Three productivity lessons from a black belt

Photo by my wife.

I’ve been practicing a martial art known as Shorinji Kempo since 2012. Shorinji Kempo puts an unusually heavy emphasis on philosophy, even for a Japanese martial art. At every grading, you have to turn in an essay on a given topic, as part of the exam. This goes even for children, from the age of ten.

The philosophy we are taught in Shorinji Kempo is applicable in every day life. I have used it myself, and so have my children (some of them also practice with me). In this article, I will give some examples.

We start each practice with samu, which literally means “work” or “chores”. In most cases, this means we clean the floors of the dojo – the practice hall. This is not only for practical reasons – it also serves as a “mental trigger,” which reminds us of the value of caring for our surroundings and prepares us for practice.

Lesson one: Rely on yourself

Samu is followed by the reading of dokun, a creed, part of which reads as follows (my translation):

I must rely on myself, not on others.

Through discipline and self-control, I find the source of true strength.

The first line refers to the fact that the only one you will ever be able to truly rely on, is the only person you can control – yourself. This is not to say that we shouldn’t turn to our friends and colleagues for help, but it serves as a reminder that you will never be able to control others – nor should you try.

I have used this as a teaching tool for my practicing children. On several occasions when we’ve been traveling, the kids have been upset with their mother and myself for not packing something that they wanted to bring along. So I’ve started having them pack their own bags for trips. I’ve said to them, “This trip you’re packing your own bags. Rely on yourself, not on others, remember? Make a list of everything you want to bring, then pack your backs and cross everything off from the list”.

This serves several purposes. It teaches the children to take responsibility and to do things themselves instead of complaining when others fail to do what the kids think they should have done. It also teaches them to make lists of important things, to help them organize their daily lives better. But to be safe, we always check their bags before we leave to make sure they haven’t forgotten to bring something important. If they forget to bring their phone charger, however, that’s on them. They’ll have to make do with asking to borrow one from time to time to get them through the trip.

As for myself, I use the “rely on yourself” line to remind me that when I want something to change, I should do what I can to change it myself instead of expecting others to do something about it. This could mean something as simple as picking up trash I find outside, or something large-scale like initiating a software project to fix a customer’s problem at work, because I spotted the need for it.

Lesson two: Meditate

As I’ve previously explained in the article Meditation for sceptics, meditation isn’t bullshit. To improve your physical strength, you can lift weights. To improve your focus, you can meditate. This is why the next part of Shorinji Kempo practice is meditation.

“Close your eyes, and focus on your breath.” Photo by Christer Enfors

A few years ago, I had to ride my bike for an hour before I got to practice. I was running late, so I was very stressed when I finally got there. I remember thinking, “how on earth am I going to be able to focus on practice now, I’m totally stressed out!” – and that’s when I realized – this is exactly that the pre-practice meditation is for. So not only does meditation help improve your focus, it also helps reduce stress levels. Go read the Meditation for sceptics article if you want to give it a shot (you should).

Lesson three: Live half for yourself, half for others

The founder of Shorinji Kempo, So Doshin once famously said:


Profound, isn’t it?

Okay okay, here’s the English translation:

Live half for your own happiness, half for the happiness of others.

This is about balance. You should do what you can to take care of others, but you must also remember to take care of yourself. We’ve all heard the expression “you can’t pour from an empty cup”, and there’s a lot of truth in that. Unhappy people typically don’t make others happy either. Do not feel guilty for taking care of yourself; self-care is necessary if you’re going to be able to take care of others. Make time for yourself, and the things you enjoy.

Best of all, of course, is when you can do both at the same time. I enjoy helping out at the local Shorinji Kempo branch, and me doing that helps the other members.

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