104. Finding the Time for Budo

A reader recently asked me to comment on how one finds the time to train. We live in a day and age, he noted, that puts a stress on how many waking hours we have to devote to training in budo. How did the great masters of the past manage to train so much? How can we devote all the time we really need when we have jobs, families, and other responsibilities?

It’s not a minor question. Surveys show that we Americans, at least, are working more hours and getting paid overall less (figuring in inflation) than a decade or two ago, and stereotypes notwithstanding, we work more productive hours than almost any other country, including the vaunted Japanese worker. All that work and then having to deal with daily family life will, indeed, put a crimp on training time. Surely, if you’re an adult with a job and a family of any sorts, you can’t be going to the dojo five nights a week to train for five or six hours. It just ain’t gonna work.

First comment: an author I admire and respect (plus, he’s my bud), Dave Lowry, addressed this issue in, I think, a past column in Black Belt magazine. So what I say is nothing new, and much of it is cribbed from his own article, since I pretty much agree with his observations.

Second: We’re not alone in our predicament. Every generation has had to struggle with figuring out how to balance training with living a realistic life.

When the earliest martial systems were founded in Japan and China, they still provided a modicum of practical application for life-and-death situations. Learning to handle a spear or sword, or grapple to the death (or for subduing criminals) were skills a hereditary warrior had to know to better survive if called upon to serve in a war or police action. So it wasn’t much of a choice between pastime or work. Learning the bugei WAS part of one’s occupation. There was no conflict of time between pastime and work.

Go down a bit more in time and, in Japan at least, there was an extended period of relative peace of the Tokugawa hegemony. But early in that period, civil war was still a relative possibility and so martial artists who were skilled at their craft could parlay their prowess into being hired by a feudal lord as part of his retinue or as an instructor. The martial arts were still practical skills that could, in fact, be utilized to save your life during the execution of your duties as a warrior.

However, if you study the records and proclamations, much of the martial ardor and pugnacity of the Sengoku bushi (Warring States samurai) faded as two centuries of peace ensued. Several Tokugawa shoguns had to write public admonitions to the samurai class to continue to practice martial arts and study strategy because as bushi, that is what their station in life was supposed to be about, never mind that the wars were over. So as the samurai became bureaucrats, administrators, teachers and lawmakers, they, too, struggled with balancing work, family and budo training. The problem of finding the time to train is nothing new. The issues are the same.

Here’s my own opinion: if you can’t commit a reasonable amount of time to your training, then perhaps your life is full as it is already and you may have to forego it, at least for the time being. The two koryu master teachers who I admired as my main teachers in Japan both said the same thing: there is a hierarchy of values, and never let your love of martial arts eclipse the other responsibilities you have, or in the end you will be left with nothing. You have to put in adequate time for family, first, because without the support of your family, your life is meaningless. Whether family is just a spouse or significant partner, or ten kids, a wife and three ex-spouses who receive alimony, you have to shoulder the responsibility you took on, and spend the time and effort with family, and extended family, to make sure the family endures, and you as an individual in that family contributes your fair share. That is what being an adult is about. You no longer take everything. Now you have to give.

Second, of course, is your job. Without a stable job and income, you really will have a hard time paying to train. You need to pay dues, room rent, buy new training gear when the old ones wear out, be able to pay for travel expenses to attend seminars and workshops,and pay for medical bills if you fall the wrong way or get hit in the head by a wayward stick. So you have to do your best at your job and to secure a decent wage for a decent days’ work.

Finally, if all the above is working relatively well, you can enjoy budo as a pastime. With a supportive family and good job, doing budo is a plus, a way to keep yourself mentally and physically healthy, a way to engage in an activity that you enjoy with others who enjoy it with you, a way to develop bonds and friendships outside of family and work. Having the mental and physical health that comes out of good budo training will add to your abilities at work and in your  family and social life, but all these parts have to work together and you should never use budo training as an escape to avoid dealing with your responsibilities in the other two spheres of your life.

From my own personal experience, trying to find your own balance can be frustrating at times. I wish I could train more myself, but given my work and family responsibilities, I only have a limited amount of free time in a week. I therefore know that I am not progressing as rapidly as I could  were I still in Japan, training four nights a week. But I tell myself that I was glad I was young and reckless and did that, but now I am older and have responsibilities so those days are long past. I will still grow in my skills, only slower. In the meantime, I am also progressing in my work, and my little family is growing as we live and learn and love together.

I’m not saying that you have to abandon martial arts entirely if work or family needs take precedence. I know a budo student who will sometimes get into terrible arguments with his partner because he wants to take one night out of an entire week to train. That’s not an unreasonable request, in my opinion, because training night is basically his one and only social night out “with the gang.” He doesn’t gamble, play golf, drink, or go to parties. He just works and comes home. Asking him to cut off his one and only social engagement is a bit too possessive, I would say. People need a way to blow off steam, to exercise, and to make friends outside of family and work.

On the other hand, training all the time, every day, when you have the chance to the neglect of family and work, may be fine for professional athletes and young teens with time on their hands, but it’s not a healthy goal for anyone who does have family and work. Your life will suffer, and even for young men and women, there has to be a fallback in case martial arts as a professional career doesn’t pan out as you think it would have. Find the time, I say, to stop and smell the roses. Learn about life, study philosophy, look at art, experience things outside the dojo. A greater maturity in life will lead to a greater grasp of things inside the training hall.

After all, it’s all about striking a proper balance, something even the vaunted samurai had to do when they lay down their arms and had to survive as administrators and bureaucrats, as well as martial artists.

In addition, if you find yourself an adult with only a limited time for the dojo, you should also not think that budo training ends once you step outside the doorway of the training hall. One of my sempai works as a busy executive for a large bank in Tokyo. He has a family; a wife and a child. He has to put in very long hours as one of the bank’s top mid-level executives. Gone are the days when he was a college student, training in three to four different martial arts, five to six days a week. Now he teaches two classes on the weekends when he’s free, and sometimes he has to let his senior students take over when the bank asks him to work on the weekends.

Still, he maintains a sharp edge. He’s still one of the most skillful technicians I’ve seen in my style. How does he maintain his edge? I think that he values his time so much that when he does train, he is fully engaged. He trains very hard, without wasting time, and tries to teach and practice as much as he can when he’s in the dojo. Time is a commodity too precious, he knows, to waste. I try to tell that to my students in budo and in my college computer graphics classes: life is short. You think you will live forever, but a human lifetime is short, you never know when you are going to kick off, so work hard, engage yourself in whatever you do, and pay attention. Don’t just slouch your way to oblivion and then regret that you didn’t have a fuller life in the end. Be engaged in the world, in your life.

Second, my sempai told me that he’s constantly training, even when he’s not in the dojo. How? Well, he explained, when he’s on a subway train to work, he tries to train himself to learn balance, as the train sways and shifts under his feet. When he walks through a crowd, he tries to slide through without bumping or jostling other people. He tries to be aware of his surroundings, making note of entranceways and exits, how people interact near him, how they move. He tries to always be aware of his surroundings. “That is a kind of budo training,” he said.

He also spends the time to go over the kata in his mind, as a kind of mental exercise. By imagining and repeating the kata in his mind while he is on the long subway ride to and from work, he is engaging in what many professional athletes do before a game or match; previsualization sharpens your mind, prepares it for the actual event, and hones your senses. It may not be as physically beneficial as actually doing the movements, but it does prepare your mind for the engagement.

Thus, one does need some amount of time training in a dojo. But if you consider that total “training” doesn’t stop at the dojo, you can envision parts of your life also being part of budo training, actively (like paying attention to how you walk, how you breathe, or keeping your balance in a subway train) or passively (previsualization, going over kata in your mind). In doing so, budo becomes not just a separate, disparate part of your life, only done in a dojo, but an integrated, integral aspect of your whole life, as you engage in work and family life.

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13 thoughts on “104. Finding the Time for Budo

  1. Thank you for this post. It’s timely for me as well, as I’m going through a family crisis and there have been moments where I’ve thought of giving up my karate classes. “I don’t have time to train! I can’t even practice at home right now. I should be conserving my money instead of using it for dojo dues and equipment, because who knows where I’ll be next month?” Yet once I’m in class and we’re learning a new kata, it seems like all of the stress falls away as I focus on Sensei’s moves. The dojo becomes like a sanctuary where the problems outside can’t touch me, at least not for the hour and a half I’m there. It beats therapy and family counseling, at least for me. 🙂

  2. What I began doing about a year and a half ago is to get up an extra hour early and practice before anything can take place during the day to hijack my time.

    I’ve now practiced something like 350 days in a row without a break.

    Morning is king!

  3. I just find time ….. I get up a bit earlier in the a.m. to get some training in; I use my breaks at work to get some training in; I use my lunch hour to get some training in (I eat lunch while working after); I get some training in in various situations as they arise during the day, evening and weekends, etc. I feel it is a matter of planning and improvisation.

  4. Doing a weapons art, it’s easier for me to train by myself. I have my weapons at a place at home where I see them often. When I walk by I can take them up and do a few cuts/movements.
    When I’m not travelling, the days are rare that I don’t practice. Usually I do at about 10min of basic exercises at home.
    I also do visualizations, as you have described. I find they are a good add-on to physical practice, but I do need the regular doing.

    I like the paragraph about your sempai “constantly training, even when he’s not in the dojo”. Yes, so many things in every day life can be connected to your MA training. Maybe it’s just practicing “body awareness” in your daily activities. (Eg: How are you sitting in front of your computer?)

    Ad: Budo vs. “relationship time”: I think there are two kinds of priorities. One is about the amount of time you spend with your budo or with your relations, the other is the availability in case of special events.
    In normal times, it might look to outsiders that my budo has a higher priority as my relationships. I do plan other things around my regular dojo times and week-end seminars. So yes, I spend quite a lot of time with budo.
    On the other hand, in case of a special event my relationships are top priority. Should an emergency arise, I won’t think twice and be there for friends & family no matter how important a particular seminar seems to me.
    So in this regard relationships have the highest priority. But my friends and family know that budo is a big part of my life and that I do invest a lot of time. They might wish sometimes that I had more time for them, but they accept that budo is a part of my life, a part of who I am.

    1. Aina, well put. Your note was succinct and to the point; thank you for clarifying what I was trying to get at…!
      –Wayne

  5. Hi Wayne, this one really struck a chord with me as a run-of-the-mill husband and father of three (with one more on the way!) working a > 40-hour work week. In my younger, freer days, I trained quite a bit, cross-trained outside of my own style, visited various dojos, worked out informally with friends of different systems in yards, parks, or garages, enjoyed the camaraderie of like-minded fools who found kinship in slamming each other about without caution. Nothing serious or special, just friendly fun stuff. For the past decade-plus (I am 39-years old), though, I’ve learned that conducting business with a black eye is unbecoming, that I can’t type well with a splinted finger, that a torn ligament really puts a crimp in the physical labor required of my job. Having a cracked rib with a toddler trying to crawl all over you is no joke, and overly-makiwara’d knuckles get askance looks during parent-teacher conferences. To this effect, in addition to finding the time to train, as I age I constantly need to adjust the manner in which I train (I believe you addressed this in a past blog entry).

    I am lucky to have a supportive and understanding wife that lets me out of the house one evening a week to run a small, community-based karate club at a neighborhood church gymnasium. Such is my only “committed” time; I otherwise practice in minute gaps throughout the day, much like you wrote about and others have commented. I have curtailed my “research” to the study of one particular system of Okinawan karate. In many ways it feels like a marriage, my hobby. Whereas in the past I casually mingled with muay thai, eskrima, judo players, boxers, wrestlers, etc., I today apply what I’ve learned of those dalliances to my committed relationship with “classical” Shorin-ryu. I only started a club because there were no dojos of the form I practice that serviced my area, and training in my front room with little kids running around was getting dangerous; besides, it’s always nice to interact with others. With it comes the additional pricetag of rent, time, and the juggling of other responsibilities you stated in this post. I admire your writing and ability to eloquently share your experience while sparking good conversation.

  6. A very timely post and good comments to boot. Like most of the others here, I put in the hours when I was younger and had time (in my case, aikido and Daito Ryu aikijujutsu), both in Ireland and Japan, but now I’m 39, have a wife, young daughter, and extended family all of whom I’m very grateful for, plus intensive work and study. For the first time in fifteen years, I’ve hade to curtail regular practice for a few months and (gasp) take a break!

    One thing I’d like to share is to encourage budo practicioners stuck for time is to look into the practice of something such as zazen, shodo, ikebana,kenbu, shakuhachi, chado or some other solo art, perhaps iaido could also be included in this. IMO, japanese practicioners in the past used their training in one of these arts for meditative and aesthetic purposes, but also to keep training in basic principles applicable to Budo, such as breathing, posture, concentration, sensitivity etc. If you look into the lives of most prominent budoka and Chinese martial artists, pretty much all of them also enthusiastically practiced a fine/meditaive solo art. In my case, I practice the shakuhachi daily, but I think any authentic art discipline can have great benefits sustaining us through tough times.

    Perhaps this could be the basis of another blog, Wayne? I’d love to hear your opinion!

  7. Perhaps training in a martial art should not be done as something separate from your “normal” life. That is, maybe martial arts should not be your life (even if you are a soldier in an army) but instead it should add to your life.

  8. Interesting article. We saw this issue arise recently in my family as well, but from a different angle. My wife, young son and I do separate martial arts independently of each other (aikido, karate & iaido respectively). Put work, school, soccer practice etc… in the mix and it’s a fine line to balance on. But does works for us.

    With that said, my wife and I tried to plob kendo smack in the middle of the mix. No matter how hard we tried, no matter what day we tried to practice—everything feel apart. Although it pained us to stop doing something we both wanted to do together. We dropped it for our betterment. The morale of the story is find that balance and stick with it.

    By the way Wayne, thank you as always for coming to the Saint Louis Japanese Festival. This year’s presentation was fantastic. Having multiple style present at once seemed to keep the crowd more attentive than usual. I was only able to catch one display, but my entire family truly enjoyed it.

    Thanks again,
    -Rob

  9. Very well stated. The challenge of finding balance between training and the rest of one’s life encourages efficiency in training, as well. I have a small notebook in which I jot down notes during training sessions. On the subway or during my lunchbreak, I read them and visualize the practice session, along with memorizing the basic positions (ie; “my right lead against his left lead, this particular angle of contact, this particular pressure, etc.), that way, when I am with training partners, I’m ready to go, instead of bugging my teacher to remind me of those various details. Thanks, by the way, for inviting me to follow this blog.

  10. It’s been a while since I last had a chance to read your blog, so I was very pleasantly surprised when I realized that this posting in your archives was in response to my email. Thank you very much for your insightful and thoughtful views on the question of finding time to train when modern life demands so much of us. Thanks as well to your readers who posted about their own experiences. As an American living in Europe, I feel very fortunate to have this chance to communicate with people from around the world and realize that I am not alone in my predicament, and at the same time to learn from other people’s thoughts and experiences. In my case, I stopped training because of the demands of my profession (which requires extensive travel overseas and thus poses a challenge to establishing a predictable routine) and the responsibility of raising a family. Fortunately, I seem to be reaching a point in my career and the life of my children where I can start to travel a little less than I used to and also have a little more time for myself. Part of this is due to the fact that I expect to move to Dubai this summer and to be there for perhaps 1-2 years. Speaking of which, if you or any of your readers can recommend a reputable dojo in Dubai, please let me know! Although my background is in Shotokan karate, I am more focused on finding an excellent teacher than continuing in any particular do or ryu. Thanks in advance to you and any readers who may be able to make a recommendation in this regard.

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