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  • Writer's pictureMatt Powell

Wabi-Sabi and a trip doon the road!

A couple of weeks ago I had a senior moment. I dropped my wife’s car in for its mot and rushed home. I then hastily drove my car into town for an eye test that was well overdue thanks to COVID.

As always, I was ridiculously early so I went to go to WHSmiths to buy a classic car magazine to read with a Chai Latte in Costa (other coffee shops are available).

But when I got to the newsagents it was no longer there. To my surprise I discovered that it is now a River Island! (I must have missed the memo!)

When I was at university a few (ahem) years ago I had worked at Argos in the high street. Back then it was a bustling hive of activity but now it is very different! Big apartment stores are boarded up and sadly numerous homeless people occupy the doorways of the vacant shops I would have visited in my youth.

Time moves on and things change.

So, resigned to a coffee without classic ford, I walked to the bookstore instead and decided I would treat myself to a few books to stimulate thoughts and perhaps blogs like this one.

I left twenty minutes or so later with a bag full of Stoic philosophy and Japanese Zen principles. Then I wandered to the coffee shop and began reading while I enjoyed my Chai tea Latte.

The first book I started that day was written by a Zen Monk on principles and routes to a happy, contented existence. I must admit to feeling pretty-chilled and content whilst absorbing its messages and supping on my preferred brand of frothy milk.

After a while I finished my drink and freshly inspired by Zen, cleared my own table before leaving the coffee shop on route to the opticians.

Now, like most people I know I am a creature of habit.

I started using this optician when I was a child and we lived in town. It remained convenient into my teens when I worked at Argos, and they have always looked after me well. But it is seven miles from where I live, and we have opticians in our village and another branch of this franchise about one mile from my house. ….But this is where I have come for a long time, so I just stick with it!

When I got to reception the reality of my Senior moment kicked in. I was a week early for my appointment. Now even by my standards that is a bit extreme. I laughed at myself and asked for an appointment card so that I could get it right next time. I then left the store and walked back to my car.

One of the joys of working in non-conformist way is that I wasn’t embarrassed about my mistake. I didn’t have a boss to return to and explain my error. I didn’t have to rush off to make up for lost time and then ponder how I was going to leverage the same break from work at the same time next week. I simply walked back to the car and considered instead what I had gained and learnt from my mistake.

Undoubtably the ‘gift’ of the morning was the books I was carrying. If WHSmiths had still been there I would have read and then discarded a magazine. But instead, I had invested in my new favourite past-time. Books that help me grow! I wandered what valuable messages they would contain.

Last Friday I arrived at Gatwick South terminal in readiness for my trip to Inverness to teach for my friend Kevin Slaney Sensei and the Highland Karate Association. Once again, I was true to form and was extremely early, but as it has been a few years since I was last at an airport I hadn’t wanted to rush.

I parked the car and walked to the terminal. Presently the South terminal is closed, and all flights are leaving from the North. But parking here was cheaper, and I knew the shuttle-train was only a six-minute ride, so I had chosen this route. It was strange to be at the almost deserted terminal. Very different to the last time I had flown from there with work.

Not unlike the Highstreet the week before, shops were boarded up and hardly any people were about in comparison to my last visit.

Once at the North terminal everything began to feel much more familiar.

I navigated departures and found a table in Wetherspoons to enjoy a pint of San Miguel and read one of my new books.

I continued with ‘Zen the art of simple living’ by Shunmyo Masuno while the hustle of the bar continued around me. It struck me as ironic that I was reading about being present in the moment while nearly everyone around me was distracted by their phones and were either texting or talking. It all seemed very poignant.

Back in 2008 I had started a new job and had my first ever Company car. A 2007 grey Peugeot 307! My colleagues referred to it as ‘the Tank’ as it was in no way as glamorous as their BMW’s. But I was the new boy and I loved it! I was happy to drive anywhere!

A 207 Just like mine!
The Tank!

Consequently, I volunteered to drive myself and a few friends up to Nottingham to train with Sensei’s Hazard and Trimble on one of their ‘Masterclass’ courses at Aidan’s dojo. This course had sold out, so to avoid disappointment the instructors had agreed to host separate morning and afternoon classes. We were booked in for the new morning slots so left at 6am to make it on time.

I was joined by my friends Matt Smith, Mick Bennetta and the always hilarious Stacey Crowe. Happy Days!

I remember stopping for a quick breakfast near Leicester but still arriving in plenty of time.

Training that day was very memorable. We worked on Nijishiho kata in the first class and the Sensei’s bounced ideas and content off of each other. It was a great collaborative lesson.

Normally when I would train with Sensei, I would rush out to be his Uke (partner) and accept the rigors of the experience. But on this day both teachers were already utilising a gentleman I had not met before. This was Kevin Slaney of the HKA.

Also at this course Sensei Bernard Rose was in attendance and took pictures of us training. This was in the early days of facebook and consequently I remember connecting with Kevin online shortly after. It is mad to think that was nearly fourteen years ago!

(Images courtesy of Bernard Rose)

Back then I didn’t have a smartphone (I don’t have one now but that is another story). I did have a new addition though ….. a Blackberry! But I had left it at home and as I was driving there were no distractions to stop me talking with my friends about the classes as we drove home. We enjoyed the moment.

I had bumped into Kevin again on a course with Sensei Hazard this time in 2012 on the Isle of Wight. We had paired up that day and enjoyed working with each other. I also met and instantly liked his colleague Sensei Phil Owen of the HKA who was/is a firm friend of many of my seniors in karate. What a small world! 😊

Over lockdown I had made a decision to increase my online presence to help engage my students and my videos and blogs etc started to be seen by more people. Once again Kevin Sensei and I connected and realised that we shared many principles and ideas. Not surprising really as we also share some important teachers and mentors.

Last year I was thrilled when Kevin trained on my Zoom charity course in honour of my late Father. I was equally happy when he asked if I would consider visiting and teaching a course in Scotland. Now I was sat at the airport and it the course was about to become a reality.

In Scotland face masks are still mandatory, but I instantly recognised Kevin waiting for me at arrivals.

After a quick drive and bag drop off at the hotel we went into town for a meal and a few drinks. It was great.

Kevin explained that his teacher Sensei Ronnie Ross would be watching the first class and I must confess that I instantly felt nervous. Sensei Ronnie was in Japan at the same time as two of my teachers, Sensei Dewey and Hazard and is firm friends with them as well as my teacher Mervyn O’Donnell. I hadn’t felt like this for a long time! Perhaps since I first started competing.

Sensei Ronnie Ross receiving 7th dan in 2014

The next morning, we met for breakfast and then had a lovely walk around Inverness and a coffee. We then drove to the dojo and I went to get changed.

One of the reasons why I was nervous is that as a Leader of my own dojos I appreciate and understand the care and thought that goes into hosting a guest instructor. When booking the guest the host Sensei will be considering the needs, wishes and preferences of their students as well as their own. They will also be intending that everyone will have a valuable experience.

The relevance of all of this was not lost on me!

I was there at Sensei Kevin’s recommendation, and I wanted to repay that trust as best I could.

Ironically, I found strength in my final preparation in one of my new books. Again, while studying Zen principles the night before I taught, I had read about the Japanese principle of Wabi-Sabi for the first time.

For those reading who may be unfamiliar here is a definition I found online.

‘ In traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi () is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of appreciating beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete" in nature. It is prevalent throughout all forms of Japanese art.’

In my recent work at my dojos I have found myself less fixated on the right or wrongs. Equally I am less interested in perceived perfection. My focus has shifted to the ephemeral nature of the experience. I like to teach and offer an experience that is valuable but enjoyable.

It is of the moment.

As I read and understood Wabi-Sabi I was at ease with my nerves. This was good energy. I would use it and simply do my best. (I still felt a little sick). 😊

It was great to meet Sensei Ross. I have heard many fond stories over the years from my teachers and heroes and I was honoured to be teaching the students of the Highland Karate Association for the first time.

Once introductions were over, we adopted seiza, bowed and the classes began. Much like competing, the adrenalin kicks in once you start to work.

I was thrilled that Steve and Julie Pops Sensei from Morpeth had driven up to train. These are great people and dedicated martial artists. They are also a tonne of fun. (Thanks for coming). Sensei Phil Owen was also training and in great form. It was great to meet everyone but especially dojo seniors Colin and Gordy. It is always an honour when Senior grade students train in our classes.

We focused on Kanku Sho in the first class and movement through Kaeshi Ippon and breaking line in the Fundamentals class. We then finished with an hours work on Competition Kumite where I worked with Josh and experienced his excellent kicking. He also has epic Rock star hair! FACT!

Once we were working the time flew by and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I then sat and watched while the panel delivered a grading for the coloured belts and I was honoured to be there as a spectator.

Once finished Kevin turned to me and said

‘are you ready for a wee drive down the road’.

‘Oh yes’ I said, ‘how long will it take?

‘Oh, just under three hours’ replied Kevin.

At this point is dawned on me that my venue for the next day was the equivalent for me of teaching at Petersfield on Saturday and then in Cornwall on Sunday. But I soon realised that this kind of mileage was no issue for Karate students from the Highlands.

We drove down through the beautiful Cairngorms National park, and stopped for a delicious Fish and Chips at Smiffys (Good Times). The drive flew by as we discussed karate and arrived in Dunfermline.

On Sunday I firstly taught the Alphabet to a group of Juniors from Sensei Kevin’s dojo. I was back in my comfort zone here and had a blast with Grace Sensei assisting. The final two hours were a some-what different approach as Kevin had asked me to present one of my workshop classes on Sochin.

Back last May I started teaching an early morning calss on Saturdays for my Senior black belts which we call ‘Breakfast Club’. The idea here is not to teach the katas but instead trigger thought or experimentation through a principle or idea. This way attendees can develop and learn regardless of how well or otherwise they already ‘know’ the kata.

One important element is that when I teach these classes I am not overly invested in content or ideas as they tend to flow and find their own way. Consequently, they are much harder to prepare for as you mustn’t rehearse or in-fact over prepare. I come to these classes with a theme and a few ideas. We then work through everything together.

The last two hours flew by with the sound of och, ooohh and ehh as the numerous groin shots were absorbed. 😊

After training we went into town and I enjoyed a delicious Indian Tapas with my hosts.

I am extremely grateful for the trust and opportunity afforded to me by the HKA and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. In the past my teacher (Sensei O’Donnell) took me to Holland to teach for him back in 2004 and I only truly realised how valuable an experience that was in my formative years as I taught this weekend. Thanks Merv.

As it turned out, understanding Wabi-Sabi and appreciating the beauty of the moment and imperfection inspired me to be myself and have fun. I hope it was as valuable to everyone who trained.

Happy Days. Osu.

The Saturday Class at Inverness

Brunch Club in Dunfermline

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