The Way of the Potential Warrior

What drives us to the martial arts?

When I drive home, I count five health clubs, one driving range, and one YMCA–all within a few miles of my house. When I turn on the TV, I see countless adds for home gyms. Certainly, there are countless ways in which I could get in shape. Nearly all of them cost far less than your average dojo membership. And none of them require me to adopt a stricter code of ethics, attempt to understand a different culture’s honor system, or submit myself to yet another authority figure. From an economical and cultural standpoing, it is easy to argue that training in a martial art doesn’t make a lot of sense. It certainly is not the path of least resistance. So why do we do it?

Those who have been training for a while will, if you’re at all like me, immediately trot out the usual suspects of stock answers: we train because it challenges both mind and body. We train because we want to learn how to defend ourselves. We train because we seek discipline. The list goes on and on. Maybe. But nearly any sport can be said to train both mind and body. Very few of us will ever have the need to defend ourselves from physical harm. And discipline can come from nearly anywhere. So while these answers could very well be true, I doubt they paint a complete picture.

Over time, I’ve come up with a theory as to why I train, and why others train as well. The theory is this: we train because we follow one of the most unusual paths possible; one that has only come into existence in today’s modern age. I call this path the Way of the Potential Warrior, and I truly think it is one of the most difficult paths anyone could follow.

Allow me to explain. In ancient Japan (and, indeed, in ancient cultures in general), there was often a clear delineation between those who were expected to fight and those who were not. The samauri were expected to fight; the merchants, famers, and artisans were not. True, in times of great need conscripts would be required, and farmers would leave their fields, pick up a uniform, and fight. If they were lucky, they would even go home again. But after the fighting, these non-warriors would return home, again to focus on their crops and livestock. In short, either your entire existence was focused primarily on the art of war, or it wasn’t, save for a most immediate and dire need to defend your home. After all, trying to exist as a farmer or a merchant took nearly all of your energy. You weren’t worried about protecting yourself per se; you often just didn’t have time.

Today, we still have one part of this ancient system. We still have a group of individuals–armed forces personnell, police officers, and so on–who are dedicated to protecting their surrounding communities or countries. But what about the rest of us? Most of us do not have jobs that, at the end of the day, leave us mentally and physically exhausted. In fact, I would say that many of do not even have jobs that leave us feeling fulfilled. Instead, we go through life as vessels of vast, unused potential. For some, this is not a problem. For others, the fact that we have not reached our full potential drives us to respond in negative ways. Then there are a few of us who, for some unexplained reason, want to take our potential and know that, if needed, we could use it.

Notice that I didn’t say “…want to take our potential and use it.” I only said that, if needed, we could use it. If we really wanted to use our full potential we would strive to find better jobs, or more activities outside of our work that would challenge us, drive us, force us to use our minds and bodies as intently as possible. Some people no doubt do exactly this; but I would argue that these people are in the minority. Instead, most of us just want to know that, when push comes to shove, we can step up and handle things.

This is a paradoxical, complicated, and down-right difficult goal. I have never been a soldier, but I’ll bet that if you were to be a successful one, you would need to constantly train for it. I know this is true because I know people who are or were soldiers. When you’re not in battle, you train and drill constantly. (Note: even those who are reservists train on a constant, if infrequent, basis. And when those reservists are called up, they are not immediately sent into battle, they are sent through training to prepare themselves for the upcoming conflict.) No matter how often you train or drill as a soldier, one thing is clear: you are training for combat. Inevitable, frightening combat.

We do not train this way in martial arts. Oh, to be sure, there are many schools that may gear themselves more for “combat” or street fighting than others, but even that is not the same thing. If we did train this way, the average dojo would be smaller in size, more limited in its demographic, and have a higher injury rate. And this is okay. If we want combat, our efforts are probably better spent in the military or similar force–after all, they have much better tools. We should count ourselves as very fortunate that the vast majority of us do not have to think about putting our lives on the line, and we should be grateful to those who do.

But, nonetheless, because we do not train for combat, we are forced to become Potential Warriors, instead of just Warriors. And this can be very difficult. You have to dig deep inside yourself, every day, to find that part of you that wants to win, to protect, to save. You have to find that part of yourself and shape it, channel it, focus it into something that you can use. You have to do this knowing that the only way you’ll truly be tested is through your own constant vigilance. And you have to do this knowing that, despite your best efforts, when the time comes, it might not be enough.

There is a Japanese saying: “The sword that is never drawn, never rusts.” I believe in this saying, and it forms one of the foundations of my own training. Yet I also believe that you don’t learn how to wield a sword by letting it sit in the corner. I think that this Way of the Potential Warrior is most likely a limited path that eventually leads to a cross-roads: are you a warrior, or are you not? It is extremely important to note that neither of these options is a bad choice. But we must recognize that they are different choices, with different results in our technique and our reasons behind training. On a more personal note, I find that these paths, these choices, can be even more difficult for instructors. Do I force students to follow a path? Or do I attempt to sit at the crossroads, so as to better allow students to decide on their own? Personally, I am trying the latter option, knowing full well it means that those who are truly committed to one path or the other may need to move beyond me and find a new teacher who is focused on their chosen path.

Why is any of this important? Because I think one of the first goals to training is to remove any illusions you have about yourself and your motivations. When we can look at what we do in complete honesty and objectivity, we have the best chance to improve who we are. The Way of the Potential Warrior is difficult at best, but it is far worse if we delude ourselves into thinking we are not on this path to begin with.

One thought on “The Way of the Potential Warrior

  1. Sensei,

    Thank you very much for being at the crossroads.

    If it wasn’t for training with you in Aikido I may not have had the vision to see what is possible in my darkest times.

    Doumo Desu,

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