ONE OF THE CURSES of growing up with honestly agnostic parents is a heavy burden of responsibility for oneself. To a seven-year-old, moral obligations pale in comparison to the realization that it ultimately doesn't matter. I would imagine eternity, and my absence from it, and mourn the loss of a life that hadn't even begun yet. But what terrified me more than this void--always signified by an endless stretch of dark, starry sky--was the thought of living for eternity, ceaselessly roaming an earth that would soon become boring, and if the earth blew up or disintegrated, there would be me, still alive, spinning through the dark. This fear pushed me to impassioned opinions about things that would last longer than an overactive childhood imagination. I took any aggression as an unholy casualness about death.

At a certain point, though, these feelings had been so ingrained in me that I had forgotten their root, and I began to wonder if I wasn't just falling into a gender stereotype. So I took up karate.

It is difficult to describe why karate appealed to me except because of its aesthetic: It is direct, elegant, precise, and beautiful. It requires a disciplined lifestyle, and a surprising humility. I am sure I was not exempt from fetishizing what seemed exotic to me; mistrust and boredom of traditional education--I was in my first year of college--may have fed my hunger for an alternative mode of teaching, thinking, and learning. Whatever it was, from the first day of class, watching the dance-like katas, I was hooked.

There was a basic contractual agreement in my training: I would forfeit all knowledge about, and rights to, my body and in return I would receive knowledge of an art, Karate-do. Not totally buying into the patriarchal ideology behind this mode of instruction, I nevertheless had faith in the art, so I consented. This meant I had to trust my instructors, all of whom were male. While sparring, inferior in position and skill, I felt additionally uncomfortable partnered against these instructors. My vulnerability amplified my physical consciousness in a specifically gendered way. I was meat, in all senses of the word.

My friend Michael and I were equally resistant to sparring; the first time we were ever asked to spar was during our third belt test. I remember our mutual feeling of betrayal: We were being asked to hurt each other. It felt like karate was asking for a moral compromise. Of course, neither of us did hurt each other, mostly because we stayed 10 feet apart for most of the fight, only closing in at the shouts from our instructors. Attack seemed antithetical to me: Weren't we always being told that karate was self-defense?

We used to endlessly practice a reflex exercise, standing opposite an opponent in fighting stance. One person was the designated attacker, the other the defender, whose job it was to anticipate the attack and--literally--beat the opponent to the punch. We were trained to look for movements that signaled a wind-up for a punch and a gap in the opponent's concentration, at which point we attacked. Ideally, the defender would punch the air a fraction of a second before the attacker. We got to where we would practice this with our eyes closed, relying solely on interpreting the energy of the other, and it worked. In essence, all karate is like this: looking for an opening in someone's attack. It was by training on the offensive that we sharpened our defense.

One of my instructors used to play little tricks with me to get me to be more aggressive: He would intentionally piss me off, hoping to incite revenge. He danced around me and knocked me in the head, coming from angles he knew I couldn't see through my headgear. He'd stomp on my feet, laugh, and throw quick, light kicks to my sides, head, and back; what was most infuriating was that it didn't hurt at all. I learned very quickly not to get upset: The more anger I felt, the less clearly I could see and think, and I would lash out, blindly, stumbling over my own feet, ears burning. That was not karate.

I learned to fight, good-naturedly, through countless bloody noses, bruised limbs, pulled muscles, and jammed fingers, blisters lining the soles of my feet, and learned that fear of pain increases its power: It connected my body to my emotional state. After enough injuries to make their effects predictable, suddenly my pain was decreased. I wasn't desensitized--I had disconnected my body from its emotional reactions: Tears that used to spring to my eyes when I was hurt were there because of the pity of onlookers. As I removed fear from my fighting, I understood that aggressive behavior can be respectful; violent behavior cannot. Violence necessitates ill will, disrespect, and carelessness. I was finally learning that I was practicing a nonviolent art.

When I tested for my black belt, I was so nervous that I could barely understand the instructions. The test consisted of three sections: basic technique, kata (traditional sequences of steps, strikes, and blocks), which had always been my favorite, and finally, when we were exhausted, a round of sparring against multiple opponents. Much to my surprise, I scored best on the sparring, and was told I had excellent fighting spirit. A week later, I was hospitalized with a ruptured liver that had been internally bleeding. I hadn't felt a thing.

Pity, leniency, and, I discovered too late, special treatment were out of the question for me in karate, girl or not. I was truly on my own, in that I, ultimately, was responsible for myself. Perhaps it was this solitude that I had feared my whole life: It wasn't dying, or not dying, it was being alone, answerable only to myself in a world that didn't care one way or the other.

There is an Okinawan legend about the karate master Matsumura, who was challenged to a fight the day he had sworn off karate because of an injustice that had been done to him. But the challenger was so impudent that Matsumura, throwing his woes aside, agreed to the match. The following day they met, and the challenger, a great karate master himself, attempted to attack Matsumura. But whenever he got close enough, Matsumura's gaze stopped him in his tracks. After several attempts, he found himself exhausted, without having thrown a single blow. He resigned himself to defeat, and apologized for his lack of skill. Matsumura told him he had no lack of skill--that he may well have won if they had fought.

"But I know this: You were determined to win and I was just as determined to die if I lost," he said. "That was the difference between us. I realized yesterday, when you challenged me, that I had been obsessed by minor things. I'm a human being, and a human being is a vulnerable creature, who cannot possibly be perfect.

"After he dies, he returns to the elements--to earth, to water, to fire, to wind, to air. Matter is void. All is vanity. Vanity is the only obstacle of life."

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