A Cat In A Tree Outlives A Fox On The Ground

23 May
The following submission is based upon an ancient Zen fable. While it is a treasured tale amongst martial artists, it is submitted for the benefit of all who wander along life‘s path. As with any other fable that is told for the benefit of us humans, the most impact is made when the chief characters of the tale are members of the animal kingdom. Our human attributes are cast upon these unknowing creatures so that we may learn from them. It is only then that we humans can appreciate the folly of our ways. The Zen fable is as follows (See Endnote # 1).
One fine summer day a cat and a fox where enjoying a leisurely afternoon on a sunny countryside hilltop. They were shading themselves under the boughs of a magnificent oak tree. As a cool breeze blew, the two discussed their repertoire of self-defense techniques. The fox was quite boastful. “You see my dear cat”, the fox bragged, “I have many techniques at my disposal.” The fox stroked its chin as it continued. “I can easily list thirty defensive maneuvers that I am capable of.“ “How many can you think of?“ The fox asked the cat. The breeze caused a cold shiver to run up the cat’s spine. The cat looked quite worried. “My dear fox, it seems that I can only think of one defense, so I do hope that we are not attacked.”
As in all good fables, it was at this juncture that fate intervened. As soon as the cat concluded his statement, a pack of hungry, wild dogs appeared. The cat and the fox took notice of the threat to their safety. The dogs poised themselves for a vicious attack upon the two conversationalists. The dogs snarled. The fox, looking curiously confident, said to the cat, “I think I shall out run these dogs, or maybe I shall hide in those bushes, or maybe I shall run into that burrow, or maybe …“ As saliva dripped down their jowls, the snarling, wide-eyed, dogs closed in on the cat and the fox. The cat immediately and instinctively performed the one defensive maneuver it knew; it jumped up onto the trunk of the oak tree. It’s claws providing a firm grip, the cat climbed up the trunk and into the high branches of the mighty oak. The cat was safe and secure. It inhaled deeply to relax and contently looked down from its secure perch.

The cat saw the snarling, drooling pack of dogs encircle the fox and bare their teeth. The cat yelled down to the fox to defend itself. The pack of dogs was focused on the kill. The fox was frozen in place. The dogs snarled and leapt high into the air so as to pounce on the fox. As the dogs were in midair, time seemed to move slowly. The cat heard the fox utter its very last words, “I cannot decide which of my many self-defense techniques I should perform.” With that, the fox disappeared under a mass of snarling, biting, clawing mass of frenzied dog. After the attack, the satiated pack of dogs licked the remnants of the blood from their mouths and lazily strolled down the hilltop. The cat climbed down from the tree and gathered up the torn clumps of fur and bone that was once the fox. The cat buried the earthly remnants of the fox on the hilltop, beneath a large sunflower, and whispered a final goodbye to its friend. As the cat sauntered home, he thought, “What a terrible waste of all that knowledge”. That evening, over a nice saucer of milk, the cat thought fondly of his lost friend.

The lesson of the Zen fable in terms of the martial arts is easily extrapolated (See Endnote # 2). The fable also contains a life lesson that is particularly applicable in the modern “do it all” world. The fox knew a multitude of defensive maneuvers in a superficial manner. To the fox, more was better. His more is better ideology resulted in a terrible fate. Similarly, an entire generation now exists as a personification of the catch phrase; multi-task. The fox’s desire to superficially know many defensive maneuvers produced a false sense of security. The human desire to multi-task is shrouded in a misguided perception of achievement. One perceives that the more tasks one can accomplish in a finite time period, the greater one’s achievement. Achievement, in the ideology of the multi-task, is defined on a hierarchical scale whereby the number of tasks performed is inversely proportionate to the finite time period. Thus, it is perceived that the more tasks one has performed in the shortest time period, the greater the sense of achievement. Such a definition provides a warped and distorted sense of achievement. In this warped definition of achievement, the quality of the tasks performed is irrelevant.

One consequence of this misguided multi-task process is one of the most invasive attacks upon a sense of well being. I call this invader “perceptual stress“. Perceptual stress is an artificial condition that is derived entirely within one’s emotional self. Perceptual stress is a consequence of an internal, self-fulfilling prophecy of failure shrouded in an expectation of achievement. This self-fulfilling prophecy of failure originates in our sub-conscious mind. One who practices a multi-task ideology subconsciously increases the number of tasks to be achieved while simultaneously decreasing the finite time period within which the tasks are to be completed. During this sub-conscious process, one fools oneself into believing that one is capable of achieving the impossible goal of completing all the tasks. One‘s intuition tells one that such achievement is utterly impossible. Perceptual stress is born from the tension caused by the self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.

Perceptual stress differs from actual stress. Actual stress is a condition of physical, mental or emotional strain that is derived from direct, external situational encounters (See Endnote # 3). Perceptual stress is entirely derived internally within one’s own psyche. The cure for perceptual stress is found within the lesson of the above Zen fable.

At the heart of the cure is an acknowledgment of the complexity of the modern world environment. This modern world environment calls for one’s ability to address and resolve a plethora of tasks and situational demands. Such complexity is represented in the Zen fable by the pack of snarling dogs. The fox represents one who has adapted a multi-task ideology. Such adoption leaves the fox paralyzed (similar to the effects of perceptual stress). The dilatory effect of the fox’s inability to act is death. Similarly, the multi-task ideology has a dilatory effect on the physical, emotional and spiritual well being of the human species. The remedy is found within an ideology I call the “UNI-TASK”. The unit-task ideology is symbolized by the cat in the Zen fable. The uni-task ideology is an affirmation that one is often required to address a multitude of tasks or changing situations; however, one can only address one task or situation at a time. The uni-task ideology is accomplished when each circumstance is acknowledged, processed through a hierarchical triage whereby the resolution of each circumstance is assigned a value as to the necessity of its completion and then the resolution process is commenced so that the specific circumstance is addressed. The task or situation is addressed in a qualitative manner and once completed, one progresses onto the next circumstance requiring attention. Thus, by utilizing a uni-task modality, one achieves a pure, pragmatic sense of qualitative (not quantitative) accomplishment and achievement. To be sure, a smiling cat in a tree is better than a fox paralyzed on the ground.

To further illustrate the uni-task ideology, I offer the following anecdote. I am very fond of the inspirational phrase, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” A corollary to this phrase is the acknowledgement that “A journey of a thousand miles is accomplished one step at a time.” Thus, the ideology of the uni-task is called into play. The moral of the Zen fable and my anecdote may be further illustrated by means of a more modern example. This example is found in the genre of modern film. There is an illustrative scene from the movie City Slickers. In the movie, a middle-aged man (played by Billy Crystal) is riding horseback on a cattle drive. He is accompanied by a grizzled old cowboy (played by Jack Palance). As they ride along, Billy Crystal’s character questions the substance and quality of his life. His “city slicker” lifestyle (which I submit is beset by a multitask ideology) is in stark contrast to the lifestyle of the old cowboy. The grizzled old cowboy looks at him and asks if he knows what the problem is. Bill Crystal’s character shakes his head to indicate “No.“ The cowboy offers a solution and points his index finger upwards, seemingly at sky.

The Answer To The City Slicker's Multi-task Lifestyle

Billy Crystal’s character jokingly replies, “What, the answer is up?” To which the cowboy offers an interpretation of the ideology of the uni-task, “Find one thing you are good at and do it well.“

The ideology of the uni-task has immediate benefits to one‘s state of being. The benefits include, but are not limited to, eliminating perceptual stress, reducing actual stress, and promoting a sense of true achievement. Such a state of being fosters an enlightened human condition.

The next time you are challenged by the demands of life, take a moment to gather your thoughts. You may even remember my ideology of Jiriki Kata-Do and perform Sanchin. Then, smile like a cat in a tree. While smiling, complete one task at a time. The uni-task ideology will result in a more fulfilling life experience.

Until the next article, I remain like the cat in the fable, uni-tasking. I sit on a tree branch of life, smiling down upon the tattered emotional remnants of those that believe they are accomplished “successful” multi-taskers,

 Sensei John Szmitkowski, Soke, Jiriki Kata-Do
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1. There are many versions of this Zen fable. The version set forth herein is my retelling of the version that was told within the Dojo of Shihan Thomas DeFelice. Like a storyteller-Shaman of old that spun a yarn while sitting around a nocturnal campfire, Shihan DeFelice could spin a Zen fable that would captivate the mere mortals that entered the door of Dojo. 

May, 2010 is the 45th anniversary of the Dojo. Above is the 40th (May, 2005) anniversary commemorative patch.

2. Regular, earnest, perfect practice of one self-defense application will make that technique instinctive. To be sure, there is a need to initially study a variety of martial art based defensive technique. The utility of such a self-defense buffet is multifaceted. It provides an individual with a means of comparing techniques so as to ascertain which are successful to the individual based upon his or her own unique, physical, mental and emotional characteristics. Further, studying a plethora of technique allows one to subsequently teach the techniques, categorized as a system or style of martial art, to other individuals. Thus, the cycle of learning, adapting and transmitting a martial art is repeated.

3. The classic examples of actual stress are the death of a close family member, loss of a job, divorce and other stressful events encountered through forces external to oneself over which one perceives they are powerless to alter.

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