Experienced martial artists share a common fear – the dreaded white belt. This is the person who has had just a few months of martial arts training and is not yet capable of controlling punches, kicks, or throws. The inevitable result of practice sparring with this padawan is series of aches and bruises for senior belts while the new practitioners struggle to learn the basics of their lifelong craft.
The learning process is even worse if the white belt is already a strong athlete. The punches and kicks hurt a lot more coming from them. The new learner’s kicks intending for a light touch to the opponent’s stomach often end up hitting with full force on the shins or groin. All the while the junior learner revels in a new feeling of power; almost certainly clueless to the fact that the senior belts could defeat them in seconds, but instead teach at the cost of black and purple shins and forearms.
There are many other lessons I have learned studying martial arts. Perhaps most noteworthy is the understanding that anything worthwhile takes work. For most schools there is always a drop in student numbers around green belt. At this point – around nine months – the student understands enough to realize that muscle memory and perfection of technique take years to acquire. The punches, kicks, and throws they have been executing on a daily basis are slow and sloppy compared to their seniors. And they will soon be joining the ranks of more advanced belts who suffer at the hands of novice fighters.
Another truth we learn from martial arts is that perfection is the goal. Many people live by the code “perfect is the enemy of good enough”. That may be true, but the goal of one’s life should never be “good enough”. Striving for perfection is the means by which we learn the true limits of our species. This is perhaps best illustrated in the Olympics where records of achievement have been shattered and shattered again over the decades. It is true that part of this advancement is due to new training and performance equipment, and better nutrition. But overall, athletes have advanced to greater levels of physical abilities over the centuries.
Commitment is a practiced behavior of those who stay in the martial arts past their first few years. They have adhere to the concepts of anything worthwhile takes work and perfection is the goal. Commitment tends to become stronger as the years progress. The martial artist who actively (several times per week) practices for five years will probably stay in the arts for most of his or her life. They have learned that the journey is more important than the end state. This is true in martial arts as much as it is true in life.
Live by a code. In the martial arts strict philosophical and behavioral codes have existed in one form of another from Shaolin monks to the Samurai. For example, Martial Code (Wu Ma or Wu De) is the philosophy of Chinese martial arts. There are five points in Wu De: Respect, Honor, Humility, Trust, and Virtue.
Every samurai lived and died by the Code of Bushido. It is a code of behavior similar to that of the Shaolin monks which is no great surprise considering martial arts spread from China to Japan. In fact, Japan’s samurai were not only warriors but were required to be scholars studying ancient Chinese texts. The basic tenet of Bushido was service to the samurai’s lord. In fact, the Samurai were able to achieve all sorts of atrocities under the rationale that they were acting in service to their lord. Behavioral elements of Bushido included: Compassion, Justice, Honor, Loyalty, Sincerity, Courage, and Courtesy.
Knowledge of the martial arts has always been seen as internal enlightenment and power. And Spider man’s Uncle Ben had it right – with great power comes great responsibility. And that power must result in personal development and also must be used in service to others. In olden times that service was to the state. In modern times service to others is very much a philosophy to be a positive force in society. Other principles espoused by just about all martial arts schools include some combination of Respect, Humility, Courage, Virtue, and Honor. How we live our lives is more important than what we have attained during the journey.
Keep your ego in check. Not long after one begins martial arts comes a unique sense of power. One is able to kick, punch, and throw with devastating force. Then comes the realization – so can everybody else. And it doesn’t matter how fast, strong, tough, or lethal you are. There is always, always, always going to be somebody faster, stronger, and tougher. Now your ego is in its proper place. This fact becomes particularly evident if you participate in competitions. Even if you do crawl your way to the top; your time there will be brief compared to your career in martial arts. Once the realization sets in you cease to compare yourself to others. Your greatest challenge is conquering your own challenges and meeting your own goals.
Martial Arts is not street fighting. For centuries Martial Artists and onlookers have debated the effectiveness of various arts in combat circumstances. The never ending comparisons are so common that the discussion itself has blurred the distinction between martial arts and street fighting. The former is a state of mental, physical, and spiritual health, discipline, and martial skills acquired by experience and study. The latter is exactly what it says – skill in street fighting.
Nurture your body, mind, and spirit. Fairly early on in one’s lifelong martial arts journey comes the realization that mind, body, and spirit are one. There is a very direct and perhaps even proportional relationship between these critical components of one’s life. Nurturing one builds all; and neglecting one, degrades all. Building these forces and keeping the correct balance is perhaps the greatest challenge in the complex world of modern day society. In fact, I would venture to say that at one point or another every martial artist falls from the grace of enlightenment. It is only commitment and self discipline that lets us make a slow painful climb back to our former selves. I am making that very painful climb right now, faced every day with the clear recognition of just how far I have fallen.
So I offer a tribute to all the world’s martial artists. Though separated by great distances our journeys are all the same. May yours be an enriching and enlightening as has mine