For about fifteen years I've been practicing martial arts. "Practice" is the operative word.
I've always felt like a beginner, because whenever I've learned something a fresh realization follows almost immediately: there's so much more to learn.
What I enjoy the most about martial arts -- I started with traditional Shotokan karate, moved to a mixed style, and now am focused on Tai Chi -- is what they teach you about yourself.
There's a deep connection between Zen/Taoism and Japanese/Chinese martial arts. I've understood this better after taking up Tai Chi, which basically is Taoism reflected in movement.
This isn't rocket spiritual science, of course. Many, if not all, of the same lessons can be learned in other activities, such as sports and dance.
For example, when my wife and I start learning a new dance style (most recently, basic swing), I go through predictable phases. The first lesson is the most fun, because I've only got a couple of possible moves to choose from as the leader.
As we learn additional steps, my mind has more to think about. Then the flow-with-it rhythmic movements I enjoyed in the first lesson start to get choppy. I hesitate, change my mind in mid-lead, fall off the basic rhythm as I try to get onto fancier steps.
The samurai philosophers understood this stuff. They needed to, because faltering in sword play has different consequences than a stumble in dance.
Here's some quotations from Thomas Cleary's Soul of the Samurai: Modern Translations of Three Classic Works of Zen & Bushido. As I see it, the theme is not complicating doing, or being.
This caution reminds me of my serious true believing phase, when I was dead-set on doing everything just right in meditation and other aspects of spiritual practice.
...The heart of those on the Way is like a mirror, empty and clear, mindless yet not failing to accomplish anything. This is the normal mind. One who does everything with the normal mind is called an adept.
It's so true: trying to do your best prevents you from doing your best. I can't tell you how many times I've lost my balance in Tai Chi class after saying to myself, "This is a tricky move, got to be careful about losing my balance"
Independence and freedom, spiritual or otherwise, come from letting go of leashes. Problem is, the leashes are part of us. At least, we believe they are.
When you embody this free-minded mind, then independence is possible in actual practice. You are not independent as long as you are holding onto a halter. Even dogs and cats should be raised unleashed.
Here's more cautions about seriousness. The main rule is, screw rules.
...Seriousness corresponds to a quality of the basic mind, yet it is a state of mind that lasts only so long as it is practiced. When we relax our reverential gesture and stop chanting buddha-names, the image of Buddha in our minds also disappears. What then remains is the former distracted mind. This is not a thoroughly pacified mind.
People who have successfully managed to pacify their minds once do not purify their thoughts, words, and deeds -- they are unstained even as they mingle with the dust of the world. Even if they are active all day, they are unmoved, just as the moon reflected in the water does not move even though millions of waves roll one after another.
Don't get stuck. No fixations. Keep flowing. Good advice for both a samurai and us.
"Just do it." Nike wasn't at all original with that notion. Life, including the martial arts, is pretty damn simple when we don't make it complex.
...The idea of getting rid of whatever is on your mind also becomes something on your mind. If you don't think about it, it disappears of itself, and you naturally become unminding.
Persist in this, and before you realize it you will spontaneously become that way; if you try to accomplish it in a hurry, you won't get there. An ancient verse says, "Intending not to think is still thinking of something; do you intend not to think you won't think?"
Want to stop being sick? Good luck. That wanting leashes you to sickness. Let it go, sickness and health both.
Thinking of eliminating sickness occurs because sickness is still in the mind. Therefore sickness doesn't depart and whatever you do and think is done with fixation, so there can be no higher value in it.
Once, when a bunch of students were occupied with wanting to advance in martial arts rank, our sensei (instructor) showed us a kata (specified series of moves). It looked great. He then turned to us and said, "I haven't done that kata in years. Do you know why I could do it so well? Because I don't care any more."
If you're fixated on becoming a black belt in something, you won't be able to act like the person you want to be. True accomplishment comes from not caring about what's accomplished.
...Asked what the Way is, the ancient worthy replied that the normal mind is the Way. this is indeed supreme. This is the state where the sicknesses of the mind are all gone and one has become normal in mind, free from sickness even in the midst of sickness.
To apply this to worldly matters, suppose you are shooting with a bow and you think you are shooting while you are shooting; then the aim of your bow will be inconsistent and unsteady.
If you are conscious of wielding your sword when wielding your sword, your offense will be unstable. If you are conscious of writing while writing, your pen will be unsteady. Even when you play the harp, the tune will be off if you're conscious of playing.