Litchfield Beach, South Carolina, Saturday morning. I woke up for no reason I can recall. The house was quiet and there was only the faintest gray light coming through the blinds to suggest it was anything but still nighttime. The calls of birds and the dull rolling thunder of the waves were all soothing, sleep-inducing sounds.
But I was awake, and as excited as a kid on Christmas morning. My wife would not be up for hours yet. The other occupants of the house had all, like me, stayed up late catching up. They needed their sleep but, for some reason, I could do without mine. I swung my legs off the bed, stumbled to the dresser in the dark, and found my phone. 6:07 am.
One part of me said,”Don’t be silly, go back to bed.” The other part of me laughed, remembered why I was so excited, and didn’t listen. I quietly got dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, and grabbed my towel, my water bottle, my bo, and my jo. No one heard me leave the house, or pad barefoot down the sandy path that leads to the Atlantic Ocean. The tide was coming in but there was still plenty of smooth, flat sand for me to engage in one of my favorite traditions; early morning karate training on the beach.
I have never been in a dojo as inspiring as the beach is at sunrise. The waves are like a giant pair of lungs, teaching me how to breathe. The sun slowly colors the sky, providing light but not too much heat. There is a deep sense of solitude, but also of connectedness with the rhythms of the planet. I am rarely the only one out at this hour. The occasional dog walker or runner passes me from time to time. We smugly nod our “good mornings” to each other, members of a special club, confident that we share some great secret that the rest of the world is sleeping through.
Once I begin training it is easy to lose myself in what I am working on and time moves at a different pace. The rising sun and changing tides provide a different type of time keeping. Often, a single kata or exercise will occupy my whole session. I never take a watch, or an iPod, and I only stop when I feel like stopping. The ocean beckons and, like bowing out of a room, I end my early morning with a swim.
Before I leave the beach I look down at the marks my feet have made in the sand. For years I wondered if they were in fact kanji for the names or principles of the katas that I had practiced. Had the masters of old secretly created patterns that spelled out ideas? The thought still seems plausible although I have never come across any evidence to back it up. The evidence of my own time on the beach will soon be washed away with the high tide. But I know I was there and I am better for the time spent training. Meanwhile, my natural dojo will be a clean, inspiring canvas for the next martial artist who chooses not to sleep in. Maybe that person will be you.