Thursday, 15 January 2015

Don’t set goals

Western popular culture adores goal-setting. It enjoys the same presumed and unquestioned virtue as personal growth; here, one of the best things you can say about people you admire is that they’re goal-oriented and never stop working until they achieve their goals.

I think karatedō is different.

It’s not that goals are necessarily bad. Good karateka often set goals like learning the sequence of moves in a kata. What needs to be questioned, however, is the presumption that setting goals is inherently virtuous. For instance, the goal of so many nyūmonsha (beginners), is getting a black belt. But in the karate classic, Moving Zen, C. W. Nicol recounts that when he asked one of his sensei in Tokyo how long it would take him to earn a black belt, the sensei went to a cupboard, pulled out a brand-new black belt and threw it at him, barking, “Take this and go back to your country!” This is telling in more than one way. First, this kind of goal was identified as being one that was both foreign and unwelcome in Japan. Second, it pointed out how Westerners too often confuse the black belt, as a mere symbol, with the rank and skill it is meant to signify. The latter is crucial, because it materializes the difference between what is external and what is internal. From that perspective, it is no accident that goals like New Year’s resolutions are so often articulated openly, because, in a strong sense, a goal is externalized: it is something outside yourself that you want to achieve or possess, like a house, a good job, or a black belt.

Yet the fundamental “goal” of karatedō is the opposite. It is internalization, the transformation of the self, changing inside to be better as a person. Note that this cannot be a goal in the usual sense, because there can be no endpoint, no possible completion. Believing you have “achieved” being a good person proves that you have failed to do so―at least from any perspective that thinks humility is important—despite the current trendiness of loving yourself just as you are. There is no end; you can always be better, and profoundly so. Karatedō is merely one of many ways of continually trying to be a better human being. It is in this way that the samurai aim of dying well becomes a little less dire. Working on the self takes at least a lifetime. And the goal of learning the sequence of a kata is meaningless without the ongoing and never-ending practice to make it part of yourself. You never stop learning it.

Perhaps more significant is a contrast in the relationships to time. The goal looks to some golden future; karatedō insists that you focus on the present, on what you need to work on here and now, whether that is a roundhouse kick or simple humility. The concern for this moment is inherited from karatedō’s fighting heritage. If, in mortal combat, a fighter’s attention wavers from the life-and-death present, s/he will likely be killed. S/he can’t worry about what might happen next year, next week, or even the next minute. It has to be totally about what’s happening this instant.

Likewise, karateka must focus on their own personal practice here-and-now. They must attend to the movement or stillness of the moment, to the requirements of the changes they are striving to embody. In our dōjō, karatedō is, above all, a matter of teaching and learning, and both mean transformation. Given the differences between East and West, those transformations are more profound than what is immediately apparent.

And this is why goals don’t work in karatedō. The foundation of a goal, despite the sometimes drastic changes such as white belt to black belt, or renter to homeowner, is what must stay the same: the criteria or assumptions that made that goal seem important in the first place. If karatedō changes who you are, then there is always the real possibility that what you valued when you set a goal no longer matters; what you believed, in a deep sense, no longer seems true. The true courage of the karateka is the willingness to open her/himself to that change, to become something crucially different from what you are.

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