Logic is often all too lacking in the martial arts. There are many challenges a martial artist will face that benefit from critical thinking -- deciding on an art to practice, finding a good teacher, deciding if a group is no longer the right one, discerning the right training path based one's personal capabilities and interests -- these are but some of the decision points a martial artist faces in their career. Given the above, is there a consistency to how we decide what to practice, what to let go, how to focus our training, and how to measure its results? Below I will speak to some traps, logical follies, that are all too common, and suggest a possible way through the maze of choices we are presented with in training in the postmodern age.
It is dangerous in martial arts to become overly self-referential in one's training. If you practice inside a closed ecosystem and never stress what you are doing, how will you understand your limitations and the limitations of your tactics and how to distinguish between them? Without that knowledge, it is hard to continue to grow past a certain journeyman level of skill. Traditionally, the role of the senior (e.g., uchitach) is to provide this critical feedback, but when on one's own, after gaining a measure of skill, how to self-evaluate becomes extremely important. This is why what we call classics in Chinese martial arts are important -- to provide a connection to the inspiration of the founder of an art, so that the art can be living inside of you, possessing you fully, instead of a dim echo of the original insight, lost through the caverns of time.
Many people practice martial arts for the feeling they get of being associated to a particular group, and while it is important to learn from skilled teachers, one also should stand by one's own skill, and not make excuses for it. A parody:
"My art is deadly, but I could not possibly spar you, as I would then be kicked out of my very elite school. We are the best swordsmen in the country and I have been training for thirty years, but I could not risk the ire of my teacher, as I am but a student of this wonderful art."
To what end, then, practice? To preserve the idea of a combative art, or the art itself? Can the art survive outside of combat? What benefits (e.g., physical, psychological, spiritual) does it bring? In something like swordsmanship, where we are divorced from the historical impetus for the art, are we simply building up our ego in aspiring to master the art?
This is all a long way to say that on one hand, it is okay to take the time to learn deep approaches to armed and unarmed combat, and serve within the rules of a group in doing so, but one should eventually also be willing to explore the approaches you believe to have mastered in some kind of stress tested environment. Starting within a group is a start, but being willing to face others is important. The only things a person loses in doing so are the preconceived notions of their skill. Doesn't that free you, instead of harm you?
Yes, it is true that we can't actually practice battlefield kenjutsu in the modern age, but we at least can get feedback on our own skill in progressively aggressive sparring. Doing this cannot be something done at scale -- once there is too large of a community involved, there will be regression to the mean, and approaches will evolve to win at specific instantiations of rules governing any set up of matches. Witness kendo, or Olympic fencing. I am not advocating that progression, but instead a willingness to work hard and experiment.
However, the idea of stress testing is a double-edged sword. It is also dangerous to become overly distracted with competing approaches to the point where you train in so many different approaches, you are effectively no longer training at all, because the efforts are not aligned, and cancel each other out as opposed to balancing or reinforcing one another. Training runs a danger of becoming irrelevant if you spend too much time switching approaches, running from shiny object to shiny object. This is where teachers can be helpful, pointing out how to approach an opponent using a different methodology, from one's own practice.
It is fair to require a practitioner obtain a level of skill before sparring freely inside a group or with colleagues who practice other martial arts. Traditionally, this was upon receipt of a menkyo, or license, suggesting a level of skill had been obtained in an art. However, today, these certifications are much harder to come by, both due to the amount of time hobbyists are able to practice and the commoditization of martial arts in terms of their forms or kata. Saying someone has completed training gives them the freedom to exist on their own, and implies to at least some extent, a loss of control of their behavior. How many people, excited about the accomplishment they have obtained, think to continue to benefit from the wisdom of more seasoned travelers on their path? How many instead think they are truly complete? How many of those have stress-tested their approach and know the strengths and limitations of their practice?
Overly philosophical, somewhat vague -- these are thoughts that come to mind as I read over the above. I want to clarify, and provide encouragement beyond simple mental wandering. It is important that our training be a crucible, forging our body, mind, and spirit under carefully designed pressure. To increase your chances for success:
- Take care to walk a path that is worth traveling. Head towards the cleanest line, even if it is the steepest.
- Seek guidance along the way: from those who have walked your path before, from those on other routes that cross your own briefly, or from unexpected places.
- Feedback, even if painful, is crucial to progress.
- Be worthy of the journey. Give more than you take -- if your focus is entirely inward, on what you can get, you may as well not have walked the path at all.
- Don't quit when difficulty ratchets up. The difficult, crux moves, are what change you.
- Every art lives in a single generation -- the current one. Don't rest only on the stories of those who came before. Strive to match or exceed them.
Can these maxims serve as a crucible of their own, lifting ourselves from the realm of pastimes to a deeper artistic endeavor, where we each have a purpose and a statement and a vision of what we want to accomplish, beyond the social circle (salon, coterie, dojo) we inhabit? Only time will tell, and then so only if we have some kind of logic or decision procedure so that we can have a chance of noticing failure from success.
If you practice more than one approach, what is the common theme that transcends the individual arts? How do the strategies align or diverge between different arts? It is all well and good to do the kata of each art correctly. One can probably succeed in doing that well enough, so that only master level practitioners can notice the influence (or contamination) of different themes. The leitmotif of Shinto-ryu in my Shinkage-ryu. Kaito affecting nagashi. Furi in turn affecting makiuchi. Is one the ura to the other's omote? How do they reinforce one another? How do they cancel? Can they be in balance? Should one be abandoned? Retained? Transformed?
Internal arts an excellent case study. For a long time I have been critical of the over simplification of identifying the dialectic of internal/external with good/bad or high-level/low-level in martial arts. There can be poor practitioners of taijiquan just as there can be good practitioners of tantui. But moving beyond that, a question is how to integrate practices into other arts, either to replace what may have been lost, or improve one's expression of the art. Doing so as a student may yield benefits (e.g., in the case of people adding body and breath training methods to their Aikido or Daito-ryu, when Ueshiba and Takeda likely used those methods in their own development) or cause harm to the art (e.g., attempting to do Katori with ideas drawn from Taiji and keeping the rapid furtive pace and large distance between uchi and shi, when those facets of Katori are in conflict with Taiji principles). A question to keep in mind, and I think often ignored, is whether by adding to a practice, you diverge so much you are no longer doing the art. The ability to shape shift mentally, keeping the body development you have (you have one body) but organizing your movement in line with a single art at a single time, may allow you to continue to advance in each practice separately, but it is a hard road to walk. If you are senior enough to be a teacher, you can simply change what you teach. If not, how long can you exist inside the confines of the structure (physical, mental, social) presented you? Do you go off on your own? When? What do you gain by doing so? What do you lose?
Another question is how to know what is compatible with ideas drawn from other sources. If, for example, reverse breathing practices are added to your art, does it change the way you cut? A glance at Jiki Shinkage-ryu versus Kashima Shinto-ryu says very much so; closer still, compare the former to Yagyu Shinkage-ryu, especially where a large number of shinai gekko kata are practiced with a very light implement. In the same spirit, compare Kashima Shinto-ryu to modern variants of Katori Shinto-ryu -- the latter having preserved possibly more sets of kata (iai, bo, naginata, yari) but evolved to place a priority on celerity, to the point of using a bokuto that is no longer representative of a sword, weighing half as much (e.g., 600g vs 1300g). How does that aesthetic choice affect the movements and assumptions of its practitioners?
I myself am in the process of striving and focusing. Striving forward to get a deeper understanding of the arts I have chosen to focus on, and focusing the teachings I practice. They each have intrinsic value but in an instant, you cut once. You do not get to pick Shinto-ryu or Shinkage-ryu or Jiki Shinkage-ryu. For me, internal martial arts is the core of my practice, so only what I am able to align with those ideas should survive the process above. All of this requires looking past individual technique and dedicating to a small set of paths.
Some final thoughts, as best as I can manage. Be the person on the cliff, taking the cleanest line, not the someone wandering around the base of the mountain, trying the beginning of a route and backing down, over and over again. Seek out the greats and benefit from their wisdom, but do so in a manner that brings a level of competency in an approach to your own being, so you are someone worthy of that experience.