How to Achieve Greatness in Karate (& Life): Let Go of Attachment

By Jesse | 14 Comments

Sometimes you go through those moments in life that literally flip your worldview upside down.

Man, how I love those!

Like this one time, a couple of years back, when I was at one of the world’s biggest open WKF Karate tournaments to compete.

Arriving 6:30 a.m. at the venue, I had slept only three hours that night due to my high fever and runny nose (not to mention my snoring, hairy Albanian roommate who I was forced to share the bed with. I later found out he had slept completely naked too). In fact, I hadn’t been training at all for well over two weeks due to my illness, and my appetite was at an all-time low. Fancy hotel breakfast? Sure. Two painkillers and some orange juice.

In short: I was dead-tired, with zero energy and a complete lack of motivation.

Yet there I was.

Ready to “represent my country” at this super big competition.

(If I remember correctly, there were over 90 competitors… in my category alone!)

So, to make a long story short, here’s the crazy part: A couple of hours later I had somehow magically won six straight rounds – ending up in the finals.

That’s right.

The friggin’ finals.

And believe me, nobody was more surprised than me!

I mean, this was just insane. I’d been so certain of losing the first round that I hadn’t even brought both of my tournament belts (red and blue) to the arena! Seriously. This just wasn’t supposed to happen. I had all odds against me; I was in the worst physical shape of my life, mentally unfocused and emotionally wrecked – yet I had managed to end up in the frickin’ finals of this huge-ass tournament where the majority of participants were national squad elite athletes from all over the world.

Needless to say, I’ll never forget that day.

It seems sometimes life gives you the weirdest opportunities.

And I’ll be damned if I don’t learn something from those opportunities.

So ever since that crazy day I have been trying to analyze exactly what, why, and how this ‘miracle’ could happen.

And here’s what I’ve come to conclude. One word. One idea.

One principle.

Attachment.

That’s right. It’s all about attachment.

You see, whether you’re trying to beat people up in front of a roaring crowd at a Karate tournament, holding a presentation to a bunch of executives at your job, giving a speech to your science class in school, or going on a blind date; your attitude towards the concept of attachment is what will eventually stand for 99% of the result in your scary endeavor.

If you ask me, the key lies in letting go of attachment.

Sadly, in the Western world, we’ve never really been properly educated in this area of understanding the concept of letting go of attachment. On the contrary, most of our education in this area has come from religion; which unfortunately teaches us more about clinging to certain well-defined dogmas or being dependent upon somebody (priest/church/congregation), rather than encouraging the opposite concept of letting go of attachments (to wordly things and feelings) and subsequently (hopefully) “finding ourselves” through the inner journey.

Because that’s exactly what we must do.

And that’s exactly why I love the Oriental philosophies so much.

“Most of our troubles are due to our passionate attachment to things that we misapprehend as enduring entities.”

~ Dalai Lama

The Asians seem to have got it all right. Sure, our beloved old Greeks probably had a thing or two right as well, but as the saying goes: Sometimes you’ve got to climb another mountain to get a better view of your own mountain.

Now beware.

I’m about to all new-agey on your ass.

If there’s one thing we all have in common, it’s that we want to feel happy and successful in everything we do. Right? Yet, whether we’re talking Karate in specific or life in general, most of us pin this happiness and success to people, circumstances or things which we actually have no control over – and then hold onto them for dear life.

This is a problem.

So, what I came to learn that weird day when I ended up in the finals of this big international tournament was that the main reason for my surprising success was most likely not due to my physical shape, amazing gi, expensive belt, great coach, wonderful weather or the cheering crowd. Sure, I could probably have cited any of those as a placebo effect thingy, but the truth is, after a couple of years of contemplation I finally think I have an answer to why everything turned out so amazing that day:

In short, it was simply because I had detached myself from the outcome (of the tournament).

I had no attachment to the end-result.

[Imagine a clever pseudo-philosophical quote about letting go of attachment here.]

I did my absolute best each and every moment, not stopping for a second to think about what the end-result would be, and that was it.

Why?

Simple: Because I was already so certain that I would lose the first round!

(So certain that I didn’t bring all my gear, even!)

Literally every action, word or thought in my head was 110% focused on the moment, on the now, because I had no real hope of achieving anything significant that day. Now, this isn’t to say I didn’t have confidence, sure I had. But I wasn’t mentally attached to any specific outcome, because the outcome I dreamed for had vanished along with my deteriorating health!

And ever since that day, I’ve been trying to recreate this same feeling of detachment. Of being free of attachment.

Not only in Karate tournaments, but in every project or undertaking that seems big and scary – Karate setting or not.

What I’ve come to conclude is that the most important points seem to be:

  1. Focus on doing your best at this moment: That’s all you can control.
  2. Don’t look ahead: The future is a mystery whether you think about it or not.
  3. Lastly, let go of any attachment to the outcome: The universe will inevitably take care of itself, unfolding just as it’s supposed to. Your contribution is statistically insignificant

And strangely enough, this has become some kind of mantra for my whole life in general.

Of course, it’s no simple undertaking to let go of attachment – it’s not a one-time decision, like pulling off a band-aid. Instead, it’s more of a gradual day-to-day, moment-to-moment commitment that involves changing the way you experience and interact with everything you instinctively want to grasp.

In fact, it’s a new outlook on life.

Which is why I cringe whenever I see Karate athletes cry as they win or lose a medal, or read about Karate teachers using their titles, belts and ranks in public, or hear Karate students discuss whether they’ll pass their next grading or not.

Because they’re so incredibly attached.

And frankly, I feel sad for them.

People who are attached to outcomes, things, words, opinions, situations and other human beings are not in control over themselves. They have surrendered their dignity and sense of self-worth to an external force, and we know that’s a perfect recipe for disaster.

Sure, you might even have “found your identity” through Karate once upon a time – which is totally cool with me – but that doesn’t mean you should settle.

Know what I mean?

“So what should I do, o almighty Jesse-san?”

Well, here’s a few ideas I consider important for letting go of attachment:

  • Accept every moment for what it is. Don’t try to turn now into yesterday; that moment’s gone. Don’t plot about how you can make this moment last forever; that won’t happen. Just seep into the very moment of “now” and enjoy it for what it is, because it will soon pass. And then you’ve lost it. Nothing is permanent, so fighting that truth will only cause you unnecessary agony. Sure, stuff will happen, but you’ll deal with it when that time comes. Enjoy what you have now. It’s enough. Karate won’t disappear.
  • Call yourself out from time to time. Take some distance from your lizard brain. Learn what it looks like to grasp at people, things or circumstances so you can redirect your thoughts when they veer toward attachment. When you dwell on keeping, controlling, manipulating or losing something (instead of simply experiencing, learning from and enjoying it) you are effectively robbing yourself of a better life with more success and happiness. Think about how this relates to your Karate (grading system, the sensei/sempai system etc.).
  • Always define yourself in fluid terms. Be dynamic. We, as human beings, are all constantly evolving and growing. At least I hope you are. So please define yourself in terms that can withstand change. Forget titles, diplomas and belts. Defining yourself by possessions, roles, ranks or relationships breeds attachment – because loss of those things entails losing not just what you have, but also who you are (or have become). And dude, you are not McDojo Head Chef of the Karate Nerd™ Universe. You are you. Find that person (again).
  • Learn to like yourself. It will be hard to let stuff/people go when necessary if you depend on them for your sense of worth. And people will always have to go, that’s how life ends after all. So you’d better believe you’re always worthy whether someone else tells you or not. This way, you relate to people - instead of how they make you feel about yourself. So from now on, whenever you’re practising your kata, you’re not training alone. You are with yourself.
  • Let things be. This doesn’t mean you can’t actively work to create a different (better) tomorrow. On the contrary, I believe you should always strive for making improvements. Instead, “letting things be” means that you make peace with the moment as it is, without worrying that something’s wrong with you, your situation or your life – and then operate from a place of acceptance. That place will then be your base as you build yourself and your promising future. It is what it is. And if it isn’t, go for it.
  • Embrace every feeling – whether good or bad. Feel it, acknowledge it, perhaps even express it, and then let it join the rest of the universe. Appreciate every feeling you have, and work through it. Especially note to fully embrace your happy moments. And yes, if darker moments follow, make sure to fully experience them too: They’ll teach you something, and soon enough you’ll be in another happy moment to appreciate. Everything is cyclical. Experience, appreciate, enjoy, and let go – to welcome another experience. The feeling of losing in kumite against somebody is just as valuable, if not more, as winning.

So, what do you say?

How do you relate to this concept of letting go of attachment?

To be honest, I would be something of a hypocrite if I told you it would always be easy. It’s not. Sometimes you’ll feel quite compelled to attach yourself physically and mentally to people or ideas – as if it gives you some sense of control, stability or security. You may even strongly believe you’ll be happier if you struggle to hold onto what you have or crave.

And that’s OK.

It’s human nature.

Just know you always have the power to choose – from day to day, hour to hour, moment to moment – how you experience your life: with a sense of ownership, anxiety and fear; or with a sense of freedom, peace and love.

I know it sounds cheesy.

But that’s what a miraculous Karate tournament taught me, after all.

And I’ll be damned if I didn’t share that with you guys.

At the end of the day, the most important question undoubtedly seems to be:

What do you choose right now?

About the author

is a self-titled Karate Nerd™, best-selling martial arts writer, unreasonably handsome elite athlete, autodidact, karatepreneur and carrot cake aficionado. He really thinks you should become a Karate Nerd™ too.

14 Comments

  1. Tashi

    August 9, 2012 at 1:12 am

    Interesting as always, Jesse-san. I had read about this concept of non-attachment in the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, for example in this phrase: “When the sage walks, he leaves no footprints behind.”
    Thanks!

  2. Alexander Kirri

    August 9, 2012 at 1:18 am

    Jesse, look to Sartre and his writings on ‘bad faith’ for your bed time reading; I think you’ll enjoy it.

    • Jesse

      August 9, 2012 at 6:11 pm

      We are doomed to freedom -- hah! Love it, Alex-san! ;)

  3. Gary

    August 9, 2012 at 1:18 am

    This makes complete sense, Jesse-san. One year ago at this time, I was promoting my first karate program with hopes of running a good school. I had the students to begin the program however, the owner of the gym where I was teaching couldn’t get me an earlier class time as promised therefore, half of the students had to stop training as an 8pm class time was beginning to be too late for kids to train on school nights. I ended the program with hopes of starting it back up in a few months at a different location. During that time, my wife became pregnant, and I began training as a student in a different style to stay active as there were no schools teaching my style that I could train with. Low and behold, I fell in love with the style and was learning so much that I decided not to begin teaching again as I had a baby on the way now and now that the baby is here, I can still train, workout with the group when I can, and not having to worry about the business end of the martial arts at this busy time. Ok, so my point is that I agree to live in the moment without putting too much thought in the future. If I told myself one year ago that I would be training in a completely different style as a student, not teaching, and will be a father, I would have laughed for an hour straight because I would have said NEVER to all three. Here I am still enjoying my karate training. :D

  4. pete ampil

    August 9, 2012 at 5:11 am

    Jesse, I remember something similar happening to me at a basketball game many years back……
    was unable to get a good night’s sleep/a new born kid crying most of the night and keeping me awake… before a game that I told my coach that I feel lousy and would he ‘bench’ me…
    My coach told me that he would put me on the starting five and to signal him when I get tired…. he would send in a replacement……
    I played hard so that I could rest out the rest of the game on the bench…….I must have played so well that my coach used for the entire game…. remarked during a time out that I should get a little sleep MORE OFTEN -- so I could play better than usual…
    one has to live his life from moment to moment and not worry about future problems too much ahead of time … tackle your current concerns and let the future take of itself…….
    good article, Jesse……keep them coming….
    pete

  5. Greki

    August 9, 2012 at 11:50 am

    Ah, this reminds me of the Dokkodo.

    Be detached from desire your whole life long.

    Another amazing post, Jesse-san. Six years ago I stopped practicing Karate. I think it’s time to come back.

    But this time, to live it.

  6. Maria

    August 9, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    Well written, Jesse. Moved some clouds away from the sun :)

  7. CharlieL

    August 9, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    Hi Jesse -- another excellent and inspiring post. I find myself already becoming attached to my belts and the outcome of my next grading. I must take a step back and look at it with a non-attached mind.

    Your post also reminded me of an excellent book I’ve just read, “The Chimp Paradox” by Dr Peters. The notion of letting go of your ‘inner chimp’ correlates strongly to non-attachment.

    Finally -- I love you no longer having to train “alone” when practising kata… very profound!

    Ous!

    Charlie

  8. Rui Paulo Sanguinheira Diogo

    August 9, 2012 at 8:05 pm

    Hey Jesse! If you were a cute, swedish girl then another article like this one would make me ask you to marry me (I shouldn’t write this too loud or I am in big trouble! *lol*) – but because you are not a girl I just “wúwéi”.

  9. Greg

    August 10, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    Fantastic article, I like tot hink that I detatch myself from certain things such as gradings/belts/kumite competitions, with ease. I do, however, find that I cannot detatch myself from other more important things in my life, albeit that they wont be around for long, relatively speaking :) I think that for me this is a reasonable balance and I find myself striving for balance more and more as I age :)
    Great article and a real mind-fryer, thank you Jesse San!

    Ossu.

  10. Te'o

    August 13, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    I love this! It’s amazing that sometimes you can read an article like this one and so many things come to mind that make an instant connection. Whether it’s through a personal experience or reading a book. These connections are always good reminders. I just finished, like yesterday, reading a book for the third time called “Surfing the Himalayas” by Fredrick Lenz. One of the main thoughts of the story is letting go of attachments, with some Tantric Buddah Yoga thrown in. One of the thoughts that I liked best from the book was…”The emptiness of snow is death.” You have to read the book to get that, but it really is about living moment to moment, and being mindful of how you are living in that moment. Great stuff Jesse, thanks again!!!

  11. clark

    August 19, 2012 at 1:28 am

    I just got back from a tournament. Coming from a small island with 4, yes 4 competitors I was sure I had no chance of even placing at this tournament which had other state/provinces competing in it aswell, and once I got there, and once I bowed into the ring,all I thought was -- well I’m not going to win so I better make this match worth it -. And once I won(to my surprise) against an opponent whos placed at Pan Ams and Nationals I had the same attitude for ever match there onward. And what do ya know I got placed 2nd place haha. I’m glad our experiences relate haha I defenitly couldn’t write an article on it. And that’s why you’re here! Thanks for sharing Jesse!

  12. Sharath

    August 24, 2012 at 6:29 pm

    Everything told here is perfect except the title:) The title ‘HOW TO Achieve greatness…’ itself projects desire for something which is not the essence of your article. Summing up your article tells one thing ‘See WHAT IS’. This is the ultimate truth! This kind of thoughts were articulated by Jiddu Krishnamurthi. Bruce lee even applied this in his ‘Jeet Kun Do’ . Good work Jesse!

  13. Barbara Hesselschwerdt

    November 3, 2012 at 10:15 am

    Reading this for the second time because I need to practice it right now. I’m amazed at how many things, positions and people I’ve been attached to and that’s just in my karate. Letting go is proving painful but necessary. I can’t see the future and that is scary but detaching from all the ‘reasons’ I have stayed where I am is the only way forward. Good article.

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