It’s like a kid swinging a bat in his first little league baseball game. He has no idea what to expect, when to begin his swing, when to commit to it completely, not to mention where to swing the bat. Sure, he’s probably already practiced swinging at balls with his dad out on the local ball field or at a batting cage. He knows how to hold the bat--dominant hand on top, knuckles of both hands lined up, bat off his shoulder--maybe even how to step slightly into his swing, shift his weight to his back foot, swivel his hips and then his shoulders.
But facing the opposing pitcher in a real, live game; now that’s something completely different. That kid on the mound is not trying to teach him how to hit the ball. He’s throwing as hard as he can, trying to get him out. His throwing motion is different from his dad’s. It’s really hard to see the ball until it’s almost too late. His eyes don’t focus on the right things; they don’t look in the right directions. He doesn’t know what to look for. He closes his eyes and swings. Here’s what it sounds like in sequence: thud... swish. Thud (the ball hits the catcher’s mitt), then swish (the bat cuts the empty air). Later, after a lot more experience in game conditions, he learns how to train his eyes to look and his mind to attend to the right things.
That’s how sparring always seemed to her. It was just a matter of seeing, of knowing where to look and what to look for. She saw the telltale signs of her opponent’s intentions almost as soon as he had formed them, certainly as soon as he was committed to them. This was her third martial art. First was aikido, a beautiful, meditative discipline. All round, soft movements, deflecting the opponent, but also absorbing him, enfolding him in the subtle folds of her own movements, a caress, a rebuff. It was almost a kindness. Soothing the opponent, allowing him to expend his energy fruitlessly, turning him around, twisting him in an unexpected way. Perhaps he sees that his effort is going awry even as it’s happening to him, but there’s nothing he can do about it. The surprise she saw written across his face was a supreme satisfaction, better than victory and his admission of defeat. Tap.
Then came Shotokan karate. This too was meditative in its own way. But it was also much more angular, lots of jagged edges for an opponent to stumble on. Here, it wasn’t so much a matter of absorbing, deflecting and twisting away as it was of slipping inside and attacking her opponent’s attack from within. It was a new way of looking at her opponent. Now, instead of looking for clues to the ultimate destination of the attack and then derailing it, she learned to examine the beginnings of his movements. What did they betray? How did he make himself vulnerable at the very moment of his attack?
She would strike him just as he began to strike her, but more quickly. A reverse punch to the solar plexus, or perhaps a sharp knuckle to the inside of his bicep before he could even straighten out his arm, or even a quick jab to his armpit. Instead of retreating from him she stepped forward to meet his punch. She was so close that he couldn’t reach her with his long arms! She didn’t hit him as hard as he wanted to hit her, but it was hard to breathe after she hit him. It was infernally frustrating, and puzzling. How did she know? She always seemed to know!
That’s the way it always was with boys. They tended to be bigger and stronger, usually faster, too. But they were fascinated by their strength and it distracted them from the truly important lessons. They absorbed all the techniques designed to make them strong and fast, they broke boards, they wore their knuckles raw punching the heavy bag. But it was much harder for them to understand the importance of learning to see, to look. Sensei would drone on interminably about becoming still inside, breathing in and out, feeling everything—not just the sweat on your opponents brow and the little jitter in his chest—feel that, too, of course, but so much else in addition. Feel the stillness that every blow interrupts. Feel the return of the stillness afterwards. There was just no room in a boy’s soul for this lesson. Not yet. Maybe later. But she learned it all.
She too was fascinated by the strength and speed techniques at first. She wanted to be strong. She preferred kicking. She was so much more flexible than the boys; it gave her what seemed like an advantage. Learning to punch was cool, too. But she could never punch as hard as she could kick. So she practiced as much as she could, in between schoolwork and housework. But even though she was better and sharper than the boys at kicking, she wasn’t better enough. She got a lot of bruises when they got a punch or a kick in. They were embarrassed to hit her, but she got hit. She would block their punches, too, but it still hurt.
One day she was looking him in the eye over her gloves. He tried to look her eyes away. He wanted her to see his left foot twitch so that she would move to block it, leaving him an opening for a left jab. It had worked before against others, even her. It was a good move. It was supposed to just graze her chin. He would follow with a quick front kick to her left knee and then as she was falling to the mat he would finish her with a right roundhouse to the left side of her face and a ridge-hand to the throat. He knew he had to be fast, because she was limber and could easily land one of those sneaky kicks to the side of his head as he leaned in with that first jab. That’s why he wanted her to commit to a downward block before committing himself to that first jab.
But she saw something else this time as she was watching him. She was all electricity, waiting for a sign in his muscles that she could react to, anticipate. Her synapses were poised to fire, a state of high dynamic tension flowing out to her extremities and back again to her core. She could feel the pattern, in and out, resonant, surging like a tide of electricity. She was watching him, his eyes, his shoulders, his throat, his mouth (the muscles of the jaw sometimes twitch just as someone makes a decision). His nerves were resonating with energy like hers, though not perhaps in sync with her.
Suddenly she knew that what she was looking for was not to be found in any of those places. There was something else, some place else to look. Her attention slipped past his eyes, behind them, to something vital flowing behind his eyes. His qi (or chi). She could feel it. She knew instantly what he was going to do. Not in so many words. But she knew, she felt with absolute confidence that she would know exactly when he had decided to make his move, and what direction it would go to and come from.
He flicked his eyes down, twitched his leg and waited for her to block. She did and he leaned in with his jab. Before he knew what had happened, she had stepped just inside his fist. He grazed her ear as she punched him hard to the center of his chest. He thought of kicking before she hit him again, but her left knee struck just above his knee as he fell backwards. She hit his throat and chin three more times before he hit the floor. Jaws dropped around the room. Everyone in the dojo was stunned. They all recognized at once that she had just made a quantum leap in her sparring. They sensed it, even as it was happening, even though they had no idea what it was.
Sensei smiled, drew her aside and said quietly so only she could hear, “You hit him too hard. It left you overcommitted.”
“I know,” she said, and she did. She understood perfectly. He didn’t mean that she had made a tactical error. There was no flaw in her technique. But she had overcommitted emotionally. In the thrill of the moment of insight, she had allowed herself the satisfaction of hitting him as hard as he had meant to hit her. But it left her out of balance emotionally, no longer sensing the flow of qi in the room. She was distracted by the boyish thrill of hitting hard and fast, of triumphing. It took an extra instant to pull herself back, to collect herself emotionally, to open herself again to the energy of the room. Soon, she would learn even to control that reaction.
From that moment on, no one in the dojo was ever able to score a point on her again. Not even Sensei. The weekly sparring competitions took on a different flavor for the others. Every match was shadowed by the knowledge that the winner might eventually have to face her. And there was something unsettling about it, a peculiar mix of embarrassment and frustration. Her ability to read them was uncanny. None of them quite knew how she was always able to win, to beat them to their own punch. She never retreated, no matter how ferociously they charged. She was never fazed by their size or strength. She never allowed them to make any use of their apparent advantages.
She saw what they did not see, felt what they did not feel, because she looked where they did not look. It was, in fact, a new way of perceiving, of being in the world. It changed her whole life. When her dad picked her up in the family car, he knew. It was obvious on that first day. She walked like a tomboy, as usual. Her strong shoulders and quick legs looked the same as always. But she held her head at a slightly different angle. Her father noticed.
Her hands were stronger and coarser than one might expect in a girl, but not as large as a boy’s. If a boy with a crush on her—she was quite pretty in her way, though she seemed to have little interest in exploring that side of herself—tried to hold her hand, he might not notice how different her hands were, what they could do in the dojo.
But she could tell from his hands exactly what he was capable of, that and the look in his eyes. Physical strength, fighting strength, was more evident in a boy’s hands than in his arms or shoulders. That’s where she could see if he had been trained. But the eyes really said it all. Where did he look, what did he notice? Was he capable of pulling back from visual immediacy and attending to something beyond, behind, to qi? It was an almost unfocused gaze. She never saw it in any of the boys she met.
In fact, the only people she knew who looked in that way were Sensei and her father. With Sensei, it was like a secret they shared, even though he spent plenty of time trying to get his other students to look in that way, too. But none of them had understood him. Sensei understood. That was the way it always was. He offered his wisdom to them openly, without reservation, but none of them knew how take advantage of his most important lesson. In fact, she was only the third student in forty years to understand. Three was a lot, as he figured it.
With her father she never talked about it. He encouraged her interest in the martial arts. He celebrated her successes. But he remained curiously distant from the concrete reality of it. Yet she never doubted that he looked in the same way she did, saw what she saw, held his head at an odd angle. They shared that, even if they never spoke of it.
Finally, she took up kung fu. She had already mastered two other martial arts, so there weren’t any technical challenges for her here. She just wanted to learn how to think and sense in a new way. Kung fu was a bit of an amalgam of all sorts of other arts, kind of an encyclopedic discipline. It did not pretend to any deep unity. It was as if the ancient monks thought to themselves: “Any of these techniques can lead to inner peace. Study them all or only some of them. But the point is not the mastery of any of them. Rather, keep studying them until you find the way past them.”
Kung fu seemed to her to have two hearts. One was very circular. It swirled away from an attack and then back again. In a typical move, a block would lead into a spin, and she would find herself surprisingly behind her opponent. Everything flowed into every other thing. There were no stops. She fought as if she were a river, or a summer breeze.
The second heart was Wing Chun. This seemed, at least initially, to be the antithesis of the first. It was almost completely contained within the width of her opponent’s shoulders. It would be useful for fighting in close spaces. But it was also very like the first, like a miniature version of it. Spinning, flowing strikes, all released from within the tiny space opened by the opponent’s initial attack. It was all that Shotokan aspired to, but more contained, more controlled, and at the same time more free, less jagged. Her strikes preempted those of her opponent. She punched to prevent his punch. She kicked his foot before he could kick her with it. Or if she let him kick, she would evade or block, and then kick his foot just as he was setting it down, throwing him off balance and leaving him open to her attack. She wasn’t just quicker. She moved and thought from within his attack, inhabited his attack more fully than he did. It seemed almost effortless, almost like breathing. It was breathing, for her.
By the time she was sixteen, she had mastered three martial arts. She was five feet seven inches tall and weighed a hundred and thirty pounds. She had no belts. She had worn a green belt at one point. She couldn’t remember which art it was in. She couldn’t care less. No one could remember ever seeing her wear a belt, or even a gi. She trained in ordinary cargo pants and a white button down shirt. She figured that she was training for life, and so she should learn how to fight in the clothes she usually wore. She had begun wearing a sports bra a couple of years ago. She didn’t own a regular bra. Sometimes she wore a denim jacket to class. The boys wished they could complain about it. But Sensei seemed to let her do whatever she wanted in the dojo. All she wanted to do was train. No one said a word.
Her name was Emily, but when it was just the two of them, her dad called her Michi or Chi-chan. No one else called her that. Perhaps no one else even knew that name. At least, she had never heard anyone else use it, and she never mentioned it to anyone.
Click for Ch. 2
Click for Ch. 2