The Core Reason Over all, getting better at martial arts isn’t a particularly complex task - find the best coach you can and train hard. On the other hand, we’re also on a human journey, and we hope – I hope - to become wiser, better people via our connection to the things we love – our families and interests. So on the one hand, I know we sometimes make martial arts overly complex; on the other everything worthwhile has depth, and it’s worth gaining all the profit we can from our endeavours in life. Which includes the wider knowledge about ourselves and other people that we can get from our martial arts training. Recently, I’ve seen a few people talk about ‘being honest’ about your motivations for training. It’s not a new idea by any means. I’m reminded of those splendid Baroque paintings of Dutch militia men, resplendent in feathered hats and fancy uniforms, drinking great mugs of beer. They didn’t get together for hard training – they got together for hard drinking, and for roaming the town, showing off their handsome clobber! As long as you’re honest, it doesn’t matter. As long as you’re not really expecting an attack, and have no real interest in preparing for it, it doesn’t matter if you don’t. If you train for breathtaking forms, what matters is you find the best, most effective ways to do that. If you train for the ring, or self defence – heck, whatever you want – the more honest you are about your goal, the better you can plan your training regime. Coaches are very useful for that – quite obviously – partly because a good coach can be honest about us in ways we can’t always be honest about ourselves. Fact of life, seems to be, that it’s ten times easier to be honest about other people than about ourselves. One of the common difficulties faced in martial arts is not having a coach – in being a teacher, a ‘master’, a ‘sifu’, but having no external, honest perspective commenting on your training. You may have a master, or loyal students – but those are often not honest like a coach; they’re often people who say the right things, to tickle our egos – for various reasons, often financial. So the people who are in the best positions to progress – such as martial arts instructors in their late twenties, early thirties - have often not got the most useful resource of progress available to them – an honest assessment. ‘Honesty’ about your training isn’t a moral issue – it’s just a technical issue. Know where you’re going and it’s easier to get there. Of course, there are those people who lie about their training and level, for various reasons, but who cares about them, really? It’s probably because they feel no one cares about them that they lie in the first place. The thing is, even when people begin talking about being honest, some times even that gets warped. Recently I read an article by a young man relating his realisation that many so called ‘traditional’ experts simply lie and obfuscate when it comes to talking about actual usability of their arts. He should have worked that out just by the title ‘traditional.’ Not to say that traditional stylists lie, just that it tells you something when ‘traditional’ (or sometimes ‘authentic’ or ‘original’) is seen as a better recommendation than ‘effective’. ‘Effective’ martial arts, you would think, is a far better idea than ‘traditional for traditional’s sake’. You would think. I don’t know why people see traditional as so much better. Actually, that’s a lie – I know exactly why. Jacques Derrida taught – and this is very Taoist as well - that we’re culturally hard wired to make sense of the vast, random pools of information the world presents us with by first of all dividing things in to two (and this is very Biblical too) such as traditional/modern, good/evil, and especially us/them… and then we ‘resolve’ one way or the other, as in, we take a side – we associate ourselves with, or choose to believe, or think better of, one side or the other. It’s like making an artificial structure out of the chaos, to make it easier to perceive or cope with. No one likes to watch a football match when they support both sides, or neither – or at least, it’s no where near as much fun. Now that’s also about ego – as Castaneda’s don Juan said, humans are addicted to self importance and everything comes back, ultimately, to the ‘Self’… and our one true religion ‘Cult of Self.’ Meaning, we take a side and that gives us a sense of belonging to something – like a kennel for the self… ‘A little home of their own…’ as Pink Floyd said. Or, it’s like choosing to be a mod or a rocker – either way, it’s about self image and belonging far more than it’s about modding or rocking. (And the greatest band of all, The Beatles, were famously Mockers, don’t forget! What Derrida would call ‘Undecidables.’) Once we’ve made that division, that yin/yang split, Derrida taught – finally getting back (almost) on point – that we’re also hard-wired to perceive the temporally earlier half of the division as superior. Or rather, we tend to think that the earlier half is superior, or frame our understanding of things to make the earlier half better. For example, it’s no coincidence that Adam exists before Eve, or that the Devil is made after God. It’s not strictly a Taoist ‘two halves to everything’ idea. Part b of this Derridarian theory is that the temporally later half of the division – be it the Devil, woman, Contemporary Wushu, etc. is often seen as a counterfeit copy/version of the original. Woman is a copy of man; the Devil a counterfeit of God; contemporary wushu a counterfeit of traditional kung fu. It’s not always wrong – it just points to a foible we have, of arranging our world view to see the past as better. ‘The good old days’ one might even say. So, many people inexplicably (or, explicably now) use ‘traditional’ or ‘original’ – (funny, isn’t it – Jeet Kune Do is hamstrung in to not being able to say ‘traditional JKD’ because that so obviously tips them in to Bruce Lee’s ‘classical mess’ pit. But the same issues Derrida talked about underwrite all egos – so in JKD some people prefer ‘Original’, and inexplicably see that as either better than, or even equivalent to, ‘effective’) to advertise their martial art as opposed to ‘effective’, ‘state of the art’, ‘easy to learn…’ Only, it isn’t inexplicable at all – they’re doing that old thing of defining themselves by what they aren’t; by emphasising what’s wrong with ‘Them’ as opposed to explaining just exactly what it is that’s so good about ‘Us.’ See, ‘traditional’ actually means ‘Those over there are NOT traditional!’ far more than it means ‘We’ve got something effective and special here!’ It’s a fairly simple psychological observation – that defining yourself by attacking others, and saying what’s wrong with them, is far easier than self-definition through pure self achievement. (There are two sides of course – as always. It’s vital to be aware of, and negate, false training practice. But if the substance of a person’s art is only criticism of others, without using that criticism positively, to avoid the same mistakes and find better ways, then they have nothing but their own hot air.) That being by the bye… this young man had become disillusioned, and had finally decided to sit down and have a real think about exactly why he was training. What were his goals, his motivations, his ambitions? And was he being honest about them? For a few sentences I couldn’t help but root for him. I thought he was going to make it! But it all soon began to sink – and my heart with it (because every failed attempt at honesty is a shame in this world of liars) as it became clear – I should have known - that he was going through the false, evil twin version of the honesty process; and so I wasn’t at all surprised when he announced, somewhat pompously, that he was training for ‘spiritual reasons’. Oh well, maybe at another time he’ll have another epiphany, and realise that ‘training for spiritual purposes’ is really just a euphemism for ‘I need an excuse to not train seriously, and yet still be considered as a martial artist for what that gives to my ego.’ Maybe then at another point, he’ll have yet another epiphany, and realise that whatever there is that is ‘spiritual’ in martial arts comes only from the challenge of real training – the human spirituality of blood, sweat and tears, of hardship and celebration, highs and lows, achievements and failures, carrying on regardless, and being forced to face honest truths, stripped of ego BS and lies, such as ‘I train for spiritual purposes’ to come to real, honest self awareness. That’s what seasons a man’s core. And you can only go through that process if you’re training with commitment, honesty and courage. That’s spiritual – that’s a challenge to a man’s – or a woman’s (or indeed transgendered person’s) spirit. A challenge to overcome, to experience and I suppose to grow wiser. Actually, ‘training for spiritual purposes’ is a fat porky-pie – it’s the very opposite of spiritual. It couldn’t even be any less spiritual, because it’s an explicit statement that you’re training for reasons of a superficial façade – literally just to see yourself, or have others see you, as ‘spiritual’. (In the same way that some people train just to have others see them as ‘Sifu’ or ‘Master’.) As a side note, one of the worst effects of the ‘spiritual lie’ is all those so-called (mostly) Chinese style martial arts people who actually take this mendacity so far that they come to believe that as they ‘train for spiritual reasons’ they are in fact not useless, but indeed somewhat superior to people who train realistically. You hear these self deluded bozos on Youtube, or martial arts forums, calling real fighters animals and thugs, excusing their poor conditioning, mouthy egos and useless techniques on the grounds of superior spiritual status. They are, in truth, as far from spirituality as you can get. Where’s the spirituality without honest, real training? Where’s the honesty in lying about yourself, or using the ‘clothing’ of martial arts falsely, to dress up your ego in clobber that it doesn’t deserve to wear? Something like wearing a soldier’s uniform, for the sake of kudos, but when it comes to a war refusing to fight on the grounds that you’re ‘too spiritual’ for that kind of thing. Not to say that training can’t have what we’d call ‘spiritual’ results – just that those results come from honesty and challenge in martial arts, and you can’t have honesty and challenge without real training. A smack on the nose is far more ‘spiritual’ than years of parading around in a faux-Chinese robe spouting half-understood Buddha quotes, because it’s honest, and cuts through the ego to give you a direct, unquestionable taste of truth – which is the entire point of Buddhist and Taoist spirituality. ‘Spiritual purposes’ isn’t a training aim – and that’s the danger. A training aim has to be something like fitness, fight effectiveness, superb forms, astounding physical dexterity – something that is actively challenging and achieved via the processes of honest, hard training. You can’t ‘challenge’ yourself to be ‘spiritual’, you can only challenge yourself to carry on, to get up and go training, to face fear and hardship. ‘Spiritual’ is the side product, not the goal within the process. The goal within the process is a concrete thing. For some years I’ve said, when talking to other martial artists, that it’s important to understand your ‘core reason’ for training. For the sake of expediency I usually kept that simple – such as ‘self defence’ or ‘fitness’ or ‘fight effectiveness’ or ‘to have bitchin’ forms.’ But actually, those aren’t really reasons for training - they’re objectives. Objectives are external – they’re things you’re aiming for – or claim you are aiming for. ‘Reasons’ are far more deeply embedded, and often require the most astounding levels of honesty to admit. ‘I train for spiritual purposes’ isn’t honest. ‘I train because I want to be seen as spiritual’ is honest. ‘I want to be seen as spiritual because in the centre of my psychology there is a lack – a sense of being lonely and unwanted that I’m trying to fulfil in some way by presenting the façade of a spiritual person.’ That’s honest. ‘I train because I want to smash people’s faces in’ seems honest, so, the question becomes ‘why do I want to smash people’s faces in?’ Obviously, when people talk like that what they’re really asking you to believe is that they’re a mean bad-ass. And you know, some people are. Honesty for them would be ‘I train because I want to be perceived as a mean bad-ass. The reason I want people to think that is because at the centre of my psychology, quite obviously, I feel fear, or weakness, or a terrible sense of powerlessness, so I try to intimidate you before you intimidate me.’ It’s often the real fighters who are most honest (show-boating for commercial publicity purposes aside) about their nerves, their fears, their motivations and ambitions – because they’re people who’ve trained honestly, and had to face and question these things many times – usually at the darkest, most challenging times. The fight is honest. Real training is honest. We can hide in lies in our mind, but we can’t hide from the external punch, or the truth of whether we got up and went training or gave up and went to sleep. It’s easy to see what people’s core issues are. It’s no big deal really. But how does it relate to martial arts? Well, because ultimately, you will achieve your aim. Not your stated aim – not the lies we tell others – but the core aim. All experienced martial artists know that some people train only because they want fake kudos, or titles, position, false respect, façade, etc. But we rarely ask ourselves why those people need those things. It’s easy, really – almost exclusively, their real personality ‘issue’ is exactly the opposite of what they are trying to make you think about them. The more fear someone feels, the more they’ll try to intimidate others with ‘front’ – or else, sometimes, be crippled with it (there’s always two halves – give in to the core issue or build a false face of opposite quality.) If fear is your issue, that can skew a lot of things in your training. It can be a good friend, but unacknowledged, un-faced, it can rear up at bad times, or make you too aggressive, not tactical or technical enough (simply attacking blindly) – and then, when your aggression is powerfully repelled, fear can overwhelm you, because your one tactic – attack – has failed. Or it can make you build such a façade of bad-assness that you can’t ever train properly, because so much is invested in the façade you dare not risk it. The more inferior someone feels, the more they build, or seek, the ‘false face’ or façade of senior expert, with ridiculous titles, and followers made to grovel before them. Diverted like that, a person steps further and further away from real training, concentrating ever more on the superficial aspects of their ‘status.’ And the more worthless someone feels, sometimes the more they hate and attack those things that have real worth, so deep and painful is the feeling. Every person who has real worth becomes an enemy to them, highlighting their own sense of lack. Even when, in truth, they don’t lack. For me, my issue was that I felt an enormous sense of alone-ness that caused me to focus on flash over substance – not that I was ever very good at flash; but flash has many aspects. For example, I was too eager to be a loyal student; not out of personal quality, but out of desire to be respected for my loyalty. All false. All diversions. If you really want the heart of the art, you have to know that you truly want it – and they only way to truly know is to identify and face down your core issues – your real, possibly subconscious reasons for training. You can’t have two destinations – and you’ll always head towards the sub-conscious one if you’re not aware of it. What, really, are you trying to get out of your training? Why, really, do you cling to titles, or image? It’s fairly simple sport’s psychology. Know and understand where you are truly going, and what you truly want. Is your training aim in conflict with your personality aims? If it is, it will take a real honesty to address it – but the result could be a far more effective training regime, focussing away from superficial issues, and towards concrete goals. The idea is taken from a guy called John Bradshaw. It’s only an idea – we’re fairly simple beings in many ways, but we are, obviously, far more complex in reality than a single word like ‘worthless’. But it can help, as a guide, to start to make us aware of subconscious issues and directions in our training. Identify your core reason for training. Be honest - is it really ‘true knowledge of Quan’ ? We all have our ‘issues’. I have mine, the people sending me hate mail for these articles have theirs. The difference is, I know what my issues are – and I know what theirs are too. Temei nosce, and good luck!