I was talking to an old friend last night about one of my favourite topics – alchemy in the martial arts. Strictly speaking, alchemy is the quest to turn base metals into gold, using a secret process, a special formula, or perhaps a magic spell. It was a quest that transfixed even the most intelligent of people for centuries, and if we don't hear about it so much now, it's not because it has been lost, only because it has become something else. Instead of base metals into gold, people chase after "spells" that make ordinary people incredibly sexually attractive with just one spray (you have seen the Lynx commercials, haven't you?), or "tricks" that make fat people thin in a fortnight, flabby people suddenly muscle-bound, or, of course, "secrets" that can make people who know nothing about martial arts suddenly expert – just by finding out the "secrets" that instructors won't tell them, but happen to be available if you – as long as they send off enough money to the alchemist.
I've repeated often enough the martial arts adage that there are no secrets that cannot be unlocked with a thousand hours of training. But people don't always want to work that hard, and so the prospect of something that makes you all-knowing in an instant, without any work at all, can be a very compelling one.
Watching so many students every year on their martial arts journey, I see many who want to reach the summit of the mountain without actually climbing. Even if you forget the important advice that the martial arts life is a journey, and not a destination, and remain transfixed only by the destination – the black belt, the status, the title - it's important to remember that on a martial arts journey we have no vehicles but our own bodies and minds – and unless we are very skilled indeed, our bodies cannot fly. So if we want to climb a mountain, we'll only get there by taking every step.
It's not that people tend to come to me and ask for the "hidden secrets" to be revealed (though it does happen), because most martial arts students, and certainly students of mine, are long past that. Not so crass, then, but it's still a quest for alchemy in its own way if you seek to take your black belt grading in a shorter time, or jump grades because your ego tells you that you are more talented than others, or give less than 100% because that gets you through it as long as no-one is watching, or talk about virtues when asked, then fail to exhibit them even amongst your colleagues in your own class, let alone in your life – because talking about the virtues is enough to get you the gongs – whether you live by them is often ignored. In the end, it's all a vain attempt to posses gold (or black) without earning it, without taking the journey. Fools gold, indeed.
As the Chinese Year of the Horse arrives, spontaneity takes the forefront. We can travel far, and move forward at incredible speed. But let us make sure that in our martial arts journey we don't try to propel ourselves forward by missing the steps. We know that every step we take makes us stronger as martial artists – better, then, not to miss a single one.