One of the things I like to work on in my practice is acknowledging my teacher. Not just because it’s polite, but because in the Japanese martial arts tradition the student teacher relationship is is one of the most important relationships there is. It’s up there with the parental relationship. I want to honor that tradition in my practice, because I’m a martial arts practitioner rather than an athlete. I don’t see my teacher as a coach.
Sometimes Mr Vizzio will give me a correction or give me a suggestion, and I find myself not acknowledging him. And when I look at why I do that, it’s often because I’m feeling overwhelmed by what’s going on. But I can’t leave it at that. I want to understand internally, for myself, that I am bigger than any problem that’s presenting itself to me. I cannot become hypnotized by thinking that I don’t have a solution. That’s the whole problem.
So it’s a kind of understanding that I work on with myself so that I can continue to acknowledge this person that’s giving me such care, giving me their wisdom, helping me solve the problem. In that way, I am closer to understanding and acknowledging for myself that I can master whatever is before me. It’s very subtle but very important.
In the traditional martial arts environment, we might say, “Oss!” or “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am”. That approach is simple acknowledgement – it’s neither overconfident nor insecure. If, on the other hand, we find we have to reply with either “Thanks, but I got this” or “I don’t got this and I’m completely overwhelmed”, we have some work to do. Mindfulness in this area is part of the student’s job, so we have to practice.
Rather than just nodding or, even worse, rolling your eyes when when your teacher gives you their care, their experience, their wisdom, you can take a moment to acknowledge the gift. It brings us all closer to the solution, to the source, through presence and attention and gratitude.
Buzz Durkin is a ninth degree black belt in Okinawan Uechi-ryu Karate. For more than four decades he has led one of the most successful traditional martial arts schools in North America. A member of the World Martial Arts Hall of Fame, he has graduated hundreds and hundreds of students to the rank of black belt and beyond. He’s known around the world for the longevity of his students’ practice; on any given day in his dojo, you might find 3 generations of a family – a grandfather, a father and a son – all training in different classes.
But more than any of that, he is still a student of the martial arts – a dedicated proponent of the karate style he began studying over 50 years ago. His deep belief in the power of hard physical training, coupled with the emotional control and mental discipline that are hallmarks of serious martial arts practice, mark him as a true leader and role model. His ability to relate to people and his understanding of human nature are well-known in the martial arts world, and he’s quick to point out that they are at least as important as any physical abilities he may have developed over the years.
In this episode, we discuss his work over the last 50 years: from early martial arts experience in the 1960s, to his tour of duty in Vietnam; the growth of his own karate school and the capability of a good teacher; the beauty and relevance of traditional martial arts; the importance of positive community; not burning out, staying engaged and enjoying the practice.
It is our most sincere honor to be able to spend time in conversation with him.
We encourage all practitioners to love martial art practice just for the practice alone. It happens that people start with this sensibility, but grow more short-sighted over time. They feel that they need an outside stimulus in order to motivate them to practice.
It doesn’t seem like there’s anything wrong with this at first, but over time there’s a big problem: what happens when that outside stimulus is not there? There’s no recourse for motivation because we’ve been relying on an artificial aid the whole time.
So as a remedy, we feel that it’s a better thing to insist on the right motivation for practice all the time. Daily effort coupled with a sense of mindfulness and personal progress is a very fertile ground to work on. Complacency, on the other hand – glossing over daily practice as just an average occurrence that’s a stepping stone to something better – has no place in mastery.
This is an idea that takes some people (me included) many years to grasp. The middle ground is the sweet spot. We don’t eliminate all external motivations, but we balance the external and internal so we can have a sustainable practice. In this way we can benefit all the time, and have access to the finer details of our work on the mat.
If apathy takes over, we lose our access to very important elements – our awareness of how we treat our partners, our relationship to time and to process, the long view of training and the benefits that come with the routine of practice. If we stop caring enough to focus on the day to day, out of fear of boredom or because we think we’re “supposed” to need an external goal to be truly productive, we become quick to dismiss what might otherwise be very valuable.
This sort of training keeps us tethered to the external, but paradoxically it also keeps us to ourselves. It doesn’t extend us into the world; things shrink when we need to make them “all about us”. Sometimes we start with a question, but we really aren’t trying for a conversation – we only want to talk about ourselves.
On the other hand, the world expands when we communicate, when we’re conscious and friendly. We ask questions of other people and then learn to listen to the answer, because we’re not just trying to advance an external agenda.
When we are nuanced, we can see the bigger picture. And that bigger picture can serve us (and those around us) for a long time.
When I’m with a partner that I’m not sure about, or that might be a little bit bigger than me, or younger than me, I always begin with inside control.
That’s my primary strategy, the principle that I start with when paired with anybody I don’t know well.
It’s a strategy that puts control first, which is a way of putting safety first – not only for me, but for my partner as well. It keeps everything where I can slow down what’s too fast and cool off what’s too hot (and I can also heat it up if need be).
In that way, I know I’m always beginning in the right place. When I do that consistently, then I typically a wind up in a very good place over the arc of the training.
I find that this principle really works very well in other areas of my life too. When you’re feeling stressed or anxious or uncertain about what’s going on, it is the right place to start look for solutions.
And as in jiu-jitsu on the mat, where I turn to inside control, I find it very helpful to start looking inwards during stressful times, to start trusting myself to come up with the right solutions rather than searching outside.
The check-up can start internally: “OK, I have all my tools. I know I can solve this problem.” It’s a very helpful, proactive place to start – the inside position, trusting yourself.
Jiu-jitsu is a problem-solving activity in many ways. Setting foot on the mat and sticking with it means you’re able to get through the arc of the training and solve a lot of dynamic problems and still be in good shape. Physically you can stay well, and then emotionally you can land in a good place, and for the spirit, you know you’ve taken care of someone else in the process.
It’s natural to look to to these tools when we’re under pressure from our jobs, our relationships or the day-to-day pressures and stresses. Rather than reaching for something outside ourselves, habits or even substances that seem to fix things in the short term but end up creating bigger problems long term, we can start inside.
It takes time to develop the tools to do it, just as techniques take time to polish. We make our mistakes, correct them and find our balance and direction over time.
Arriving at a harmonious conclusion usually involves working from the inside out. And that’s what this training is about, on or off the mat.
We have to go uphill every day, at least a little bit. We may have flat days where our equilibrium is never upset and we’re right in balance, or we may have downhill days where everything goes easily. In either case, we still have to find a challenge to engage with, in order to build and maintain strength.
Experienced people know that in the martial arts, the external battles we wage are only one piece; we have the internal terrain to navigate as well.
This is conditioning for the mind, a sort of exposure therapy to keep us used to exerting ourselves so that it becomes a habit. And usually we don’t have to look too far to find a something to meet up with. It can be mental, physical or emotional, but for the sake of our conditioning there must be some place where we exert effort against resistance during the course of the day. Otherwise we soften quickly.
Now, going uphill doesn’t mean that everything has to be hard. It also doesn’t mean that the things that you’re already doing don’t require effort. But to be effective as practitioners over the long term, we have to be able to head into the hard work we have to do with a well-prepared mind. We need to be ready to go uphill.
And even if external circumstances don’t give us any resistance, and we find ourselves on a straightaway or a downhill, we can still deliberately choose a place and a time and a way to make ourselves step outside of the comfort zone. It’s called training.
We can’t rely on the hope that it’s going to be an easy one – as in, “I hope this conversation is going to be easy”. We assemble to tools we need on an ongoing basis. Sometimes we find that we have to accept that part of the day, even the whole day, is an uphill, in which case we learn to buckle down and ride through it.
In the short run it’s easier not to go uphill when you don’t have to. In fact, it’s very efficient to only put out the energy necessary to complete a given task (and the martial arts tend to prize efficiency). But in the long run it’s a liability to put it off. Being well-prepared is better, so that we have the habit of climbing a little bit every day rather than finding ourselves suddenly needing traits like perseverance, stoicism, positive thinking and goal-management.
Again, if you’re a runner you can’t only run downhill or on flat surfaces. You’ve got to climb a little. The recommendation here is that you deliberately choose some way to put an uphill in your day. Believe it or not, with time and experience you can get a little bit tougher and you find yourself used to those harder climbs. It’s great insurance policy, because you never suddenly find you’re without resources to draw on.
So don’t worry so much when you end up with a difficult day; it’s just preparation for an even harder one.
If we’re surrounded by people who are encouraging us to stay in a comfort zone, we need to go find some other people. We need this work. The world needs you, the class needs you, people need you and it’s important as part of the practice. Good jiu-jitsu training is built on a willingness to work on something difficult every day. When we embrace this project, we grow stronger, more powerful and more able to manage whatever comes our way.
In the “The Book of 5 Rings”, Musashi encourages the reader, the sword-master, to stay in the middle mind. His recommendation is not to let the mind move too far in any one direction, but to make decisions from a central place. And that place in combat is where all discoveries are made. It’s a sort of neutral place, a moment when your mind and body are in unison. So if we’re talking about someone swinging at 3 foot razor at your head, which was the warriors way during that time, there’s an urgency to good decision making. Musashi’s advice is to cultivate this “middle way” in order to be able have to deal with that problem effectively.
He goes on to say that in that mental place, time is no longer linear. It’s possible to can see all things at once. You can see the past, present and future; you can go right to the intention of your partner when they’re swinging that razor – whether it is at your head or your stomach or your Achilles tendon. Typically we don’t think like that. We conceive of time like language, moving forward in succession. But in combat, with the middle mind, it’s possible to discover time in a non-linear way. We can have ideas flowing that solve problems before they happen. He talks about stopping the attack at the letter “A”, not at the letter “K”. It can happen at the beginning rather than at the end.
So how does one do that? Well, we don’t know except through our own experience. Musashi himself is speaking out of a lifetime of practice, drawing on his own experiences. We can stop trying to anticipate the future and stop dwelling deeply on the past. When we enact that shift, it moves us past urgency and into clarity. The exterior world doesn’t need to change, either. These decisions happen in mind.
This skill is still relevant for us because we have the same experiences, just in a different context. It can happen when you’re driving, and you have a moment of distrust for the person four cars ahead, who’s driving a little erratically. Or when you’re on the subway and you get the sense that something is up at the other end of the car – conversation has gotten suddenly louder, or quieter, or everyone else has left the car except for you.
We can grow sensitive to when doubt occurs in our consciousness, and then noting it and responding to it. That’s why it’s applicable – it’s the middle spot from which we can perceive, adjust and act clearly. We don’t go right away into anger or apathy or some other extreme of emotion. We become unburdened, and discover the freedom to make better decisions from that place.
“Sustainability” is a word that we use to describe optimal martial arts practice. It has to do both with the external environment that we’re a part as well as the internal terrain that we navigate for ourselves. And a lot of this internal work has to do with the stories that we tell ourselves.
There’s one story that many of us in the martial arts tell ourselves. It says that we can drive really hard, that we can put the engine into the red all the time, and that that is a good model for success. The notion is that we can overcome whatever our deficits are, whether they’re speed or talent or ability or strength or flexibility, by working hard. Then we credit that with our success.
It works quite well in the short-term but not so well in the long-term. If you are a brute force type of person, that will certainly work…up to a point. If you are a strong person, that too will work up to a point. But after that point, whatever it is, the returns start to diminish. We find ourselves moving towards burnout, mainly because the practice of always striving at maximum capacity is just not sustainable.
So we need a different story, one that has less to do with working out and more to do with working in. Focusing on our patience can help. So can stepping out of the “win/lose” mindset, and moving into technique rather than strength. Each of these gives us an alternative thought model, and provides an approach to practice that doesn’t include the sort of over-exertion that leads to fatigue, depletion or breakdown.
It’s built into the training we do, after all. Part of the work of randori is staying open to what happens in the moment. Inside of that work, we can change the story we’re telling ourselves. We can reduce these types of constricting thoughts and instead allow the expanding thoughts to flow. And once we turn away from a very rigid, short-term, very high-output approach, we get out of needing to be “ahead of” and can start to be “right here”.
So we encourage everyone to do an internal checkup on your stories. Many of us do a fine job with the external environment, with the physical training, but we also have to consider the internal terrain. We want sustainability, not human sacrifice. You can have a sustainable external environment, but if the internal one is is pushing you to burn out, you’ll break before you ever reach wherever you’re going.
There is a power that comes with staying mentally engaged in what we’re doing. In the dojo, when the class works together in this frame of mind, the distance we can go together is really something. When we stay present it gives us much more sensitivity moment by moment. This is critical because life typically doesn’t come at us the way we want. It comes at us the way it comes at us, and we need to deal with it appropriately in real time in order to maximize success.
As an example, my teacher will sometimes say, “you’re too stiff with me, you’ve got to relax.” Then the very next day I get yelled at for being too familiar and too comfortable. And I want to say, “look, you told me to do it this way”. But I don’t do that because that’s not the lesson for me. The lesson is not to be correct. The lesson is to be present and engaged, to see and feel and hear all of the signals. Then I can learn and improve and change my perspective without bringing in my ego or my agenda.
This is a very important martial arts point. It can be hard as the newer student to stay present in this way. But one way we practice it is in our relationship to partner work on the mat. So if you’re the junior student, it’s considered poor character to correct the senior. If someone’s putting you in danger in the training, then that’s another story. But typically we don’t want to correct our seniors because it solidifies our position rather than keeping it open.
If I were to say to my own teacher, “But you said last time we talked that you wanted me to be more familiar,” I might be right but I wouldn’t be serving the relationship in a longterm way. I’d be missing an opportunity to adjust, to engage and let something go. I choose to listen and learn rather than inserting my ego – my own personal point of view – into the conversation. I just let it be, as it is in that moment.
This is very significant for us as students. We can practice a mindfulness here. If you’re the senior, take care not to over correct the junior and provide a bad example. And if you’re the junior, take care not to correct, period. Helping if the senior asks is a whole separate issue, but trying to teach someone who’s your senior is probably not the best etiquette. And it’s not about serving the senior’s ego. It’s about you, the junior, letting it go.
It can change how we look at the training and our experience on the mat. In the dressing room after training, sometimes my junior would talk about how they “almost caught me” in the training with a submission or a sweep. I would think, “Are you kidding me? Is that the extent, the scope, of your training? That you almost beat me? Who cares?” It grates on the relationship. It’s more about shoring things up than about staying open to what else could be.
So staying present and mentally engaged means to work together for maximum benefit. Don’t dog the relationship. Honor it. If someone is working on something, let them work. If you have a good day, don’t put it in someone’s face. It’s not necessary. We can protect their relationship at all costs, and in doing so, serve both others and ourselves.
With the rise in popularity of MMA and jiu-jitsu over the recent years, many of the more traditional approaches to martial arts have fallen out of favor. Seen as artifacts of a different time, styles like kung fu and karate are sometimes given short shrift as “impractical”, “out of date” or “ineffective”.
Thomas Clifford – our guest today – challenges this notion. A lifelong practitioner and martial arts leader, his decades of experience training and teaching span both traditional and modern disciplines. He believes that practices from kaju kempo to the five animal frolics provide a deeper and more enduring value than they’re sometimes given credit for.
With their capacity to benefit participants on a physical, mental and emotional spectrum, they have become more than devices for self-defense or tournament wins – they provide serious insights, rare opportunities for self-development and invaluable lessons for inner growth.
But more than that, he argues that these practices develop skills and attributes we need in the world at large: responsibility, sustainability, accountability and maturity. We can learn flexibility of thought from the Chinese healing arts; an appreciation for our own shortcomings as we study our instructors and peers; and the importance of perseverance as we learn to lead and follow in the classroom.
Critic, thinker, provacateur, student, teacher – Tom Clifford is all of this and more. As a teacher straddling the classical and the contemporary (kung fu, kaju kempo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu), he challenges the conventional thinking around the division between what is “modern” and what is “traditional”. And he raises the possibility that the embedded wisdom in many of these older styles might contain the key not just to survival, but to larger-scale success.
There are two seated positions from which one studies in a traditional martial arts setting: either the informal seated position with the legs crossed, or a more traditional listening or learning position called “seiza“, which is on the knees.
One of the benefits of this kind of position is that if the instructor is demonstrating and your legs are underneath you, you won’t get in the way of the instruction.
Another is that you don’t communicate a laissez-faire learning attitude.
See, our body language often dictates how attentive we are, so establishing this sitting position helps to keep us awake and alert to maximize learning.
But that’s just part of the story.
“How to sit” is an introduction to the larger discussion of the two activities that a practitioner utilizes in the school. You’re either:
1) studying, meaning you’re sitting and watching, or
2) you’re training, meaning you’re physically learning and doing.
Those are the only two activities that ever happen in a traditional Jiu-Jitsu training environment.
It’s not conversing, or thinking about your bills, or picking your toenails. It’s studying or training. Those are the only two dynamics.
Here’s why that’s so important.
In my experience, one of our priorities as a student needs to be “effectiveness”. That is, how we learn is really important to the learning process. It’s not enough to just let the lessons wash over you and hope for the best. What we’re doing is an active, engaged process that asks a lot from us.
That’s why we believe that being a student is an art form in and of itself.
As I’ve said before, most of us were never taught how to learn in school. For sure I wasn’t. I just showed up and wrote things down on a paper and was basically left unguided and untutored in the “how” of learning for 15 years.
It was through the martial arts that I came to understand that there’s a way to learn – and it’s not passive.
How to sit was the first lesson. There is something very specific about the way we sit, our posture, the way we study, the way we process information, that matters for our learning. We gain more, for our own benefit and our classmates’ benefit, when we strengthen the procedures we use to learn.
We’re advocating taking on a physical component of practice that usually ignored, but which can have a massive impact on your retention and focus.
Imagine what it means to the longevity of your martial arts study and the results you get. Our hope is that you’ll have more to use, more to share and a deeper experience of practice when you develop your learning style this way.
On top of that, there’s a greater connection to the process of learning as a person overall – it just becomes part of who you are. You become a better student not just for the classroom or the instruction, but for the rest of your life as well, which is what we’re always working on.