I have been reading a lot, and thinking a lot lately about the unexamined beliefs in the martial arts. I wrote a series of unrelated article for my blog lately which dealt in various ways with the strange cult of the martial arts, and some of the absurdities which are spouted as if it were God given knowledge. I don’t know where this one is going to lead, as it is just coming from my mind, though my fingertips, and into the keyboard. But where my thinking is right now is on the strange thought processes, beliefs, and underlying causes thereof, for the insanity that makes for the crazy martial arts world.
There are times when I am embarrassed to admit that I am a martial artist. This depends, of course, on the social setting. But when I am in a room full of professional educators, there is a bit of embarrassment when they ask me questions like, “You don’t REALLY believe there is a death touch, do you?”
Of course, I don’t believe in any such nonsense, but there is a widespread belief in and around the martial arts that something like a death touch exists. This is belief in the classical sense of the word, from the Anglo-Saxon root lief (to wish). And in the sense in which I use it, the term is a fervent hope. I honestly think that in their heart the people who profess the mystical nonsense don’t really think it is true, they just wish it were.
Questions about Qi come to me on a near daily basis. I don’t believe in Qi, but the questions still come.
Some of the questions are not mystical based, these are the, “What is the ULTIMATE martial art, the one that can’t be beaten?”
I take all of this is stride after so many years. When I cannot take it anymore, I write about it, because it is much easier than causing a scene.
In the martial arts, I find that beginners tend to believe anything, and this is dangerous. The beginner’s mind, poisoned by TV and Hollywood garbage, will take as fact anything uttered by the Black Belt. This is not limited to the mystical stuff and nonsense that Zen Master Black Belt likes to promote in his class, but it goes further into the ultimate martial arts fluff, and the endless nonsense about tradition.
I have recently been classified by a friend of mine into a new category; the cagey veteran of the martial arts, who no longer believes in anything. Of course, such close-mindedness cannot be good either.
My main interest in trying to encourage critical thinking in the martial arts has to do with the martial aspect of what we profess to do. There are many unexamined teaching which pertain to areas we typically call self defense (although I have hopped onto the bandwagon of trying to convince martial artists to begin using the term “self protection” as “self defense” is a legal term with a very specific definition). I draw a distinction here between this subject and the aspects of training in the martial arts which pertain to winning a tournament victory.
There are many unexamined beliefs which deal directly with the subject of self defense. One easy example is the wide held belief that the manner an adversary is using to hold their knife (over hand or under hand) somehow gives you a direct idea of how much danger you are in. The way the knife is held does not matter at all. There are a number of ways your opponent can stab, cut or kill you using either knife holding method, and they do not have to be trained in knife fighting to kill you. Another belief held far and wide is that superior technique can overcome huge disadvantages in size and strength. This is not always the case. It isn’t even usually the case.
We often take for granted that certain ideas are true. Most fights end up on the ground so we need to learn ground fighting. This one became so widespread even the military jumped onto the BJJ bandwagon. Should soldiers really be spending time working on skills for single combat ground fighting? I don’t know, I am not military, but some people were sold on an idea that, at least on the surface looks pretty bad. We are told that kicks to the head are impractical and don’t result in knockouts. We are told that front kicks are useless in a real fight. I don’t know anymore. I see MMA guys that look pretty open to a front kick all the time.
Martial arts are about the acquisition of physical skills. Among these skills are balance, ambidexterity, awareness of our surroundings, muscular strength, shortened reaction time, and (hopefully) fighting ability. While these are quite normal, what I find amusing are the ways in which these skills are exaggerated in the eyes of the ever gullible public at large.
Ideas that a “master” can levitate abound. The stories go on and on. I notice that it is never the person telling the story who can levitate, but it is the master of the person telling the story. This is a safety net. There are beliefs in touch-of-death, no-touch knock outs, walking on broken glass or swords, imperviousness to strikes from fist or weapons, invulnerability to sword and spear, and the list goes on. If you want to believe in this stuff, it is your choice, but if you claim the powers, be willing to prove it in a controlled environment for scientific study, otherwise stop making the absurd claims.
One reason that these weird beliefs continue is to be found in the way in which followers of some martial arts tend to lean toward an almost religious-like fervor. Some of these people will end up viewing their instructor as if he or she were without flaw, and incapable of doing wrong. I was disabused of the notion early on as my instructor was quite fond of hard liquor. No sainthood there! When your instructor blasts you publicly for the slightest rule violation (something minor, like turning your back when told to go to the back of the room), you are made to feel as if the rule violation offended them on a personal level, and this is a very bad sign. In a short amount of time, these instructors will rule your mind in the Dojo. When you are not allowed to question them, or worse still, when your questions are returned with hostility instead of answers, you are in a bad place.
There is nothing at all wrong with thinking your martial art is great. You really should feel that way or you have chosen the wrong art. You can even think that your instructor is special! But do not make that unwarranted jump from thinking that the instructor is special, into thinking that he is flawless and the source of all knowledge. Martial arts appeal to people who are going through, or have recently gone through some difficulties. The vulnerabilities brought on by some of the difficulties life throws our way and the different levels at which some people internalize these difficulties make them easy targets for the less than honest martial arts instructors. These people will end up buying everything said, and hanging on to the wished-for fulfillment of all of the empty promises. They will place the instructor on a pedestal. Over time, it will become more and more difficult for the student to extricate himself from the school, as with each class the student will have more invested in the system and beliefs.
I often wonder why people in the martial arts give away so much of their intellectual freedom on the so-called authority of history. If you look at other sports, you will not find such practices. You don’t see any football players wearing the old style open face leather helmets anymore. If one went out there and said, “This is the original style of helmet, so it is clearly superior”, he would get laughed off of the field. And yet daily in the martial arts someone spouts off about how their art is unchanged, and truer to the original, and thus superior to all of the others. Model T Ford, or new Mercedes, which do you prefer? In field after field, we can go through and see that when history is kept in its proper perspective, it will not become a hindrance to progress. Yet in the martial arts, if you go against what the past masters have written, or if you see it as quaint or (blasphemer) outdated, you will be branded an ignorant moron, and the vast majority in the martial arts community will shun you.
In general, I get a warmer welcome from some of what I have been writing lately from MMA practitioners than from traditionalists. There are some forward thinking karate-ka who whole heartedly support my recent work, but very few from my branch of Chinese Martial Arts do. We are taught in the Chinese Martial Arts that blood circulates, but also pools in certain organs at specific times of the day. We are also taught that is pools in organs that don’t even exist! We know that there is no alternate circulatory system in which Qi circulates, but this is what we are taught in the training hall. We understand that electricity can be measured and detected and so on, and we are told that Qi is bio-electricity, and we believe it, even though it has never been detected in study after study. Far too often, we accept untested ideas based on the authority of history. At some point, we need to open up to the possibility that much of what we are choosing to believe is wrong, and that we are clinging to it out of deference to history and not knowledge.