What style do you teach?
I’m hardly a soccer expert of any sort. I’ve watched soccer. My son is learning soccer. I’ve attended his lessons. But I in no way purport to understand the intricacies of soccer. And while I know many subtleties of soccer elude me, but I still believe that I possess a reasonably founded layperson’s understanding of what soccer is on the whole.
Unlike soccer, I don’t think the general public holds a sound conception of the martial arts, which is fraught with mythological perceptions: The first parent of popular martial mythology is the media--Enter the Dragon, The Karate Kid, Daredevil, etc. I love a good martial arts flick as much as anyone, but they all distort the martial arts into what looks good on screen. (Real martial arts—especially the most advanced—don’t film well at all because the movements are too subtle.) We don’t see the same problem with soccer; there just aren’t thousands of soccer movies mythologizing the mystical, Eastern qualities of soccer or that depict soccer in fantastically unrealistic ways. To be fair, I’m certain that any movies that have covered soccer have also, to varying degrees, distorted it, but soccer movies are hardly a genre the way martial arts/action movies are a genre.
Putting movies aside, the parent of martial mythology is the way the martial arts have promoted themselves. Most people “know” of martial arts according to what they’ve seen at their local dojos. One of the key problems with such observations, however, is that most people have observed classes for kids. Meanwhile, the martial arts we provide to children can be radically different than the martial arts taught to serious adults.
Similarly, many adults now “understand” martial arts based on the classes they took when they were kids, which means they were only exposed to the child versions of the arts in the first place. By way of analogy, we could say that the adults hold a conception of card playing roughly the equivalent of Go Fish, a great game for kids, but hardly the high-stakes Texas Hold’em that adults might play.
Finally, the last and arguably most toxic issue distorts public perception of the arts is the ubiquity of black belts. So many people achieve a black belt in this or that after a few years of training and, often stopping shortly thereafter, continue to conceptualize martial arts from that rather nascent understanding. I’m in no way denouncing people for earning black belts; my only point, having been training for about thirty-five years, is that virtually nothing you understand after a few years grants insight into the deeper qualities of martial arts.
By way of analogy, I always tell my students that a black belt is the rough equivalent of a high school diploma. In high school, you might have learned some important, useful, and accurate things about geology, but you’re by no means a geologist, and you really don’t hold a clue about geology compared to someone working as a geologist for forty years. Your conception of geology isn’t wrong, per se, and it’s great that you learned geology in high school, but your understanding of geology is still very simplistic.
Nevertheless, all of the factors above—movie mythology, child classes, “high school” black belts, etc.—put many senior martial artists in a quandary when trying to answer what is an otherwise fair and earnest question: “What style do you teach”?
Let’s say, for example, that I say that I teach karate (which I don’t; it’s just for example). Once I invoke that term, I simultaneously invoke a tidal wave of connotations: screaming (kiais), white pajamas, rigid movements, blocking and corkscrew punching, etc. I will say karate and my listeners will hear “karate.” They won’t understand how different karate really is from their conception, how supplely the body most move to generate power, how a kiai isn’t about generating power but about rooting the body, how most bunkai—kata applications—manifest in the transition between postures rather than in the final postures themselves, how dedication to a sensei is really about a service to oneself, how the connection between karate and Zen exists but in ways that far exceed just “being in the moment,” etc.
Thus, the problem in saying that I teach karate is that the “karate” (or kung fu, or BJJ, or MMA, or Krav Maga, etc.) that most people understand isn’t the karate I teach, and it might not be the karate that really exists at all. And there’s no easy way to bridge the gap between “karate” and karate because doing so doesn’t just require educating the public, it requires re-educating them. Unlike talking about soccer, explaining what I teach in martial arts requires at least as much dispelling of popular misconceptions and partial truths as it discussing the facts.
In fact, even though my students see me demonstrate all the time, and even though what we always train the applications of our techniques, it still takes me students about a year or two to really get a sense of what the style is capable of accomplishing with more long-term practice. Such is the case for many arts.
Yet if this diatribe seems like a critique of the public, then allow me to correct that: Despite the challenges I’ve enumerated, the problem is that I become tongue tied and search for words. I struggle to communicate against the popular misconceptions of the arts. I struggle to put to words that which can only be experienced. I struggle to do any more than invite people to come and take some classes so that they can begin a journey toward understanding. And I’m hardly alone in that. Many martial arts instructors struggle with communicating what it is they teach beyond the use of a popular term like “karate” or “kung fu.”
As Alan Watts wrote, “The menu is not the meal.”
The Scarcity of Real Combative Training: Miyamoto Musashi and Misty the Cat
Steven J. Pearlman, Ph.D.
“To cut and to slash are two different things. Cutting, whatever form of cutting it is, is decisive, with a resolute spirit. Slashing is nothing more than touching the enemy. Even if you slash strongly, and even if the enemy dies instantly, it is slashing. When you cut, your spirit is resolved.”
― Miyamoto Musashi, Book of Five Rings
If there’s a hole in many modern martial arts’ approach to combative realism, and I assert there is one, it might take the form of Musashi’s point above. Musashi, in his enduring wisdom, illuminates what we could identify as the crux of combative training, and that crux does not necessarily hold any relationship to fighting full contact, training for the “street,” or training in modern vs. traditional ways.
If you want to understand Musashi’s point here, it might help to first hear this story of Misty the Cat vs. Julie, my sister-in-law. Misty could be friendly enough at times but really just wanted to be left alone to lie in the sun, which was something my visiting sister-in-law, Julie, didn’t know. Though I do not know exactly what Julie did to set Misty off, which probably was something akin to just trying to pet Misty, what I do know is that Misty turned into a arched-back, hissing fur ball that eventually drove Julie to lock herself in a bathroom.
To review: A nine-pound cat capable of doing no more damage to Julie than a skin-deep scratch nevertheless caused a full-grown woman to seek by locking herself in a bathroom.
Musashi would be proud … of Misty.
What Julie intuitively understood about Misty was that Misty was out to “cut” with “resolute spirit.” Whatever Misty was going to do to Julie, she was going to do it. And Julie, lacking any desire to hurt Misty, certainly wasn’t going to “cut” back. And this demonstrates the power and the critical importance of cutting—of executing techniques with full “resolute spirit.”
Given my point about cutting above, it follows that my overall point here is that contemporary martial culture trains far too much for slashing. Collectively speaking, we need to train to cut. And to Musashi’s point again, slashing holds absolutely no relationship to how much effort or strength or “power” is exercised because “even if you slash strongly, and even if the enemy dies instantly, it is slashing.” Thus, many martial artists confuse hard technique, full-contact technique, and “effective” technique with cutting. But cutting, in Musashi’s sense, is something else. (And if my stance here seems to imply that I always cut rather than slash, let me correct that notion right away: I am definitely not exempt from this critique. In fact, it arises as much from self-reflection as from observation.)
Sometimes, slashing is easy to spot: We easily spot slashing when we see students practice with hesitation, with tentativeness, with reservation. But slashing becomes more difficult to spot when hidden amidst loud kiais and a lot of exertion. Cutting, you see, and as Musashi so aptly put it, comes not as a matter of effort, per se, but as a matter of “resolute spirit.” And, though it wouldn’t be advised in combat, one can exercise resolute spirit without speed or power. One can exercise resolute spirit at golf, flower arranging, popcorn cooking, etc.
Though challenging to put into words, resolute spirit, as I see it, comes when the whole self/psyche acts without reservation, or even without self-awareness. And it is not all too difficultly achieved in the right context.
For example, though I was hardly one of its pioneers, I was one of the earlier adopters of adrenaline stress response training, especially for women’s self-defense classes. In a matter of hours, armed with little more than elbow and knee techniques, women can learn to hold their ground against an attacker. I don’t assert by any stretch of the imagination that they become fully proficient fighters, but they can accomplish quite a lot with relatively little.
In fostering their abilities, certain elements need to align (and I’m not saying anything other people haven’t already said): They need access to few gross motor techniques into which they can input their full selves, and they need to feel threatened just enough to cause an adrenaline drop. In feeling real danger, they see no way out but rely on the tools they were given, and to through full commitment by their bodies and psyches.
They do so with resolute spirit.
What they do in that context amounts to something different than what we too often see, which is technique done thoughtfully or measuredly, or worse, half-heartedly. What they do is not the same as just an expenditure of great effort, which, again, is just slashing.
The reason we don’t see cutting as often as we might hope results from many different factors. One, for example, is a failure to position oneself well enough to commit to a technique while secure in the notion that one is (momentarily) safe to do so.
More generally, slashing comes down to a lack of resolute confidence in the technique, which can itself emerge from a lack of proper practice. “Resolute spirit” emerges, at least in part, from repeated action in the context of question. In this case, martial arts technique must occur within realistic circumstance, or at least what we can closely approximate to realism when bearing safety in mind.
Those who do not know what it is to employ a technique realistically will rightfully waiver in the execution of that technique when confronted with reality.
For now, however, let me return to the point at hand, which affirms the power and importance of “resolute spirit.” One technique done with resolute spirit is worth a thousand done without. This we must never take lightly. The ability to commit oneself to a course of action does not come easily, but without it, we’ll only slash our way through our lives. With it, we gain great power, for if a nine-pound cat can chase a grown woman into a bathroom, imagine what a fully grown martial artist could accomplish. And if you cannot imagine it well enough on your own, just read up on the author of the original quotation; if anyone has ever earned the credibility to speak with authority on cutting, he’s probably the one.