Guts, Konjo, Spirit

The idea of ‘fighting spirit’ is common to much more than martial arts. In most sports there’s an idea of ‘grit’ or perseverance. I’ve heard it said that military basic training is designed to push the body and mind beyond its limits, to produce toughness and resolve. If you’ve seen the Simon Pegg movie Run Fat Boy, Run (or actually run marathons) then you are familiar with the idea that long distance runners hit what’s called “the wall” at some point, and must push through the physical and mental exhaustion with force of will. Aside from these more physical exercises, there are plenty of other disciplines which require a high degree of commitment, precision and dedication in order to become proficient. I reckon it’s just as rigorous an exercise to write a good novel as it is to complete any of the above mentioned challenges. So, because it’s a cool and wide ranging thing, I’ll write a little about having guts and resolve, or as those in Japanese martial arts might say Spirit or Konjo (which I believe translates more or less directly as “guts” in the “gutsy” sense [not the viscera sense, I think]).

At Exeter Aikido we have an exercise known as taninzu-dori or just ‘taninzu’ is what we usually refer to it as. I don’t know the kanji so I can’t actually tell you what it translates as, but the form is basically a multi-man attack with the catch that the tori, the one who is being attacked is limited in the techniques they can use. Or rather, they can use almost no techniques whatsoever and effectively cannot use their hands to parry, block, or halt the motion of an attacker. The point is that the Aikido practitioner has to learn to move amongst three, four, or five attackers who will increase the speed and ferocity of their attacks proportional to the practitioner’s ability. Once basic movement between attackers is ok, then the practitioner should begin to move to positions where he or she can use attackers to block each others’ lines of movement and from there continue to use attackers as shields against each other. Ideally, the Aikido practitioner can continue to move indefinitely without getting struck, but usually, if you can make it three or four (quite slow) attacks without getting hit, then you’re doing pretty well. When you get hit in the chest three or four times in a row (and usually because your attackers are choosing not to hit you in the face) then it gets immensely frustrating. The exercise refuses to allow the practitioner time to recuperate. After being hit, there is no “stop, wait, let me focus”. You are constantly under the cosh and if you can’t weather being hit without breaking your composure then you will be hit again, and again, and again. For the first year or so of trying this thing, taninzu just made me mad because I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t sense any improvement, and I couldn’t figure out what I was learning from it. Of course, what I was really learning from my leaden attempts to lunge out of the way of attacks and having fists plough into my ribs was Konjo and the kind of focus that comes with the resolve to continue moving no matter what. Quite honestly, despite knowing it was good for me, this lesson was an absolutely unpleasant experience.

To those who know me as a gamer, it is common knowledge that I am a fan of the videogame Dark Souls. If nothing else, this game is about guts and perseverance. Like taninzu-dori, the game is designed to deal unrelenting punishment to the player who makes mistakes. If the player refuses to learn the game mechanics through observing enemy movements and correcting mistakes, it is very likely that they will never complete the game. There were plenty of moments when I played through the game first time when I felt that I would never be able to beat a boss, clear an area, or escape a trap. If I may be somewhat melodramatic, I think I felt as close to despair as is possible in a videogame. The game demands and trains the player to persevere. Through the infuriating and indeed, sometimes tedious grind of running through a part of the game for hours on end, just to progress to a boss you cannot yet beat, with equipment which you do not know is adequate or not, the game teaches commitment, dedication, and discipline through the very simple method that if the player has none of these traits, they will never advance. Sure, it might be ‘just a game’, but that makes it no less trivial a pursuit if you intend to pursue it fully. And if you do, I think you learn just as much about mental strength as anywhere else.

In the dojo-kun or training-hall code of Shotokan Karate, there is a verse which reads “doryoku no seishin wo yashinau koto”, which I believe roughly translates as “to foster the spirit of hard work” [or sometimes the more fancy but perhaps a little less accurate; to foster the spirit of endeavour]. This part of the code captures one of the key tenets of karate practice as I knew it, and that is the ultimately dull practice of the same kata or forms over and over and over and over and over again. Certainly Karate as I experienced it was composed primarily of the repetition of movements without any instruction whatsoever except the count: ichi, ni, san, shi! It was left up to the practitioner to extract meaning, to extract learning from the movements, which is a stretch that perhaps does translate better as “endeavour”, rather than “hard work”. The value in this training style is that it forces the student to learn their own body through rigorously examining their movements by repetition before any of the techniques can be at all effective. In this way, Shotokan Karate teases out the spirit of Konjo through, of all things, boredom avoidance. It never forces you to persevere or push through with guts. You can happily just do the movements lazily, or if you’re bored, quit. But in order to gain from the training, however, the discipline that one must learn is the discipline to simply do terribly repetitive and at times esoteric to the point of inexplicable exercises which is certainly a good skill and a good piece of spirit to learn I think.

I used to play chess in school. I believe when I was fourteen or fifteen, I played one of my friends a lot. He and I were roughly even in terms of matches won and matches lost, but I think that overall he was (and probably still is) the superior chess player. Towards the end of that school year, he and I happened to be drawn to play a match to effectively decide the rankings for our school year. Towards the end of the game, he was ahead by a couple of pieces and I felt that based on our skill levels alone, I would not be able to outplay him unless he made some sort of grave error. So instead of taking him on head on, I played an exceptionally boring and defensive game. The resolve or ‘guts’ I think I had to use there were not the kind of guts which let you push through something physically or stretch my stamina to its limit, but rather I had to be resolved that in a contest of pure skill, I would be at a complete disadvantage and therefore have the discipline to null any sense of pride I had in my style of play and shamelessly try to bore him out of the match. In the end I stalled him long enough that the match timed out and the judge decided that our match would be called a draw which would, according to the points system in this particular tournament, place me higher in the rankings than him and make me officially the ‘best’ chess player in my school year, a title I was somewhat proud of at the time. I’m sure he resented me robbing him of the small accolade which I thoroughly didn’t deserve.

Once, I tried to write a novel. For three or four weeks, I think it was, I wrote a thousand or so words every day. The story was an imagining of what divinity may have been like before the war in heaven. There are plenty of well known texts about what happens after that (Paradise Lost, all of the bible, etc.) but I thought it’d be cool to imagine how it was before Lucifer led the army of traitor angels against God, was defeated and cast out of heaven. I very much enjoyed writing it, but damn, writing every day was harder than I had ever anticipated. Plenty of times I just didn’t want to. Major props to people who manage to write a whole novel at any point because it takes more resolve than I reckon I ever managed to muster. I never finished the story. In the end, I had three or four characters who I thought were really interesting, but not a very well written story to link them together. Besides that, the other characters were kinda drab and I just petered out eventually. That’s more a story about a failure of guts than anything else.

In a class while we were practising a technique known as katate-dori iriminage, or the entering throw from same-side wrist grasp, the head of our school at Exeter Aikido came over to my partner and I and invited us to attack him. He threw us both two or three times each and I recall being struck in the mouth (it is a common thing, I find, when taking sincere and non-preemptive ukemi against sincere and committed atemi). I expected his demonstration to end there, but he invited us to attack again; “keep going, I’m enjoying this”. He continued to throw us for a number of minutes. The physical challenge of continuing to get up and attack while exhausted took a fair degree of guts, but even moreso was overcoming the fear factor. Certainly for the first year and a half or so of training at Exeter I was afraid to take falls for our head. Not because I did not trust his technique or his conscience, but because I did not trust myself to keep up with and respond to his various unbalancing strikes and checks. I still find taking ukemi for him intimidating because I have to commit to my attack wholly to have a chance of responding to his movements without premeditating my fall, but at the same time committing puts my safety entirely in his hands. That kind of resolve is the resolve to trust another person with what is effectively the potential to severely injure or kill you and also to trust your own judgement and your own abilities. It takes a good deal of guts, I reckon, to overcome the sweaty-palm fear that makes you want to hesitate or keep lying on the ground after being thrown and get up and throw your safety to the wind and attack again.

When I was 15, I was in the Leicestershire Under 15 county cricket squad. In our winter training sessions, we occasionally were made to run the bleep test. For those unfamiliar, a bleep test is basically a very long set of short runs of increasing speed. You have a set distance, I believe roughly 20 metres, which you have to run before the cassette tape makes its next ‘bleep’, hence the name of the test. I seem to recall that there are ten runs at each bleep interval before the interval shortens, at which point you’ll be told you’re at “level 2” or “level 3” or whatever. The point is to make it to as high a level as you can. Of course, the only way you can get yourself any rest is to beat the bleep, but then you run the risk of getting a stitch from changing your pace too rapidly, so it’s meant to be better to try to match the bleep as closely as possible, if you can consider non-stop running of constantly increasing speed “better” than anything. Anyway, in this particular session, we were running the bleep test, but for whatever reason, everyone was just on poor form. Maybe it was because it was a particularly cold day and our muscles were seizing up, or perhaps we’d all just had a lazy off season and were unfit. Whatever the reason, most people were out before level 9, which is pretty poor, considering that you need to run a 13 to make the academy squad which all of us with professional aspirations were aiming at. I remember touching down behind the 20 metre mark at 10.3 and turning to go for the next sprint and thinking that my lungs would give out and that I should just give up. It’d be nothing to me to just sit down and take it easy like most of the rest of the squad were doing. I’d already outdone most of them anyway. But then I saw out to my left my friend Tom Wells, a lovely chap well liked for his pleasant manner and well respected for his all around fitness and strength and not inconsiderable technical skills. When I saw him begin to pull away from me, I can’t explain why, but I absolutely did not want to lose to him. I believe I was told afterwards that I looked somewhat possessed on the last two turns of that bleep test and I remember very clearly raising my fist and striking myself at least twice in the stomach to give myself an extra burst of adrenalin. I did indeed manage to beat Tom on that occasion, I think I made it to 10.6 after he pulled up at 10.5 then promptly packed it in from exhaustion. I’m not sure if this really counts as guts, spirit, and resolve so much as manic competitive spirit and a mildly psychotic desire to prove myself to the selection panel and coaching staff at the time, but either way, I thought it was a decent story to drop in there.

Once, I tried to tell a girl I had feelings for her. On the monday of that week I chickened out. The day after I had an even better chance to speak to her alone and I chickened out again. On the wednesday evening I managed to go ahead and say what was on my mind, but holy crap that shit’s terrifying. Ain’t no volume of physical and/or psychological training that’s ever gonna make that easy. Or maybe I just don’t talk to girls enough? Either way, she didn’t in the end say whether she requited my feelings or not (which I assumed meant she didn’t, because I was pretty sure she didn’t beforehand anyway) but she did say words to the effect that she thought well of me for telling her straight up to her face even though I knew it was a bit of a lost cause. If by some chance she ever reads this then I hope she doesn’t mind my paraphrasing her. So much for guts eh?

So the moral of the story is, there are a ton of things which require resolve, discipline, commitment and perseverance, which I have broadly put under the term “guts”. I think it is good to do all of these things. If it takes guts, I think it’s probably a worthwhile pursuit for that reason alone. And much as people in the martial arts and people of an academic bent like to harp on about technical precision and beautiful form and the minimalistic elegance of Aikido like good poetic imagecrafting, there’s a lot to be said for straightforward fighting spirit.

Anyway, thanks for reading~



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