Facing Yourself, Tom Muzila


by Jim Nail

(Black Belt Magazine, published in the early 80’s – anyone have the exact date and/or issue?)

“It was a clear, warm day in November, and I was in good shape, so I decided to see if I could break the record for climbing Mt. Whitney. Whitney is the highest mountain in the continental United States outside of Alaska. The fastest anybody had ever climbed it was in about four hours, four hours and ten minutes. But I’ve climbed that mountain quite a few times, and I thought I might be able to break the record.

I just wore jogging shoes and a sweatsuit, clicked my stopwatch, and started climbing. As long as the weather held out I was doing really well. But I only had a couple thousand feet to go (the mountain is nearly 15,000 feet high) and about an hour left to do it in, when a cloud mass started moving in over the top of the mountain range.

“As soon as the sun was gone, all the melting snow and water froze up again immediately. I wasn’t dressed for cold weather, and at that altitude, it could have been a blizzard blowing in, so I decided I had to turn back.

“The problem was that some of the places I had crossed easily on the way up were frozen. At one spot I had to crawl quite a ways along a narrow ledge, and then suddenly I came to a part of the ledge about 12 feet long that had turned into a solid sheet of ice, like a frozen waterfall. The temperature was dropping pretty far below freezing; with the wind chill factor must have been around minus 30 or 40 degrees.

“My only chance to get across was a sharp piece of rock jutting out through the ice about seven feet away from me. if I could jump out there and catch this rock, I would be able to swing my legs over beyond the ice. If I missed, or if the rock broke, I would go sliding down a sheer ice track for several thousand feet.

That was a moment when I really had to face myself, let go of all my mental blocks and insecurities, even the fear of death, and just act.”

According to Tom Muzila, the man who spoke these words, that moment hanging on the ledge on the way down Mt. Whitney was one of the truest it is possible for a human being to experience. The state of mind which he felt there is also the reason he has trained for the past 15 years in Shotokan-karate, achieving a Yodan fourth-degree black belt) in the famed- Shotokan Karate of America organization, under Tsutomu Ohshima.

“When you’re in a situation like that, actually facing death,” Muzila says, “you get rid of all the distractions, all the little, petty thoughts, all the garbage in your mind. If I had started thinking, I’m going to die, what if the rock breaks, what if I slip, what if I don’t make it. There’s no way I could have made it with all those ‘what ifs.’ But if I forget about all that, forgot about whether I’m going to fall or not, and just do it, then I have a chance.

“The thing people don’t realize,” he continues, “is that they set their own limits. People stop themselves from most of what they can really achieve.”

For Muzila, a chief motive for the dangerous, exhilarating sport of mountain climbing, he is so fond of, is the desire to push beyond limits, to break down barriers within him that most people never find or question within themselves. He practices (and recommends that other practice) karate with the same end in view.

A common cliche, for example, in nearly every martial arts organization, Muzila’s own SKA, included, is the number 1,000. As Muzila explains, “So often In Special Training, we do 1,000 of each of the basic techniques; and in our own practice too, whenever we do a lot of some technique, we do 1,000. At first of course it was really hard, but after a while it seemed to me we were getting too attached to that number. Each technique takes a couple of seconds, so 1,000 repetitions take about half an hour. It was becoming defined quantity, a limit. Muzila’s answer? “So I picked a new number: 10,000. It was almost like saying a million. You couldn’t conceive how long it might take; the mental state you had to start with was that you were going to do this forever, for the rest of your life. You just had to let all your mental blocks go and accept that you were here, doing this technique, forever”.

“And then, after doing that a few times, even that started seeming like a limitation. It began getting easier, more finite, so I set a new number 50,000. And then I decided just to do a regular practice, but to go straight through for 24 hours. Every time I did something like this, it wasn’t intended as some kind of stunt, though; the idea was to keep pushing beyond my mental barriers in karate.”

It is important to remember that the real test of these long, enduring; practices was not endurance, but concentration. Muzila is the first to warn that combat is not like marathon running. “In the martial arts there is no time,” he says. “You face the opponent, and everything is there all at once. It can all be over in a split second.” He cautions that it would be wrong, therefore even counterproductive, to practice the same technique for hours on end in some kind of euphoric trance, with each particular technique being just another tick of the clock on the way to 24 hours or 50,000 repetitions. Every single technique has to be your best, like The last one before you die. You do those 10,000 or 50,000 so that you can do one that is really your best.”

But, he argues, most people stop themselves long before they get close to doing their best…’

They think, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that,’. or ‘Me? Run 30 miles? Oh, I could never do that.’ “But”, Muzila says, “They don’t have any idea of their real limits because they’ve never pushed themselves. Most people have never even tested themselves to see how long they can go without food or sleep.

“So they set artificial limits. They’re afraid of things that really would not defeat them. They’re ruled by fear, and their entire lives are inhibited that way”

And this is one advantage of some of the more extreme practices that Muzila has dreamed up. It is the advantage of mountain climbing without equipment (he prefers to pit himself against a mountain without a lot of technical assistance) or of just training to the best of your ability in the martial arts. Achieving almost anything you didn’t know you could do, strengthens your self-esteem and increases your willingness to face challenges later on.

But there is more to this idea than simply going from challenge to challenge. Because during every such effort, the ultimate challenge is always present, right at hand. It is the interior voice that makes excuses, that gives up, that tries to convince you of the folly of your particular project, long before you have really been defeated. Facing that challenge is what Muzila refers to as “facing yourself.”

And in Muzila’s view, there’s nothing quite like martial arts or mountain climbing to develop this quality. “Aside from the cold, the exhaustion, the danger, there’s also the sheer elevation to deal with in climbing a mountain,” he explains. “After a certain height your brain isn’t receiving enough oxygen, and your body starts losing energy. It’s like not having slept in several days: you start seeing weird phantom images out of the corner of your eye; your senses get disjointed, they come in little bits and pieces. That’s the hardest thing about climbing. Even to do little things is a big, major project. To heat up some water is like making a gourmet dish up there… just to think about it. ‘Let’s see, did I turn on the stove first? Water in the pan?’

“And then to function under those conditions. You really have to push. Every step you take, you don’t even worry about the top of the mountain, or getting down, or anything, it’s just this step, umphh! and the next one, hmmh! and you have to use all your will, all your energy, beyond the conscious mind; your deepest will has to focus. You have no oxygen, little food, no energy. So what does that mean? You can’t depend on muscular energy to do it, you have to depend on breathing, mentality, will, a deeper energy, to pull you through. ”

In a similar way, Muzila’s 24-hour practice sessions can help the practitioner break through to a whole new level of mental and physical performance. “At first, you’re putting everything into each technique,” he explains, “but there’s an excess of power, a wastage of power. Then, the more tired you get physically, the more you have to force yourself through every repetition, the more economical your movement gets. Your breathing adjusts itself, your shoulders relax, your mind clears itself of extraneous thoughts, and you’re just there, doing the practice. You get rid of all excess power, all purely physical power, and what you’re developing is a strong mentality.”

And something of that feeling apparently remains after the mountain has been climbed, the particular challenge successfully faced. It is almost as if one’s conception of the trivial and the significant in life could be irreversibly shaken up, distorted, even reversed altogether. Muzila says, “You face death, or you face your own limits directly like that, and it helps you to see your life in a different way. Suddenly you’re brought face to face with something real, like exhaustion or danger and you realize – why are we so concerned with this or this…’ and you can appreciate the little things in life again, everything around you. You can feel that there’s some connection between you and the world. You get beyond external things, and you feel that there’s some connection with God or nature. or whatever you want to refer to it as.”

According to Muzila it was once precisely this feat of overcoming the self – overcoming one痴 fear and weaknesses, one’s exhaustion, even one’s second thoughts and doubts -that the samurai of ancient Japan referred to in their famous statement, 鄭 samurai wears two swords. One to cut the enemy and, more importantly, one to cut himself.” And the reward for “cutting oneself” in this way? A whole new perspective on life.

Perhaps it is needless by now to point out that Muzila did succeed in his desperate jump over the ice, described at the beginning of this article. What might be a bit less obvious, however, is what followed. He managed to hobble down the rest of the mountain and made his way to a local tavern in Lone Pine, the village at the base of the mountain range. There he found that the skin of both his feet had turned a transparent grey-white, underlain by patches of deep, frozen black a severe case of frostbite. The danger he had faced of dying on Mt. Whitney was behind him; the danger of having one or both his legs amputated had just arisen.

Nevertheless and here is perhaps the most difficult part of the story for most people to comprehend, Muzila had given his word about something a few days before. He had said he would participate in a martial arts demo, as the villain, for a friend. He was scheduled to go pretend to be soundly beaten up; and although he could barely walk he was determined not to cancel on such short notice. He taped his feet with bandages the next day, didn’t mention a word about his catastrophe to anyone, withstood the agony of performing with his friend, then went to the hospital. And the lesson Muzila draws from the experience today? “I had given Kenny my word,” he says, “and I didn’t want to break it. You know, your word is the most important thing you have.”

Compared with a perspective like this, most people are timid indeed. Fortunately, a frostbite specialist the hospital physicians referred Muzila to was able, over a period of weeks, to save the limbs. The whole episode might seem almost foolish to those who don’t feel so bound by their word, but Muzila might argue: how can a person who is afraid of pain, afraid of death, afraid or a hundred other things, possibly make a moral choice about anything in life? One of Muzila’s main points, in fact, is that it is necessary to conquer oneself in order to see life clearly. Otherwise, one simply cannot see past one’s own subjective needs, insecurities, fears, and the whole web of false perception these weaknesses conjure up.

The martial arts fill an important role in Muzila’s view of these matters.

First of all, facing oneself strongly in martial arts practice makes nearly any student a much stronger fighter. “In our Special Training practices,” Muzila explains in illustration, “we do an exercise where we stand in kibadachi (horse stance) for an hour and a half. You can see right there who has a strong mentality. Because, especially the newer members, will start rising up slowly after just a few minutes. Doing that stance at the proper height, the right way, your legs feel like they are on fire, or have knives stabbing into the muscles. And the mind will want to make excuses.

First, you’ll start thinking, ‘Jeez, why did I come here? I could be at the beach, or almost anyplace but here.’

“Then, the mind will come up with something like, ‘Okay, I’ll do it, but I’m not going to push hard; I’m just going to get through this,’ and so you’ll start raising up when none of the seniors are looking. Or, people don’t even realize it, but subconsciously they start raising up, getting into an easier position. To keep yourself down at the proper level takes a strong mind. You have to keep on yourself literally every second, and naturally, you let go of all your other preoccupations, worries, mental blocks and so on, just keeping yourself at that one level. And after you do it, you find that in life you can make use of it to push yourself, just a little bit more in anything you do in the martial arts, you can face much stronger opponents after doing an exercise like that.

“One of our members, Mark Kohagura, was a perfect example. He went to Special Training twice that year, once on the East Coast and right afterward on the West Coast. He was young, maybe 21 years old, and he stood in the stance just right, knees very low. In the second Special Training, he passed out from the effort just about five or ten minutes before the end. And after that, he was a much stronger fighter his kumite completely changed.

“Even before that, in my opinion, he was probably one of the strongest jyu-kumite (free-sparring) practitioners in the world. He won our Nisei Week tournament four times, which nobody else has ever done. But, still; you could see that he wasn’t quite able to perform up to his own highest potential.

“But after that, when he faced his opponent, he would immediately take control. He would just move right in with the winning attack. Move in, and he already had it, right there. After those special trainings, he would kamae (take position) and the opponent would move, and Bam! he’d catch him. His feeling and spirit would just penetrate. In the kibadachi exercise, you have to learn to generate that kind of spirit, just to keep yourself down.”

But in case you can’t do it on your own, the martial arts have another advantage in teaching the student to face himself – the senior/junior relationship. Lower-ranking students come into a class, and they have no idea what to expect. All they know is that their senior is going to demand their utmost from them . .. and that, in turn, he will not take advantage of them or ask them to do something he himself is not willing to do.

“By himself, the junior member, the human being, will always want to find the easy way,” Muzila explains. “He’ll always be raising himself up out of a horse stance, so the senior has to come over and catch him. Or somebody may even sincerely think to himself that he’s doing something right; maybe he’s in some euphoric state, punching and not really putting anything into it but thinking he is, so a senior comes over and yells, ‘Hey! What’s the matter with you? What do you think you’re doing?’ And right away the person will realize what he was doing, and go back to punching the right way.”

In the martial arts, the senior is a built-in device to help you face yourself, in other words, because he is simply not going to be satisfied – if he is a good senior – until he sees you doing your absolute best. It is by the senior constantly pushing the junior, in Muzila’s view, that the senior helps the junior find his limits . . . or not find his limits, whatever the case may be.

And the martial arts have still one further advantage. The simplest of all. Pain. Because realistic combat is part of the training, every student has one of the best possible incentives to learn as quickly as possible. The slower you learn, the longer you’re going to get hurt. Muzila says “One of the main advantages of the martial arts is that you have to worry about getting hurt feeling pain. You almost have to understand everything, all at once. Just like in climbing a mountain, there’s always more than one way to go up. You can make climbing Mt. Whitney an all-day affair, too, bring a picnic lunch, take the easy trails, the right time of year or you can make it a really hard practice.

“Martial art is a path up the same mountain as a lot of other paths. But it’s a very straight path, straight up. You can get there in one day, but you can also die.”

The main thing, in Muzila’s view, is to keep pushing oneself, to keep striving to awaken, by whatever means one has chosen. As he says, “The difference between the waking person and the person who is asleep is that the sleepwalker feels he is already awake; the awakened one is still striving, pushing, struggling to be awakened.”

Tom Muzila, Shotokan of America
Tom Muzila, Shotokan of America