02 September 2009

Understanding, Skill, and Martial Arts

Since at least as long as people have been writing about martial arts, we see discussions of the form my martial art is better than your martial art. This ranges from feelings of philosophical superiority, to a belief that a single cage match ala UFC actually proves anything about the arts being practiced.

In the old fencing schools secret techniques abounded, which were entirely focused on keeping the individual alive by holding that the opponent had not seen the technique before and thus could not be ready for it. To quote Egerton Castle's Schools and Masters of Fence:

Each individual master taught merely a collection of tricks that he had found, in the course of an eventful life, to be generally successful in personal encounters, and had practiced until the ease and quickness acquired in their execution made them very dangerous to an unscientific opponent.

In truth secret techniques only get you so far and the artist matters more than the art. This doesn't mean that all martial arts are equal or that they take equivalent paths, nor does it mean that they don't have different focuses or aren't better suited to different types of people, just that what makes or breaks a school tends to be the teacher, and what makes a practitioner good tends to be that individual and the training they have received and not the style that they practice or any number of secret techniques that they might know.

One style and school might be more conducive to self defense, another might be more suitable to fighting in a cage, a third might be better fit for finding inner harmony. All three, given enough time and enough dedication, are probably useful for all three purposes, but their focuses are going to be different and they might be better for different types of people. They also will each achieve the pieces in a different order, and at a different pace.

What I tend to look for, on walking into a martial arts school to gauge the quality of the teaching, is to look at how faithful they are to the fundamentals. If I see sloppy stances, sloppy weight control, or poor attitude I am more likely to hold that against the practitioner or--if it is endemic--the school than I am the style, even if that style has a different set of assumptions or focuses from my own, and even if the students can kick everyone else around easily. Taekwon Do isn't inferior to Hapkido because the latter is more real world, it simply has different areas of focus.

Then there are the paths that harm or are actively dangerous. Recently I saw some people stretching in such a way that they are likely to destroy their knees, I've seen martial arts schools which are basically just excuses to beat up on the younger students, and I've seen more than a few black belt mills where the people graduating have paid a lot of money, but have not received a lot of quality training. I've seen other martial artists who sleep with their students, consensually, but this still tends to mean that either the relationship or the training--or both--will get compromised.

In a sense, we have run into an analogous situation in the Neopagan world. There is a lot of fighting back-and-forth between those who want to treat every path as equally valid, and those who view there as being One True Path, with many gradations in between. We see those who grudgingly acknowledge that other paths might be valid, but theirs is clearly the best. Some who will acknowledge and allow for any sort of variance in Neopagan paths, while simultaneously snubbing Abrahamic religions. We see others who think that Occultism--or worse, Shamanism--is something that everyone should do no matter what their background. There is also plenty of ur doin' it wrong for people who don't practice in a sanctioned way.

There are also cults, toxic relationships, bad boundaries, and dysfunctional group dynamics ranging from mild to dangerous spread throughout the Neopagan world. There are people who think that burning slips of paper will make everything better, and well-recognized authors spreading outright falsehoods, dangerous information, or encouraging destructive behavior in children. There are those who seem to think that the gods are there for you without ever yourself being there for them, and those who think that it is acceptable to take without giving anything in return.

There are also amazingly positive paths that engender healing, others that help focus discipline, and others which help us in touching Mystery.

The trick is that it is not always easy to tell, from the surface, what is going on. Years ago I was working at a university, and the guy who worked next to me doing data entry tried on a regular basis to get me to go to his church and attend his church events. He was mostly respectful of the boundaries I set: he wouldn't push if I said no, wouldn't try and actively convert me beyond trying to get me out to his church events, but he would regularly ask and we'd talk casually about religion and he'd talk about the salvation he found on this path. He was in a fundamentalist branch of Christianity and on a very straight and very narrow path, and believed that everyone would be better off on this same path and would find salvation through it.

Suffice it to say, such is pretty much the exact opposite of what I was looking for or what I needed.

As we talked, I found out more about history. He had been in a gang and had scars running down his face from being assaulted outside of his home with a glass bottle. He showed me pictures of his pets: a dog, a cock, and a Siamese fighting fish all of which he used to have fight other gang members animals for sport and cash. We only scratched the surface, but it was clear that his history was dark and brutal. For him, he needed the straight-and-narrow path, at least for the foreseeable future, and he needed the salvation and forgiveness he had found through Jesus the Christ of Nazareth. He accepted responsibility for his past, but had found a brighter future thanks to Christianity.

I would have preferred if he realized that I didn't need that same salvation and that my path could be different and I could still be happy with it, but I can't really fault him too seriously for--having found this happiness and this salvation--wanting to share it with others. I also can't criticize his having found this brighter future through Christianity, even though I feel that for me that such a path would destroy me, just as my path would probably destroy him.

The important thing is that there are things that we can learn from one another if we are willing to listen, and that neither path is invalid despite that both look very different. While I can sometimes look at something and say that is ineffective or that looks destructive, I can't always be sure that I am right so long as we are mostly staying within certain fuzzily-defined bounds.

I have no good answer on how we can tell which is which, because what is functional and healing for one person may seem like the epitome of Evil™ to another, especially if neither side takes the time to understand the other. What I would like to see is an opening of dialogues between disparate and disagreeing groups, done with understanding and compassion and without the need to prove one is better (or worse) than the other, done for the sake of sharing information and improving ourselves and our service to the gods and society. Done without distortions and with a great deal of self-honesty.

Then, perhaps, we can find our way forward.

Further Reading


  1. This is a great comparison! The sad thing is that human beings have a tendency in general to play the one-up game, whether it's martial arts or spirituality or politics or what one's kids (if you have 'em) do as far as sports and school go. And yet the over-emphasis on competition dilutes the focus on the self-discipline in these things, as well as distracts from paying attention to the actual practical comparisons that can be the difference between no skills or damaged knees, and an effective system for training the body.

  2. Thanks for the comment ^_^

    The politics part of that has been infuriating me lately. It seems that people are more interested in scoring points and distorting the situations beyond recognition than they are in actually having a rational discussion.