Does It Really Work?

In East Asia people practiced martial arts for self-defense, health, and inner cultivation. Some people were more interested in one or two of them, some in all three.

Some wanted to be safe, some to be awesome, some to get healthy and strong, some to get a job, some to become an immortal, a sage or a wizard. There were all kinds of people in the olden days. As there are today.

Then, as now, empty hand martial arts were not a primary military fighting skill. They were secondary to staves, clubs and edged weapons. Today they are taught in professional settings – to military, law enforcement and security personnel – to promote fitness, determination and tactics, and also to be used as a go to if primary weapons systems fail or are unavailable.

Now, as then, martial arts are used by small groups of people to make their lives better.

A critique of martial arts is that the benefits it claims to offer – for health, fighting competence, and spiritual training – are overstated. It is worth considering that, if you are seriously practicing, the opposite is true – the benefits of martial arts for health, combative skill and spiritual development – are wildly understated. But you have to know what you’re doing.

An instructor, leading a session at a seminar, told the group he felt “completely comfortable fighting three unarmed attackers or two armed attackers.” This man’s students might have thought the world of him. He might have been good at some of his skills. But what he said was naïve and very dangerous. Critics of martial arts look at imperfect people practicing martial arts and ascribe the shortcoming of the individuals to the arts. This is convenient for the critic but is not valid.

You may observe an imperfect guy in the school down the block and wonder what he is up to. But he might be way better off than he was a year ago, better than he would be without training. And who knows what he is going through?  If he is wearing a high rank and behaving foolishly that is not good, but it does not tell you about the efficacy of martial training. It tells you about that guy in that school.

It tells you something even more relevant than that.  For our purposes, to fulfill our own objectives as martial artists – whatever those objectives may be – it is worth remembering: it is not the art that works, it is you.If you are training hours a day, every day, without fail, year after year, putting your heart into training, you will get the rewards. There are no exceptions. If you do the work you will get the results.

People who lack commitment get frustrated. They do occasional training, have vague goals they cannot describe, or select from the “best aspects” of the ten styles they were beginners in and make up their own new style. Soon they feel that the martial arts have let them down.

The “martial arts” cannot do it. We do it.We choose good sources of information. We get good guidance. We learn what to do. We do it.  If we need to learn some chin na, kyusho, newaza, or other skills to be able to interpret our kata more completely – then we can get them and add them to our tool kit. If you want professional training and real-world experience you can get those too.

For proof of the efficacy of training look at how far you have come since you started. Look at the others you train with: in body and mind, focus and skill. Look at the difference in spiritual mastery you have developed over your years of training. “Spiritual mastery” does not mean acting holy, or staring off into the middle distance like some magical martial man of mystery. It means you maintain balance under pressure; it means you are not easily distracted, lulled or provoked. It means you act with skill when and where you are needed.

Mastery means that you choose your course of action wisely.  You make the most of opportunities even when they are barely perceptible, and you are able to sense trouble before it emerges. You do right. You become a mature, reliable person. Those are the real fruits of martial arts practice. The same arts are presented in different ways. Different arts appeal to different people.

But in no case is it the martial art that produces the result. It is always up to the practitioner.


This post is an excerpt from “The Good Fight” by Jeffrey Brooks, on Amazon in paperback and Kindle edition

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