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.