As many as 7 million people practice martial arts in the U.S. This includes anything from passive and peaceful arts like Tai Chi, to extreme combat arts like MMA. People practice these arts for different reasons...improved fitness, stress reduction, flexibility, self-defense, self-discipline, and competition to name a few. These are all great things to take from the martial arts, but for those who can manage a longer stay in the “arts”, there are benefits that go much deeper and are more rewarding.
So, what is this sorcery…the secret sauce...the magical unicorn? We can use different words for it but, maybe a good one is clarity. Other words like Zen, nirvana, or enlightenment tend to make many people squirm. Most Americans look at these as some flaky mysticism, or proverbial snake oil. A good portion of martial artist in the west don’t get it and, in many cases, they don’t want to get it. They can invest a good portion of their lives to training in the martial arts and completely miss this critical aspect of development.
Over time, dedicated training should help us develop the ability to minimize distractions, noise, confusion, and drama in our lives. We can become more aware of our surroundings, more aware of ourselves, more aware of others, and of the world as a whole. The longer we train the more aware we become. Eventually, we can more clearly see important things about ourselves, and what is truly important in our lives, in our community, and in the world.
Martial arts training can also be empowering. Learning strategies that neutralize aggression can make students feel more secure about themselves. Often people refer to this as building “confidence” but, this can easily be confused with, or even cultivated as a type of arrogance. This should be avoided at all costs!
Slipping into a contrived confidence will not only make us an annoying character that few people will want to be around, but will also sabotage any progress or real understanding of the deeper levels of art we’re practicing. REAL confidence is the ability to stay relaxed and focused in all situations. It is believing in yourself, but staying humble. We want to be genuinely comfortable with being grounded and based in truth. This mentality will help us keep a pragmatic understanding of how our art functions in reality.
We should also learn to “live in the moment.” This principle trains us to focus on what’s happening now, and not be distracted by what has happened or might happen. Letting go of the past is important, because we can’t change the past. We can only learn from it. Worrying about the future will rob us of a happy present and, ironically, distract us from planning our actual future effectively! Focusing on our present allows us to perform better and experience more fully whatever we do...whether its our work, sports, recreation or just relaxing.
With better awareness, genuine confidence, and the ability to focus on the present its much easier to have a more positive outlook on life. We learn to minimize negativity, and focus on the positive aspects of our lives. We are free to think more clearly and make sound decisions. We can intelligently build and tailor our lives in a way that makes us and the people around us happy. We can learn to be truly relaxed and enjoy ourselves more.
Often times, students will gain clarity about what they really want out of life, and make some major changes. They may go back to college, they change jobs, they move to a different area, they start a family, etc. Sometimes they actually stop training as a result of these changes, without realizing that the “arts” helped them arrive at the new understanding of themselves. This is still a good thing and, when this happens, instructors and friends can still feel good that the student is happier and improving their life.
Essentially, the martial arts unicorn is about living a long, productive and happy life. Its being a leader in the community for being helpful and kinder to others. Its being less angry, frustrated, hostile and confrontational. Its about being comfortable socially and not afraid of other people or groups. It’s stability during the inevitable peaks and valleys on the roller-coaster of life. It’s being able to adapt to changes moment to moment, day to day, and year to year. Its inner peace and harmonizing with our world.
We will all experience good and bad times and, eventually, our lives will end. Being able to enjoy or at least endure these things well will improve the quality of our lives, as well as that of those around us.