Lifelong Learning
A Statement of Philosophy
Beth Cody, 3rd-degree black belt
October 8, 2011

Now that I am in my forties, I am becoming aware of the importance of lifelong learning, and the role that Hapkido has played in it for me.

When we are young, we spend most of our time learning new things, because frankly, there is so much that we do not know. Infants are completely helpless and know only their desperate needs for food, warmth and human contact.

As toddlers, we make great strides in learning: we have figured out how to walk upright, how to speak to communicate with others, and we realize that we can exert some control on the world around us, that we can make things happen. And that we each are able in just a couple of years to learn these skills that took humans millions of years to figure out collectively is nothing short of miraculous.

As children, we continue to learn: we learn about the world around us; how things work, why they work that way. We are naturally curious about many things and if we are fortunate, we have parents and teachers who indulge our curiosity and encourage us to maintain it.

And this is the easiest time for us to learn specific skills: how to read, play the piano, speak foreign languages, play sports, walk on our hands in gymnastics class.

As we advance to adolescence, we learn increasingly abstract knowledge: we manipulate numbers in order to make mathematical calculations, memorize dates from history and discuss why history took the course that it did, and learn the theories behind scientific explanations and discoveries.

These studies intensify as we go through high school. If we go to a good school, we read some of the greatest books ever written, learn about the central ideas in history, deepen our knowledge of science, mathematics and foreign languages and cultures.

And most students today continue on to college of some sort. There they have the opportunity (even if it is rarely taken) to study the great ideas with learned professors. We make new friends, learn new hobbies and learn to make our way in the world living on our own for the first time.

But then – we stop.

With graduation and the search for a job, working for a living, buying a house, meeting and marrying someone, having children and then raising them, juggling the many responsibilities of family life, work and "making ends meet"….

It often seems like there just isn't time for learning about new ideas or mastering new skills any more, unless they directly relate to work or family. If we take the time to think about it, we may wonder: What ever happened to the pleasure of learning something just for the sake of learning it?

In the past, having the leisure time for education was considered a privilege that existed only for the wealthy. In the past couple of centuries as more families joined the middle class, an exception was made for children, but adults were still expected to "put away childish things" and spend their time in more productive pursuits, leaving learning to the young.

It is only now when so many people are living longer lives well into retirement that that it has become acceptable for adults to enjoy learning things again. Many retirees pursue hobbies, skills or specialized knowledge for the first time, or again after a hiatus of decades of responsible work.

But why do we have to wait for retirement to continue our learning? Yes, we are certainly busy with the demands of life, but I believe that it is important to make an effort to carve out a little time each week or each day to increase our knowledge and skills, especially if they seem "impractical" and of no obvious immediate use.

In fact, research has shown that keeping our minds and bodies active throughout our lives – not just in youth and retirement – can stave off many of the worst effects of aging. This intuitively makes sense: why else does it feel so good to learn about things that we find interesting?

This is one of the main reasons why many of us continue to practice Hapkido for years. Many Hapkido students begin practicing as college students, and most of them give it up upon graduation, if not long before. But those who manage to continue working out (and those who begin Hapkido as working adults) understand the importance of continuing to practice, in spite of our otherwise busy schedules and the seeming non-necessity of doing so.

After all, do we practice for years or even decades only for the practical purpose of learning self-defense? What is the statistical likelihood that most of us (other than those in law enforcement or other dangerous jobs) will actually need to use our techniques against an attacker, here in relatively-peaceful Iowa? Yes, of course there is a remote chance, and of course knowing something of defense makes us more confident and therefore less likely to need those skills, paradoxically.

But most of us enjoy practicing Hapkido because we are learning something (and performing physical movement). Hapkido is multi-faceted: It engages us physically, it encourages mental analysis of techniques systematically and mathematically, it requires us to personally interact with others and give of our time and expertise to help others, which makes us more sociable, more generous, better people.

And like any "art," Hapkido has no limit to what can be discovered and improved upon. When we start practicing, we believe that the black belts who instruct us must surely know most of what needs to be known about Hapkido. But after we become black belts ourselves, we realize that there is so much left to be learned that we must continue to be regarded as sheer beginners. I feel certain that even Master Pak, who has practiced for over half a century, must realize new things nearly every time he teaches Hapkido class.

Actually, teaching is perhaps even more important than practicing in causing new thoughts and discoveries to be made. Yes, there is much improvement we can do simply by working on our techniques, but we are naturally limited by the fact that it is our own bodies and minds and experience that we bring to such practice.

To really learn any "universal truths" about Hapkido, we must look at how other people, with their different bodies and minds and life experiences, practice Hapkido. Most of this will be in the form of troubleshooting: watching others make mistakes and noting to ourselves (and to them if we are their instructors) what they are doing wrong. After many years of helping others improve their techniques, we not only become good at helping other people, but we also inevitably apply that knowledge to our own understanding of Hapkido.

And often what happens when we are explaining something to a student is that we make a tangential connection between what we are explaining and some other thought concerning Hapkido that may have been lurking at the back of our minds. It is at these times that new ideas and avenues of experiment occur to us, leading to new theories of how to improve some aspect or other of our practice of Hapkido.

But any discussion of lifelong learning in Hapkido cannot be complete without mentioning another effect: Our knowledge of Hapkido (or any skill-based art) continues to increase as long as we continue to work out and teach others. But the counter-force of age works in the opposite direction: as we practice for longer, we get older, and it perversely becomes more difficult for us to do things that we used to be able to do.

Even if we manage to avoid crippling injury, we become less flexible and often suffer from aching joints. I myself have chronic knee pain that flares up every few years and prevents me from fully working out for a year or longer at a time, but I try to use those periods to concentrate on teaching our students and continue coming to class as regularly as possible, so as not to lose the ability to think about Hapkido.

It is one of the great ironies of life that as we get older, what we know increases, while what we can do decreases. Mysteriously enough though, our techniques can still become more effective even as we suffer these physical limits.

(It is entirely another mystery why on average we become happier and more satisfied with life as we grow older, even though we suffer from more ailments, get closer to the end of our lives and lose our looks, our physical strength and many of our loved ones with the passing of time. Perhaps time simply brings a more balanced and longer-term perspective that leads to contentedness, or perhaps wisdom really does come with age.)

On another note, the genesis of this paper is the time I have recently spent thinking about the nature of education and learning. Since the last time I tested here before you, I began homeschooling my children. I have taught my eight-year-old daughter for three years and I am now teaching my six-year-old son as well.

When undertaking the responsibility of educating children, it is important to give some thought to what you (and your spouse) believe constitutes an ideal education. There are only so many hours in the day, so you must decide which subjects are the most important to learn at each age, what content should be learned in each of those subjects and how they should be taught. Then the best materials for those purposes should be selected, based on the recommendations of others who have used them.

This can be a great responsibility, but it is also a wondrous opportunity as well. Because it's not just the students who learn, but the teacher as well. I have gotten the chance to go back and get the education that I now believe I should have had as a student.

I can concentrate on the history that I barely learned and never understood. We have been learning Latin for two years, are now starting Greek and will take up French at some point. We recently got a piano and now we are all learning how to play it. We are reading children's versions of the great works of literature in the anticipation of reading the real works in a few years' time. I am re-learning the mathematics that I enjoyed as a student and the art skills that I let lapse after high school.

This time, unlike in my early student days, I find myself making connections between my different areas of study: how history relates to science, how music relates to math, how martial arts relate to foreign languages (or to math or to history, for that matter).

I find that despite the challenges of teaching children, I really am enjoying this opportunity to continue my own education as my children receive theirs.

Homeschooling has made me realize how important it is to continue learning, whether through practice of Hapkido, learning a musical instrument, or reading history or great literature – how important it is to continue learning throughout life, just for the joy of it.