Everything is Training

Our efforts are the purpose, process and products of our activities.

Posted Nov 13, 2017

So much of my life has been spent training. My major sources of training are as a martial artist for more than 35 years and I trained as a neuroscientist and got my PhD 20 years ago. But what am i really training for--what is the purpose of all my training? 

I am writing this as I sit in my Tokyo hotel cafe which overlooks the very busy street Aoyama-dori. (This is the same hotel where I wrote a post back in 2013 "Nothing's gonna change my world.) It's mesmerizing watching all the pedestrians streaming by. A non-stop flow of people heading to places and other people sight unseen. This has all contributed to my current reflection on training as motion towards some objective and how, perhaps, that's really the wrong way to think of it.

On this trip to Japan I visited the birthplace of my personal martial arts superhero the 16th Century Japanese sword master Miyamoto Musashi (1576-1643). Musashi fought over 60 duels without defeat. This is impressive, for sure, but it's not the reason Musashi is my personal martial arts superhero.

Over his career and training arc, Musashi moved away from using a live blade in his duels, preferring a wooden sword or other implements (he used a cut down oar once also). This approach allowed at least a better chance of non-lethal outcomes. He also invented an entirely new and unconventional style of sword fighting--that of using both the long and short sword simultaneously with one in each hand.

Musashi was a true innovator with perceptive vision. He was also a skilful painter and near the very end of his life wrote his opus on swordsmanship, strategy, and life philosophy "Go Rin no Sho". So, Miyamoto Musashi was a warrior sage who spent his life refining and revisiting himself through constant training. 

On this visit to Japan I went to Musashi's home village of Miyamoto. I wanted to see the place that shaped this man, to visit his museum, shrine, and the various memorials to be found all around the village. (One of the most spectacular being a huge Budokan training hall in the shape of a samurai helmet.)

E. Paul Zehr
Budokan in Miyamoto village, Mimasaka prefecture.
Source: E. Paul Zehr

As I walked around Miyamoto I was struck by the beauty of a small village in a valley surrounded by rolling hills and mountains. It made me think again about training and its meaning in my own life.

It's ironic how we can say some things and think we understand them but later the true nature of what we thought we understood is revealed. I wrote here back in 2011 about the need to try and adjust our activity levels (training!) when circumstances (like the holiday season) place different demands on our time. I used the metaphor of keeping water hot by adding a little heat (doing something) rather than letting the water go cold (by doing nothing).

I have had great difficulty lately rationalizing my desire to do things--martial arts, research, and writing mostly--with some injuries I have had that greatly impact my ability to do those things. This created considerable angst and I chafed against it for, literally, some years.

I realized when I visited Miyamoto village that I need to really reflect on my most favorite of quotes from Miyamoto Musashi who, in "Go Rin no Sho" (Book of 5 Rings) wrote:

"The true science of martial arts means practicing them in such a way that they will be useful at any time, and to teach them in such a way that they will be useful in all things."

I am now reinterpreting Musashi's quote for my own life to imply that everything is training and the benefits are found in the application of the process. Training is simultaneously both process and product in a never ending circle.

E. Paul Zehr
Mural on the platform at Miyamoto Musashi station.
Source: E. Paul Zehr

To me this means that even if I can't do the same volume of what I formerly considered "actual training" (ironic quotes intended) I can try to bring the mindset of training to all aspects of my life. So that, to paraphrase Musashi, my efforts will be useful in all the things I do. I thought I was doing that, but I realize now I was lacking. I was sometimes separating training from application in an artificial demarcation. 

In many ways, science and martial arts require the same philosophical and operational approach. Just as martial arts training is an iterative process that proceeds ever onward, science is always a constant revision of our closest approximation of the truth at any given time. We need vigilance to avoid confusing methodologies for research and training from the principles we seek to understand and apply.

This approach takes work to apply and implement in daily life. But then again, that's all part of the training too. And the purpose of all that training? To slowly, step by step, day by day, get better at everything we do, including the training itself.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2017)