It was a chilly fall evening. I sat in the dark kitchen after class, holding ice to the back of my hand and wondering why I felt so miserable. There's not a thing wrong with failure that hard work can't fix, right?
I can't describe the frustration as I bounced off the wood - even now the memory hurts. Twice, three times I tried, switching hands and stopping only because I didn't want to cause myself more damage.
I never tried anything without thinking I didn't have a chance of success. I had never experienced failure so completely that it filled me up.
How it started
During my temporary stay in Southern California, I trained in a very good (but safely structured) Seven Stars Mantis Kung Fu school. It was very different from my previous Aikido training. I enjoyed the opportunity to push myself hard in a new direction, yet at that level there wasn't much challenge outside of pushing physical limits.
Once I moved north, not liking to go too long without training I started "Street Style Hapkido" under Master Rick Schubert, through the Experimental College at UC Davis. Master Rick is a 4th degree black belt, himself training in martial arts since the age of six, also Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, CA.
I read his bio in the EC catalog, sat in on a class and listened as he lectured and encouraged his students. A good instructor will not ask you do anything he isn't doing right along with you, and Master Rick is a very good instructor.
Hapkido is a sort of "first cousin" to Aikido, the art I originally trained in, but the differences were enough to keep me on my toes. So I attended class regularly, learned some new things, remembered some others, and was taken by surprise when invited to test for Orange Belt. It wasn't a full board, just a half -- but I broke it without much hesitation. Never did anything like that before, and while I understood intellectually that it's not a hard thing to do, there's still this mental thing about putting a piece of your body through a piece of wood.
About Board Breaks
There are websites and books that describe the physics and techniques for breaking boards. I read descriptions on websites where the writers broke boards with the standard "karate chop" move, and how you too can break boards doing that. The Sekrit Method of using the right kind of wood, cut the right way, and the right kind of movement - that's all over the web nowadays. And yes, any of you in reasonable health can do that.
No, I didn't read any of those before testing. In hindsight that wouldn't have helped much -- for one thing we were not training in that sort of strike; for another I've broken plenty of pieces of wood with my hands and feet while working in gardens and carpentry. This wasn't about breaking a piece of wood. But what was it about?
The second test came up about two months after the first, being the full size board break. I thought I was ready, but ... apparently I was not.
How it's done: You are called up before the class, and told "Hand or foot, your choice, my veto."
I chose Reverse Punch - I wanted my first full board break to be a hand technique, I was reasonably certain I could do it with a foot break, but I wanted it to be an achievement, not a sure thing.
Strike. Bounce. Strike. Bounce. Get some advice on what I'm doing wrong, switch hands. Strike. Bounce.
"Do you want to try a different technique?"
In a fog, I answered "No. I want to do this my way."
After a day or so the pain in my knuckle faded, then a week later during "shield rounds," a drill where we take turns holding large padded body shields and whaling each other freestyle, I completed the hidden damage to that knuckle -- my right hand started swelling and throbbing. It was suggested I most likely had a ruptured bursa, the protective sack around the joint. 6 to 8 weeks healing time.
So much for my goal of breaking with a reverse punch.
I quickly learned that the palm heel strike was the next closest technique -- it allowed me to continue to train in the same basic technique, continue to correct the reasons I failed the test, strengthen the movement, and build awareness in the legs, hips and shoulders that drive the strike.
At one point I asked if it was possible to obsess too much on this goal. Master Rick smiled, saying "In the Martial Arts, we prefer to use the word 'focus.'"
Of course I obsessed. No sore muscle hurt as much as that Failure did.
I hung my practice target from a hook in my kitchen, practiced while waiting for things to cook and coffee to brew. I practiced whenever I had a few minutes between jobs, before bed, whenever I just felt like throwing my hand against a pad. Black belts in the class pushed me with smiles and only a little sadistic encouragement to get the body rotation right. I figured out a trick of using walls and flat surfaces to train the muscle memory for finishing in the correct stance.
Weeks later, I told Master Rick I felt I was ready, but would like to try the palm heel strike instead. He held up a broken piece of wood, asked me to position the strike and freeze. After suggesting some minor adjustments, he agreed that it was worth trying. Then he warned me that particular strike is not the easiest for board breaks; it's a relatively large surface area that needs greater impact.
Failure's Mirror Image
As I practiced, in class and at home, I started thinking -- what if success becomes the sole point? What if the break alone becomes the focus? As the next testing period approached, I started gnawing at myself. The test is just me against a piece of wood. It's not about defeating an enemy or proving how strong I am. I began telling myself "I can't rightfully do this as a test until success or failure is not important."
Sunday, December 11th 2005 was another testing day. I'd already been warned a few days before to start thinking about my break.
I was excited, but also disappointed that I wasn't forced to wait longer. If it's still important, then am I missing the point? Over the past weeks when I felt impatience or resentment at being held back, I reminded myself I could work a year on these drills and techniques and it wouldn't be time wasted. That's not sour grapes either, that's just plain true.
I had started thinking of Failure as a kind of mirror -- a reflection of how I see myself. Do I see the Reflected Self, the Failed Self in that mirror as the actual target? When I break the board, am I breaking a mirror holding the image of Failure? At what point did it stop being just a piece of wood?
On December 11th, I smashed that mirror.
And I learned once broken the mirror is not particularly important. Clutch a broken mirror too tightly to show others the shards of your accomplishment, and you cut yourself.
But I did what I wanted to do; there's no longer a need to save the pieces. It's just a broken piece of wood.