18 April 2011

Lessons on civility from the dojo

I have been an avid cardio-kickboxer for more than a decade, and the lessons I have learned have richly impacted and informed my life. I can remember the very first day I entered the dojo and met Sensei Pon Inthatirath, a 7th-degree black belt and world champion karate practitioner. I had no way, then, of knowing that the dojo would become a second home and that Sensei would become much more than my teacher.

As I entered the dojo, co-mingling scents of sweat and leather and the sight of heavy bags and focus mitts assaulted my senses. It was hot and humid inside the dojo, a condition I would learn to both love and hate in the years to come. Sensei believed in tradition and training in the old style of Japanese dojos, and that meant there would be no creature comforts like air conditioning or fans. Training meant hard work, discipline and rigor. It was not for the faint of heart.

I felt breathless as we prepared for my first class. I looked around at the other students and wondered what they were thinking. Sensei instructed me on how to put on my hand wraps. As I weaved the wraps over my palms, around my thumbs and up my wrists, I was struck by how empowered I felt already. Pulling my boxing gloves on over the wraps brought me to a new level of confidence, and I hadn’t even punched a bag.

From the very first day, classes included not only lessons about the art and practice of kickboxing, but life lessons, too: how to scan a room, be alert for possible encounters and anticipate danger. Sensei’s focus on discipline, commitment to hard work and training our minds and bodies to react and defend required countless hours of conditioning and practice. The sessions were intense, physical and grueling. Some days, the clock seemed to stand still and time dragged as we ran, punched, kicked and performed countless plyometric and boxing drills, only to do it all over again.

After literally thousands of hours in the dojo, I can clearly see the connection between kickboxing, self-defense training and conditioning with living a life of civility. Some ask how I reconcile striking bags and sparring with opponents with my passionate desire to foster civility and seek peaceful solutions. While not readily evident to others, the relationship is crystal clear to me. Just like kickboxing, living a life of civility requires confidence, courage, expression and voice. It requires a commitment to health promotion, risk-taking and a devotion to hours and hours of training, so that responding to challenges and coping with adversity becomes almost second nature. Things don’t always go well in the dojo. I’ve been knocked down and bruised; and had surgery on my shoulder and knee because I stubbornly refused to back down from a much stronger, bigger and quicker opponent before realizing the result of my arrogance. I have learned from my mistakes, how to get back up and how to keep fighting the good fight.

I think, most of all, I’ve learned that family, friends, and people matter—that life is short, that we are all in it together and that it’s the people we meet along life’s journey who enrich and inform our lives.I’ve learned and experienced firsthand the power of kinship, companionship and fellowship. I’ve also experienced fierceness juxtaposed with surprising tenderness and grace. Civility requires presence, purpose, connection and an intention to seek common ground. Sensei and others, including my husband who joins me in the joys and agonies of kickboxing, have taught me these lessons, and life in the dojo has reinforced them.

Just like the physical muscle memory that I have developed and honed, I have also strengthened my mental muscle memory for restraint, respect and civility. Life in the dojo has transcended the physical. It has increased my capacity for awareness, mental fitness and moral courage. Perhaps, someday, I will hang up my boxing gloves but, for now, the scent of sweat and leather, and the crisp smack of my glove on my partner’s focus mitt beckons.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.