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.
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