My Time in the Woods

by Andy Lien


 Two years ago I left my job to spend the summer living alone in the wilderness. For some time I had wanted to discover what skills I would need to keep myself alive in the woods, and I also wanted the opportunity to practice my taijutsu without distractions. It seemed like a good time for me to do this because I had few commitments; I was not married, I was working at a job I had planned to quit anyway, and I was living in an apartment that I could leave with short notice. Before I left I wrote a letter to Manaka Sensei asking him for advice on how to make the most of my experience, and in his reply he gave me a number of suggestions that were very helpful.

One of the things Sensei wrote was that this would be a chance for me to use the five senses that all humans have, but it was several weeks into the summer before I began to understand what he meant. Being away from people made me much more sensitive to the less obvious sights and sounds of nature, so I saw and heard things that I had never noticed before. Sometimes I mistook the sounds of small insects crawling through the leaves for a much larger animal like a mouse or a chipmunk. I also rediscovered my sense of smell, and several times I smelled someone approaching along the trail before I could see or hear them. People who had only been camping for a day or two still smelled like the soap or shampoo from their last bath, which was very noticeable in the woods. I think this is one of those smells that animals recognize as distinctly human.

Sensei advised me to spend some of my time in the woods sitting in meditation, with eyes half-opened, thinking of nothing at all. This is something that I have found very challenging to do regularly while living in the city, but it was considerably easier while living in the woods. Part of this was probably that I didn’t have too much else to do, but I think that my natural surroundings played a part as well. When I look back at my journal from that summer, I see that I sat in meditation for 3 or 4 hours every morning for many days in a row. I have not practiced meditating with anything close to that level of intensity since.

As part of my taijutsu practice, Sensei suggested that I tie a rope around a stick and suspend it from its midpoint to use as a target for bojutsu or kenjutsu. I used a six-foot pine log that had fallen near my shelter and found a stick to use for a bo. I practiced the basic strikes with this target and in the air almost everyday. Even though the log could swing freely, its weight provided plenty of resistance when hit, which made each strike more realistic. Also, the log spun quickly and unpredictably which made for a great distancing drill. I often had to leap forward or backward to make the next hit, and whenever I swung and missed I could see if my swing went too far past the target and left me open. I could also practice making a quick second strike. Sensei has written that because the bo is a weapon with a long range, it is very important to be able to hit while leaping forward and backward, and my practice with the log was a first step toward understanding this.

Living away from civilization gave me the opportunity to learn about many things besides just martial arts. Since I had few demands on my time, I could have spent my days doing almost anything, but I was fortunate enough to have Sensei guide me toward a handful of meditation and bojutsu exercises. Spending a greater amount of time focusing on just these few skills allowed me to make much greater progress during the course of the summer. Living away from civilization is an experience I would recommend to anyone, but for me it was made much more valuable by having a knowledgeable teacher.