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.