Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Life After Sensei
“At some point, you have to train for yourself.”
I’ve said those words many times over the past six and a half years, either to myself or others. Normally, it’d be after one of us was feeling pretty miserable after an evening of Pat Nakata Sensei’s particularly harsh brand of giving corrections. He always had a way of getting under your skin and making it personal. “It HAD to be personal,” he would often explain. “Something has to break through that barrier so you can break your bad habits.” In the first several years of training, I could have literally used one hand to count the times he paid me compliments on my karate and still not have used all my fingers.
Desperately wanting someone else’s approval was a relatively new experience for me; I’ve always considered myself to be highly self-motivated and quite competitive for achievement’s sake alone. There were many nights where I left the dojo with my mind reeling and my self-esteem knocked down a few pegs. All the same, it would always feel worth it on those rare occasions where Sensei would begrudgingly give one of his heavily qualified compliments. This would invariably result in me spending the rest of the night with a goofy grin on my face (after I left the dojo of course).
The darker side of “at some point you have to train for yourself” was that Sensei wasn’t always going to be around. That point in time began to feel uncomfortably close when he was diagnosed about a year and a half ago with mesothelioma of the heart, an exceedingly rare form of the asbestos-related cancer. Still, a large part of me believed he would miraculously shake this off like he did everything else. After all, this was the superman who had an unexplained heart attack and flat-lined in front of me one night at the dojo, and less than a month after spending 11 days in ICU, was almost back to 100% and just as fierce as ever.
But on Feb 7, 2013, Sensei’s fight was over and the time had come. The preceding weeks gave some indication, but I didn’t want to believe the signs. I didn’t want to believe I would never hear his harsh criticisms, his rare praise, or even one of those stories we’ve all heard him tell a hundred times before. This was the man who made me feel like a part of his family ever since my first day in Hawaii when he took me to his home and his wife Jeanette cooked me dinner. He was the man who would spend hours teaching, mentoring, and inspiring me at least six days a week if not more.
And he was gone.
I took it hard. For the first few days I hardly ate, I hardly slept. I went to work, I went to practice, but it was kind of a daze. I tried to put on a good show but inside I was torn up. If I couldn’t sleep much the first few days, then the next few days were the opposite. Apart from work or practice, pretty much all I did was sleep. I just didn’t have any interest in anything else.
But, leave it to Sensei to be different. Several years ago, he had written his last wishes and left them with his wife, and they stated that he did not want any religious ceremony, memorial, or funeral. Instead, he wanted his students to hold a demonstration and perform all of the karate and kobudo kata in his curriculum. It was just like him; he would never turn down an opportunity to make us train harder and improve. What greater tribute could there be?
Like everyone else, I wanted to look good. More importantly, I wanted my karate to be strong. If my karate was strong, then it would bear witness to Sensei’s legacy. As I resolved to train even harder, it made me remember my words once more. I remembered that I was drawn to Sensei not just because of his own greatness, but because of the greatness he could develop in others. I remembered that I always trained hard because it was the path I chose for myself.
On March 16th, we held the demonstration in his honor and we all did our best. That day has come and gone, but the lifelong demonstration continues. Sensei may not be physically present at the dojo anymore, but he never misses a single practice. I am not alone when I say I can still hear his corrections as I train. I can see that amused glimmer in his eyes as he smiles, and that look of fierce concentration as he trains. And though I still train for myself, it gives me strength as I continue along my path.