At the beginning of Tae Kwon Do classes, after honoring the space, and greeting the Master, we begin with Mukyam, Korean for meditation. Kneeling, or sitting cross-legged, we close our eyes, focus on our breathing and prepare our minds for the rigorous practice ahead. It is a chance to enter the right frame of mind, clear away distractions, and focus on our goals for the class. Sometimes, I simply try and quiet my mind, but most often, I pray. It is not your typical Jewish prayer. There are no psalms, and no set liturgy. But I almost always pray for the same two things.
First, I pray that I not be injured. Tae Kwon Do is a martial art. We work hard, we kick hard, and we stretch our bodies to their limits. I know that if I get injured, I will not be able to practice for a long time while I recover, and pushing 50 years old, I don’t recover as fast as I used to. I want to remain healthy and able to practice, so I pray for no injuries.
Then I pray for strength.
I want to be stronger. I want my kicks and punches to be faster and stronger. I want my back, shoulders and core muscles to be stronger. But this is just the beginning. I want not only to be physically stronger, but also spritually and emotionally stronger. These strengths, rooted in the mind and soul, are not as easy to measure as physical strength. Spiritual strength may mean different things to different people, but it seems to me that it shares many aspects with physical strength.
Whatever else it may be, getting spiritually stronger, like getting physically stronger, means developing our capacity for spiritual living and making it more expansive. It means growing better in our spiritual practice and gaining a deeper understanding of the world and people around us.
The challenge of my short Tae Kwon Do prayer is the simple, nagging question, “How do I get stronger?” In a certain sense, we all want to be stronger, but how do we get there? How do we become greater in our capacity to kick, pray, care, sense, and live.
The first step, I believe, in becoming stronger is to realize that you ARE stronger. Just, not yet. Your body already has the capacity, the ability to do remarkable things. However, such capacity needs to be developed. It needs to be practiced and nurtured, pushed and excercised in order to turn it from the dormant, or potential capacity into kinetic, active and realized.
1) It takes time. Strength - physical, emotional or spiritual - takes time to build. There is no simple shortcut or magic routine to make you stronger immediately. Strength is a long range target and grows cumulatively over time. It requires patience and dedication.
2) It takes variety. Our body can not really become stronger than it is if we only continue to do exactly what we already do. That is maintenance, not development. If you want to be more, better, stronger then you need to mix it up. In phyiscal exercise this means a well rounded training routine, working our muscles in different combinations with different specific movements. In spiritual life this means praying differently, using different words and changing our pace and our religious practice so as to stretch the musculature of the soul. So many religious people wrongly believe that if they just do the same practice over and over again that they will get better at being religious. What they will do is maintain their current religious capacity, and over time will begin to lose flexiblity and routine will turn into rut.
3) It takes a teacher. While some growth is always possible on your own, to truly develop a greater spiritual or physical or emotional capacity, you need a master or teacher. None of us know everything, and few of us know enough to become better at the art form we choose without a more knowledgeable and generous teacher encouraging and refining our practice. Martial arts and spiritual arts are practiced in shared communities – synagogues, churches, dojangs – with students of all levels learning together from veteran masters who bring both tradition and innovation. Get a good teacher. You can not do it alone.
4) It takes practice. Once is not enough. Ten times is not enough. Growing stronger means working hard and dilligently with your goals in clear focus. It means going to practice even when you are tired, and it means repetition to develop the muscle and spirit memory necessary to internalize the practice. Growing stronger requires discipline. You have to believe and persevere through the arduous workouts in order to gain the benefit and be able to deliver the strength and capacity on demand.
Growing stronger means that you will feel stronger. A change in perspective is collateral with developing strength. It is practically impossible to grow substantially in strength and capacity – spiritually, physically or emotionally – and to maintain an identical perspective on the world and on you practice. It could even be said that recognizing such a change is how you can know that you are, in fact, stronger.
If your perspective, opinion, and experience have NOT changed, you are NOT stronger. On the road perhaps, but not yet at the destination or the mile marker you desire. If the view out the window hasn’t changed, you haven’t moved.
So next time you go the the gym, to shul or to church, to the dojang or to a family reunion. Take a few moments for Mukyam. Before you begin, pray. Ask for wholeness and for no injuries, because without a basic level well being we can not have any serious progress. Then ask for strength. Be patient, flexible, diligent and dedicated. And keep your eyes open for a new perspective to let you know you have reached your destination.