There is no doubt that the world of martial arts has changed. I started teaching Karate around the age of 17 — and now in my 26th year of teaching, I have seen this change first hand. In the past couple of decades martial arts has gone through various stages of excitement. Today, for the most part, two streams seem to be the most prevalent, that of reality based self defence systems and the competitive based approaches (BJJ, MMA et al.)
As Achilles was dipped into the River Styx, by the goddess Thetis to make him invulnerable — I have dipped into the varied approaches to martial arts over the years in search of the same. Much of this initial drive to become invulnerable was driven by my intense search for survival data, and an attempt to control the chaos I found in the bully ridden neighbourhoods I grew up in.
By the time I woke up to my life, I realised that I had been fighting for most of it. Fighting became a way of life, if it wasn’t in the gym, it was with myself, and those I loved. Unknowingly, I had rewired my brain for violence. Even then, I still had to concede that there were positive gains in spending so many years taking on anyone who walked into my gym, or anyone who stepped up to me on the street. I had become tough, resilient, strong and not someone who could easily be pushed around. Yet for every gain achieved in this way, there seemed to be several side effects. While I was invulnerable on the outside, tough and rugged, my Achilles heel still persisted, in fact it ached.
My realisation over the past few years is that there is a very important reason these seemingly contradictory words Martial and Art have always gone together. In the past I had spent a lot of time on the Martial, but little or no time on the Art. Said another way, I didn’t understand it, I didn’t get it, and nor did it seem anyone else around me did either. I have spent these past few years really trying to understand the Art, not for anyone else, but myself. I wanted to, or at least try to, heal my Achilles heel. What started of as self-defence, has turned into a journey of defence of the self.
This approach, or my take on modern martial arts in the past few years has confused a lot of people. I thought naively that seeking out a positive, uplifting approach to experiencing martial arts would create another wave of excitement in the martial arts world. It did, but only with the clients coming in — interestingly though most of the detractors, the hate mail, and trolls I have to deal with weekly, have come from those who teach modern martial arts. My perception is that it is always easier to justify unmitigated violence through martial athleticism than to confront oneself as to why you would be so attracted to violent action of any kind to begin with. I draw a couple of conclusions from this, for one, our violent ape lives on (as it did for the entire existence of our ancestors on this planet) and to a large extent we have normalised violence (from violent TV games, to violent news, and violence in sports). It could be argued that for many people today, violence has indeed become a form of success.
Because I wanted to understand how I accepted violence in expressing aggression in the name of martial proficiency, it required that I took a deep look into my embodied nature. It also meant that I was likely to uncover aspects of myself I did not like (and as you would guess I found many). When you move from react/act, to react/mindful you have no choice but to look at the bare reality of who you truly are, unhindered by the story you have always used to justify your actions.
What I realised was that in many instances I used aggression to mask inner insecurities within myself. Rather than confronting them head on, it was far easier to project them onto other people, and as is always the case, finding a reason for doing so was easy (got to love confirmation bias). However I wasn’t at all skilled in self management beyond the fight. As the superhero the Thing so famously says when faced with an obstacle, my default setting was, “clobberin time”.
This is where the confusion comes in. Because even with this said, I am still an advocate of functionalism in martial arts. In fact, I don’t believe for a second that you can gain anything out of personal reflection through martial arts without the game being real. But the lesson I have learned is that if all you focus on is the martial, you create an Achilles heel that becomes a deadly weakness in spite of overall strength, and which can actually or potentially lead to ones downfall.
“What Are You Really Trying To Do Mr. King?”
I am trying to find the best way to integrate both Martial and Art, without losing the benefits of either. There is a heroic nature that is undeniably embedded within the warrior archetype. As anthropologist John Donahue has noted, the hero is one that is often times skilled in violence, socially marginalised, and morally correct in motivation. I can’t speak for anyone else, but the social marginalisation that manifested itself in my life versus the world, is somehow overcome on the mat in fierce sparring. It draws forth that rugged individualism so encapsulated in the heroic quest. But at the same time, we have to be careful, because this individualism can mutate into self absorption, grandiosity and narcissism.
This is why, when one looks closer at the hero, it is ultimately always about more than just about himself. As Edward Tick, in War and The Soul has noted, “A warrior serves an ideal creator than himself”. When one then looks closer at the aggressive act of martial prowess, one begins to realise that if this action is taken against another without moral correctness, it has, and will turn back on the very person who applies it. When it does, it wont be something that is positive, but creates fear, anxiety, and a disdain for oneself. I see so many people skilled in fighting, yet paradoxically seem to self loath them selves. This is why I found that violence perpetrated simply for the enjoyments of it, at least for me, seemed to diminish the respect I had for myself. I felt more like a mercenary than a warrior.
Intention then became my saviour. To ask oneself what is the intention of doing this aggressive act and to what end? Is to be mindful not only of the consequences to others, but oneself. This is why, these days, I get on the mat with the intention of challenging myself and my partner to grow as people beyond the technique. The technique then, rather than becoming the instrument of violence, becomes the tool of personal liberation. When you get on the mat and your intention is to bring the best out of each other through martial artistry, you find that not only does your performance of your game explode (giving you the confidence should you ever have to use it in self defence) but crucially you learn the self management skills that molds you into a skilled warrior to deal with everyday life.
The question then I believe we as martial artists should all ask ourselves is this,
If martial sport, or self defence were no longer required on this planet. In other words if we as humans no longer had to fight for any reason, and no one was interested in watching people fight etc, would you personally still be interested in practicing martial arts? If so what would be the point?
I believe the answer is a resounding yes, but the reasons we then come up with, would likely be the very reasons that we should be practicing for today:)