Monday, September 17, 2012

On keeping the "martial" in Martial Arts

After all that talk about becoming a public intellectual in my last post, this one has nothing to do with academia. Instead, I want to start here:

I am a martial artist.

Not, "I do/practice martial arts." Nope. I am a martial artist.

Because this is so much at the core of my identity, I wear it on my sleeve (or, I guess, on my skin...) proudly. Not in the way where I walk around like "I know how to fight and I bet I could kick your ass." Well, that should be obvious, because a martial artist in the proper sense would never do that. We don't care about whose ass we could or could not kick until there's no other choice. It seriously has nothing to do with competition.

So you see, I get kind of irked when folks -- especially those who also practice martial arts or call themselves martial artists -- immediately begin talking about being turned off by competition or being more interested in the "tradition" or "spiritual" side of martial arts when they hear me describe the way I train and the way my home school (Holbrook Kempo!) trains.

People are usually interested in the fact that I train until I get to the part where I talk about hitting. In the school that I come from, we like to hit each other. A lot. Pretty hard. Not to hurt each other on purpose, but enough so that we know when we get hit it isn't a tag or a touch. It's a hit. It's unpleasant. Sometimes someone leave a sparring class with a bloody nose or a black eye (I know I've had both!). And that's ok. We check our egos at the door so it's not about besting each other or getting someone back for doing so. We should train harder to not get hit. Or if we ever do get hit during an actual fight, we won't be surprised by the feeling.

But when people who don't train hear this, they get really surprised. And I get that. It's weird if you don't train to hear someone say that they "miss" -- sincerely miss -- hitting and getting hit. But what gets me is the dozens and dozens of times people who do train hear me describe that mentality and immediately recoil, as if the folks with whom I train and I are kind of crazy.

Immediately, I usually get one of two (if not both) responses:
(1) "We're more into the traditional/spiritual side of training."
(2) "We're not into competition."

I take severe exception to these responses. Not in a way that makes me angry or upset, but in a way that irritates me, mostly because of how tired I am of the repetition. (So if you've said one of these things to me before, I was probably very annoyed, but it's not personal -- I'm annoyed at the larger script, as I'll explain here)

First of all, I'll get (2) out of the way, since it's so easy to do away with. In no way is hitting equatable with competition. Just because we hit each other and spar regularly does not in any way mean we're in competition with each other. I could not care less about being better or worse than anyone else on the face of the planet at fighting. That's not the point of sparring.

Sparring is not about competition.
Sparring is not about competition.
Sparring is not about competition.
 Got it? Good.

Sparring is about learning about yourself, your strengths and weaknesses. It's about learning to be a better fighter. It's about testing your self-control and seeing just how far you've come in your training at keeping your ego in check in a controlled, safe environment. Sparring is not real fighting. It is training. But it still hurts. And it should. But that doesn't mean the two people sparring are competing with each other. It means they are each pushing each other to better themselves. They are on a collective mission for individual improvement. By committing to give your sparring partner an honest hit (not tag or touch) when they leave themselves open, you are helping them become better. And likewise when they commit to do the same for you.

Now, let's talk about (1). The logical assumption that underlies this reply to my description of "hitting" is that somehow by being focused on the combative side of a martial art, that makes one less in touch with the spiritual side.

This, to be blunt, is bullshit. I kind of apologize for the language, but not really.

"Martial Art" is a single noun made up of two words, and both words share equal importance. I take both sides very seriously -- that's why after 16 years of training I still call myself a beginner.

A martial art is an art. It is beautiful. It is creative. It is intellectual, working multiple layers of theories and principles and concepts into techniques and forms which take years -- decades! -- to truly understand in any meaningful way. I'm still learning lessons from my white belt techniques! This is art. This is tradition.

And it is important for a martial artist to grow and cultivate the body, mind, and spirit as one. We not only exercise our bodies -- keeping our hearts and other muscles strong and conditioned, reducing unnecessary tension which impedes effective motion, strengthening our lungs and diaphragm to help make breathing more controlled and efficient, trying to keep ourselves flexible as we age, etc.; we also exercise our minds -- some of my favorite aspects of the martial arts are the mental aspects, the layers upon layers of theory and conceptual work built into tiny pieces of technique which can provide a practitioner with years of exciting training as they try to truly understand how that technique actual works -- and how it doesn't!; and we also exercise our spirits: martial arts is inherently a character building and spiritual experience.

Think about it this way. Should I ever get into a physical confrontation in which I have to, out of necessity, physically fight to protect myself or those that I love, I am trained to destroy -- my instructor has an affection for the word "liquify" -- my opponent. That is a huge, huge responsibility. Such training must by necessity be balanced by intense spiritual training -- and by that I don't necessarily mean prayer and chanting (though that works for some people). I mean serious training in humility and compassion, in the rules of respect, discipline, and self-control.

In my system, our "front position" which signifies our simultaneous relaxed alertness, involves making a fist with one hand and holding it close to your body in front of your chest, in front of your heart, and then covering the fist with the other hand. This gesture is not merely a hand position; it means something. It tells a story. It says, "I have a weapon -- my martial arts skill -- that I treasure and carry close to my heart. I can use this weapon effectively if pressed, but I wish to keep it covered. I wish to keep it close to me and not use it."


So you see, just because we like to hit each other does not in any way mean we do not value tradition or spiritual growth and development. I spend just as much time talking about character when I teach (with both adults and children) as I do talking about fighting. Because the two are inseparable. If you are a responsible teacher you can't teach how to destroy something unless you also teach of the terrible consequences of destruction, of the extremity, not normalcy, which breeds destruction, and of the imperative to not only avoid destroying but to preserve and cultivate whenever possible.

I want to end by returning to this sense of the singe noun made up of two words: the singular duality of the noun "Martial Art."

This single noun encompasses two spaces of meaning. It describes an Art: something which requires training and a precise set of skills, and perhaps something which can achieve or express certain forms of beauty. It also describes something Martial: something having to do with combat, with fighting.  

In order to be training in a true martial art as a true martial artist, one must recognize the equal importance of these two dimensions in their unification in the term "Martial Art."

Too often today, I believe folks drift towards one end of a spectrum of emphases over another.

In general, some MMA folks are so focused on competition that they forget about the rich cultural traditions and spiritual journeys packed into techniques they're learning in their quest to become the most efficient fighters they can be. And for a lot of them, that's fine, and they would admit that, since for them they're training to fight, period. And honestly, because of this honesty, I find this polarization easier to stomach than the other trend that I see. 

The other trend is in practitioners of traditional martial arts (as I consider myself to be), and I believe it comes from both the emergence of a vibrant MMA community across the US and the explosion of popularity of  Kenpo, Tae Kwon Do, and bastardizations of Japanese Karate schools (this explosion of popularity means TMA has become a viable and vibrant business model, which means there is more incentive to start a scholl to earn money and therefore a large number of poor quality martial arts schools, especially in the most popular styles).

It is this almost complete disconnect from the "Martial" in "Martial Art." There are many traditional martial arts practitioners now (I see them all over the place at tournaments) who train for years and attain high ranks without ever seriously considering the martial applications and implications of what they do.

For some, to focus on the combative side of the martial art would somehow violate some kind of moral high ground on which they place their martial art. As if they're above fighting and have progressed to the point where they simply focus on tradition and spiritual development. But as I already explained, the spiritual development inherent in true martial arts training is explicitly intertwined with the martial context in which all of the training develops. While not all martial arts are Eastern or explicitly ground themselves in this particular school of philosophy, I think most display an uncanny embodiment of the philosophy of balanced unison of opposites permeating the Taoist text, the Tao-te Ching. Not to mention, for all the talk of tradition, it would do these folks well to remember just how many martial arts (at least of Chinese, Japanese, and Okinawan origin; I don't know as much about Korean, Western, Philipino, or other arts) actually developed as ways to train to fight on the battlefield or protect oneself from thieves or oppressive ruling classes. Their founding contexts are martial. The spirituality, in a way, grows out of the combative.

For others, they train simply to compete at tournaments, and so for them it's about the flash. Can I throw my weapon in the air and make it spin more times than the other guy before I catch it? Can I learn more gymnastic tricks which will make my forms look more impressive in front of judges? Can I learn the best strategies to score points in the heavily structured game of point sparring? These folks, admittedly, drive me absolutely crazy. Don't even get me started on the phrase, "extreme martial arts"! (Is that still even a thing? I hope not.) These folks have no understanding -- and in many cases no desire to have any kind of understanding -- of the martial application of what they're doing.

And there's a problem with both of these groups of students that tend to focus too heavily on the "art" without the "martial": without a grounding in the combative elements of what you're doing, a martial art becomes nothing more than choreographed calisthenics. If that's what you want to do, fine with me. Just don't call it a "martial art," then, because you're ignoring an entire half of the term you're using. (And that's why these people tend to bother me more than MMA folks. They're not honest about their imbalance. They profess to be teaching balance in many cases, but in fact forget a half. At least an MMA athlete who doesn't care about the tradition or spirituality -- and I'm not saying they're all like this, because in fact there are many MMA athletes who care deeply about tradition and spirituality -- will usually come out and say so.)

So I guess what I'm trying to say is actually quite simple. Be true to the wholeness of the Martial Arts. They are truly amazing bodies of knowledge, sites of memory of cultural traditions, beautiful fields of performance art, ways of telling and re-telling stories, sites of improvisation, and sets of tools for engaging in human-to-human combat. And all of those things are equally valuable. And in order to be a true martial art, it must encompass all of these aspects. And in order to be a complete martial artist, one must strive to train and understand all of these aspects together.

I hope I'm doing a good job myself, but I can always be better.


Saturday, September 15, 2012

Why the heck do I keep blogging? Imagining my career path already...

Yeah yeah yeah, it's been three weeks since my last post. I know. But I just started a PhD program, so I'm not doing much other than reading, and reading, and reading lately. But I want to keep this up, so I will try to keep doing blog posts once in a while, but probably even less regularly than I did over the summer.

Let me take a quick moment to explain one of my reasons to continue to keep up this blog. I know not a lot of people read it, but it's important to me, personally, to keep writing it. This is not only because of the need for an outlet I expressed in my very first post, but also because of my hopes for the kind of academic career I want to have.

Now, what could blogging have to do with becoming an English professor? Well, while many of my professors here at Cornell are repeatedly telling me and the rest of the first-year cohort it's too early to be thinking about the job market or professionalizing in general, I have to say it's hard for me to not think about it. I mean, we all imagine what we want to be when we grow up, right? I'm still doing that. I know not to stress about the market, but I certainly have a vision (that very well could change!) of what kind of professional I want to be. So it was interesting when on the very first day of the course I'm taking titled "Toni Morrison's Novels" part of our discussion was about the question of "what is a public intellectual?"

In all of my wide-eyed first-year graduate student naivety I have this idea of somehow shaping myself into some kind of public intellectual. For me, while I very much look forward to teaching, research, and even the challenges of faculty governance (though from what I'm hearing this will very very quickly dissipate!), I also want to do work "outside" the traditional bounds of the academy. I want to provoke discussion not only in the classroom, but also at the dinner table or the pub about power structures and cultural issues. I actually enjoy academic writing, and like a lot of my young peers I've met so far at Cornell have ambitions of publishing articles in prestigious academic journals or even an academic book one day. But I also want to write newspaper columns, books for readers beyond the world of academia, and blog posts.

Yes, blog posts. Because of the work that I do and the topics that are of greatest interest to me (structures of power which shape the material/political conditions in which people live, especially as related to race in the United States), I believe it is imperative that serious discussions about these topics happen in as many places as possible with as many people as possible. And I mean discussions, not me lecturing the world about what I think all of our problems are as I stand on a huge soap box. I think it's important for folks to talk about these things together. At least in this country, our public discussions about race that get media coverage are often superficial at best and deeply problematic at worst. I want to do whatever little bit I can to change that. And that means doing different kinds of writing besides the traditional academic articles or books.

So keeping this blog alive is important to me because it's good training. It helps me to keep writing in a not so formally academic voice. And who knows, maybe some folks will read some of the things I post and have a discussion with a friend or coworker about them. And maybe some good discussions will be had.

That's the hope anyway.