A reflection on the Martial Arts

There are times when I regret my decision to stop training.  Not because I believe it was wrong, mind you, but there is a hole in my schedule now which used to be occupied, and there’s something to be said for that.  Some nights, adrenalin will hit me without apparent cause and bring me to considerations which have no bearing on my present life, to the detriment of sleep or whatever other task I am engaged in.  I might not have ever been good at it, but it meant something to me, and I was committed.  With that in mind, I can’t help but think back on my experiences and examine what they mean to me now, after they are gone.

On past occasions, I have spoken ill of eastern martial arts.  In any categorical sense, this is innapropriate.  There is also a risk of being accused of hypocrisy.  My own training has only ever been in eastern traditional martial arts.  This is a good place to start then.  My admiration for western and mixed martial arts stems not from first hand experience with them, but from my philosophical background.  In their practice, and in the rhetoric and argument of their practitioners, I saw and heard something which felt like the spirit of critical rationalism.  It was this observation which first led me to begin training seriously roughly a year ago.  Entering an introductory class at Front Range Community College, I tried to take some of this philosophical background with me.

When I was punched, I took this to be refutation.  An argument to the effect that I was dropping my right hand, for example, or leading with my face.  This felt like the proper approach.  However, in order to be consistently scientific, such an approach to training would have to abstain from limiting the scope of “arguments” it permitted.   In TKD at least, this was not the case.  That is not to say that I learned nothing.  Far from it.  I was entirely ignorant of a great many things before pursing training.  My own tendency towards blanket aggression, for example, which made me predictable, prevented the use of sound technique, and interfered with my thinking.  After training for what, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t very long at all, I have learned a lot.  Very little of that is in positive knowledge.  I can say with a great deal more precision what things I am still ignorant about.  It is not a small list.

I am not attempting to speak ill of my instructors either.  Without fail, they were good people: attentive, helpful, and knowledgeable, willing to offer support whenever it was needed, often perceptive, and carrying strong senses of personal responsibility, discipline, and duty.  However, in their own way, they were also dogmatic.  It is not that they forbid learning, or even that they thought themselves to have reached the ends of knowledge.  Instead, the dogmatism lay at the edges of what was demarcated as the formal system being learned.  What lay outside of these boundaries was in many ways significant.

Of course there are a number of possible justifications for this, many of them good.  It is not very useful trying to teach things one does not know, that is certain.  My TKD training also came with a tacit admission by my instructor that it was wholly inadequate when faced with any competent system of grappling.  Therefore it was not strongly or wilfully dogmatic.  Just the same, progression of knowledge in the classroom consisted entirely of observing the techniques performed and then comparing them with the tenets of the art.  In that fashion, the solution to any given problem was always treated as if it was contained in the original teachings of the art.  There was no science to it, just philosophy.

Of course, the origins of propositions are of no consequence so long as they are tested, and to an extent (wherein techniques represent propositions and theory represents their origins) they were.  A limited extent.  These limitations consisted not simply of what techniques could be performed, but how or with what intensity they could be performed.  Again, there is a possible justification for this.  One which I very unfortunately had to learn about first hand before I appreciated.  Twice.  Yet these limitations, constructed in a way that prohibits the use of effective technique, limit the growth of knowledge (technique).  Admittedly, since martial arts are an activity, they do not necessarily need to pursue any ultimate truth; in this case, which technique, strategy, or collection therein is most effective; they can simply be a sport.  Yet even within the context of sport, this approach presents problems.

When I was sparring competitively, I consciously limited myself because I had seen first hand what I could do when I failed to do this.  Therefore, I was acting within the limitations I had been given, and for reasons I agreed with.  My opponent did not similarly limit himself.  Despite receiving warnings and penalties for this decision, he nonetheless won the match without much difficulty.  I erred on the side of caution, he erred on the side of effectiveness.  Of course he won.  A technique which is effective in the martial arts has a tendency to produce effects which prohibit the opponent from utilizing their own techniques.  This is what happened.

It was at that time that I realized I could not practice the martial art as a sport.  It put me in a dangerous position.  On the one hand was the risk of injuring others, and on the other was the threat of athletic incompetence.  I could not err on the side of effectiveness after witnessing what effectiveness looked like, and realizing that my sparring partners had not signed up with an appreciation of the possibility of these consequences.  However, if the result of that was to be incapable of competing, then no profit remained in my training.  It was idle motion.

I realize this may be taken as apocryphal, given the context, but I once attended a special sparring session where one of the masters of my art was instructing.  Due to the nature of the class, and the predictable distribution of belt levels by age group, I was sparring with red and black belts.  Their physical conditioning gave them resilience and none of them expressed any trouble with my intensity.  My own instructor at various times reminded me of my commitment, however.  When sparring was over and everyone was leaving, the master passed me by on a stairwell.  “You did good” he said.  “Thank you” I said, accidentally forgetting the sir (not out of willful disrespect or because I wasn’t raised that way.  Rather, because I was raised that way and therefore by force of habit I tend to omit it.)  “But my instructor tells me I hit too hard.”  “Oh who cares” he said.  That was the end of our conversation.

It’s a good question.  Unfortunately, I think I have to admit guilt on that count.  The truth of that admission, that I am not capable of mustering any aggression in classroom settings under good faith, puts me in a situation I’m not comfortable with.  I tried Judo briefly as well.  It hurt very consistently, which to me served as solid confirmation of its effectiveness.  The practitioners there, with the exception of me, were also built much more resiliently.  Two other things happened at about this time though.  First, my income became inconsistent.  Second, I read Atlas Shrugged and it convinced me to pursue HRT and transition.  Maybe that second part seems confusing to some people.  It could warrant its own discussion.  The point is, my decision introduced another difficulty.  I cannot train in any art with great intensity when I know that there are people who would gladly kill me over this matter if given the opportunity.  Signing up for any martial arts training means signing a waiver which, among other things, limits liability in the instance of serious injury or death.

So in addition to my own reservations about so much as hurting others, and my dislike of any sport which puts me at odds with myself, I also have my own safety to consider.  Maybe when I start generating a steady income again I will begin training firearms.  It is a small consolation.  The sport aspects of that area of self-defense seem less interesting than those of the martial arts, although surprisingly, the reservations I have dissappear as well.

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~ by Kilroy del Dancefighter Estallion the First on December 4, 2009.

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