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Returning to the Dojo: The Importance of Martial Arts

September 14, 2010

Source: Pieter Baert on Flickr

Ever since I was a child I have had this instinctive urge for expansion and growth. To me, the function and duty of a quality human being is the sincere and honest development of one’s potential. – Bruce Lee

Yesterday, I attended my first class of American Kenpo Karate in over five years. My old teacher told me in an e-mail to bring my old Gi, which I had kept, anticipating an eventual return to the art. When I went to dig it out from a trunk under my bed, I found my old belts, one soft, well-worn, and white, and the other stiff and bright, un-faded yellow. I grabbed the white belt and headed to class.

When I stepped into the dance studio where the class was being held, my old instructor, taller and leaner than I remembered, looked at me without recognition. It had been a long time. He was shocked at the growth he saw in me and had trouble connecting the old Khaled with the one who stood before him. And then he looked down and saw I was wearing my old white belt and asked, “Where’s your belt?”

I said, “This is my belt. I thought, since it has been so long, I am starting over.”

“Is that how you feel? Like a white belt?” I nodded. “Well, wear your yellow belt anyway. You earned it, and we can’t take it away from you. We’ll review and get you up to speed, but you are still a yellow belt.”

After the warm-up, he assigned one of the other instructors to quiz me. I hadn’t even looked at my old techniques in more than a year. But as soon as I was given the right cues, my body moved automatically. Whole techniques came back fully formed. Blocks, kicks, punches, stances that I had thought I’d forgotten flowed out of me as if they’d always been there. Donning my old Gi was like a superhero putting on his costume; without it, he is just a regular Joe, but once he’s ready for action, no matter how long the hiatus, his powers return. I felt whole again.

Empty Mind

Beyond simply going through the motions, my movements were fast and precise, unless I tried to remember. As soon as I stopped to think, instead of simply moving on instinct, I completely forgot my old techniques. So, I just trusted my body, and it taught my mind what to do. Only by emptying my conscious mind was I able to move fast and with intent. A post on Psychology Today discusses the value of the empty mind, that reacts instantly and without hesitation, compared to the careful thinking mind that tries to process everything, a concept that comes up a lot in Zen philosophy. Considering the value of being in the present and having pure attention, this is a very valuable aspect of Martial Arts training.

I have talked a bit about Martial Arts before. I feel that they have a great ability to bring out a person’s greatest potential because they do such a great job of synthesizing the mental and physical aspects of an individual. I have always felt that competition brings out our best selves, and what sport is more purely competitive than fighting? (I’d argue that all sports are derivatives of fighting). The stakes become so high that they demand the most well-developed and well-rounded athletes.

Brawlers vs. Warriors

With great power comes great responsibility – Uncle Ben, Spiderman

That said, there is a problem with purely combative styles. With the rising popularity of the UFC and mixed martial arts, there is a new habit of enrolling 6-year olds in MMA classes, where they engage in cage fights with their peers. This just seems stupid to me. Having engaged in MMA brawls before, I can see the appeal. It is a great test of fitness and mental toughness to engage in an actual fight, even if it is moderated somewhat, but I don’t think that sort of thing is good for kids until they understand that it should be left for a last resort in real life. I support teaching the use of violence in the context of self-defense, along with a thorough understanding of when to fight, and the ultimate undesirability of actually engaging in combat. I don’t support encouraging and rewarding kids for fighting as a sport. Knowing how to cause a lot of harm necessitates the development of discipline.

Obviously, this is a complicated issue. I have always maintained that Martial Arts’ real value lies in their ability to teach self-defense. And while that does involve knowing how to fight (and actually being exposed to some real confrontations), it also involves training how to avoid danger in the first place and how to defuse hostile situations. In pursuit of this goal, the traditions have come to encompass a wide variety of training methods that improve the body and mind. This breadth of training requirements, and the level of intensity that can be achieved in Martial Arts, rarely coalesce in a single activity. The range of potential effects are so vast, leading one researcher to suggest Martial Artists as a potentially-rich source of research for psychological fields including perception, attention, problem-solving, pattern recognition, and consciousness.

Unity of Self

My whole being comes together when I practice Kenpo. The requirements of total body awareness and speedy reactions force me to empty my mind and simply act, to be in the moment. The requirements of physical movement force me to develop and train my body. The requirements of understanding and responding to dangerous situations, and the necessity of memorizing forms, force me to develop my mental acuity. Finally, the intimately social aspect of a fight forces social confidence and certainty of action. There can be no separation of parts. Integrity of the Martial Artist is practically required. You cannot have imbalances. Everything is unified and whole, working seamlessly together to result in perfectly coordinated practice.

I don’t know why it took me so long to return.

If you’ve had any experience with Martial Arts, or opinions (especially on the MMA article I link above) I’d love to hear about them. Post to comments.

- (**

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Anna permalink
    September 16, 2010 12:06 am

    Golf. Volleyball. Swimming. Skiing/Snowboarding. Cross Country….Just naming some sports that seem to me to have not an ounce of fighting in them and yet can be quite competitive.

    It would be interesting to determine whether much of the philosophies which are found in the martial arts developed along with the development of the fighting style for combat or in times of peace. For example, although the class of the samurai emerged in war-time, the philosophy of bushido did not come about until the 200 years of peace in Tokugawa when the samurai were a pretty superfluous entity, and then further in Meiji when the class had been eliminated. This may not be the case for all martial arts, and I wouldn’t be able to definitively say that it is since I have not studied the history of all of them, but I think it is important in the context of your post to understand the relationship between the practice and the theories of any tradition and the means by which they developed.

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