Lessons in Mindfulness 2.2

 Sometimes we

look so intently

    toward the

  pinnacle, that

    we stumble

 over the steps

   leading to it.


     begins just

where you are.


Peaks, Valleys and Plateaus

This Too Shall Pass

By now you know that practice is a process to be

experienced, not a result to be achieved. It’s a journey, not

a destination. Sometimes though, it feels a lot like a roller

coaster. You always seem to be hitting peaks and falling

into valleys. Some days, you feel great about your practice.

You feel strong, powerful, flexible, focused. Your cardio is

good and your techniques are crisp and clean. You can’t get

enough of these days. Other times, you feel overwhelmed,

sloppy, distracted. You keep looking up at the clock. You

wonder if you’re ever going to get any better at this.

Sometimes these peaks and valleys last for awhile — weeks,

maybe months.

Obviously no one loses interest in practice during a peak.

You’re excited, you feel like you’re improving, your life

outside the dojo is somehow becoming less stressful, as if

your martial arts practice is actually improving your life in

general. You can’t believe your good fortune in finding

something this authentic, this much fun and this useful. But

that’s the nature of riding the peak. Sad to say, it doesn’t

last. All the discipline and focus in the world can’t stop your

practice from periodically dropping into a valley. The point is

to be careful that these low points don’t steal your practice

from you. Don’t lose sight of the fact that a valley is simply a

lull between two peaks. These valleys don’t reflect a sudden

breakdown in physical ability, but a shift in how you feel

about practice. It’s not your physical execution of technique

that’s slipping, you still know how to do all the things you

were doing last week — but your mood, your attitude has


In practice as in life, many people’s true potential goes

unrealized for one reason: they do not follow through when

things gets difficult. They forget that, given enough time,

change is certain. Most people have a tendency to give up

when the tables turn, instead of sticking it out until the

tables turn again. They rationalize, “Oh, I’ve got no will

power,” but this is a self-perpetuating rationalization.

Will power, like a muscle, needs to be exercised. You need

to take control. Undisciplined will is a lazy, spoiled child;

every time a situation becomes difficult, it seeks the path of

least resistance — to give up. Each time you give in to the

spoiled child, each time you shrug and give up, you increase

the chance that that same spoiled brat will show up when

things get tough in the future. Each difficult period you

ride out builds a stronger will, as you take charge of your

life, and begin to become someone who follows through on


Success is not

permanent. The

same is true of


You’re Not Really Stuck!

More dangerous to your practice than these alternating

peaks and valleys is the plateau. A plateau is a significant

period of time when you feel that you are not getting any

better. It differs from a peak or valley in that these ups and

downs continue even when you are on a plateau. You have

    In life, you will

experience peaks

       and valleys.

 Take care not to

  turn the valleys

         into nests;


           them into

      plateaus and

     perhaps even


good days and you have bad days but, over the longer run,

you don’t really seem to be getting any better or any worse.

Your practice seems to have just flattened out. A plateau can

last several months or even a year. You may test for a new

rank, learn a new form, even be introduced to different parts

of the curriculum. Regardless of these external benchmarks,

you still feel like you’re on a plateau and that you’re not

making any real progress.

Let’s analyze this phenomenon. In the first nine months of

your practice, you learned more over one short stretch than

you ever will again. This is only logical. When you came

into this practice, you knew nothing of this art. You were

a complete novice and everything was new and exciting.

There was, literally, everything to learn. In each class, you

tried as hard as you could to perform the physical technique

and to understand the philosophy behind it. You might go

home a little confused, sore and tired, but you knew you

were learning, you were getting it, and maybe, just maybe,

someday you would be as good as some of the senior

students. Even when this initial period seemed to slow down,

you were still progressing remarkably quickly — learning

terminology, technique, philosophy and principles. Your

practice became something very special to you, and soon

you couldn’t imagine yourself not going to the dojo. You

wondered many times how you ever made it through life

without this special place, and quietly committed to yourself

to practice forever.

Overcoming Frustration Through Understanding

Now, let’s fast forward to the present day. You have

practiced for at least one year, and if you haven’t already

hit a plateau, you are very close. You’re expected to keep

improving your basics, but the techniques you already know

aren’t really getting any better and the new techniques

are even more difficult. It’s not just your physical practice

either. The newness of it all has worn off. You’re discovering

that Christmas morning is more exciting than Christmas

afternoon, and why, three weeks later, you’re not entirely

sure what you wanted these presents for in the first place.

This is a very different phase of practice than your first year.

If you expect to continue to learn as quickly as you did in the

beginning, you will become frustrated.

Look at it this way. You began your practice at zero (not

even knowing how to do the techniques) and hoped to

someday achieve ten (mastery of the art). You may go from

zero to four or five relatively quickly but, from five on up, all

growth is incremental and is increasingly more difficult. In

other words, learning how to perform the gross motor skills

involved in the technique and forms of your art may only

take a year or two (zero to five on the scale), but complete

physical mastery and deep understanding of these same

techniques (six to ten on the scale) can take twenty or thirty

more years. You cannot hope to make progress at the same

rate year after year. Eventually, when you have practiced

martial arts for many years, well over 90% of your time will

be spent on plateaus.

Wisdom is not

what you can


but what you

cannot forget.

One of the reasons that people become a jack of all trades


Your future is

dictated by your

 deepest desire.

  Take care that

    your deepest

desire is always

    to realize the


and never master anything is because they get excited

about the initial pace at which they learn a new subject.

Whether it is mountain biking, rock climbing, golf or any

new activity, there is a rapid learning curve in the beginning

which invariably tapers off. Once they hit their first plateau,

most people start looking for a new way to spend their

time. They’ve got the basic moves, and they’re not learning

as quickly, so they rationalize that they’ve learned most of

what there is to learn. The activity is no longer instantly,

quantifiably exciting, and so it’s on to a new activity, a new

thrill, maybe a new style of martial arts. This may or may

not be a conscious decision, but people, especially in the

West, have short attention spans. As progress wanes, so does


Sometimes you feel stuck at a plateau for so long that it

appears that you are as good as you are ever going to get.

Take care not to build a nest, turning the plateau into a

comfort zone. A plateau can feel frustrating and confining

and, sometimes, all you want is to reach that next level.

That’s fine; you can find motivation in that attitude. It’s when

you become too comfortable, when you become resigned

to where you are, that a plateau becomes a comfort zone.

Double your efforts and keep practicing. Talk to your teacher.

Everyone has been through this. This is the meaning of the

saying, “Learn to love the practice and not just the progress.”

Dedicate Your Life to Something!

It’s ironic that we show such respect and honor to people

that have dedicated their lives to their art, sport, discipline

or craft. Deep down, we all admire perseverance. We

recognize that no one gets as good as they can possibly be

at anything without struggling, without pushing through

their limitations and overcoming plateaus. When you’re on

a plateau for a extended period of time, you may actually

feel that you are going backwards; you start to see your

technique as declining. This is actually a very good sign,

and here’s why. Progress alternates continually in two ways:

1. An understanding of what you should be doing, and

2. The physical execution of technique.

When you see yourself as declining, what is really happening

is that your awareness has been elevated, you understand

what you should be doing in a much deeper way. The next

step is to learn how to physically execute what you now


Tell me, I’ll forget.

Show me, I may


But involve me

and I’ll understand.

This is why

Martial Arts

should always

be taught


 A student went to his teacher and said,

“My meditation is horrible! I feel so distracted,

 or my legs ache, or I’m constantly falling asleep.

 It’s just horrible!”

“It will pass,” the teacher said matter-of-factly.

A week later, the student came back to his teacher.

“My meditation is wonderful! I feel so aware, so

 peaceful, so alive! It’s just wonderful!”

“It will pass,” the teacher replied matter-of-factly.

       According to

aerodynamic laws,

     the bumblebee

cannot fly. It’s body

  weight is not the

right proportion to

      its wingspan.

     Ignoring these

      laws, the bee

       flies anyway.

  1. Sainte-Lague

An Advanced Technique is a

Basic Technique that’s been Mastered

This internal and external circular process of confusion,

analysis, understanding, execution and progress will continue

throughout your practice. The curriculum becomes confusing,

then you suddenly realize the deeper subtlety of what you’re

really trying to learn, and now you must get your body to

perform these “new” subtle details. For example, a white

belt that has been practicing for just a couple of months has

difficulty seeing the difference between the way they throw

techniques and the way that senior students execute the same

techniques. To make progress, they must first understand the

differences. When they do, when they’re hit with, “Oh, so

that’s what I should be doing,” they can feel overwhelmed.

However, with awareness, comes the beginning of new

growth. Once you understand the difference between correct

and incorrect details, you can adjust and progress. Now

practice becomes exciting again because you realize there’s so

much new to learn. You feel like you’re improving, and your

life outside the dojo becomes less stressful, as if your martial

arts practice is improving your life in general. You can’t believe

your good fortune in finding something this authentic, this

much fun and this useful. You quietly commit to yourself to

practice forever.

Until months later, when you feel like you’re never going

to get any better. You’re frustrated. And then you suddenly

realize that there’s yet another level to that same technique.

“Oh,” you say, “Now I get it!”

And here we go again…

Sam began his martial arts practice at the

age of eight. By the time he was fifteen he

was fighting in full contact tournaments.

Now at 19, he held a 2nd degree black belt.

One day Sam’s dad peeked into the garage and saw Sam

pounding furiously on the heavy bag. While trying to get

Sam’s attention, he noticed blood all over the floor. Sam had

been punching the bag for over an hour without gloves. The

canvas bag had ripped his knuckles to shreds. After stopping

Sam from hitting the bag, he calmed him down and asked

what he was so upset about. Sam told his dad that he had

been beaten in a sparring match earlier that night. It wasn’t

the first time that Sam had lost a match, but the student who

had beaten him was someone that had not practiced nearly

as long and, in fact, was someone who Sam had introduced

to martial arts. He had helped this student learn his basics.

After listening to Sam, his dad said, “Well, maybe you are

as good as you are going to get. I mean, you have come a

long way and this is the first guy that you taught basics to

that beat you, but you know it won’t be the last.” Then his

dad added, “There is a story that I want to share with you.

There was a little boy that wanted was to play professional

baseball. That’s all he ever wanted to do. He played every

single day, for years. He played on school teams, in rec

leagues, on travel teams — this boy was real good, and he

loved playing ball, but you know what? He never made it to

the pro leagues. Then, there was this other kid that never

even picked up a baseball until he was seventeen. I mean, he

Technical skill

is mastery of


Creativity is

mastery of


Enlightenment is

mastery of self.

Before the world

 finds a place for

 you, find a place

      for yourself

     in the world.

liked playing ball, but it was just something fun to do. Three

years after he started, he was playing professional baseball.

Sam, you just never know. You’ve come a long way in martial

arts, but maybe you’re as good as you’re going to get.”

Sam was at a plateau and he had a decision to make. Would

he continue to practice or was he done? He gave it some

thought and decided that whether or not he ever got any

better, he was going to keep practicing.

Several years later, Sam was sitting down with his instructor

for a cup of coffee, and shared the story. After listening

closely, his instructor said, “Your dad was right. We all hit

plateaus, and the body does have limitations. If martial arts

were merely a physical activity, then these limitations would

determine our ability to advance. Fortunately, martial arts is

also a mental discipline. It’s not a coincidence that so many

great masters were at their peak well into their 60’s, 70’s,

even 80’s. You need to spend more time developing your

concentration, your breathing sensitivity and awareness.

Practice with deep attention to details, be mindful always,

and you will continue to improve beyond any mere physical



Peaks, Valley, and Plateaus

Plateaus are normal and natural and experienced by

everyone. Plateaus are really a great means of insight into

the way that you are thinking about practice. Are you

thinking that you should be better by now? Are you thinking

that it’s hopeless, that you will never get any better? Maybe

you think that everyone else is getting it but you.

When you are aware of this negative self-talk and internal

dialog, you can begin to put a stop to it. The most important

thing is not to become too attached to these thoughts,

believing them to be true. They are just thoughts.

To help rise above negative thoughts, go back and practice

the techniques of watching your thoughts. It is in Lesson Five

of Module One. It will help you to remember that you are

not your thoughts.

A man who strikes

first is usually

angry or scared.

As Martial Artists,

we should strive to

avoid both.

    An archer

cannot hit the

bulls eye if he

doesn’t know

    where the

     target is.


Back to Basics

The activity this month is to be a beginner again. For the

next month, if appropriate, attend only the beginner classes.

Watch and work out with the beginners. This will help you

to see how far you have come, as well as help you to sharpen

your basics. You will also appreciate the details that are being

taught in these classes. Go into this activity open-minded and

resist feeling that you already know the curriculum. Watch

the beginners carefully, not judging technique, but their

excitement at learning. If it is not possible to only attend

beginner class, at least attend one a week for a month. Take

notes on everything that you observe and highlight what you

feel are the most important. At the end of the month write a

paper on your observations, feelings, and overall experience.

People always say that hindsight is twenty twenty. This

month you have an opportunity to look back and see what

you might have missed.

If we don’t change our direction,

we’re likely to end up where we’re headed.

Recommended Reading

The Father of Judo:

A biography of Jigoro Kano

Brian N. Watson

Beyond the Known:

The Ultimate Goal of the Martial Arts

Tri Thong Dang

Ultimate Martial Arts Encyclopedia

John R. Little and Curtis F. Wong

All things good

to know are

difficult to learn.

Martial arts is

no different.