Aging in the martial arts & a lesson from Haida Gwaii


by James Eke (from Warrior’s Way Podcast episode #52)

Life changes. That simple.

You can fight it, you can feel bad about it, you can pretend it isn’t true but in the end you will have to face facts. Life moves onward.

For me, this is a great lesson not only about the fragility and transient nature of life but on just how important and unique each and every moment is.

Any decent martial arts school or teacher should be teaching you to be as much in the moment as you can. To be more grateful. To live the best life you can but also to help others to live the best lives they can too.

This isn’t easy.

The most important things in life rarely are.

The sad thing is that most people rarely realize this and even fewer do the work necessary to find a way of living that is making the most of things — making the most of everything and everyone that this gift of a life has provided.

I turned 50 a couple of weeks ago for many this is treated as some huge milestone but for me I didn’t throw a bash, I didn’t even stay in town. I headed for the woods and the beach to spend the time really trying to focus on the small things, those smallest of things in your life that matter the most. Breathing. Walking. Sunshine. Beautiful trees. Fresh air.

I decided to spend the days around my 50th birthday looking at myself, who I am, who I can be, what I want to do with this life and how I can become better at being James Eke.

Some of you who are younger might think that by 50 you should have all of that and more all sorted out but the simple reality is that the more layers we peel back in our lives the more that we realize there is to do. Work through one thing and something else is there waiting for your focus and effort.

For a martial artist part of your training needs to be this focus on you. You need to intimately understand who you are because as you train you start to see that the weapon you are training, the weapon you are polishing and improving is you. You are your first and last and best weapon. And any weapon a warrior plans to master needs to be understood. Your life depends on it.

In terms of our martial arts this means we need to be training ourselves for the martial artist and the person that we will become. We need to train ourselves today for the us of the future.

For some this is a hard task. It is easy to delude yourself into belief about anything and even more when it has to do with us personally. Nobody wants to admit that the person looking back at them in the mirror isn’t the same as the one that used to look back. The face hasn’t changed. The you you think you are is no different than the you at 15, 19, 25, 30 or whenever. Sorry to burst your bubble but it just isn’t so.

We often don’t notice the changes that life gives us the same way that most of us don’t want to think about our own mortality.

If we have been active all our lives we might even think we are even more fit than we used to be. And that might be true in some respects but that 18 year old you wouldn’t likely have such a tough time showing you who was more able to do all the things you think you are a superstar at today. Sure your skills and attributes may have improved to some degree but unless you were brutally out of shape, even the most average of us at 18 would clean house with the us at 30 in physical ways.

I know that at 50 I know a whole lot more though. I’ve gained understanding and insights that at 18 I didn’t even know existed. I am better in all the ways that matter the most. What I have lost or will see diminish have been replaced with new ways of seeing and doing that the younger me would envy.

So how do you get there?

First of all we need to cultivate the part of us that sees amazement in the most simple of things. We need to cultivate the curiosity and awe of a child. This will lead to learning, to honesty, to seeing magic and beauty all around us. It will make us lifelong students.

Next we need to understand what the physical body needs, and that is work. It needs to do things. 

You don’t need more time sitting, you need to get up and move.

It means going to the gym. Getting and staying fit. It means eating healthy foods. Getting enough sleep. Learning to breathe. Finding out what they physical human machine can do and doing it.

We also need to learn to look inward. This means meditating but also looking deeply into ourselves and into our own darkness and shadow and seeing who is hiding in there and learning to love and accept and express that part of us too.

I myself can tell you that if you don’t look at your own darkside and not hide or ignore it, it is going to wait for the right time and pop it’s head out and let you know it is there. Best to do the work required before that happens. 

Believe me.

Figuring out what it is that you need to do, what needs work on, is part of what training is all about. Sometimes it will work, sometimes it won’t but you must simply keep moving, constantly improving, adapting and overcoming.

50 isn’t a big deal. 51, 55, 64, 73, 82, 97, 113 those are going to be more interesting and more of an eye opener and I know that with each milestone there is going to come work and effort, failures and success.

I was recently on the amazing island of Haida Gwaii, home to the unceeded land of the Haida people. These are a nation of people who at one time paddled in 50-man war canoes or likely something similar, from the West Coast of Canada to Japan and Hawaii — and back again. I was fortunate enough to hike into the old growth rainforest and saw at least 10 massive cedar partially chopped down and one that had been in what had to be an impressive effort to carve out their huge canoes.

I was told these trees and the one felled and partially carved canoe were worked on by the Haida in about 1830. Then smallpox hit and the people died. Of the 30,000 Haida who lived on the magical island only 500 lived through the outbreak.

I’m certain that none of them expected to die. I doubt any expected not to finish those canoes.

It still happened.

Today, the Haida nation has grown from near extinction but to only a quarter of the number that it had been before the 1830s. What they are doing though is building, focusing, dedicated to maintaining and building something for the future — their future. There is a great lesson there.

We can come from hell and still create something amazing. We can fall but we can still rise. We can make the future better than today.

None of that is easy.

The Haida, despite almost completely losing themselves, then being told they couldn’t practice their religion, couldn’t have potlach gatherings, couldn’t speak their language, couldn’t even continue with their traditional Haida tattoos for years and years and years haven’t let any of that hold them back.

They have reclaimed their past, hold no grudges and are moving on.

This is the lesson and the life that I want for myself. Would I have understood all of that at 18 or even 25? Doubtful or at least not to the deeply life changing way I see it now.

I am going to take that lesson. The lesson of the Haida and make that into something that makes the future me into someone better, stronger, healthier and better in every way.

The martial arts teach us that — take our lessons from everything that life gives us. The teacher will appear when the student is ready.

To the Haida people I say “Haaw’a,” thank-you.

And for all of you I hope that you will see that age is a number and to not worry too much about it — just keep it in mind as a reminder to prepare yourself for the person, the man or the woman that you will become. Train today for that person you haven’t met yet, the one who will be so proud of all that you are doing to build for a better future.


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