The other night in class, Sahbumnim was speculating on why our latest beginners seemed to have dropped out.
"A lot of people have this idea that martial arts enables you to do all this stuff effortlessly," he said. "Then when people find out it's hard work, they quit."
"It's more like you don't know what effort is until you've studied martial arts," I muttered, still trying to work last week's stiffness out of my shoulders before getting started on this week's conditioning.
Sahbumnim went on to say that once you've mastered a technique, it requires much less effort than it would without the training, but that the training itself is far from effortless.
This should be familiar from everyday life. Driving a car, for example, seems effortless compared with walking; but that's only because most of the effort that goes into driving a car is hidden. In order to make the car, factories had to be built; metal had to be mined and smelted; plastics had to be synthesized; years of research and development had to be done; oil had to be mined and refined; rubber had to be tapped and made into tires. If you had to do that all yourself, you'd find it more efficient to walk, even if you were headed across the continent. (For that matter, do you remember how many hours of practice it took before you could "effortlessly" steer, brake, monitor oncoming traffic and check your mirrors all at the same time? And how many hours of your labor did it take to cover your car payments?)
The "effortless" martial arts technique appears effortless only because you can't see the previous effort that went into it. That board-breaking kick is the culmination of thousands upon thousands of kicks--in the air, against a padded target, against a sparring opponent. The form required to make the break work is the result of doing it wrong over and over and over again--gradually learning to do it a little less wrong each week, each month, each year.
This process of refinement and distillation eventually--eventually!--results in a kick that feels like a hundred kicks rolled into one. Because in a very real sense, that's exactly what it is.