TIME AND TIME AGAIN…

by Phillip Starr

The cathedral at Chartres, France took more than a hundred years to build. A whole century! That means that the stonemasons who laid the foundation did so knowing full well that they’d likely never see their work completed. In fact, I’m quite certain that the architects who designed and supervised the work must have realized that they wouldn’t live to see it finished. I like to consider things like this while I’m standing in the checkout line at the supermarket… I understand that the difference between me and these builders from long ago is considerable – not just in terms of the times that’s elapsed between the age in which they lived and the one in which I now live, but also by our vastly disparate concepts of time.

Prior to our modern age, people measured time differently than we do. As little as a hundred years ago, consider the time it’d take you to get a loaf of freshly baked bread (if you’re planning on having it with tonight’s dinner). It’s probably just a matter of minutes to the nearest bakery from which you can buy bread that’s come from mechanically processed grain, machine milling and mixing, kneading, baking, and packaging. As little as a hundred years ago, this all had to be done by hand! So when I say, “I need to get some bread”, I mean something different than what my ancestors meant when they spoke those same words.

We tend to think in terms of hours when we speak of segments of time. For instance, travel is measured in terms of hours. Even our educational system is based on credit hours needed… But the generations before us thought of time in different terms; travel could take weeks or even months! Education back then was generally based on apprenticeships; students of Rembrandt, for example, were required to spend three years just learning how to grind pigments for the paint that was to be used in his studio!

It’s tempting to think that one way of looking at time is better than another; that the “old, slower way” is superior to the “new, instant” way but that’s an oversimplification. Each generation finds what works best for their kinds of lives. Problems occur when we try to impose our concept of time to things of another age. Contractors can now construct a new church in a matter of weeks and that’s fine; what is NOT fine is if they try to convince everyone that it’s as well-built as the Chartres Cathedral. And students of art can graduate after a few hours of instruction but they’re nowhere near being on the artistic level that the old masters were. And martial arts students often feel that after a matter of several hours they can grasp the skills of arts that really require more than a lifetime to fully understand.

Too often, people approach the martial arts with what I call a “modern sense of time.” They feel that after a few months or years of practice, they’re qualified to pass judgement on what works and what doesn’t, and so on. It should be borne in mind that the martial arts that we practice are just that; arts. To “absorb what is useful” requires at least a decade of practice before you can make that determination. At least a decade. If that amount of time seems excessive, it’s likely because you’re applying modern time frames to things that are not modern. Would you expect to be able to paint like a fifteenth-century Flemish master after attending a couple of semesters in his class? Could you even hope to tap into the most basic of his techniques such as mixing paints, preparing a canvas, or applying finishes? And these are just minor aspects…

We’re not even considering the acquisition of his genius for composition, lighting, and so on. Only the most boorish would suppose that they could even come close to the master’s level without decades of training. And martial arts are just like that. Their basics and secrets and subtleties are no less complex than those of fine arts. Yet, many people approach them as if they could be completely understood and appreciated in a few hours.

Ours is the age of high-speed, instant, and “I want it now.” Often, the beginner’s first step in starting training is directed towards restructuring his sense of time. He must work to adapt himself to the constructs of the martial arts and meet them on THEIR unique terms, rather than trying to force them into his own. He may well discover what those that have gone before him discovered – if something worth doing is worth doing well, time is not important.

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