Self-Improvement

Look at the website for just about any martial arts school.  Read interviews with senior martial artists.  The same idea comes up over and over again. “Martial arts aren’t just about fighting.  Martial arts training is about self-improvement.  Martial arts build character. Martial arts builds discipline.  Martial arts teach humility.  Martial arts teach respect.  Martial arts build confidence.  Martial arts are about making the world a better place.”

A lot of this is just boilerplate marketing, designed to lure parents into signing up their kids at the local dojo.  But it’s not just ad copy.  Top instructors have sincerely advocated this viewpoint for a long time.  The third item in Gichin Funakoshi’s 20 principles is “Karate fosters righteousness.” The tenets of Tae Kwon Do are “Courtesy, Integrity, Preserverance, Self-Control, and Indomitable Spirit.”  One of the primary ideals of judo is “Mutual Welfare and Benefit.”  The concept isn’t completely universal, but it’s pretty darn widespread.

At this point I need to interject a splash of cold water.  Martial arts training will not make you a better person.  It will not automatically make you humble, courteous, and disciplined.  It will not develop your character or integrity.  It will not make the world a better place.  You don’t have to look all that hard to find skilled martial artists who are serious assholes or who have made a complete mess of their lives off the mats.

Does that mean that martial arts are only good for fighting after all?  Nope.  Martial arts training offers lessons and tools that can be applied to life in general.  The catch is two-fold.  First you have to decide which lessons and tools you want to use in your life outside the gym.  Next you have to actually do the hard work of applying those lessons and tools.

Deciding what lessons to learn: This is crucial.  You can learn negative lessons as well as positive ones.  Some years ago I was talking to a friend who was in my ninjutsu class.  She mentioned that in an argument with her boyfriend she had reflexively said some hurtful things “going for his vulnerable spots, just like we learned in ninjutsu.” Ouch.  From my standpoint, that wasn’t the best sort of lesson to apply from class. Other folks make a big deal about learning “respect” in the martial arts.  Unfortunately, they often use the term to refer to a strict hierarchical structure where “respect” is only owed from juniors to seniors. Once again, not what I would call a great life lesson.

Applying the lessons to life in general: This isn’t easy and it doesn’t come automatically.  The good thing about lessons learned in the martial arts is that they aren’t just abstract philosophical ideas.  They come down to actual physical experiences that you can feel in your body.  Perhaps in BJJ training you learn that when you are caught in a bad position the best thing is to not panic, breathe, relax, protect yourself, and slowly work to improve your situation.  You can apply the same principles when you are facing a crisis at work or in a relationship.  Panic is a bodily sensation.  If you learn to use the tools  you’ve developed on the mat to control that sensation and stay calm, you may find yourself dealing with the crisis in a more helpful manner.

I’ll give a more personal example from my own experience. This one started about 26 years ago, while I was training in Bujinkan taijutsu (or Togakure Ryu ninjutsu, as it was marketed in those days).

To set the stage, you have to understand that Stephen Hayes and some of his black belts who were running the Dayton dojo at the time tended to use the physical aspects of the art as metaphors for philosophical life lessons and I enthusiastically embraced this approach, regularly trying to find the relevant personal lesson in whatever I was practicing.

The start of the lesson came when a friend from the dojo and I were showing off techniques for a woman we were both interested in and going a bit rough. How rough, I found out a few days later when my friend informed me that I had broken his hand, necessitating doctor’s bills that he could ill afford.

Naturally, I felt terrible about this. It got worse, though. I was talking to another friend about the incident and she told me “Well, you can’t be surprised. You know you have a problem with your control. After all, you injured soandso a couple of months ago and they had to take time off from training.” This was news to me. Soandso had never told me they were injured, either at the time or afterwards, and neither had anyone else. Now I really felt like a jerk. Not only had I injured someone that I liked, but I hadn’t even known about it to apologize.

So after I sought out soandso to deliver my belated apology, I tried to find a useful life lesson from the experience. Perhaps, I theorized, the physical could be a metaphor for the social. Just as my lack of physical awareness allowed me to hurt my training partners without realizing it, perhaps I could also be inadvertently hurting feelings or offending people in social interactions without realizing it.

I doubted this was actually the case, but I ran the theory past some of my friends. It actually felt like I was fishing for compliments. Surely they would say “Oh no, Tony. Everybody knows you’re a nice guy.” The actual reaction I got – awkward silences.  As it turned out, people were too polite to say it to my face, but I was just as oblivious socially as I was physically. I really was just as likely to offend someone with a clueless comment as I was to apply a wristlock too quickly on my training partner.

This started me on parallel quests to learn awareness and control in conversation and in the dojo. This was a long and emotionally painful process that took several years before I got to the point where I was consistently happy with myself on either front. As it turned out, the physical really was a good metaphor for the non-physical in this case. In both situations, my problem was lack of awareness. In the dojo, the problem wasn’t that I was necessarily going too hard in general. It was that I couldn’t tell how hard to go with a given individual on a given technique on a given day. In conversation, it wasn’t that I was saying mean things. It was that I was unaware of the signals people were sending me.

I’ve learned other life lessons from the martial arts, but that was probably the most important.

If you’ve used martial arts training as a vehicle for self-improvement, please leave a comment to detail your experience.

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