In certain forms of martial arts, namely the Japanese traditions, practitioners address one another with a word that’s at once part greeting, part agreement, part show of respect, part mantra, part acknowledgment of the teacher’s teachings, part contract, and the part to which I’m most partial has a martial, artful and rather masterful meaning, which translates to English as “patience”.
The word is Oss - pronounced as it looks but with an implied ‘u’ on the end. You don’t say the ‘u’, instead you stop saying the final ‘s’ in such a way as to suggest the ‘u’ is coming next. This in itself is a great skill and usually takes the beginner between 3 and 17 years to perfect.
I’m only joking of course, but when I started a form of martial arts practise at the beginning of last year, I immediately felt the deep significance of this word. I could really imagine years being dedicated to the study of its substance. I instantly felt it had weight and power. Perhaps, in (martial) part, because my teacher who introduced me to it was a formidably powerful man. He was half my height and lived with a badly damaged hip that made him hobble and limp, but at any given instant he could – and would – explode into the most beautiful and superhuman move I’d ever seen up close. He was unreal. And yet he was gentle, intelligent, kind and well-read, particularly on matters of the human mind and spirit, and he could fuck you up no end.
He had a small and cosy dojo – a converted garage attached to his house that he’d built and converted himself – filled with crash mats, pull up bars and incense. Each session was 3 hours long and on almost every occasion I was the only student. It was quite a trek to get to, where he lived, and the martial art isn’t well-known, so that probably accounted for the small turn out, but I was only too happy to be his only Daniel-Son, for I was, when I started, a complete and utter spaz.
The martial art is a method by the name of Budokon. It’s a black-belt system that combines stand-up striking, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a specific yoga series (an acrobatic, modified version of ashtanga from what I could tell), animal movement and locomotion, and calisthenics. The purpose of the yoga, locomotion and calisthenics is to strengthen, condition and mobilise the body for the stand-up striking and BJJ, but all strands of the method hold equal importance if you have any hope of progressing. It is, to my fairly limited knowledge and experience, an utterly awesome form of physical – and mindful – practise.
As it turned out I fell deeply in love with the conditioning aspect – the calisthenics, yoga and mobility – whereas the fight training (which was indeed exciting) didn’t quite pierce my heart. Maybe one day, maybe another form, possibly even Tai Chi, let’s see, but right now I’m on a mission to continue cultivating my general movement and strength.
Anyway, back at the far-away dojo with my tiny but deadly, hip-hobbling, spiritual sensei, and each session would start and end in meditation. The meditation had several functions, one of which was to honour both the martial and yogic roots of the practise.
Sitting in Japanese Seiza, or Vajrasana in yoga, which not only strengthens the knee and ankle joints as well as the muscles and connective tissue that act on them, but also stimulates the function of the liver, kidneys, and pancreas, thereby reinforcing the digestive system, each period of meditation would come to a close in subtle, ceremonial supplication that goes as follows:
You move your right hand from your right knee and place the palm flat on the floor in front of you, fingers pointing away, thumb at 135 degrees, then mirror-image with the left, touching index fingers and thumbs to form the shape of a heart, which you bring your forehead down to touch in a low bow—and it’s here you say out loud and from the deep, low belly, “Oss”. Then you return to upright, right hand comes back to right knee, and left to left. Next you bow your head at the neck while bringing hands together in prayer, knuckles of thumbs to third eye, and say “Namaste”. Then you stand up and roundhouse kick the first person you see in the head.
Not really. I mean everything up until, but not including, the roundhouse kicking to the head.
After my first couple of sessions I asked my teacher to explain Oss a little more. Namaste, I knew. Anyone who’s ever done a yoga class in Shoreditch is as au fait with Namaste as oat latte, but Oss not so.
He described the different meanings and uses, and it was the idea of patience that resounded most long and deep.
There’s something so humble in the intentional act of patience. The practise of any kind—martial arts, movement, meditation, music, marriage or what have you, requires endless repetition if you have any hope of getting good. It’s said repetition makes the master and how can it be any other way?
To sustain endless repetition requires equally endless patience. Each individual repetition, every stumble and failed attempt is the smallest of smallest footsteps. It’s the equivalent of an extreme close up in a film—you have no idea where you are, all you know is the minute detail of the moment, and it’s not until you cut to a panoramic wide that you can see the distance travelled.
By sticking with it, by coming back each day to practise, by knowing nothing but the momentary experience of each individual repetition, you are rewarded every once in a while with a seemingly quantum jump in progress. You’re rewarded with the panoramic wide.
But to remain patient in the meanwhile when you can’t see progress taking place — when progress is measured in micrometres at most — is to enter into a relationship with a force or future or vision infinitely bigger than yourself. Which, surely, is the essence of humility.
This (stand up) strikes me as particularly relevant to our present predicament. Many of us will already have some kind of individual daily practise, but what of the collective element? It’s all well and good sitting alone in meditation in a room, but can we practise being human too? Because as soon as we step outside and encounter another person, when the contact point of their experience and ours converge, isn’t that when all the practise really counts? Can we practise kindness and humility then? Can we continually queue up, stay in and stay put? Can we offer help? Can we practise stepping aside for another, of noticing ourselves get angry when it’s not returned, but not lash out, of controlling ourselves to not shout at the thoughtless, heavily panting jogger who runs right by you blowing his Covid-19 breath? Can we perform the humble act of patience again and again with every single one of us we encounter? Can we simply repeat the effort and try?
That, to my mind right now, is the very point and reason and meaning of practise.
And so along with my continual wishes of love in the time of quarantine, I also bow to you and oss.
And then stand up and roundhouse kick that fucking jogger in the head.