When Are You a Martial Artist?

More than a belt

Once you begin to study martial arts, when are you a martial artist? Do you qualify after your first introductory class? Or are you a martial artist after you enroll in a school and become an active student? Maybe you are not a martial artist until you learn a few techniques well. Do you have to take your first test? Are you a martial artist when you reach green belt?                And, of course, all black belts are martial artists, aren’t they?

This is a difficult question. An easier question is, “When do you think that you are a martial artist?” To answer the question, we must examine the true meaning of being a real martial artist. Frankly, most people believe the moment is when they put on the uniform. Becoming a martial artist, however, requires much more than wearing a uniform. Participating in exercise fitness classes, throwing punches and kicks to the latest pop music doesn’t makeyou a martial artist either.  Neither will you become a martial artist by training with bouncers and bodyguards, cagematch bullies, and bad-tempered tough guys capable of pounding someone into dust.

Are you collecting techniques or perfecting the details?

The aim in this topic is not to give a definitive answer to the question of when you become a real martial artist. Instead, the intent is to offer ideas that encourage you to think about your practice. After years of serious study, you will begin to profoundly understand what it means to be a martial artist.

In the beginning of your practice, no matter the style or discipline, you learn basic techniques. Basic techniques are the building blocks or foundation of the system. Through continuous repetition of the basics, you will become a technician. Adding intermediate or even advanced techniques to your repertoire does not make you an artist. You simply become a technician with more tools. Many people develop habits of consciously or unconsciously collecting new techniques. Indeed, learning new techniques is exciting…new punches, new kicks, and new forms. But, you must learn to enjoy the basics.  In order to develop the essence of the art, you must learn to concentrate on the details.              As you practice, ask yourself, “Is my hand right?        Am I striking with the right surface?        Am I relaxed until the moment of focus? Did I drive through my target? Did I recover quickly? Is my stance right?”

Perfecting all the details is an important aspect of the art. After all, a student who has practiced more than five years should know, not only more techniques, but his basic skills should be better than one who has practiced for only a year. A student of ten years should have even better basics than one who has practiced for five years…after twenty years, better still.

Martial arts…not martial arts

Two words describe our practice: ‘Martial’ and ‘arts’. The definition of the first word, ‘martial’, is certain. The meaning is, “of, pertaining to, or suggesting war,” and unfortunately describes the prevalent view of martial arts. Today, most people relate martial arts to violence of some sort. We usually ignore or forget the second word, ‘art,’ in the context of martial arts. Art suggests spontaneous creativity, a changing of consciousness, beauty and elegance. Art inspires us and adds to our life.

Martial arts or fighting?

So what distinguishes martial arts from any other violence and fighting techniques performed since the beginning of time?  Martial arts began in the sixth century with Tamo Bodidharma, a Shaolin monk. In a simple monastery in Hunan Province, China, Tamo realized that martial techniques, if practiced with the correct mindset, could be used for much more than just self-defense. Tamo pushed the monks to challenge themselves to greater heights, forcing them to break through limitations and develop their bodies in remarkable ways. By concentrating to master difficult physical moves, students learned to better focus their minds.  More importantly, they cultivated powerful discipline and will, which changed their self-image. The earlier picture of simple monks, overweight and lethargic, transformed to one of acutely focused individuals, living up to their personal convictions and beliefs. Under the guidance of Tamo Bodidharma, these first practitioners integrated deep introspection, meditation and physical techniques to create a complete practice that is now known as martial arts.

Bringing ancient principles into modern life

By practicing martial arts, as those monks did so long ago, you also begin to realize your own power in life. Diligently practicing the art, you change your self-image, becoming more confident in all situations. You see yourself as strong willed and focused. You know that you are mentally tough, and able to overcome obstacles and achieve goals. A           real martial artist is a martial artist in and outside of the dojo. You do not become a superman or superwoman, never hesitating or fearing anything, but rather a person of discipline, fully conscious and aware of all thoughts, feelings, emotions, moods and actions. In all moments, you maintain control, or at the very least, you are able to regain control of yourself quickly.

Don’t think so much

Artists use the term “blocked,” to describe periods when they are unable to move forward. Writers can’t write, painters can’t paint, and musicians cannot compose. This block usually comes from an overwhelming or nagging pressure originating in the mind. Uncontrolled thoughts manifest as self-talk such as, “I used to be creative, but I fear that I’ll never have another good idea. I don’t feel inspired-what if people don’t like what I do? What if I fail?” As a martial artist executing a form, you might tell your- self, “Everyone is watching, don’t screw up. Here comes the hard part. Wow, I did that really well!” During sparring, your inner dialogue might consist of anticipating your partner’s moves and planning how you will respond. “A back fist is coming next…he always throws a back fist after this technique. Here comes a roundhouse kick…as soon as he moves, I’ll hit him,” and so on and so on.  The inner chatter constantly flows, so we must deliberately train our minds to slow down and stay in the moment.

Surrender to your practice

Our desire to perform or produce excellence is precisely what inhibits our art. If you are concerned with ‘it’        coming from you, then you are not able to get out of the way and let ‘it’              happen. For ‘it’ to come, you must become a spectator of your performance, rather than merely focusing on the outcome. How does one reach the state of being and not doing? Ueshiba Sensei said, “Let spirit flow through you.” You must learn to meditate deeply, clearing the mind of all thought, and remain still. Only then are you able to bring a calm peaceful state into your practice. By keeping the mind calmly active and actively calm, the artist responds, rather than anticipates. The artist harmonizes and does not force. Art comes without effort. Surrender to the practice, without judgment, and just be.

Changing consciousness

A Zendo (a place where the philosophy of Zen is shared) inspires change of consciousness, but does not teach martial application. Self-defense teaches martial application, but does not change consciousness. Real martial arts taught in a dojo (a place of enlightenment) uses martially effective techniques to teach self-defense and to change consciousness. The Japanese tea ceremony, performed correctly, produces a fine cup of tea in the end, but the primary aim is to inspire one to be more mindful…to experience life fully, moment by moment.

In that moment when you are a martial artist, spirit is flowing through you, raising your consciousness.  Strive to stay in that state, consciously and consistently, throughout life.

The art through you…not from you

A martial artist understands and consistently uses the principles, both physical and mental, of his art to raise consciousness and increase mindfulness in every act. With great compassion and humility, a martial artist recognizes that the art comes through him but not from hindrance, he has but one job: To remove himself. Bruce Lee said, “Let it happen.”

So, can one simply proclaim that he is a martial artist and thus become one? Or are we only martial artists, when we learn to get out of the way and allow the practice to transform us?

A student asked a great master, “Sir, do you know martial arts? The master responded, “No, I study martial arts, and when I am still, it flows through me.”

Remember that you cannot skip steps. All great artists of any discipline were first great technicians. After years of dedication, unceasingly perfecting their skill, and learning to still their mind, art found them.