Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve both written and thought a great deal about the notion of capturing one’s “best” feeling. This is an internal concept, a mental shift in which we attempt to use a inner feeling of calmness and, for want of a better word, joy, and apply that feeling in every action. While I think such a concept is given significant importance in an “internal” martial art (side note: I’m not sure how I feel about the terms “internal” and “external” when applied to martial arts, but that’s another post), it’s clear that any martial artist, regardless of style, must in some way capture a certain mental frame of mind in order for any technique or strategy to be successful. There simply comes a point where being able to physical do the technique is not enough. There needs to be something more, a whole-self commitment to action. In fact, I don’t think it would be stretch to say that any art, martial or otherwise, requires not only a deep understanding on a technical level but a deep understanding on a mental (or spiritual, if you want to go that far) level.
But we cannot forget that this state-of-mind, this best feeling, is not enough. You cannot sit atop a mountain and claim to be at one with the universe. You cannot stand in your dojo and say: “I’ve got nothing left to prove.” You cannot meditate for hours on end announce that you are enlightened. This state of mind requires, even demands, proof. If you were a painter, you could not stand in front an easel and claim you have mastered painting: you have to paint! Not only that, but you must have others view your paintings, and be willing to subject yourself to (even if you do not ultimately accept) their criticism or comments. I remember too well my time as an English major in college. My focus was on poetry; so I spent a lot of time with other would-be poets discussing other authors and (often harshly) critiquing each other’s work. I was constantly surprised to find that many of these writers refused to share their poetry with others–either at readings or in publications. Why? Because, they claimed, they had nothing to prove to anyone. That may very well have been true, but the fact that they never subjected their poetry to someone else’s perspective ensured that what they wrote had very little relevance. The purpose of writing is to communicate; by sharing your work with others you force yourself to refine how you communicate, which in turn helps you write better.
The same is especially true in martial arts. I have met many people (and have heard of many more) who study a martial art and never challenge themselves on the mat. Why not? Because, as with the would-be poets I met in college, they claimed they had nothing to prove to anyone. Many of these people were satisfied with the fact that they could throw or defeat the people in their dojo; they avoided situations in which they might be challenged by someone close to them in skill level. But a martial art, while it may share some similarities with poetry, is not verse; it is a system of movement and philosophy based in self-defense. Unlike poetry, if you do not attempt to prove yourself in martial arts, you are greatly at risk for self-delusion. You assume that, because you have arranged your circumstances so that you win every challenge, you are unbeatable. Worse, any student that you train with or teach is following your example; therefore, your weaknesses become their weaknesses. A quick search on YouTube yields many an embarrassing film clip of someone abruptly discovering their abilities are not what they thought they were.
So, if proving yourself is so important, how do you do accomplish it on a regular basis? Here are the different types of proof, as I see them:
- Dispassionate self-criticism. As a martial arts practitioners, you must be ever critical of your own movements, strategies, and executions of technique. The more experienced you are, the more likely you know what an “ideal” technique is; each time you train, you must hold yourself to that ideal and strive to meet it. However, I use the term “dispassionate self-criticism” for a reason. It is very easy, especially in Western cultures, to turn self-criticism into self-deprecation, which is not good for your overall well-being. Too often I see (in myself and others) people mentally berating themselves for failing to throw or move as they thought they should. This sort of self-deprecation runs counter to the notion of your best feeling. By being dispassionate in your self-criticism, you can critique your movements without becoming emotionally involved. See the areas in which you need to improve as they are: areas of improvement. They are not reflections of your worth as a person.
- Mutual respect in the dojo. Whether you are a teacher or a student, mutual respect among all members of the dojo is extremely important. Anyone, of any experience, has the opportunity to provide feedback for a given movement. If you are a senior student, it is easy to get irritated when you are challenged by a beginner. After all, you are the senior student! But resist the urge to tell the student they are moving incorrectly. Instead, respect their intentions (they are, in most cases, simply trying to move in the most natural way possible for them). Use their unfamiliarity with your technique to challenge yourself to be more correct. If you are a new student, respect that those senior to you are not trying to prove how “bad” they are by beating you. They are trying to practice the most correct technique they know at a level that ensures your safety. With a foundation of mutual respect, students and teachers alike are unafraid to test themselves and each other, which leads to further growth.
- Particpate in regional and national events. This is where having a strong organization or affiliation can be very helpful. Regional and national events–whether they be seminars, competitions, whatever–place you in an unfamiliar setting with unfamiliar people. This situation provides an excellent opportunity to raise your game and to learn from other senior students or peers. These events might not occur often, so you should always strive to take advantage of them when you can. If you belong to a style that is unaffiliated with an organization, try to find places where you might be welcome to participate. The use of the word “participate” here is deliberate. The idea is to test yourself by being in unfamiliar surroundings; not to challenge a dojo because they move a little differently from you.
- Be humble at all times. Sensei Maruyama, when talking about proving oneself, speaks a lot about how no one is perfect–even Sensei. Do not look at your instructor as if they are infallible; they aren’t. They have opportunities for growth just as you do. Don’t be too proud of your own technique; the next person who walks through that door is probably the one whose block you can’t counter, or whose balance you can’t take. The feeling in a dojo should always contain mixture of enthusiasm, commitment, and humility.
Proving yourself is a never-ending process. You never reach a point where you can say: “I’m done.” After all, when you stop proving yourself, you remove your best and most constant opportunity for growth. Rarely does a painter finish a work and say: “That’s it, I’m done.” A poet never finishes an ode and says: “Yup. I’ve said all that I need to say.” Instead, they are driven to paint, to write, in an effort to communicate and in an effort to push their abilities in their craft to the limit. So it is with the martial arts practitioner: we should never be satisfied; never willing to stop.
And certainly never willing to feel like we’ve nothing left to prove.