The Inner Life of The Martial Artist

Every person has an internal life. Thoughts, feelings, beliefs, imagination, and etc take place in the mind. Our experiences and personality shape our inner life which in turn frames both our perception and response. Depending on stage of life, levels of stress, beliefs and resiliency one’s internal life can be rich and full or fairly shallow.

This is good news for everyone.

The article on Psychology Today’s website, Karate Kata and Cognition, by E. Paul Zehr outlines research into how practicing a martial art in old age improves declining cognition. The most interesting part of the article is the following:

“Researchers did a number of neuropsychological assessments on the study participants before training, as well as collecting samples of their hair to measure stress through cortisol levels. The karate group was then taught the “Heian Shodan” kata and self-defence applications over 16 one hour sessions (2 times each week for 8 weeks). Compared to the pre-intervention levels, the karate group improved in cognitive processing speed and subjective mental health and had reduced anxiety.”

This research shows that this sort of activity has an effect on the mind, as do many activities that keeps us active and learning. Research shows learning new things increases neural activity and connection keeping the mind elastic and strong. In addition, challenges to one’s perceptions and beliefs about themselves, life, and others decreases anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and a host of other perception based problems.

By personal experience and observation, I’ve realized most of the training we do in martial arts is internal. When we walk onto the mats and face personal challenges every week our internal life, good or bad, becomes rapidly obvious. I’ve watched others pick up and excel at various challenges if they believed in their own abilities from previous experiences. Young people who did parkour or some other acrobatic activity had real confidence while doing ukemi (proper falling and rolling technique) practice. I had no such experiences, rather I’ve had too many experiences being a klutz, falling randomly for no reason that resulted in serious injury. I once bruised my entire leg so badly after I fell that it took a year for the discoloration to vanish.When faced with ukemi practice for the first time, thoughts of fear and panic arose in my mind. I thought my instructors were a bit crazy. I struggled for about nine months on that bit alone. I’d panic at home before class, then spend the majority of the 15-20 minute drive there self-talking myself into showing up for class. I had to keep saying, “You can do this.” This finally stopped after my 9th kyu belt test. When faced with a difficult technique that required a lot of me as uke, I’d panic and have to talk myself into staying with it. Even if I trusted my partner and knew they’d help keep me safe.

I spend more time thinking, imagining, processing, rehearsing, and analyzing my practice than I do physically practicing (I mean, I can’t be rehearsing my knife hand technique ALL the time, can I?). My internal life is permeated by my art. As I face fears and overcome challenges on the mats, I begin to believe I can do it elsewhere in my life. As I accomplish previously feared and paralyzing activities in life, my self-perception changes for the better. Old negative, neural pathways die away, replaced by new, positive ones. I believe that I can do the formerly impossible. Conversely, a person with a corrupted ego will become intolerable on the mats. Their internal life is obvious once they start speaking and practicing with others. Generally, people like this, who reject letting training internalize, either leave or are asked to leave if they become dangerous.

The inner life of the dedicated martial artist is often full of wisdom, truth, and strength. Martial practice inherently tests our mettle, develops grit, and helps us overcome fear. Why? Because on some level we all have to face our inner life and reckon with it. Do I want to be as best as I can? Well, then, I have to keep coming back and work through how I feel. Do I want to have good self-defense technique, then, I must learn how to be aggressive and fight back. Over time, the martial arts can change how we feel about, respond to, and view life. As we work on the mats to perfect technique, we intrinsically become calmer, more aware, and less selfish. Our hearts grow in love, patience, kindness, and benevolence towards other humans.

The martial way (a.k.a. Budo 武道) develops a martial mind, which, according to ancient wisdom, is about protecting life, not ending it. It stands to reason that if the loci of budo is protecting life, learning to value others and becoming a better person follows.

I encourage you, new and experienced, practitioners to stick with it no matter how hard it seems. Your inner life will flourish and grow beyond what you previously thought possible.


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