The Moral Center of Martial Arts: Emotions, Beliefs, and Spirituality.

When people talk about the martial arts, most of what I hear is how cool this move was, or that kick, or how flexible or physically skilled so and so was in their competition.  Training to hit, kick, take down, and otherwise incapacitate someone is the basic premise of martial arts.  Necessity being the mother of invention means she birthed warrior training, and for obvious reasons.

Every tradition has it’s own methods of combat and weapons use.  But, all of these styles come from the same need for an efficient way to harm or kill someone.  The key points of combat are the same in modern military training, find the most efficient way to take someone down.  Those of us who train in traditional arts, and are not necessarily in the military, are carrying on the essence of combat but without the actual maiming or killing (that is unless we are attacked and need to use our training in self-defense).  Rather, we are, or should be, focused on self-development.

Self-development mostly involves the inner person, our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and beliefs.  Sure, the body develops muscles and flexibility, but the mind develops new neural pathways with training.  I’d wager that 70 percent of any physical training takes place in the brain.

The samurai developed schools of training according to whatever the need was in their region.  Battles were primarily fought with katana and other swords, so hundreds of sword schools opened around Japan, some of which survived to today.  The need for hand-to-hand combat arose when swords broke and there was still an enemy to kill or subdue.  As these schools developed so did certain philosophies about life.  The samurai began to understand that there was a moral responsibility to not being merely efficient killing machines, they were human and desired peace above all else.

The samurai developed general moral codes to live by, ways to live above their physical skills in peace and harmony until such time that they had to battle for their lives, lords, and resources.  Otherwise, they could, and sometimes would, indiscriminately kill. Constructs like the Bushido Code, spirituality and and moral standards gave the warriors something else to focus on besides killing, or else they would just be violent people.

In the Karate Kid this conversation ensues during one of several training scenes:

Daniel: Hey – you ever get into fights when you were a kid?

Miyagi: Huh – plenty.

Daniel: Yeah, but it wasn’t like the problem I have, right?

Miyagi: Why? Fighting fighting. Same same.

Daniel: Yeah, but you knew karate.

Miyagi: Someone always know more.

Daniel: You mean there were times when you were scared to fight?

Miyagi: Always scare. Miyagi hate fighting.

Daniel: Yeah, but you like karate.

Miyagi: So?

Daniel: So, karate’s fighting. You train to fight.

Miyagi: That what you think?

Daniel: [pondering] No.

Miyagi: Then why train?

Daniel: [thinks] So I won’t have to fight.

Miyagi: [laughs] Miyagi have hope for you.

The idea of training to fight so one doesn’t have to fight has almost become a cliche in the martial arts.  But, just because it’s cliche doesn’t mean it’s wrong.  My sensei likes to occasionally ask us to think about why we train.  What are our moral reasons for doing so? If we don’t have any, then, he says we are just practicing violence.

Which brings me to my point.

In my experience, the greatest challenges of martial arts training is developing my inner life. Controlling my emotions to avoid a fight, finding compassion for other’s in my heart, pushing myself past my fears are the most essential parts of my training.  My spirituality is enhanced by my experiences, my feelings and beliefs have changed on account of the physical challenges presented to me each class.  I need grit and strength of character to do that which scares me week after week.  The combination of emotions, feelings, and spirituality help me get there.

My first challenge in my training was overcoming of my fear of falling.  To overcome I had to push through the dread in the pit of my belly, get to class, and keep trying.  I felt fear because I believed I would get seriously hurt.  I had to change my beliefs, trust in God that I wouldn’t hurt my body (especially since He called me there), and control my emotions enough to try.  Once the seeds of change begin to grow, the fruits show up in my interactions with people.  My compassion is stronger, my patience is longer, and my heart becomes purer over time.  Considering that I am not that special, I suspect that serious martial artists experience this phenom as well.

To conclude, the difference between a physically skilled, but violent, person, and a martial artist is their moral and spiritual center.  The reasons we train matter and make a huge difference in the use of violence in our lives.  Keeping our inclinations at bay through self control and offering the world the best version of ourselves is key to developing oneself as a complete warrior.

Questions for reflection:

Do you experience the emotional and spiritual effects of training? Has training changed your life in any significant way? If so, how? And, if not, what could you change to make a difference in side your mind?


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