The Philosophy of Martial Arts

What it takes to be a warrior.

There are certain qualities that good MA students sooner or later acquire, which not only stand them in good stead in the dojo, but which spill out into their lives outside:

Respect is the cornerstone of MA; respect for oneself, for others and of course, for one’s sensei. This involves obedience, careful listening, consideration, good manners, allowing other people their own physical space, helping your fellow students to improve, trying your utmost to be a worthy opponent, judging others purely on their practice, ensuring a high standard of personal hygiene (MA practice often requires two people to get very up close and personal.) It also means leaving your personal beliefs, political convictions and opinions at the door of  the dojo while respecting the views of others. ‘Opinions are like assholes. Everybody’s got one,’ said Clint Eastwood, but that doesn’t mean they should be ground in someone’s face.

Discipline: Self-mastery is a huge ingredient in finding personal happiness and success. Achieving excellence involves finding the internal discipline necessary to undergo rigorous physical and mental training. This involves practice, going over the movements again and again in an effort to perfect them. Discipline involves (for example) turning off the TV and going to the gym. Walking to the fridge for water, not ice cream. Jonny Wilkinson MBE, the former England rugby union fly-half used to practice his conversion kicks every day without fail, even on Christmas day. Another athlete who could be relied on to train every day was the appropriately named Daley Thompson, former British decathlete and Olympic gold medallist. ‘I train twice on Christmas Day because I know the others aren’t training at all. It gives me two extra days.’

Courage: challenging yourself, reaching for your goals no matter how difficult, striving to find your ikigai (your raison d’etre) and achieving it, irrespective of real or imagined obstacles. Courage does not mean an absence of fear. It means overcoming fear and not allowing oneself to be paralysed by it. The samurai used to strive to achieve a mental state called ‘muga mushin’ which means ‘no self, no mind.’ Once ego is sublimated and the mind is clear, then it’s possible to fight without fear.

Continuous Self-Improvement: MA students strive to improve all the time. This is not confined to the physical. It also involves using your brain, spending time on learning. It involves fostering natural interests by reading books, taking courses, undergoing research and asking questions. People who have the attitude of continuous life-long learning read widely and even study, often in later life. Whether it’s a ‘how to’ book, a biography/autobiography, fiction… a good novel can teach all manner of things. Entering into a character’s head and living their dilemmas enhances your ability to empathise with others and develops the imagination. The prison population includes many who have poor reading skills or are downright illiterate, factors which severely impact their life chances and which have made it more likely that they have turned to crime, but their inability to read also results in a lack of empathy, and therefore they find it difficult to imagine how it feels to be on the receiving end of crime.

Focus: Those who strive for it can learn the secret of unbreakable concentration and can live their whole lives in a state of cognitive flow. See our post on Flow here.

Paying Attention: The current buzzword is ‘mindfulness’, i.e to stop the chatter in the mind, and to focus on the here and now, to appreciate our current experience, to forget about the past and to stop worrying about the future. Whatever it is, when you pay attention to something, it changes, whether that’s a movement, a skill, a relationship, the body. By paying attention to the body, we can become our own best physicians.

Physical Fitness: There are two chairs that can kill: the electric chair and the armchair. Human beings were designed to move. ‘Those who think they do not have time for exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness.’ (Edward Stanley). MA not only provides aerobic exercise, but it also includes resistance training and is an integrated practice requiring full mental attention. This makes it the best kind of workout there is. It’s possible to do an aerobic class on autopilot, but not a MA class, unless you want your butt kicked.

Taking care of our health is not just an individual activity. The health of an individual has knock-on effects on relationships, families, communities and on society as a whole. The Western world is in the grip of an obesity and diabetic crisis. Not only are we getting older, we’re getting fatter. The most cursory glance in any supermarket or petrol station will explain why. Globalisation is doing its bit to ensure that we are exporting these conditions to other parts of the world, dragging them down with us. Our whole relationship to food and movement has to change.

All living organisms require fresh air, sunshine, water, food and exercise. Simplistically, our cells contain mitochondria which extract and break down nutrients from food, supplying our bodies with the energy they need to function. Good fuel makes an engine run smoothly. Hundreds of thousands of books and articles are written every year about what we should put in our mouths. Diet books sell by the boatload, even though diets do not work. The only way to influence your health and weight is to make permanent changes to your eating habits and lifestyle.

Compassion & Empathy are sometimes natural attributes, but most often they are qualities which can only be developed over time. Showing true compassion often means sacrificing one’s ego and pride. Where MA is concerned, it also means dealing with an opponent with the appropriate level of force and no more. Krav Maga is a form of MA developed by the Israeli Defence Force. Students learn how to take someone out as quickly and efficiently as possible, without concerning themselves about the damage inflicted, even if the result is the death or permanent incapacitation of one’s opponent. The basic idea is to inflict maximum damage as quickly as possible in order to defend yourself, but even Krav Maga trainers will always advocate running away first, if that’s an option. Most MA classes stress the avoidance of violence, by teaching you how to fight so you don’t have to.

A boy who had learned Krav Maga from the age of three was asked by his father: ‘Why don’t you defend yourself? You know what to do.’ The boy’s response was: ‘I could mess them up so badly if I did that, that actually, I’d rather they just carried on bullying me.’ In one so young, this was an exceptional display of self-control and compassion. It’s hard not to conclude that being in possession of such qualities, this boy will have a full and happy life, if the bullies don’t grind him into the dust first.

Altruism: No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. A perfect way to reduce your obsession with your own problems is to do things for other people. Reaching out to others makes you feel good about yourself. Altruism may be the result of genuine concern for others, or it may be enlightened self-interest, but frankly, who cares? It benefits both giver and receiver, and we should not look a gift horse in the mouth.

Creating A Positive Environment: This means approaching training with the right mental attitude, by obeying the rules, by respecting the space and the people in it, by arriving to class on time, by wearing the appropriate attire, by doing your best in order to extract the very best from your opponent.

Leadership: taking the initiative and building skills that students need to make their own positive choices and leading by example, rather than waiting for guidance. 

Living in Flow means getting into the zone (mentally speaking) where there is a perfect unity between thought and action; where time disappears and you forget about yourself, as you are so absorbed in the activity you’re focused on that everything else becomes unimportant and diminished, especially your ego. The greatest tango dancers become one with their partners and melt into the music, unhindered by self-consciousness or ego. No activity or time needs to be wasted. According to a venerable sensei: ‘The toilet is a good time to be thinking.’ ‘There’s nothing in life so overrated as bad sex, or as underrated as a good sh!t.’ John Banach.

Appreciation of Beauty and the Arts: When done properly, to the very height of skill, Martial Arts is as beautiful to watch as dance, and can feel as sinuous. The samurai were great lovers of literature and were taught to appreciate and cultivate beauty. The act of writing is intensely therapeutic, and it’s possible to work out all manner of complex emotions on a page. Whether it’s creative writing or the act of writing a diary doesn’t matter. ‘Keep a diary, and one day it could keep you’. Samuel Pepys stole a march on the rest of us four hundred years ago. For those who think that their lives would be uninteresting for others to read about, it’s not the depth or breadth of your experience that is important, what matters is the quality of your observations.

Musashi, author of The Book of Five Rings produced beautiful brush paintings, some still surviving today four centuries later. Martial Arts, dancing, music, gardening, sculpture, painting, sports… these are all flow activities and they are things of beauty.

Johan Cruyff, one of the most successful footballers of all time was concerned above all with the aesthetic and moral dimensions of the sport. To him, efficiency of movement was beautiful. ‘Simple football is the most beautiful, but playing simple football is the hardest thing.’ He was the pioneer of the one touch pass, where each player would touch the ball just once, before passing it to a team mate.

Just as in fighting, simplicity and economy of movement cuts through busyness. ‘The right punch or the right kick at the right time.’ The same principle applies in the natural world. Lions spend the bulk of their time lazing around, sleeping, conserving energy. When they do get off their stumps to hunt something, they have to make their effort count, or they go hungry. To Cruyff, winning was secondary, not nearly as important as winning in the right way, with the right style.  By focusing on efficiency, economy of movement and by respecting his opponents, he made winning more likely. Cruyff came up with a set of fourteen rules for life for young people to follow in sports which apply equally to life:

  1. Team player: ‘To accomplish things, you have to do them together.’
  2. Responsibility: ‘Take care of things as if they were your own.’
  3. Respect: ‘Respect each other.’
  4. Integration: ‘Involve others in your activities.’
  5. Initiative: ‘Dare to try something new.’
  6. Coaching: ‘Always help each other within a team.’
  7. Personality: ‘Be yourself.’
  8. Social involvement: ‘Crucial, both in sport and in life.’
  9. Technique: ‘Know the basics.’
  10. Tactics: ‘Know what to do.’
  11. Development: ‘Sport develops body and soul.’
  12. Learning: ‘Learn something new every day.’
  13. Play together: ‘An essential part of the game.’ And life!
  14. Creativity: ‘Bring beauty to the sport.’ Bring beauty to life.

Patience, Perseverance and Forbearance: Patience allows us to practice until each movement is seared into muscle memory. Everything worthwhile in life requires effort and time; whether it’s the learning of a skill or the development of a relationship. The ability to delay gratification, to sacrifice short term reward for a long term gain, is key to success in all spheres of life. Patience demonstrates self-control, and those in possession of it usually make better decisions with less stress. Patience goes hand in hand with persistence; those who can persevere despite obstacles and setbacks generally achieve far more than those who throw in the towel at the first sign of difficulty. Those with patience don’t cut corners; they do things properly the first time, saving themselves oceans of time and trouble. They are usually more realistic about situations and other people; they value other people’s time and energy, and don’t expect others to drop everything just to suit them. A friend’s son plays goalkeeper for his local side, and sometimes goes through a whole game without touching the ball. He needs to be relaxed but ready, knowing that no matter how sleepy the game appears to be, the ball could come his way at any moment. Homer described the Trojan war as ‘boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror’. He could just as well have been recounting the life of your average goalie. My friend’s son stays switched on by reading the game, by playing along with the team in his head, by imagining that he is the fifth defender. His time in goal is teaching him the invaluable virtue of patience.

In short, the proper practice of Martial Arts fosters the development of rounded and grounded people, and every community needs a few more of those.