Emptiness or effortlessness is a strange sensation to encounter when you expect something more substantial.
It can be at once terrifying; the haymaker hook punch you threw from your right doesn’t land and suddenly, you realise that your opponent’s head isn’t there and that for a fraction of a second, you are fatally vulnerable. Your own momentum, your own determination to put all your weight behind that punch and win it, because you thought you had him on the ropes– this emptiness where there should have been a hard contact, it will be the undoing. The counterpunch will hurt physically, yes– but the mental and spiritual damage is always worse, because you were taken for a fool.
At judo a couple of days ago, I managed to pull the exact opposite on someone else. Judo, from my limited experience, is all about emptiness. I’ve head the expression before that practicing with Jigaro Kano, the founder of judo, was like trying to wrestle with an empty jacket. The subtlety that I’m coming to appreciate from judo is in how it uses indirectness and misdirection– the single direct attack seldom works. It is about inviting your opponent to throw him or herself.
Fundamentally, the fighting spirit and mentality of such techniques are completely different from what I’ve learned from striking arts, where results arise from you smashing your problems. Judo, fundamentally, invites that aggression, and tries to turn it.
A couple of days ago, I had the opportunity of sparring with a couple of blue belts from judo who I hadn’t fought with in several months. Back then, one of them provided me with a huge experience– it was the first successful throw that I had done against someone who was fighting against me in randori. Between that time and this week, I’ve had the opportunity to train myself. Basics, foundations, balance, that kind of thing– there was sparring in between, but not that same level of challenge because it was all educational and to do experiements.
Earlier this week I sparred with the same person. He is about 30 kilograms heavier than me (more than 65 lbs), and about a foot taller than me. Wheras last time I caught him by surprise and got lucky but managed to make a real technique work, this time, it was a chess game. I won’t say I fought him to equality, that’s not what happened. But what I did do was throw him several times, out leveraging him.
I used a technique on him that was, he said, perfectly executed: tai otoshi (body drop). It is a technique that, to me, epitomises the power of emptiness in a judo techniques. You take a forward tipping opponent, get under and to the side quickly, stick out a leg and pull them forward and down. The result is that the opponent flips forward with little or no muscle involved– you are encouraging them to fall forward in a situation you have constructed where they have no other choice but to accept inevitability. You know all those martial arts movies where someone barely moves and just sends the opponent flying? Tai otoshi is one of those techniques. If you can pull it off (this was my first time) it’s fucking amazing.
The emptiness in this situation is different– it is a technique that you exert relatively little brute strength. Usually, it’s done by fooling the opponent into leaning forward, which you normally do by pushing them– then when they react, you amplify their reaction and pull them over you. It’s a spectacular throw because the sensation is very empty, and a moment later, if it’s done right, you just have an opponent in front of you floored. You have dropped their body, slammed them on the ground, and it wasn’t even any more difficult than pulling on a jacket or bending over to tie your shoes.
While I was sparring earlier this week against two blue belts that I hadn’t sparred with in several months, who last time had completely dominated me, I became aware that my sense of emptiness was a lot more better tuned. I was learning how to redirect force, how to feint, how to use combination attacks. I scored several ippon throws that night. It wasn’t as many as had been scored against me, but I was elated at it all. I felt intoxicated by the power of these techniques that had somehow written themselves into my body mechanics and muscle memory. It felt great.
All this talk of emptiness relates to sensation, but more importantly, it relates to expectation. For every action we take, we expect certain reactions. The sublime terror of emptiness is that it is not the reaction that we expect– where we expect something firm and hard, if there is nothing, if it is anticlimactic or contrary to what we thought would happened– it wrecks havoc on our spirit because we don’t understand what happened.
The ability to fight using emptiness is profound and deals damage on so many dimensions.
Philosophically, the experience of judo has been good for training me to accept that kind of attack working on me. Being attacked with emptiness doesn’t scare me or frustrate me as much as it used to in judo. The sensation, or more accurately, the lack thereof as my opponent makes me throw myself, is something that I’m getting more used to, so I’m not taking the mental damage from it that I used to.
I believe that it is analogous to other areas of life.
Yesterday night, I got the first rejection letter from a law firm to whom I had applied for a summer clerkship. I need a clerkship. The rejection was just an email, thanking me for having taken the time to apply, but regretted to inform me that I wouldn’t be offered a first round interview.
I’ve been through this before, last year. I know what the rejection letters are like. It’s emptiness. It’s a response that is no response at all, because what you were hoping for was a connection, a hard contact, a foot in the door or something that you could grasp. Instead? Nothing. Characters on a cellphone screen.
I’m getting better at not being confused and freaked out when I get thrown in judo. I may also be getting better at taking rejection letters in a similar way. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. And it doesn’t change the fact that I don’t want to be in this position. Feeling this emptiness is deeply frustrating, and it brings so much rage to me. It is the sort of situation where, for all your fighting spirit, the target has dissapeared, and you find yourself on your back, looking at lights, wondering where you went wrong.
In any case, that’s one rejection– I still have about 9 more chances with other firms. In reality, there’s nothing left for me to do but wait as the responses come back– this isn’t about me fighting anymore, as it is clinging to my sanity as I imagine them judging me.
Wish me luck.