Full Circle: The End is Where We Started

A question was posed to me this week that I had to really think about in order to properly frame an answer. That Question:

How far behind can a person leave their martial arts center before they are unable to return to that center?

Some years back, much of it chronicled on this blog, I began to question certain aspects of the traditional Chinese Martial Arts which formed the center of my life in training, my views and practices regarding self-defense, and colored my view of other martial arts – in particular, newer expressions of the martial arts such as MMA (mixed martial arts). I dropped all belief in Qi power, I questioned the necessity of forms training, especially some of the street-performer nonsense. I went through a process of field-stripping the style I had been taught, studied the complex reality of violent conflict and found the traditional answers I had been fed were seriously lacking in any substance. I changed my curriculum, first by dropping supplemental forms, then dropping forms that just didn’t have the right feel. For a time, I dropped all forms, only to end up bringing in just a few.

But in a way, I think, I ended up much closer to my core system, Hung Gar. I do not teach it right now, and I refuse to claim any mastery or special insight. But as I took this journey of a thousand winding roads, I found that there is an incredible wealth of knowledge in Hung Gar, if only one is willing to do the work. The same must be true of other styles.

I was unable, for a time, to answer the question of whether I was a traditional martial artist, or something else. Looking at things now, I see that I am a traditional martial artist, and I always was. If you study the history (the real history) of martial arts; questions, doubts, and introspective study are very traditional, as are making changes to what you practice. The idea that martial arts are to be handed on completely unchanged is a very modern idea, much like the idea that a master must know several hundred kata.

You cannot ever truly leave your core system of study if you have trained seriously for any decent length of time. Hard training and time will make that style a part of you. No matter where you roam, or how far from home you stray, that core will be there, influencing everything you do. Although the different styles of martial art can vary greatly, they were based on actual conflict. It worked at some point and therefore there is a core of the system that is very functional. That is where you find the real treasure of learning in the martial arts.

Let the style be the style, but it is the core of the system that will allow you to protect yourself if that is what you are searching for in the martial arts.

The end result of my personal journey was that I ended up practicing some of the same forms and the same weapons as I did before I started questioning everything. The difference now is that I have a better understanding of why I am doing what I do. I have come full circle. The answers were always there, but the fact is that everyone has to find the answers in their own way. I have a deeper appreciation of the traditional martial arts, as well as the newer systems and approaches, like MMA. I found a new understanding, and therefore – appreciation of the sport-oriented martial arts. I learned so much from the reality based self-defense people that I have no hope of ever being able to repay them. They were the ones who told me not to reinvent the wheel. They encouraged me to find the practical value in what I had already spent so much time in training.

So, to answer the question; The question starts from a false assumption. It is not possible to leave your core training so far that return becomes impossible. Return can be uncomfortable, but not impossible. Your core style or system will be with you no matter what you do. When you have spent years ingraining a certain physical response to attacks, it will still be there even when you try to ignore it or drown it in other stuff. This will be true regardless of the martial arts style you have trained in. If you feel the need to branch out or walk the earth, do it. There really is no reason to not expand your experiences. But do it with the understanding that your core training will influence you no matter how far you think you have traveled from the center. The center is you.


Self-Defense from a Diminished Capacity

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Regardless of style and system, we all learn to emphasize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. But what about those times when we, for whatever reason, are less than 100%. That is our topic this week.

Quick background information as we begin.

On Saturday, April 22, the KickStart Kids State Karate Championships was held in Sugarland Texas (a suburb of Houston y’all). From where I live, it was about a five-hour drive there, the tournament was about seven and a half hours, then a five-hour drive back home. On long road trips, I tend to not drink much water. I also managed to get so distracted by the tournament itself that I never drank any water during the event. I realized this as I hit the road going home. Now I wasn’t trying to be a camel or a showoff or anything like that. When I was a teen, maybe. But I’m pushing 50. No way. So, I did start drinking some water on the drive home, but again – long road trip. I looked at it as sticking to a minimum. Somewhere around the halfway point, I needed to stop for gas. When I got out to fill up the tank, my ankle wouldn’t hold me up. I checked it out, and it looked like I was smuggling a grapefruit inside the ankle joint. Bad swelling. I filled up the tank, hopped back into the vehicle, and made the rest of the drive home. There is a stretch of I-45 that has been under construction for the last 8,000 years. The lanes are narrow and the driving is treacherous. This was the point of the drive where I started cramping in my ankle, leg and both hands. Oh, what fun! Long story shorter, I got home and iced the ankle, treating it like an injury even though I knew I had suffered nothing more traumatic than a ten-hour road trip.

Well, there was no direct trauma. But, as I found out this week, I am gout-prone. I carry higher than normal levels of uric acid on a normal day. If you imagine a jar of salt water. If you leave it out, as the water evaporates, eventually you will see crystals start to form. Well, this is what the uric acid did inside my body. The crystals then settled in my ankle. Oh, just for your information, icing a gout flare-up is not a good idea. The Doctor told me that made the condition worse.

Now to close this background setting; please note that as a person who has had broken bones, concussions, torn muscles, dislocated knees, herniated disks in my spine, separated shoulders. and a chemical burn in my eye, I can tell you that gout actually feels more painful than any of those. The only pain I think might be worse is getting kicked in the groin, but at least that pain goes away more quickly.

I have spent the past week in terrible pain and barely able to walk.

Doing what I do, I took some time to consider what I would do if I needed to protect my family while in this diminished capacity.

To be honest, it isn’t pretty.

Being unable to move much, and even when moving I am in tremendous pain, any offense is going to be weak. I am offensively minded. I am geared that way, I have a Hulk smash mentality. That stuff was not available to me.

Okay fine, defense then.

Well, mobility is offline. I cannot run (okay, fine…I cannot run even without the gout problem). Hand-to-hand would be pretty stupid because I have no root (stance, base, structure), and my entire base for hand to hand begins and ends with a solid root.

It seems I would be in need of an edge.


Whenever it is legal for me to do so, I do carry a knife. While I am no Filipino martial artist, I can use my knife well enough to protect me and mine if things came to that. And even without knife or gun, someone who has trained most of their life is never truly unarmed. A man can fight.

But, what about the real base of self-defense? Awareness is always available to anyone who chooses to use it. Not being a jerk is always an option. What about being polite? Yep, anyone can do that in any physical condition. If someone wants to fight, you may not have an option, but in normal day-to-day life (not the high-stress drama found on cable news) you can get through your day without even thinking about how to best defend yourself from the bad guys.

The basics of self-defense and personal safety do not change with our personal limitations for a given day or week. Stay aware, and mind your manners. After that, you might have to improvise, but take what you can get.

As always, we appreciate likes and shares!

The Fear of Making Mistakes and Failing

Most people live their life with two major fears hanging over their head, the fear of making mistakes and the fear of failing. Often these are the very people who wish for the dazzling success of the leaders in different fields.

But the leaders in any field, in many ways, are not really that different from you or anyone else. They are normal people, but they accomplish more than others. The qualities that set many of them apart are available to anyone.

See mistakes and failure as an opportunity to learn.

If you can take a negative experience and turn it into a learning opportunity, you are doing it right. A mistake or a failure doesn’t have to be the end of the road. If you take the time to understand what went wrong and see if there is a way to correct it, nothing was really lost.

Let mistakes and failure strengthen your resolve.

When you have an attitude of I will not be denied, then you can use setbacks and struggles to make you stronger and get back into things with a stronger will.

In the Taekwondo organization I was in during the mid-90s, there was a policy where your first Black Belt rank was called Probationary 1st Degree. You had two testing cycles to pass the next test or you were demoted to red belt. The first time I tested for Decided 1st Degree I injured my foot a few days before the test. I was bull-headed enough to still try to break the board with that now injured foot as I had said I would on the testing forms. I swung a round kick into the board and the board held true while pain exploded from foot to brain. I was in a lot of pain, but made the second of three allowed attempts, with the same result. On the third attempt, I used my one allowed change of technique, switching to the opposite foot for the break. By this point, my right foot was no longer in any condition to hold me up, and the third and final break attempt failed, as did I on the test.

I limped back to my car and understood very clearly that this failure was entirely my fault. When the next testing cycle rolled around, I hit the boards hard enough to break the center section out instead of breaking them in half. I passed because I refused to fail. The first test was a setback in my eyes, not a failure.

Had I let the results of the first test sink in and cloud my vision, I might have never gone back and tested again. Then I would be an old man sitting here tonight wondering what to write about…

Catch What is Right, Correct What is Wrong

Many years ago, there was a standard style of teaching martial arts. Stand at the front of the class, and bark commands.

As the number of martial arts schools expanded and schools began competing over a small number of students, different styles of teaching emerged. Some had benefits, others did not. Of course, there are still those who cling to the drill instructor method as well.

What I want to focus on here is teaching like a teacher.

In order to do this, you have to make a slight change in your focus. Many instructors are teaching with the thought that they need the student to be motivated to come back to class again. Obviously, you really do need the student to keep showing up for class – an instructor with no students is hardly an instructor. But this focus on please keep training here has brought up many questionable practices, like the feel good martial arts.

The excuse given for saying every technique looks great and everyone gets a black belt is to keep students coming back and paying.

I want to suggest a better idea.

You can still give students the pat on the back, the thumbs up, and the verbal praise, but make it authentic. If a student is doing a technique wrong, they need to be told that it is wrong. If you praise an incorrectly performed technique as being awesome then you are reinforcing poor performance. This should never be acceptable. Incorrect techniques will be ineffective and even carry the risk of injury to the student if there is long term practice of a technique with bad mechanics.

Encourage the student by letting them know what they are doing right, by acknowledging the improvements they are making, or even the effort they are showing. But it has to be real or you are doing damage to the student’s potential as well as to your own authority when other students notice you are saying everything is great.

Catch what they are doing right, and correct what they are doing wrong. This will cause them to see that they can do something right and that they need to keep training to get better.

As always, likes and shares are deeply appreciated!

Unintended Consequences: What’s the worst that can happen?

Very often, too often if you really think about it, people find themselves stirred into an emotional frenzy over things that their chosen, and therefore trusted news provider has told them is important. And people are often so worked up over the way a new law or program or ideology might fix a problem that they never stop to ask about the possible problems that might come up.

But taking a moment or two to consider the possible unintended consequences can give you a chance to get past the emotion of the moment, and really look at the problem and your intended solution, and use reason and critical thinking to examine the problem in a new light.

My closest friends know that I am an armchair historian. I am not good enough to consider myself an expert, and I do not have the time available to study as much as I would like, but I do study, and I know a bit. I am going to take a look into history and provide an example of a seemingly harmless plan to solve a near crisis that ended up costing a nation much more than they bargained for or ever would have intentionally given up.

In our day, we are taught that the Native American Indians were a peace-loving and noble people and that the depictions of them as unwashed savages are Hollywood creations.

In truth, the real answer regarding what type of people the American Indians were is going to need the clarification of which tribe you are referring to. Some of the tribes were not really interested in war, others were most assuredly warrior cultures. Some tribes killed and enslaved others as part of habit. Others killed because of grudges that went back many generations. Some were peaceful but had customs that were utterly barbaric, such as the Karankawa practice of feeding newborn daughters to the dogs so that they would not marry an enemy tribe and produce more enemies.

For our purposes here, we will look at the Comanche. In strictly technical terms, the Comanche was not a single Tribe as we think of the word. There were several groups, but they shared a language and by and large were similar in their culture. They raided and killed, and they stole as many horses as they could. Horses were status and money if we simplify things for easy understanding.

The Comanche were hell on wheels…uh…actually hell on horses would be more accurate. They could ride as well or better than anyone, and they rode so much that many people found them to be awkward when not on horseback. They had a low birthrate due to the frequency of miscarriages as the women rode as well. They could fire about twenty arrows in the time it took for a person to reload a firearm of the time (The Kentucky Long Rifle was great for hunting and limited types of warfare in its day, but dismounting to use it against a mounted Comanche was suicide). It is no exaggeration to say the Comanche were the most powerful light cavalry of their time.

Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the Comanche would attack other Indian tribes, kill them men and enslave the young women and children. After the Europeans, when the first horses were introduced to the Americas, they did the same thing, only they had other victims.

The Comanche commanded a large area, larger than any other tribe, and they were, for a time, the largest and most powerful Indian tribe in America.

And they changed the history of America.

And Mexico.

Americans were not really going to Texas when it was a part of Mexico until the Mexican government decided that it needed a buffer between Mexico and the Comanche. This tribe was so skilled at raiding and killing that the government of a free nation decided to allow other people from a different nation to acquire land in their own territory in order to give the Comanche other people to kill, and a group to slow the raids into their power base.

On the surface, this seemed reasonable, undoubtedly so to the people in charge of Mexico at the time. These would not be fellow countrymen providing a human shield, they were foreigners. They would slow the advance of the Comanche, and maybe even stop raids into Mexico altogether due to the habit the Comanche had of hitting hard and fast and then speeding out as fast as possible to avoid pursuit.

Of course, we know what happened. Americans settled in Texas, they armed themselves heavily after finding themselves at the mercy of a merciless group, and after throwing the Comanche back, they decided they didn’t need the government of Mexico either and fought and won to become the Republic of Texas.

A bad call on the part of Mexico was to try to find an easy way to stop the raiding of the Comanche Indians. Had they not chosen this path, or had the Comanche not been such a fierce enemy, Texas might still be Mexico to this day.

Unintended consequences actually happen. Before taking action on any level, it is good to stop and think, not only of what can happen if everything goes as planned but what might happen if things go very wrong.

The next time a friend or politician or newsman is telling you how this or that is going to easily solve a problem, take the time to consider what might happen if things go terribly wrong.

Eat Bitter

You read that right, I said eat bitter. I did not mean eat better.

I cut my teeth in the traditional Chinese martial arts, and there is a common saying that translates into English as eat bitter.

This is essentially a common sense idea that you have to put in the work in order to enjoy the rewards. The idea is not uncommon outside of China. In many countries, the idea that hard work will eventually lead to success is a common theme.

When people see the amazing skills of a Bruce Lee or a Jackie Chan, they never stop to think about the tremendous amount of time and sweat that brought them to such a high level of performance. Muhammad Ali, probably the greatest boxer who will ever live, was inhuman in his training.

In our time, seemingly more than ever before, we have people who do not understand the concept of sacrifice before reward. They don’t want to pay their dues. And it is really sad.

From my perspective, I see this lesson best seen in the lives of the dedicated martial artists. Those who work as hard as it takes to make it learn that the effort spent is worth it in the end. Every long-term martial artist that I have ever known was a person who was willing to do whatever it takes to be successful at whatever task was in front of them.

Challenges can be overcome.

In the end, the work and the training, the time away from friends, the missed parties, the delayed social life, the bumps and bruises, the early mornings where you felt you never fell asleep, the tendons and ligaments that will never be quite right again, the aches and pains that never seem to go away, all of the things that would stop someone who was looking for a reason to stop – lead to a realization. They lead to a transcendental perspective. I can tell you about it, but you won’t know it like I know it, and others like me know it. To truly get it, you’ll have to live it.

There is an experience in this that lets you see that your limits as set by you, and if you choose to ignore them, they cease being limits. No one will ever be able to get to you by telling you that you don’t have what it takes because you know that you can do whatever it takes.

So when the training is not going well and the skills are slow in developing – smile! And eat bitter.