Sensei Alistair Fell of SKIA Epping dojo...The spirit of effort!

Sensei Alistair Fell of SKIA Epping dojo…The spirit of effort!

”When I went to school in England, the basic premise was that suffering builds character; and therefore all senior boys were at liberty to bang about the junior ones with a perfectly clear conscience, because they were doing them a favour. It was good for them; it was building their character. And as a result of this kind of attitude the word discipline has begun to stink. It has been stinking for a long time.” Alan Watts.

Alan Watts was the son of a former missionary from Chislehurst who became an influential scholar of religious philosophy in general and Zen Buddhism in particular. He wrote countless articles and books, and gave innumerable lectures, many of which are available on the internet and very well worth a listen.

Grasping the essence of Watts’ philosophy is tricky, but the clearest message I have managed to gather so far is that life is not nearly as serious as we think it is. Humans are not individual sacks of flesh and bone forever separate from the rest of the universe, struggling against hostile others, he argues; we are all part of the same entity and consciousness, experiencing existence and itself from infinite points of perspective.

From a cynical, rational point of view, that statement of belief does come across as wearing a purple and green tie-dyed shirt. And a headband. It is, however, congruent with the theory and findings of quantum physics and cosmology.

Everything that exists is momentary patterns in the vast roiling explosion that is the universe. Fourteen billion years ago, energy began to condense into elementary particles of matter. Soon, there were hydrogen atoms, and once you have matter and mass you have gravity; the hot hydrogen fog began to clump together, and some clumps became large enough for the pressure inside them to ignite nuclear fusion. The first stars.

The new stars burned, and within their cores the process of fusion combined hydrogen atoms into heavier elements. One by one the stars consumed their hydrogen fuel and died, collapsing and spewing heavy element ash into surrounding space. Eventually, the clouds of dead star-dust coalesced again, and new stars ignited. These stars, however had clouds and fields and little lumps of matter swirling around them which themselves clumped together into spinning rocky spheroids.

Sometimes, just sometimes, one of these rocky spheroids would have exactly the right chemical conditions and be exactly the right distance from the star to allow certain molecules to arise and carry out their peculiar ability to replicate themselves, and life emerged, made of the elementary particles of matter that have existed since the first moments of the universe. Living things exist for fleeting moments of deep time before the matter composing them flows to a new pattern.

Now, those three paragraphs are wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Einstein sticking his tongue out and glasses, but they drink in the same bar as the tie-dyed statement above. Everything is one thing; our perception of being separate is an artifact of the pattern that creates our perspective.

Given this vertigo inducing realisation, that we are little more than micro-ripples in the maelström, nihilism is tempting. All the effort and toil of generations of humanity, war and progress, happiness and misery, is utterly insignificant to the cosmos. Why bother with anything at all?

Quite simply, because it’s fun. The very fabric of reality as we know it is composed of infinitesimal packets of vibrating energy, jiggling about. The universe has rhythm and cadence,and the rhythm is complex and interesting. Life is not a command to march; it is an invitation to dance.

Richard Dawkins tells us that ‘an astronomically overwhelming majority of the people who could be born never will be. You are one of the tiny minority whose number came up.’ Life is not a set of responsibilities heaped upon us, it is an opportunity offered to us. Creation places only one duty upon us: to be that part of it which observes itself. Simultaneously, we are the most utterly insignificant and the most incredibly privileged matter in the universe.

The debt of gratitude we owe to reality is not best repaid through treating life as an onerous task. There truly is nothing we absolutely have to do. There are a few things that if we do not do them we will die, or people we care for will die, but they aren’t even really a duty as such; we do them because food, shelter, warmth and companionship are pleasurable to human beings. Because we have evolved to enjoy these things, we seek more and better food, more comfortable shelter and stronger bonds of belonging, friendship and love.

However, somewhere along the way it got confused. We began to conceive of things that must be done. Religions, systems of government, institutions and eventually businesses and media outlets told us what we must do, be and have, enforcing patterns of behaviour through disciplinary measures that range from subtly social to brutally inhumane. Worse yet, we began to squabble, and soon to fight, over what exactly the ‘shoulds, oughts and musts’ are, and how we should enforce them.

Forgetting that life is a game we are asked to play, and thinking it is a job we have to do is what has made discipline stink. Discipline imposed externally without consent does stink. This kind of discipline keeps millions in toil that occupies most of their day, every day, doing something they do not enjoy for the real benefit, ultimately, of only the few who have succeeded in positioning themselves as the arbiters of discipline. At best. At worst, millions more suffer grinding poverty, disease, war and death.

Being made to suffer is not character forming. It is character stunting, willpower destroying; it generates broken people, completely cowed or determined to inflict suffering in their turn. Joyless toil does not promote expertise, it promotes disinterest and laziness.

However, understanding the playful nature universe does not imply one should oppose discipline and seriousness, or even suffering. The best games are often those which are no fun unless  taken completely seriously; karate is such a game.

Remember when training that you have chosen to be here. Everyone who comes to karate is looking for something, and if you have decided that what you want is in karate you will realise that it can only be uncovered through disciplined, serious study and that there will be some suffering, physical and mental.

Voluntarily submit to the discipline, and it becomes self-discipline; external control becomes self-control and self-reliance. Endure the suffering, the burning muscles and the bumps and bruises, not as a passive victim but as one who deliberately tests their own resolve and determination, and take pleasure in your growing strength of will and ability.

Embrace the joy in serious endeavours, and the seriousness of joyous endeavours, and you acknowledge the gift and opportunity given us, by sheer chance, to consciously experience the universe.


Many thanks to Sensei Alistair Fell and Steve Wadlan for use of the photo 🙂