You’re walking down the street, on your way to the bus to go home. It’s been a busy day, the kind that has you firing on all cylinders, and even a seat on the bus and a bumpy ride through traffic is starting to sound pretty good. You’re in your own thoughts, mentally disengaging from the workday in order to focus on grabbing a bite to eat and getting some much needed sleep. The streets are pretty quiet, the sidewalks mostly empty. As you near the bus stop, something catches your eye. An individual is looking at you in a way that just barely sends of a few warning bells in the back of your mind. As you continue to walk, this individual starts moving towards you, and it becomes clear that something isn’t right; something is telling you that this individual is a threat, and you should be prepared.
The question that usually follows the preceding scenario is “What do you do?” But this time, I’d like to ask it in a slightly different way: “What CAN you do?” I’m not talking about creating a list of techniques, strategies, or movements that could get you into a more safe environment. I’m literally talking about what are you physically and mentally capable of?
As martial arts practitioners, we study a variety of techniques designed for self-defense. But knowing the movement in the dojo does not mean that you can actually do it. There are thousands of different techniques; you are not adept at all of them. Some of them you have just learned, you haven’t built the muscle memory you need to make the technique effective. Some of them require an understanding of strategy that you don’t have yet, or demand a certain level of strength or speed. Maybe some of them you just flat-out don’t like.
And this is all assuming you are in so-called “peak” condition. What about your current level of flexibility? Maybe you’re not very flexible–so several techniques aren’t viable options for that reason. Or maybe you’re recovering from an injury. Let’s say you tripped going up the stairs and now your ankle is sore. What impact does this have on the techniques available to you? Or perhaps today you really over did it at the office; you’re so mentally wiped out that the fact you noticed a potential threat is a minor miracle. Who knows–maybe it’s not even a threat at all. Maybe your fatigue is playing tricks on your perception.
I bring all this up because one of the most essential components of martial arts training is understanding what you’re capable of at any given moment. The time spent on the mat is time spent not just improving your skills, but on comparing what you think you’re able to do against what you actually can. I refer to this often as “losing your delusions,” because you have to almost forcefully break through your perceived state of mind and body in order to see what your actual state is.
Breaking the delusions isn’t easy, however. As a beginners, we know that we have much to learn; still, many of us carry some sort of image that, when it actually came down to it, a combination of adrenaline and willpower will save us from a bad situation. When we realize that this isn’t true, that we’re far more vulnerable than we think, it’s a frightening level of awareness. I remember a friend of mine who tried to study aikido. For a few weeks, she showed up to class. Then, afterwards, she quit. As she was my friend, I had the chance to ask her why she stopped training. Her response: “There’s so much I can’t do!” What she meant was that her capabilities on the mat did not match the image she had of herself in her mind.
Losing your delusions doesn’t get any easier as you move up the ranks, either. Senior students, and even many instructors, run the risk of letting their pride get in the way. They’ve put in so much time, poured in so much effort, that to see a vulnerability in themselves is has a bitterness to it that they’d rather avoid. I know this from firsthand experience–there have been times on the mat where I can’t help but think: “Well, I can’t throw this person because their attack is all wrong,” or something similar. All I can say is I do my best to recognize these times for what they are–moments of frustation and ego, nothing more–but not let them impact my overall training.
The fact is that one of the best benefits of martial training is the ability to have an accurate sense of what you CAN do. Once you have this information, you can really begin to see what areas of your training need work and know what you can ask of yourself in a given situation. Part of winning any battle, after all, stems from knowing your resources. With this information, you become better able to not only defend yourself, but improve your overall state of being.