The Karate Kid’ 🙂 Prior to crippledom I thought martial arts in general was pretty kick-ass, but was never able to do it. So, I picked up the phone and made contact.
A few weeks later, I interviewed him. I was curious as to how John came to this particular type of karate, his background. John is third dan black belt and teaches as well – karate is a way of life for him, it is very much integrated into his lifestyle. We talked about the physical side of karate, of course – how he adapted certain moves and sequences for wheelchair users, how he teaches the class from a wheelchair, and how he plans to grow the program. John also explained to me how he had been attracted to the idea that Seidō was ‘karate for all’.
The ‘Magnanimous Heart’.
Seidō was founded by Master (Kaicho) Tadashi Nakamura in New York City, 1976. What sets this style of karate apart from others is that it incorporates a physical, traditional style and Zen meditation. John said that Kaicho says how the karate should come from ‘magnanimous heart’.
Magnanimous essentially means generous in forgiving; eschewing resentment or revenge; being unselfish. Nobility in mind and heart. In the context of karate, John said this means that it should be ‘karate for all.’ Not merely for those who are coordinated and physically powerful, but available to anybody who wants to try it.
It is with this magnanimous heart, coupled with a long history of association with spinal cord injury services and his role in the Spinal Community Integration Service [SCIS] at Royal Talbot, that John decided to try to adapt this style of karate for anyone who wants to participate in it. Thankfully, he persevered, and last year pioneered the first courses, which he planned to continue this year.
The ‘Sincere Way’.
Karate is of course very much about doing, but there is a well-developed philosophy behind this style of the martial art form.
Much of this is encapsulated right there in its name.
In Japanese, Seidō translates as SEI: “sincere” and DO: “way.”
The word SEI carries the connotation of “calm” or “silence”.
The word DO carries the connotation of “energy” or “activity”.
In Seidō one strives to reach his/her own individual balance of these two principles.
Inner calmness, outer activity.
Humility and the “beginners mind”
There is something else about Seido karate I think is pretty awesome, and it is of course connected to practicing magnanimous heart: the concept of humility in practice, something called Sho-shin, or “beginner’s mind” – essentially, if you think you’re an expert, you’re probably not open to learning anymore. John explained that before a person is promoted to a higher level of karate, they go back to a white belt, for 6-8 weeks, to get in touch with that beginners mind. They stand at the end of the line, and do the basics. It is a good grounding exercise, to go from a senior line back into a junior line, in order to appreciate yourself and the people around you. Whilst it takes a lot of individual commitment and effort to achieve your own development, the support of others around you makes it possible. Interdependence is important.
Practitioners of this martial art are invited to hold “beginner’s mind” at all times.
Relationships of all kinds of course, can help us to balance ourselves, our perspectives, and keep that ‘beginners mind’ – if the dynamics are healthy (unhealthy eg: you’ve stopped listening, or actively and continuously provoke the worst in each other – a hard lesson about setting boundaries and letting go I had to learn last year). In a way we are all black belts and white belts, in different circumstances. Balance is also the goal of many philosophical traditions, and something I continue to work on in my life: to find that balance, that ‘Middle Way’, beyond opposing desires and drives within, and a healthy balance of activities in life. The two affect each other – the way you make time (or don’t make time) for certain things will affect your state of mind, and internal tension will likely be reflected in the way you engage with the world. I have noticed this in myself – inner tension > outer angst, inner calm > outer balance. Cause and effect. This is why I’ve decided to continue to work on it in a way that is practical for me personally – to cultivate a philosophical, “spiritual” lifestyle, which basically means that in addition to living simply at home, and doing all the regular stuff I do in life, I make time to meditate (in lieu of a karate class). I get angsty if I don’t do it.
And, of course, I practice empathy. Seeing yourself in all others (yep, all – hard to do, hence the need to practice), and trying (continuously) to understand other people’s perspectives. Which requires temporary ego suspension, if not transcendence… and that leads to greater objectivity and, oddly, love, as knee jerk emotional responses are not in control. YOU are. It becomes hard to hate people just because they offend you or “love” people just because they agree with you, yet you don’t necessarily eschew your own position or values. You just consider the other perspective, how they came to have it, respect their right to have it. And a kind of universal, “live and let live, and I hope they give me the same courtesy” kind of love comes out of that. They don’t necessarily reciprocate (something I addressed at the end of my last post, in regards to a few people having issues with me wanting to openly pursue conscious living for myself) but these days I choose to simply respect their choice, and roll on. My responsibility is my own empathy. And empathy, when practiced, prevents one from demonising in ones own minds people who are different, or even opposed to you.
Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham said this about empathy last year on Q&A:
“….I think part of what the novelist is here to do is to remind us that everybody is the hero of his or her own story. Part of what we’re here to do is to promote the empathy that is inevitable from somebody who reads enough fiction to go deeply enough into the lives of other people, which renders that reader, I like to think, much less likely to think it’s a good idea to bomb the fuck out of some other country. So it is inherently moral in that way.”
I actually heard someone say the other day that empathy is a “woman’s word” (in a negative tone). I’ve heard certain political candidates deride it as some kind of weakness. So here’s perhaps a “man’s word” (?!) for it, if you’re uncomfortable with the feminine version – CIVILITY:
“Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.” …and it begins with us.
Civility is about more than merely being polite, although being polite is an excellent start. Civility fosters a deep self-awareness, even as it is characterized by true respect for others. Civility requires the extremely hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and perhaps fierce disagreements. It is about constantly being open to hear, to learn, to teach and to change. It seeks common ground as a beginning point for dialogue when differences occur, while at the same time recognizes that differences are enriching. It is patience, grace, and strength of character.”
From the Institute for Civility in Government website.
It’s unlikely I’m ever going to be a martial arts master. But, strangely, in meeting John and learning about Seidō, I discovered another name for the road I’ve chosen to take, for my own personal development, professional development, and peace of mind: SINCERE WAY.
It’s not about “purity”, or being holier-than-thou, or being better than anyone else. And it is definitely not about shutting oneself off from society – far from it. It’s about growing up, balancing your inner life and outer life, getting really clear and, inevitably, really FOCUSED, about how you want to live, be. For me, changing the way I, as an adult responsible for my own actions, live within society, and letting others make their own choices in regards to their own conduct, whether they support me or not – living and letting live. Being open to learning, from everywhere and everyone, as well as sharing what I know. Taking responsibility for what I put out in the world, privately as well as publicly, and listening to what comes back at me from the world. Respecting others who I come into contact with, whether they are in my life for a short time or a long time. And continuing to work on that thing called balance.
I’m relieved(!) to have finally reconnected with the specific tools and ideas that are helping me get there, other than relationships with other people in general. Of course, for everyone, the tools and ideas will vary. Martial arts, philosophy, spirituality, psychology, laughing, creative and artistic expression, WEAVING, downshifting, gardening, flippin house repairs – whatever activities or lifestyle helps you get there or thereabouts, whatever your “Sincere Way” is, however you want to do it, own it. LOVE it. It is worth the effort, for how you will feel and what you will put out in the world.
If you are interested in learning about or participating in Wheelchair Seidō Karate classes, contact John Foster via the Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Hospital Spinal Community Integration Service [SCIS]
Perfect, sunny day 🙂 I’m going go sit in the garden and try and knock out some writing assignments. Here’s a clip of Mr Miyagi, being one upped by his student: