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Story - A Personal Journey by John Baktis

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Story - A Personal Journey by John Baktis

This paper was written over two years ago as one of the requirements for my promotion to black belt in karate. It holds many truths that are relevant today and for the future. 




                                    Black Belt paper                                   May/03


                                    A PERSONAL JOURNEY: John Baktis


Life can be measured by the passing of thresholds. Sometimes we slip through like a soft summer breeze gently blowing through lace curtains; hardly noticing the passage except in calm reflection at a later date. And then there are those thresholds that resemble a demanding mountain ascent where each step must be mindful or the body will quickly follow the loose debris that tumbles down into the abyss far below.

            I find myself on the mountain with feet and hands touching rock, eyes looking toward heaven, and a keen awareness of what peril lies below. How did I get here? What keeps me on the path? Where am I going? These are questions I contemplate everyday. I have become more conscious than I have ever been and I have deliberately placed myself on a path of personal healing and self-development that has proven to be the single most challenging quest I have ever undertaken. This paper will explore the aforementioned questions in the light of the spiritual Way I have chosen – the path of Karate-do.

            The year 1997 was one of the most significant of my life. It was a landmark year: a true threshold through which I believe I have only recently finished passing. My partner and I had known each other since the spring of the previous year and were expecting a child in the fall.  I moved from my small bachelor apartment into her rented house in May. She lived with her son who was sixteen at the time.  Her landlord then put the house up for sale and we realized we would have to move. We needed a house to accommodate all of us so we searched for, found, and bought one all within the space of a few weeks. Earlier that year in March I had graded for my nidan (2nd) level black belt at a school of martial art (name withheld by author.).

I was one of the founding students when I joined that school in November 1990 soon after it opened. In June 1994 another founding student and I received our shodan level black belts. A year later in September 1995 the two of us were promoted to Sensei level. We both graded for our nidan level together as well. For our project portion of that grading we wrote, directed, and performed a workshop presentation of a play entitled “BLACK BELT” in February 1997. The play explored various myths and meanings of the black belt and the martial arts. I was able to draw on my passions for acting and martial arts to create a personal and educational piece of theatre. We re-worked that play for a run at the Toronto Fringe Theatre Festival in July 1997.

            My daughter was born at home in our new house October 17. The year was as full as any year can be and it ended bursting with hope and potential.

            My life had changed so quickly and so profoundly in so short a time. Significant events, accomplishments, celebrations, and developments were strung together in rapid succession almost like a stone skipping across the water before it finally settles. When a stone drops in the water the reverberations of that event, let’s call them ripples, must take the time necessary to complete their actions. The energy will move across the water and onto the shore at its own pace. In 1998 the many reverberations from all the “splashes” of the previous year finally came ashore.

            My partner and I barely had time to get to know each other as individuals developing a new relationship before we found ourselves preparing for our new relationship as parents. I was quickly moving from being single to being in a relationship and then to being a new father and new homeowner. Her son was seventeen and our daughter was an infant and I was the sole income earner for our new family.

I thought I was handling everything well and the transitions from one phase to another were relatively seamless. At least I had convinced myself of this. But deep inside, well below the surface consciousness things were stirring. My body started to experience what I would call anxiety attacks in the form of heart palpitations. Lying in bed at night and at any time during the day without warning I would feel a kind of hollow emptiness in my chest and my heart would begin to beat irregularly often with long pauses between beats and then two or three quick beats in rapid succession. I was most alarmed. Medical tests came back negative so at least nothing was wrong physically. Factors that I’ll call worries, fear, stress, pressure, were all part of my reactions to the changes I was going through. I was not in control of myself.

            Throughout my life I had always known I had a quick temper. In earlier years when very angry I had punched holes in walls, kicked doors, and smashed breakable objects. I had grown up in a home where there was a certain amount of fiery temper and “hot blood.” In my mind certain forms of aggressive behaviour had become in some way acceptable. Now in my new home with my new family I found myself becoming very angry often and would lash out verbally at my partner and daughter, and would lash out physically at inanimate objects. I found myself living in a state where a dark cloud would be lurking around the corner and at any time thunder would crack and lightning would strike. It was as if demons possessed me and I would feel justified to rage at the very people I would give my life to protect. I was beginning to destroy the very things I had so recently created.

At the same time cracks were beginning to appear in the human structure of the martial arts school. The tightly knit family that had been growing over the past eight years was showing signs of unravelling. Certain financial and what I would label ethical issues were threatening the very fabric of the school. I found myself at odds with the way important issues were being dealt with and the new direction the school was taking. I was also in alignment with most of the student body. And looking back in hindsight I did not have the skills necessary to resolve conflicts in a way that could have resulted in a different ending. As it was by the end of 1998 the school was blowing apart. The Sensei/founder of the school and his wife (the other founding student I had trained and graded with) moved out of town. They were writing their first book and would come back to Toronto periodically to teach. It was up to the senior students to follow a teaching outline and continue classes. At that time my sensei prohibited me from teaching because of the rift that had developed between us. The Sensei and his wife, I’ll call them C and R, were my close friends. We had trained together, travelled together, and made plans for the future of the school and its expansion together. The intimacy of our relationship built up from the early days of the dojo made the rift that much harder to bear.  It was as if a family was disintegrating. Feelings were raw and hurt was rampant.

It seemed everything was starting to crumble all around me. Intimate relationships if not broken were being stretched to the breaking point and I was having a very difficult time holding it all together.

It was at that time, early 1999 that my partner and I sought couple counselling in the hopes of saving our relationship. We needed to rebuild the trust that I was eroding with my behaviour. We also needed to learn how to communicate more openly and deal more effectively with all the changes that had been happening so quickly. I also sought individual psychotherapy primarily to deal with my anger and how it affected my behaviour especially but not exclusively at home. My search led me to a Men’s group that I am still attending. This step was essentially the first I had taken on the path of self-discovery. The group has been instrumental in helping me explore myself, giving me a clear direction, and ultimately making it possible for me to re-discover the Way in its much deeper sense.  I began to look at myself with new eyes and really see for the first time the different elements that made me and make me who I am. My relationships with my spouse and my daughter were bringing up in me a range of emotional reactions that I needed to explore. I became aware of the need to heal old wounds that I didn’t even know I had. I believe the wounds are the key to the behaviours and the healing process is an integral part of spiritual growth. And that growth, as I see it at this time, is to nurture the true self or essence or spirit if you will, free it from any destructive and debilitating forces of the past, and guide it by strong moral values that are themselves rooted in love, compassion, patience, and truth.

In early 1999 the martial arts school, as far as I could tell, had completely disbanded. A few of us continued to train together by ourselves. I was teaching classes to a dwindling number of students. People were losing interest and moving in different directions. By the summer of 1999 there were only three or four of us who would meet to train at irregular intervals. It was at that point that I realized I was losing focus as well. I was feeling lost and directionless and I knew I needed something substantial to help me get back on the path.

I began my search for a new school. I had spent a lot of time on the Internet researching karate. I was looking into different styles and systems and more importantly I was really beginning to explore the philosophical and spiritual aspects of the art in ways far deeper than I had ever done so before. My new work in the men’s group was feeding a need to find that same spiritual development in my martial arts as well. I saw the two paths as being intertwined. In fact the values and goals were the same. Each one added strength and integrity to the other. When I found the Toronto Academy of Karate and observed a number of classes and spoke to Sensei, I had an intuitive feeling about it all. It felt right. It fit. So in the fall of 1999 I joined.

The last three and one half years have been the most challenging, stimulating, and enriching years of personal growth I have ever experienced. Quite frankly it was a matter of survival; either grow and develop or lose it all. It all comes down to choice. I have chosen the Way to become the best man, husband, and father I can be. A journey of mind, body, and spirit through a very physical art touches a chord deep within me. I love the physical exertion. It clears my head and brings me right into the here and now – complete mindfulness in the moment. It is truly moving meditation. I love the way my body feels after it’s been pushed and heated and stretched. I love its strength and its movement. And the key to it all is the truly uplifted spiritual state of mind that fills me during and especially after training. It is then that my essence shines through. And that essence is the part of me that must be constantly present if I wish to live by the high ideals I have set for myself. It is in that state of peace, tranquillity, and joy that I feel connected to the life force itself. I feel at one with the universe and capable of handling anything that comes my way.

One fundamental tool or exercise I have gradually learned to use with a genuine focussed intent over the past few years is that of breathing from the hara. The hara is the centre, the source from which all emanates. It is the centre of one’s body, the residence of the soul or spirit, and the source of one’s life force or ki. It is a place I consciously breathe into to tap into that source to find the peace, tranquillity, and joy of life. I can also harness that energy if I need the courage, will, and fire to accomplish whatever task at hand. One example would be the kiai. I know that with each inhalation I can theoretically tap into that source and “imbue each breath with the quality of presence I desire.”{Ross Laing MD holistic physician.} I have been developing the ability to do that with every step along the path. It has been a gradual process and I am moving towards greater proficiency. The idea of “tapping into source’ through conscious breathing from the hara has also been vital in learning to handle the strong emotions that can, if left unchecked, convince me to drive myself into fits of anger. I am able, with increasing reliability, to be aware of all the emotions and at the same time not let them control me. I can witness and feel the feelings, breathe into the hara, and control my actions: learning to respond consciously and calmly rather than react mindlessly. This process too is on the journey. I have found that I have become more and more conscious and mindful of thoughts, feelings, reactions, and responses in the mental, physical, and spiritual realms. It is Tsuki No Kokoro (mind like the moon) on an internal level: a clear awareness of being. From this serene centred place I can choose how I want to be.

“The Way is a journey of the mind and the spirit and, ultimately, the soul.   . . . But the attainment of the Way is in the process. It is doing a thing not for the sake of doing it; it is doing a thing because the doing releases us from certain constraints of the limited self: narcissism, self-centredness, preoccupation with the fears and worries and doubts that diminish us in daily life. The Way draws us into the domain of the potential self: self-realization, self-cultivation, and self-perfection.”

                        -Dave Lowry “Sword and Brush – The Spirit of the

                         Martial Arts”

I had originally chosen this path many years ago for reasons I wasn’t even sure of. I felt drawn and simply followed. I was skimming the surface and interested more in the physical aspects than those of a spiritual or philosophical nature. Looking back, I wasn’t ready or willing to dive into those realms. As the journey has continued, I have become more and more clear as to what it really represents for me. My personal need for growth and development has opened up the deeper side of the Way. Now each step is consciously placed and the journey is one of a lifetime. And still I am learning that the Way goes beyond personal growth. It is bigger than the individual and extends to the whole. The energy that I create for myself must go out into the world as well. Our individual actions emanate energy like the ripples in a pond. We must take responsibility for our own actions precisely because they affect everyone else either directly or indirectly. That shout of anger at a child or that aggressive car horn honk at the distracted driver ahead of us is also energy that emanates outward and does nothing but destroy. But a simple smile radiates joy that creates and uplifts. And that is my path as well. I develop myself ultimately to uplift myself and all those around me. To be true to oneself, to speak one’s truth, to be and do good to oneself, others, and all creation is the noble path of the spiritual warrior.

“The Art of Peace begins with you. Work on yourself and your appointed task in the Art of Peace. Everyone has a spirit that can be refined, a body that can be trained in some manner, a suitable path to follow. You are here for no other purpose than to realize your inner divinity and manifest your innate enlightenment. Foster peace in your own life and then apply the Art to all you encounter.”

                        -Morihei Ueshiba “The Art of Peace – Teachings of the

                        Founder of Aikido” Translated by John Stevens




Post Script      I have travelled a distance and come to a new place in my life. I am aware now more than ever that the journey is a process; ever changing, ever growing. There have been and will continue to be moments of darkness that when seen in the proper light will appear as new and challenging thresholds through which to pass. Thresholds that will bring you to places you never dreamed you would be going. It takes a willingness to be fully committed to the journey. Stand on the edge, look out over the magnificent vista, and take a leap . . . .of faith..