Here Be Monsters
The Martial Arts. Why, short of insanity, would one devote one’s life to the study of something that, on it’s surface, appears to be useless in modern society? Existential absurdity? Nihilist angst? Personal delusion? Those are all REALLY GOOD reasons, and, if we’re being honest, they all probably play a big role. But maybe there are other more practical reasons. At least I hope so…
I think it can be argued that the relative success of your life is heavily influenced by how you accept and react to the issues you face. Everyone has hurdles and setbacks. Everyone fails sometimes. Everyone has a run of bad luck and makes an enemy or two. And everyone battles their own inner demons and ego. But not everyone deals with these challenges very well.
For me studying the martial arts has supplied two very valuable things: It’s given me ‘a particular set of skills’ and provided an interesting forum to directly address internal conflicts. First let’s look at the skills. They aren’t necessarily the obvious ones, although knowing how to dominate some drunk asshole in a bar is both useful and fun. I’m talking about the subtler ones. Let’s make a list!
* I can handle this. What a great lesson to learn. It’s hard to deal with life’s stresses if you’re busy being intimidated by something. By training you eventually come to understand that most things aren’t really that scary.
* It’s okay to lose. In fact losing is where a lot of the deepest learning takes place. And losing, even losing a lot, doesn’t make you lesser, it makes you wiser and more skilled.
* It’s okay to look stupid. This can feel worse than losing but it’s even more important. If you aren’t willing to look like a fool you can’t learn something totally new. Interestingly in my experience this means some black belts stop learning because they begin to take themselves too seriously. So do old people. They forget this simple, profound lesson.
* Ultimately I’m responsible for myself and for those around me. And not just when I feel like it. All the time. You can’t affect change if you don’t accept that it’s your job to change things.
* Injuries and pain are a part of life but they pass. And they’re not a good excuse to quit. Instead you must learn how to accommodate them and keep training.
* Human life is very fragile. Cherish it.
* There are experiences that you can’t explain. There is a void out there and touching it is amazing. But you have very little control over when these experiences will show up so just keep training.
* One person is far more powerful than they imagine. That means you. And me too.
* Life is full of attacks. Not usually physical ones, but attacks none the less. Emotional, intellectual, temporal, and the inevitable idiot in the car in front of you. The ability to stay relaxed and functional while under attack is a skill that will get used every fucking day. Center and calm is ALWAYS useful.
* Play is far, far more important than work.
* The intimacy of touching other humans is crucial to having a fulfilling life.
* Life is messy. It sweats and bleeds. Get over it.
* Be kind. Everyone is struggling.
* There is always joy to be found in the struggle. When that’s no longer true it’s time to go.
The second benefit of training is that I always have a place to do battle with my own internal bullshit. I came complete with my own personal set of demons and ego issues. I’d like to vanquish as many of them as possible, or at least fight them to a draw. The mat gives me ample opportunity, especially when I don’t feel like it. Each time I’m successful I get to live a slightly freer, more joyous life. And each time I fail I get to learn a new skill. It’s a true win-win situation, even though it usually sucks in the moment.
The martial arts aren’t magic. If you’re an asshole and you pick an asshole teacher, you’re going to become a bigger asshole. My great teacher George Leonard taught me some cool things about life. Practice makes perfect and you’re always practicing something. So be careful or you could become a perfect couch potato or complainer or dumbass. He also taught me to stay on the mat. Because the worst day on the mat was still better than the hundreds of people you meet who will tell you how much they always wanted to train but, well, you know…
So yeah, I watched too many kung-fu movies as a kid. I still have fantasies of ninjas and flying monks. I know that my skills don’t translate well to a culture full of wannabe tough guys with guns. And, as my mother is fond of pointing out, I could have been a rich lawyer or surgeon by now. But I still can’t think of a much cooler way to spend my time. And I know that life on the mat are the surest way to Saor Alba, Vaya con Dios and Viva la Revolucion.