In my decades in the arts I have noticed a paradigm in training that many students encounter. This is the point where great doubt arises in their art and in their true abilities. This is the point in your study where you get tested outside of the normal confines of your style, in other words, the real world. Your opponent doesn’t fight like you nor does he care about the way you do things. When we only train within our own styles and communities we are not exposed to many real world possibilities. We have many theories about what to do and how to do as was taught to us by our teachers but when it is put to the test it can be quite traumatic. Often we find that what we thought would work will not. Sometimes this is after years of study that we find ourselves in this predicament. So you practice your style and then someone whom you expect to easily defeat trounces you without effort: what do you do? You thought you were good and could handle it and your training in your school seemed to confirm this to you. You have the belts and trophies but this person had no trouble beating you; how,why, what now? What went wrong?
I’ve seen one of three reactions from students when faced with this dilemma. The first is they feel cheated and lied to and that their art didn’t work and they quit. I’ve seen people leave an art after ten years of study because they think it failed them. Maybe it did or maybe they didn’t get it, it’s hard to tell. I will tell you that in my experience what is taught in many schools in no way mirrors real world violence; is it based on the theory of what would happen. It is based on orderly fighting and obvious technique. One thing I have seen many times is when an art trains against boxers. Often what happens is that one student claims to have some boxing experience and then they practice that technique against the style. It is not real boxing; it is their idea of what they think boxing is. I was in a dojo observing with a real boxer once and when the karate class ended the instructor then taught a boxing class. Both the boxer and I were stunned at what he was doing; it was horrible boxing with no foundation. The students here thought they were training against the real thing. If they ever met a real boxer they would be stunned at the ferocity of it. Where we trained in Philadelphia we were not far from Joe Frazier’s gym. There was no shortage of finding skilled boxers who would like to try their technique against you, it’s a humbling experience. Also I have spent decades around the pro boxers while working for HBO, Showtime and ESPN fights so I see the real all the time. The first time I went against a real boxer he knocked me down in less than a minute. I remember thinking, ‘this guy is doing nothing but trying to hurt me, no defense at all, he just wants to get me”. He did. The good thing is that I was taught to respect boxing and to be ready for it. This made me rethink my approach to everything in the art. I was quite depressed by it all but I carried on. If, however, you were to think that you should easily beat this attacker and you don’t, then you have a crisis; what went wrong, I was told this would work. So often the reaction is to give up and move on.
The second reaction I see is the ‘spiritual denial’ mode. This is where the student thinks that if they were spiritually more in tune they would have done better. Rather than immerse themselves more in the physical and practical they turn toward what they think is spiritual and practice the so called inner techniques. It is their belief that one day with enough spiritual training they will be able to fight. Do you hear of this in any other physical sport? Tennis? Soccer? Nope! The martial arts have their only little niche in reality. I truly hope these folks never get in a real confrontation because help does not descend from the heavens.
The last reaction, and the most uncommon, is there is a crisis of the art, a crumbling of the foundation and a reconstruction into the real. In this case the student, being utterly defeated and humiliated, doesn’t give up on the art but gives up on their grasp of it. They realize there is something drastically wrong with either their practice or the art itself. The deeply question their view of the world and the art. They turn their deep self doubt into deep self inquiry; what can I do to get better? What works in this situation? They are willing to be completely humbled and to start over with no self deception. In this case this student is the one that will truly grow, learn and excel. They give up on their self image and self fulfillment and can see beyond their desires and pride. They are willing to accept what they do not know and to approach it fully and sincerely. If you arrive here you will develop a keen eye and a sharp awareness. You will not cling to concepts and theory but immerse yourself in the real. This is very liberating as it allows you to see yourself in relation to everything else, strengths and weaknesses, without ego and self deception. As the great sage Harry Callahan once said, “A man has got to know his limitations”. It is here where real humility begins because you know you can always be beaten, that no one is invincible. From this point you realize that fighting is always a last resort for all reason has failed. You engage because you have to, not because you want to but you enter into it fully realizing what it is.
On more than one occasion while speaking to individuals who have never attended my classes I have heard the comment, “Well, your school is known for brawling…”. I am always surprised to hear this because there is no brawling at all in my classes and it is not allowed. I expect respect and friendship between all students and accept nothing less. Nobody wants to go to class to get hurt and I don’t want that either. So where does this idea come from? Well, that I can explain. I am vehement about the practical and real time application of this art. I have no fantasies about how really ugly a true fight is and I don’t want any student of mine to have that illusion. Forms and drills are fine and perhaps fun but they do little to prepare you for a real and violent confrontation. Many schools are more concerned with learning a routine rather than learning a true skill. They want you to believe the technique will work when the time comes rather than proving it before hand.
Whenever I have a new student I tell them how and why I teach. What I do can be summed up in this example: If I teach you a song on guitar you can only play that song. If I teach you one hundred songs you can only play those songs as learned and remembered. You are, in fact, not playing the guitar but reciting songs you learned. They are not yours and you cannot openly and freely express yourself on the instrument. If I just handed you the guitar and said, “Now play” what would you do? Most likely you’d recite a song to me.
I have many friends who are amazing musicians. I was with a friend who had a young daughter that was an skilled classical pianist for her age. Her mom told me she played the piano like my friends do and that she would play for me. I agreed to listen and she sat down to play but I walked over and took the music off the stand. She looked at me and said, “I don’t know how much I can play by memory”. I asked if she could just play the piano, what she felt. She looked at me perplexed and I gave her back the music. Afterwards I pulled her mother aside and said, “she is great at playing those songs but she does not know the piano”. She was great at reciting songs, very impressive, but without the music she was lost. She played the songs, not the piano.
Now on the other hand if you learn the basics of music, chord structure and scales on piano or whatever, you can now play any song that comes to mind because you know the root from which they arise. It makes sense to you, it becomes your native language rather than one you are struggling to articulate. You are now playing and not reciting songs, you can create as you go. When I teach kung fu I teach the foundation behind it, exactly why you are doing it, how it connects to the body and how it is expressed in power. I teach the physics and the body mechanics so when you are away from me you can work on it yourself, test it and correct it. You are not reciting what I taught but putting it into motion, making it real. There is no trust or belief that one day it will blossom and work, you will know from the onset if it will or if you are on the right path. I don’t want students to believe in the art, I want them to know it. The only way to know it is to practice and apply it. You cannot learn to swim standing next to a pool and you can’t learn to swim in the ocean by only swimming in a pool. To each its own nature.
Once another SPM school invited one of my students to work out with them at their place. He was a very nice, well mannered and good man. After warm ups they broke into pairs and were practicing blocking techniques. He lined up with a partner, asked if he were ready and started punching. The fellow he was working out with jumped back in horror and said, “Hey, you’re trying to punch me!” My student was completely perplexed by this statement and replied, “Of course I am, you are practicing blocking punches!” Well, this did not go over well at all because it was too real. He never touched the guy and was a complete gentleman. The teacher in this school called me to complain about the ‘thug’ I sent over there. Really? I find this insane. Imagine a Navy Seal in training saying to his DI “Yo, this water is too cold and rough Sarge, I’m not going in.” That would be his last day in the Seals. The guy on the streets is not doing a routine with you, he is trying to hurt you. You must practice for this onslaught.
Please think about this; can you practice lifting weights without lifting weights? You can do all the form you want but when you get the weight in your hand it takes an entirely different set of skills to move it. Besides what the muscles and bones contribute to lifting there is also the tendons and ligaments. If you do not do this correctly you will not only not be able to lift it but you will hurt yourself. A real punch coming at you is the same thing. It feels different and each puncher has a different way of attacking. There is size and weight difference along with variables of technique or, worse, no technique. When you practice with organized and repetitive straight punches you will have no idea how to handle a crazed puncher who comes at you like an egg beater. These things can be practiced without getting hurt but these things cannot be learned without practice. Why do martial artists think that waving their hands in the air or doing a prescribed routine prepares them for the real? I cannot think of another discipline that does this. Would you get into a car driven by someone who only learned on the computer?
I know that many teachers like to teach dozens of different hands and their subtleties but I have a different view of this. The subtleties of 100 hand technique are not worth the effectiveness of one good hand technique. Better that you do the fundamentals extremely well than have collected a thousand techniques. A sixty story building is only as good as the foundation. This is why I teach the way I do. No one gets hurt here but no one gets fooled into thinking there’s magic techniques and no one is forced to do anything they don’t want to do. If they want just the art form, fine, if not, better.
There is great misunderstanding of kung fu that I often hear. A teacher will say, “A truly great master knows that when the need arises his skill will arise to meet it”. This is total nonsense. If you have not trained and honed this skill it is not going to show up in a sudden flash. None of the Eight Immortals is going to descend upon you to help you but the Eight Thugs will descend upon you to hurt you. It’s about practice not belief. Belief is a problem.
As I have previously stated believing in a technique and having that technique actually work are two different things. There is a line of thought in the so called ‘soft arts’ that one day the techniques will just blossom, like those cactus flowers that bloom every 30 years, and all will be revealed to you. I’ve met folks who have practiced an art for decades yet still cannot really use it. They tell me about their master who can and one day it will present itself to them. Can you imagine studying any other discipline and not being able to use it after 10 years? Whether you’re a carpenter, a plumber, a musician or a doctor wouldn’t you expect to be pretty good after years of training? I would yet there are many folks who are waiting for that magic moment when it will happen.
Their practice is not about empirical observation and application; it is about believing that one day it will work. This is such pie in the sky thinking and I see it everywhere in “Eastern” arts as taught in the US. I have not seen people in the East so much think this way but do in the West. It is really a dangerous way to think and truly counter productive.
A fellow once came to my class to observe. I asked him if he wanted to practice with us and he declined and explained to me that he knew that if he ever really needed to defend himself or his girlfriend that the ability would arise. He said that his faith in himself and God was so great that he knew beyond shadow of any doubt he could do this. I told him that I hoped he was right. He watched us practice for a while and was getting a bit worked up. I had a large 120 lb bag in the center of the room that was not well tethered. At one point he just shouted, “I‘ll show you“and attacked the bag with flailing limbs. Somehow he managed to hit it in such a way that it tilted down and came back up and caught him under the jaw lifting him off the ground and flinging him across the room on his back. It was a very funny moment but also a very embarrassing moment for him. We managed not to laugh but I wanted to say, “So how did your faith work out against the bag”. I was not cruel enough to do that. He left rather defeated.
He believed he could fight but in reality he could not.
I have traveled the world over the last few years and spent that time with many world class Muay Thai fighters and MMA fighters. I’ve spent decades around professional boxers and their trainers and with all of these folks I’ve never seen a hint of the faith based ideas of many martial artists. They all know that it is training and practice in real time that develops skill; nothing more, nothing less.
More importantly the way you train dictates the way the brain handles it. If you do not drill it to your core it remains a cognitive function, there is no reflex. When attacked the cognitive part of the brain freezes and the fight or flight mechanism takes over. If you have not trained so that your brain is tuned to its core you are lost. Many times I’ve met people that have trained for years and feel they’ve got it inside them. At times I will spontaneously step into them and shout. The vast majority of the time they will cower and back up and not display any martial skills. A few will react strongly and appropriately but most will not. They were not taught effectively.
It is extremely important in practice to pull it into your core. The Chinese have called this ‘thinking with your spine’. There has been recent scientific proof that this, in fact, is what happens. They took a pro hockey goalie and wired him up to see what happens when he reacts to pucks coming to him at high rates of speed. To their astonishment his brain did not register the activity; it went to his spine and back to his limbs but not his brain. He was blocking them with his core being and not his cognitive being. Faith exists in the cognitive. Without thought there is no faith.
To truly master and art you must lose the art, become the art.
There is a famous story about a student of Samurai that had practiced and practiced. He had great skill with sword, staff and shield. His teacher would not pass him as a master Samurai and failed him over and over again. He had mastered every technique with these weapons but to no avail. He could not see why his Sensei would not pass him. His teacher demoted him to be a cook and the poor student reluctantly went about his kitchen duties. After a long time at this one night the teacher burst into his kitchen and attacked him with his sword as he bent over the cauldron. The student reacted paring the sword with the cauldron lid and smacked the teacher with the ladle knocking him down. The teacher arose with a huge smile on his face and said, “Now you are a Samurai!” The student had become the true Samurai beyond the attachment to sword and shield. It had reached his core being beyond techniques and cognition. Tai toku!
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