Sunday, January 7, 2018

Day 1991: First Sunday of the year ...

Demura sensei, photo & digital.

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Today, Sunday, January 7,  is Kangeiko 2018, 
and many of you think we are nuts. You wonder why 
we would get up in the middle of the night to go to the ocean 
for the annual, traditional cold weather training?

As a special treat ... I offer you an exquisite essay on Kangeiko,
written by student, Rachel Maher in 2007, used as part 
of her college application. Now a grad school grad  
with a stellar career, as you might well have imagined.
* I hope you can take two minutes to enjoy,
and get the real feeling of Kangeiko. 

My lungs are an old filter, painfully swelling with each swig of cold air; my heart is a malfunctioning clock, gradually increasing its steady pulse; my feet are blocks of ice,chipped away by a hammer with each pounding step. 

I am too cold to shiver, and as I gaze out at the pale expanse disappearing in the darkness before me, the only thing that motivates me is the sound of my numerous pursuers. They start to overtake me, and I feel weak and tired. When I run into the circle, I shove my bare feet deeper into the sand and briefly contemplate why I ever chose to leave my warm bed. But I am soon called back to reality by the sound of Sensei's voice. He shouts his orders and my feet leave their insulating cocoons as I kick, sending abrasive granules flying like explosive sparksof fireworks against the black of early morning.

I catch the eyes of my friends and fellow trainers and we exchange grins. This is the day we have been anticipating with excitement, dread - and just a touch of insanity. This is Kangeiko, cold weather training, a new year custom in our traditional Karate. It is a time for friends to meet and collectively persevere in the face of a challenge, thus starting the year with good fortune. The first Sunday of January, we layer sweaters over our uniforms and socks over our feet and head down to the beach at 5:30 in the morning.  We stand together exchanging holiday stories and, gradually removing layers, we acclimate ourselves to the cold. 

There are levels of cold on the dark beach in January. The air itself is chilly - the runny nose, aching ears kind of cold. Even so, it is bearable, cold only in relation to our mild days. The wind adds an edge to the chill, spraying algid Pacific mist against one's already reddening face, making it feel raw and numb. The sand hurts. Sand is a great insulator, so while in the warmth of summer its golden swells exude the sun's heat, it also expertly retains the cold of night. Sand - at 5:30 in the middle of winter, feeling like a thousand needles jabbing the feet - is the most irritating, painful, sharp, biting, stinging, piercing, frigid material one's appendages could ever hope to encounter. After several years of exposing myself to this torture, I am convinced that our warm ups are not so much to warm us up as they are to make our feet numb so that we can put the pain behind us and get to work. 

This method must be effective, because what may be routine in the dojo suddenly takes on an element of the exotic, and we proceed with great zeal though perhaps with little grace
 through our basic techniques and our kata. We come to thoroughly enjoy ourselves, our happiness augmented by bewilderment at our own audacity to engage in such an activity. As dawn approaches, we participate in activities that stoke our competitiveness, while encouraging camaraderie. We have relay races and drills that take us down to the water's edge where we spar, actually grateful when we are taken down into the relative warmth of the cold and churning ocean.

To ensure that we understand the worth of this morning's activities, my chief instructor, wise as he is skilled, shares with us a message. With his thick Japanese accent, Sensei makes poignant observations about the significance of beach training in our lives: of the importance of connecting with new and old acquaintances, and the
necessity of having a focus during difficult times.

Wet and sandy, we then scramble into a line facing the sun, beaming with our blue lips. Seisan is a very special part of training, a short meditation at the beginning and end of every session, first clearing our minds of all distractions, then reflecting on how
blessed we are to be able to be active and disciplined. Seisan at the end of Kangeiko is particularly tranquil and meaningful. Although each person feels tired and uncomfortable kneeling on the sand, the freshness of the sun lighting the misty shore, combined with the consciousness of the physical and mental strength that was required for the previous event, makes it impossible to finish that morning without feeling proud and connected with the surrounding people and environment.

What comes next is the most physically strenuous part of my morning, though quite possibly the most valuable event in which I partake. As most of our group migrates towards blankets, hot beverages, and a blazing fire pit, a small number of us trudges back towards the waves where we stand thigh deep in water to do a kata for every person present. The water is no longer an inviting relief from the cold sand, and the resistance of the water hurts our legs and pushes us out of balance. Wave after wave, the tide threatens to knock us over, but we continue our training. Sharing this experience, we are able to laugh, shiver, joke, and smile. Despite being a strict ritual, this training is informal, not confined to the structure of our dojo. By participating, though, Kangeiko literally makes the entire world my dojo - a sacred place of learning, respect, manners, and discipline. Though I often isolate myself in Karate because I feel that I lack the skill necessary to be associated with my fellow trainers, there is no time of the year that I feel more connected to everything around me than on the day of Kangeiko, when I am engulfed by the ocean, surrounded by my friends, and focused on a collective passion. Gazing at some dolphins swimming in the crispness of the new morning, a particularly strong wave splashes me in the face. I stumble, continue with my moves, and realize that it is the waves that make the experience worthwhile.                     Rachel Maher, 2007

So, again I dread the cold, but seek the reward.
The euphoria felt after completing Kangeiko is palpable, 
and worth everything. 
(See more Monday)

A smile for Sunday ...

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