Building what builds you. The story of a true circle.

Note – What follows is a bit of a story about how my home dojo came to be, and the effect it has had on me. This blog is more personal in nature, but I hope you enjoy it.

It was a mess. Not the first mess I’d ever got into, but one of my finest. You see, that year hadn’t been terrific for my wife and I and things were getting on top of us a bit. Looking back, the personal, business and professional troubles we experienced (on top of a couple of very young kids) weren’t really all that bad. I mean everyone was healthy enough, but I guess it’s always easy to say that in hindsight isn’t it? But when come our troubles, not as single spies but in battalions (or so says the immortal bard) and exhaustion began to take its toll, making things feel overwhelming, and much bigger than they are.  Even the winter storms conspired against us, blowing all our old (asbestos) fences over…

We’d stopped working from our core values, and started ‘scrambling’ to manage, and not always in the healthiest of ways. Like a sheep farmer who believes he doesn’t have time to fix his fences because the sheep always need rounding up, things felt out of control.   The house, garden and our family started to get run down, and we didn’t even notice at first.  When we started fighting (not like us at all), we woke up. We needed to start responding again instead of reacting.

Everything still felt overwhelming, and for someone who naturally tends toward impatience the idea of not being able to ‘fix’ things right away was paralysing. Nevertheless, I decided that it really wasn’t that hard to at least move in a better direction every day.  So one day when the family were out, I stayed home and at the back of our block, I started picking up broken bits of fencing, blown down by recent storms.  The fence-line looked a bit nicer, but the poor chickens were all muddy and their home wasn’t very nice, so I looked at my son’s old bunk beds and started about building a new hen house out of it. I was reminded of the power of caring about something besides myself – call it self-transcendence I guess. I felt a little better.

We decided that whatever else we did, we would improve our home, in some small way, every weekend. Small steps for sure, but no exceptions. We would make our home just a little more orderly and fix something up each week, investing in the things that made us feel happier about the home we were giving our children. By the time I got to the rat-infested old shed, the idea of converting it into a dojo had received my wife’s approval, on the condition we make it bigger by extending the shed, and converting it into an occasional guest house. Her generosity reminded me how lucky I was to have her love and support, and that it should be reciprocated at every opportunity. Things were looking up already…

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Villa de Vermin took some emptying out

The shed was very old, had been flooded numerous times and was full of water damaged junk.  It had become home to a family of large black rats and they were not evicted without some strong negotiations.  The old steel benches had to be cut up and hauled out, and the old concrete broken up with a sledgehammer (which was very therapeutic!) and it all hauled away. After several weekends, we were ready and had saved up to have a new concrete slab poured.

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The old shed was emptied out, bit by bit.
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Let the sledging match begin.
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Good foundations matter! What lay beneath was no fun…

It wasn’t all plain sailing. Cleaning up one problem exposes others, and the pouring of the concrete slab caused the nearby septic tank leach drains to collapse.  For all the progress we had made, there I was – once again in the poo, well and true.  Up to my knees in it, there was nothing to do but spend days rebuilding the drains, and carry on. I was reminded of the power of just continuing, without worrying too much about how long it will take.  I think my perseverance mojo was flowing again.

With new leach drains and the yard smelling a whole lot better, it was time to put the extension on.

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I had a great many people pitch in to help with the work, without so much as being asked. It was summer, at the time I was running a local karate club, and parents, students and friends gave generously of their time with enthusiasm.  And so I was reminded I am surrounded by people who valued me, and I felt more loved (and humbled) than I had in a long time.

Painting a 14 x 6 metre shed is no small job, but again I had a lot of help! Even so, three coats took several weeks.

Then it was inside – I’d never built a wall before, but with my training partner’s help and the help of some of the older students, it wasn’t long before we started to get the hang of it. Conversations with those who helped me with the work brought us closer together than we might have become otherwise, and I was reminded of the bond those who share meaningful work can develop.

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Then it was the gardens. We needed a path where people could enter and leave safely and without being accosted by our resident mutts – Winter and BC.  Again, friends and students came to the rescue and gave willingly of their time and effort. Much laughter and sweat later, and we all enjoyed the comings and goings to the dojo. It was about this time I was thinking about a name.

It is customary for dojo to have a name of some kind, but I never really felt qualified to be the ‘head’ of anything in martial arts, and so I wanted the name to reflect mutual sharing, reciprocity and learning in more of a ‘non-hierarchical’ manner. I didn’t know it at the time, but my thinking about my study was already diverging from the way I had been introduced to karate, and my thinking about this name was a reflection of that. I settled on four ideographs (‘kanji‘) ‘Shin’ (real or true) ‘Wa’ (respect or harmony) ‘Bu’ (Martial) ‘Kan’ (hall/building). Translating kanji to English is fraught with difficulty, and many other interpretations are possible. So I called on yet another friend, a academic sociologist from Japan (Fukuoka), who is not a karateka. Interestingly, he read the first two kanji to mean ‘true circle’ saying he found it ‘beautiful’. That was enough for me – the name stayed.  I was reminded that being misinterpreted isn’t always a bad thing!

At a beach near here, I was walking at sunset and happened on a massive plank of driftwood, I accepted the challenge and carried that 6 foot, 10 inch wide, four inch thick waterlogged blessing over a kilometre in the sand.  A young friend helped me dry it out, sand it and oil it, then fashion it into a sign that greets all visitors to this day (it will probably outlive me!).

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Shinwabukan

Maintaining the dojo had lessons of it’s own. There’s a saying I have heard, but I don’t know how old it is. “If your dojo is clean, but your house is a mess, your karate is not very good”.

At first, I took this literally. One day I was studiously polishing the dojo’s windows to a mirror finish (weekly) when I noticed the house’s windows were dirty. I was a bit embarrassed with myself. So, around the house I went, and soon the windows in the house matched those in the dojo. Now the dojo’s windows get a wash and polish when the rest of the home does. That’s a little less often for the dojo, much more regularly for the house.

Soon, the state of the front garden seemed like an insult to my family and neighbours while I was enjoying a nice tidy garden around the dojo. So to work I went, beautifying the front yard. Now every morning my son is greeted by dozens of parrots at his window. He’s named some of them. The work of the dojo, and in the dojo, still works its magic on me. How could I stop?

When some of my erstwhile students bought me some bonsai (from Bunnings) I was reminded that a gift comes with responsibility.  It had been years since I kept bonsai, but I couldn’t let them die, and I set my hands to building them a safe place to flourish, so I could spend the necessary years reshaping and nurturing the gifts so kindly provided to me.  When I learned that the tree one young lady bought for herself had died, I was able to replace it with some instructions and ‘give something back’.

Soon that line of thinking started to apply to the state of the cupboards in the kitchen, the attention to detail I applied to my work, and the respect and attention I paid to others.  Over time, I began to better appreciate the meaning and the purpose of genuine dojo etiquette. If one is bowing all over the place and being excessively militaristic in the dojo, but neglecting the reasonable courtesies expected of a friend, colleague, partner or parent elsewhere, it is hard to imagine how karate training is improving one’s life at all. It’s quite likely doing the reverse. To quote one celebrated karate-ka of old Funakoshi Sensei, ‘do not think karate-do is only in the dojo’.

What I had been building had been building me and still does. In time I began also to wonder why those around me, who had for many years been taking money for teaching karate, had invested so little back into it, especially when the benefits of a dedicated dojo to students and teachers were self-evident.  My thinking about how karate could be practised and learned had begun to change, and my questioning lead me on a new path, one that was more congruent with a holistic view of balance, budo and a life well lived. So when I get up early, and go into the dojo in the dark, I don’t just feel gratitude for the dojo, but to it. It’s just a work room really, but it is also a reflection of certain values that keep my feet firmly planted on the ground when life gets a little crazy.

The difficulties and problems I mentioned earlier? They didn’t vanish, and there have been plenty more since.  We’re equal to them, and grounded enough not to make them worse than they are.

People talk about following callings, disciplines and paths in a whimsical fashion as if it isn’t really necessary – a luxury even. But I wonder. Psychologist Victor Frankl was sustained by the work of philosophy and psychology while a prisoner in Auschwitz.  Vincent Van Gogh was sustained by his art amid terrible poverty and mental illness.  Amid the wreckage that was Okinawa following the Second World War, karate-ka Shoshin Nagamine found an old karate book in the mud, and knew (amid all else) the work that was calling him. But why? What is it about all these stories that draw them together here? I think I found the answer in a disused gaol cell in Alice Springs about 22 years ago…

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Back then, I was a junior park ranger in Alice Springs.  My workmates and I were tasked with retrieving furniture from the recently closed down Alice Springs Gaol. To say the buildings and conditions we found were mediaeval would be a compliment. Box iron cages lined up in an iron shed where temperatures of 45 degrees Celsius are not uncommon.  It would have been inhuman to keep people there. I’ll never forget the smell of the despair, even though there had not been anyone in them for months. But what I found in one cell will never leave me.

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Artemis and Apollo by Barry Windsor Smith

A four foot high black line drawing copy of the above – Barry Windsor Smith’s Artemis and Apollo, graced the back wall of a cell; breathtaking for its attention to detail and its skilled execution. It must have taken months if not years. No one else I was with recognised the work, but I had happened across this painting when I went to art school in 1986; I aways loved it.  I had the profound sense I had been given a message from a man who believed at the time he had been forgotten, and had nothing of worth to give. Or maybe he believed he did. I never met him and will never learn how he came to be there. The work was destroyed when the buildings were demolished, sadly. But there’s the point. It wasn’t the possession of the product that helped the artist, or me, or Van Gogh for that matter, but the work.  I was too young to understand the message the way (I think) I understand it now.  Whatever is taken from you, no matter how hard things get, you can contribute to making the world better, more orderly, more beautiful, or you can give in and sink. His artwork was an act of defiance against the miserable situation he had found himself in. However he came to be there, at some point he decided to work toward making his world better, more orderly, and kept at it for quite a while.  22 years later, that resistance still echos here, and in my memory.

I’m no Van Gogh, and my dojo, trees and garden (and the practise that it hosts) are small matters compared to that master work in the abandoned gaol. Nevertheless, there’s a certain magic to working at a seemingly mammoth task (like mastery of an art) that likely has no end, without deciding how long one should work.  It is an acceptance that it is the work, not the product or the mastery (whatever that means) that is its own reward. It doesn’t matter what the work is as long as you find meaning in it.  As the philosopher Nietzsche observed, ‘He that has found his why can bear with almost any how’.

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I wish you great tasks, and days of tiny revolutions. After all, as Sigmund Freud observed, at the end the ‘final therapy is work and love’.

Start anywhere, keep going.

 

 

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