A lot of people are surprised when I tell them that I don’t get off on hurting others.
They’re also skeptical when I say they don’t need to love violence to join a martial art.
In conversation I never debate if martial arts are violent (they are) or if there are violent martial artists (there are). Instead I suggest that you needn’t be driven by bloodlust to get extraordinary value out of training.
Unfortunately, in the world we live in, violence can be thrust on us at any given moment. Whether we like it or not, we can find ourselves in altercations, scrapes, and even life-threatening situations. The two options we have are to depend on the ability of others to help us (like police, security, etc) and to prepare ourselves as best as possible.
In feudal era Japan, a lot of martial art activity involved the desire to kill. A Samurai often increased his status and the prestige of his sword style by dispatching other worthy opponents. This became even more prevalent after the Warring States Period (when most soldiers and Samurai had constant conflict to worry about as opposed to focusing on duels).
Nowadays the closest thing we have (thankfully) is Ultimate Fighting. Martial arts are still a tool of war, just ask the marine corp, but they are also a method of civilian self defense. The shift has been made from glory-through-killing to life preservation.
I’m tempted to liken our situation as civilian martial artists to that of the old Okinawans. The Okinawans were simple farmers, fisherman, etc who developed karate and kobudo as a means to defend themselves with what they had: farming tools and their wits. If a ronin or pirate were to start trouble in their village, the Karateka did what he had to do to eliminate that threat.
I’m tempted to compare us to them – but it’s not the same. The Okinawan Karateka were civilians, policemen, judges, doctors, and spiritual guides all rolled up into one. We are civilians through-and-through and have a deluge of laws to live by. Although I feel as strongly as anyone that we must do all we can to protect ourselves and the ones we love, there are gradations to violence and repercussions that we have to face.
So What Are We?
We are law abiding individuals who realize that the severity of life and death still plays a roll in our lives. Guns make the line of survival only a hairsbreadth wide. That’s not a comforting thought, but what can we do? We can’t pack heat all the time – even gun enthusiasts with licenses to conceal can be caught unawares or unprepared. What we do have is martial arts and they are just as crucial for people who abhor violence as those that love it.
One thing that does concern me is the amount of individuals I hear talking about how much they love to fight/spar, and what a thrill it is to knock someone out. Of course I understand the feeling of empowerment a good technique or strike can give, but I don’t believe causing aggressive dysfunction in another person’s body should be thrilling, nor should it inspire unwarranted confidence in ability. The most effectively violent practitioners I have met are also the most reserved. Their abilities have to be used with care and control in a realistic environment. If that sounds like a tough mixture to obtain – care and control plus realistic aggression – it is. Damn tough, but worth it.
I think a lot of people (including myself) ask themselves from time to time – am I the right kind of person to be studying a combat art? Shouldn’t it be left to someone bigger, tougher, stronger, better?
The answer is no – you need to train and the rest of us need you to train. The people in command of any given situation need to be those that understand and respect violence; those that can use it, but don’t want to. In a world that can snatch everything away quicker than a heartbeat, it is up to each of us to do our best to persevere.
Train if the thought of violence unsettles you – train harder if it makes you shudder.
Last weekend I had the opportunity to hike the Glen Onoko Falls Trail with my GF FoxyCitrus. Onoko Falls is located in the charming little town of Jim Thorpe, named after the famous multi-talented athlete.
The thing that makes this hike so special is the level of difficulty and, of course, the water. As opposed to most trails that have very well established paths for bikes, walking, horses, etc, the Onoko Falls is as much of a climb as it is a walk.
The trail is very untampered with and climbers are expected to be resourceful. I’ve hiked Onoko twice, and the last time one of my companions wore flipflops. Sadly she didn’t make it to the top, where the best waterfalls are found (not that she died, she just couldn’t manage the climbing).
For a peek at the falls in action, check out this video (not taken by me, but still nice):
and here is a good picture for a sense of scale:
Takishugyo at the Top
As I tend to do, I tried to slip just a little bit of martial arts into the trip. No, I didn’t break out into spontaneous kata, making everyone around me uncomfortable. What I did do was indulge in the practice known as Takishugyo.
“Taki”, meaning waterfall, and “shugyo” meaning intense training, is the practice of spirit strengthening by stepping underneath the crashing waters of a fall.
Takishugyo can be used in a few different ways. The first is as an ablution, or cleansing of the spirit. This is most often found in the buddhist religion and was/is often conducted by priests. The waters are said to cleanse away the impurities acrued by the spirit.
Another aspect of Takishugyo is meditation. This is done by certain Zen sects and martial arts groups, including some karate and aikido practitioners (and possibly others, but I don’t know).
As a meditative tool, Takishugyo challenges the practitioner to overcome fierce external stimuli and focus completely on the self. The freezing cold water shocks the body out of its normal state of complacence and invokes many autonomic reactions including gasping, muscle tension, and flight response.
It is the practitioner’s goal to feel and understand these reactions and to move past them. (To learn more, click here).
Here is a good, quick example of a priest partaking in proper Takishugyo:
He’s pretty old and the waterfall is coming down hard. You have to respect that kind of commitment.
For me personally – I placed the term “Takishugyo” in quotations in my post title because what I did at Onoko was not really correct by any means. I’ve never had formal training from a Zen or Buddhist practitioner. I’ve done my research, but I do not consider myself a real practitioner. However, that being said, I did go for it and got to experience the shocking stimuli of the event for myself.
Whoa! is all I can say. I’m not sure I’ve ever had my train of thought erased so quickly. The speed, impact, sound,and sheer cold of the water caught and held my attention (to say the least). As a novice I decided to stay under for about 45 seconds as extended exposure can be dangerous. To quote the shugendo website: “The brain secretes a hormone that shrinks the size of the arteries when your head is exposed to extreme cold. If it is exuded in large quantities this hormone can cause diameter of the arteries to shrink violently and can result in a stroke or other brain damage! In addition the cold water of winter can provoke a drop in core temperature of the body that can be deadly(hypothermia or heart attack!) Therefore it should only be practiced with competent persons that transmitted to you the tradition.”
It may not have been winter, but it sure was cold.
Would I recommend it?
Yes, absolutely. But be safe. Have someone around to “spot” you and, if you can, be trained in the practice properly. Takishugyo is a fun, exciting test of courage that can teach you about yourself. At the very least if you are dwelling on something and need to reboot your brain…takishugyo will get it done in a hurry.
We often hear about breath control in the martial arts and how important it can be. Proper regulation of exhalation and inhalation can help a practitioner strengthen their technique, defend their body from attack, and center their mind on the objective at hand. Truly breath control is critical to becoming a skilled practitioner.
Less talked about is spirit control. It’s unfortunate that in an equal arc of body-mind-spirit, one component can be overlooked so readily.
What is Meant By Spirit Respiration?
Spirit, in the martial context, refers to a strength of character and personal “being”. Will, confidence, determination, and fortitude are all pieces of this larger concept. Spirit respiration is the cyclical rising and falling of spirit throughout our day to day lives. For instance:
There are certain times when we need great strength of will to persevere. Examples can be as monumental as childbirth or as menial as a grinding day at work.
Other times we feel as if we are gaining strength and resolve. Some catalysts for this could be a good night’s sleep, a promotion, or even an unexpected compliment.
It is this constant flux that creates spirit respiration – in and out, in and out, autonomously without our conscious control.
The Dangers of Bad “Breathing”
Consider breath again for a moment: if you exhale too much, you become weak. The body cannot sustain itself for long after the initial push. If you inhale too much, the body becomes weak. The oxygen begins to deplete and the body needs to expel the toxins brought in with the oxygen. It is only through the repetitious inhale and exhale that breath powers the body.
Much in the same way, the spirit cannot be pushed too far one way or the other.
If you must constantly exert yourself, the power of spirit breaks down with no chance to regain itself. This is often seen when soldiers come back from difficult wartime. They’ve spent so much energy and concentration on survival and completing their missions that long term (even permanent) damage can be done.
On the contrary, some people who spend their lives getting their ego inflated with compliments, easy success, and luxury soon become poisoned by it. They turn to destructive behavior and habits to try and expend that energy.
Without the flux of good energy coming in and the healthy release of effort and will, people cannot sustain themselves to their maximum capacity.
The Dojo and Spirit Respiration
Regular breathing and spirit “breathing” occur all the time, but it is in the dojo that we can learn to understand and maximize the potential of the two. Some people wonder why ‘crazy’ martial artists put themselves through rigorous training week after week. And when the martial artist tries to explain it, they are often at a loss. After all, there are thousands of easier and more quickly rewarded hobbies out there.
What many martial artists feel but can’t put into words is the satisfaction of effort. In a civilized society, there are few quests to be undertaken. There is no way to travel from town to town, testing your skill and proving your mettle. There is an inherent part of the human condition that wants to test limits, to see how far we can push ourselves. The martial arts are one of the last proving grounds of that human spirit.
Unfortunately, all too often people get caught up in their own enthusiasm and don’t realize that they are “exhaling” too much. The martial arts can be a rush and it is easy to overtrain. When this happens, burnout quietly sneaks up and takes ahold of an otherwise great practitioner. Someone who was training 5 nights a week for 2 years will suddenly realize that their will to continue is gone, and they will be gone.
That’s why it’s critical to find ways to “inhale”. Many traditional dojo would have tough workouts, but they would also have times of meditation. They would quietly sit and listen to stories from the Sensei about years past and martial arts theory. They would take serene walks through undisturbed nature.
Unfortunately, with everybody having less and less time to inhale and more time required to exhale, there is an off-balancing occurring. This is true both in day-to-day life as jobs are demanding more hours, and in dojo life as classes are being squeezed in with just enough time to practice techniques and then run off to the next task.
However you decide to do it, find time to inhale. Find what it is that fills you, and use the dojo to its fullest potential.