Several years ago, I started learning karate with my kids. It began with the desire to do something fun with my children that would help us all to learn new things and grow together. Like many people who begin martial arts, my thoughts were mostly around learning the physical application of a practice that would help me and my children defend ourselves and learn to do things we didn’t know how to do before. What I didn’t realize back then was how much I would learn about myself and life in general.
Karate students are typically taught the basic techniques when they begin – strikes, kicks, blocks, etc. In the beginning stage, the emphasis is on how to physically perform these techniques, rather than understanding the application – which comes later, once the performance of the technique is a bit more solid. Gradually, we learned to perform choreographed sequences of basic techniques called katas and one steps. The next level of difficulty we were introduced to, was to utilize these techniques in a non-choreographed way doing things like sparring or self-defense.
One day, we were asked to perform something called a Shuhari kata. This was rather unnerving, because unlike the choreographed katas we had been learning, a Shuhari kata is purely the creation of the person doing it. In other words, you begin the sequence standing in the middle of a floor with people expectantly watching you. After a command is issued, your task is to create your own sequence and flow using basic techniques that you have learned up to this point. It requires you to break free of tradition and anything that has been done before, to invent your own application and creative form – one that is completely unique to you. Shuhari, we were told, would never be the same from one person to another – or even one application to another, as they are performed in the moment in response to each person’s imaginative and inspired impulses, which constantly change and evolve.
So there we were, called up one by one to perform these Shuhari katas, while being carefully observed by karate masters who had taught us everything we had learned, and fellow students. My first Shuhari kata was rather stilted. I was self-conscious, consumed by the thoughts in my head of wanting to get “right” something that I was told there was no right way to do. I felt certain that I would do something completely inappropriate, something that would draw laughter or judgment. I wanted it to be over as quickly as possible.
I still feel that way to some degree about doing a Shuhari kata. But over time, I learned that there is something freeing and exhilarating that happens when you give yourself completely to something – when you forget about the people watching you and your own need to do it any certain way, and you give yourself license to invent and to go with whatever you are feeling in the moment.
Upon reflection, I realize how similar Shuhari is to life itself. During the early parts of our lives we are taught how to survive in the world –what is appropriate and not, how to speak, act and otherwise behave in any given environment – at school, at work and within a variety of other social settings. The “Shu” in Shuhari is roughly translated as learned from tradition, which is where we all begin from an early age.
At some point, we realize that independent thought is necessary. The rules we were taught as children don’t always apply in every situation. We must use some discernment to determine what behavior will best meet the needs of both our environments and ourselves. We begin to recognize the individual styles and preferences we all have and how in some cases they may go against the “norm.” The “Ha” in Shuhari means to break free of traditional training. When we take a stand against a status quo we believe is no longer serving the greatest good, we have reached this new stage of development.
I believe that at some point in our lives, we will find ourselves in a place where we are called to transcend all that we have been taught and conditioned to do and to learn to recognize and flow with our own unique gifts and creative inclinations. The “Ri” in Shuhari represents that stage in martial arts, when the student is able to go beyond tradition because of their understanding and insight into the martial arts. All of the greatest artists and masters – in any discipline – have at some point gone beyond emulating the techniques and styles of others to find and applied their own.
It will not always be easy. Just as those who are asked to perform a Shuhari kata, we will be carefully observed by others who engage in and may have even taught us the traditional ways. We will feel exposed, vulnerable and we may lose our nerve. But the more we learn to give ourselves to the inner promptings of our own unique gifts, talent and intuitive insights and inclinations, the freer we will be, and the more beautiful the world around us will become – as a result of what we have given to it from the very core of our being.
“Insist on yourself; never imitate… Every great man is unique.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
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