Karate For “Perfection Of Character”: Truth Or Just Part Of The “Marketing”? – A Historical Perspective

“The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of character of its participants”.
Master Gichin Funakoshi.

Gichen Funakoshi

The above words by Master Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan/Shotokai have been widely quoted, but I wonder if that was what his teachers had in mind.  Gichin Funakoshi had a number of teachers, but the main ones were Yasutsune Itosu and Yasutsune Azato.  Both of these had (prior to teaching Funakoshi) been body guards to the King of Okinawa.  In this role, they could have been faced with superior numbers of armed men, whilst they themselves were actually unarmed due to Japanese law.

If you had to face a superior number of men, they had weapons whilst you did not; which do you think you would be most interested in:

  1. Victory or defeat?
  2. Perfection of character?

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Kaizen: Continuous Improvement And Martial Arts

Kaizen is a Japanese concept which basically means “continuous improvement”.  It can be applied to business, engineering, management; in fact, just about anything.  It is a very powerful tool for self development.

The idea is that you take one small area and work on it for a week.  Depending on what field you are working on, it can be something as simple as just smiling more often (which can be good for building business or personal relationships).  By the end of the week, it should have started to become a habit.  Then you pick some other small improvement to focus on.  After a year, you should hopefully have made 52 small improvements.  This obviously all adds up to a very substantial (and very deliberate) overall improvement.

Very interesting you may say, but what has that got to do with martial arts.  Well our grading system is roughly based on just this same principle.  It should not be a surprise then that it was the Japanese that created the coloured belt system which was later copied by the Koreans, Chinese and many others.  Most martial arts have gradings every 3 months though it will vary from style to style.  Although Kaizen looks for a different subject of focus each week, it would obviously be impractical to have gradings every week.  However, the belt system is clearly following the same underlying principle.

Each grade has clearly specified requirements for kata/patterns, basic techniques and sparring (free or pre-arranged) and generally the student will not move on to the next level of training until they have been examined for the current level.  It is a very well defined and structured system that ensures that the student learns the required skills in logical and progressive sequence.

Another powerful tool for self development is goal setting.  Everybody who teaches self development always recommends goal setting as it is a way to focus the mind in order to achieve the best results.  The belt system sets our goals for us.  As soon as we decide that we want to take a grading, we set ourselves the goal to learn the next set of techniques (or combinations), the next kata/pattern, and the next sparring drill.  We also set ourselves the goal learning them to the required standard.

Kaizen is actually a very structured form of goal setting.  The Japanese really took this process very seriously as they rebuilt themselves from the devastation the Second World War to become almost an economic superpower.  The South Koreans who took a similar approach punch well above their weight economically for such a small country.  Yet the principle of Kaizen is intimately ingrained into our martial arts and goes almost unnoticed as we take it for granted.

This is another serious lesson that we can learn from our martial art and take into every area of our lives.  There is nothing in life that cannot be improved by looking for constant small changes and practicing them until they become ingrained, just as we do with martial art training.

Some purists will point out that originally there were no grades in martial arts.  However, martial arts was usually taught secretively in very small groups, with a master and just a few select students.  Those students would normally be motivated by wanting to stay alive if they become involved in a physical conflict (rather than scoring a point or keeping fit, etc).

They were warriors.  Most of us today are not, but that’s OK, we don’t need to be.  Our motivation and mind set is often different to their’s, therefore its reasonable that different things will work for us as worked for them.  Gradings may not be necessary in small motivated groups, but make it much more practical to teach in today’s much larger classes.

It’s a shame that some people just become obsessed with getting a grade and they miss out on learning some of the finer points and applications that are not included in the grading syllabus.  However, they still have to perform the syllabus for their grade to the required level so some standards are still maintained.  There are definitely faults and limitations within the grading system.  There are also many abuses on many different levels, by students and examiners.

But overall, it is a very good system which when you look at it more closely, teaches us a method to live by as well as for learning martial arts.

 

How Exactly Is Fighting More Mental Than Physical?

For centuries masters have taught that fighting is more mental than physical.  However, when training martial arts we concentrate mainly on the physical technique.  As we progress, we learn to be more focused, aggressive and intense; but how exactly does that make fighting more mental than physical when we are still punching, kicking, throwing, gouging or simply bitch-slapping some bugger that deserves it?

I’m going to ask you to bear with me as I explain, as at first this is going to look like I’m going of subject, but it will fit together in the end, I promise.

Something that I’ve come across a couple of times lately is the idea that we should be “living in the present”.  Well of course we are you might say, how can we not be in the present?

Let me explain a bit more.  Many people spend a lot of time living in regret for things they have done in the past or missed opportunities; or resentment about things that have been done to them.  They are in effect, spending a lot their time thinking about and focusing on the past, constantly re-living the causes of their regret/resentment.

Others spend a lot of time looking to the future.  How many times have you thought, “I can’t wait for work to finish and go home”, “I can’t wait for the weekend” or “I can’t wait for my holiday/retirement/promotion/whatever”?  This is in effect living for the future.  The idea is, “I’ll be happy when . . . . . . . whatever”.

The key to actually being happy, or even effective in live, is not to be re-living past problems or to be just biding your time until something better comes along, but to be consciously present in the current moment.  This is not to say that you don’t plan for the future, just don’t focus on being there instead of now.  Be present now, whilst you plan your future (you’ll plan it much much better that way).  This is a big subject which I can’t really do justice to in one post.  Books have been written on this subject, so for now please just accept this general idea.

So what has this got to do with martial arts?

One more detour first, then I’ll answer that.  I have read several times in the past that soldiers in real combat report that they had “never felt so alive”.  That’s not to say that they found it to be fun!  Rather they found it very intense, the very fact that their existence could end at any instance made them very much aware of that instance (rather than dwelling on the past or what could be).  They were very intense on staying alive and very present in that moment.  Hence feeling really “alive”.

OK, back to the martial arts.  How often have you said (or heard somebody say) that when training you/they forget all your worries and problems?

Why does this happen?  It is because we are practising a combat art.  We need to maintain our concentration and focus, especially when partnered up for sparring.  We know we’ll soon get hit if don’t focus and be present in that moment.  Even in pre-arranged sparring routines, if you don’t block/parry/evade an attack that is coming in full-steam, you’ll get hit.

In solitary practice as well (basics or kata/patterns/forms) we should still train with an opponent in mind.

Note:  Our nervous system can not tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined.  For example, if we watch a scary film, we know full well that we are safe and it’s only on a screen.  However, we still “jump”, our heart beat can speed up and our breathing can change.  This is our nervous system responding to our imagination as we are engrossed in the film.  Therefore training with an opponent in mind is almost as good as training with a real partner.

Our training forces us to be in the present.  It forces us to forget our past problems and to forget about our daydreams of our future and to be much more there, focused on the guy in front who is about to knock you into next week if you don’t focus fully on what he is about to do to you.

Being fully focused and aware in the present moment is a necessary reaction to danger.  Fortunately it is an almost automatic reaction to being in danger.

That said, some people still struggle with it.  When confronted with a bully/mugger/predator, some people will focus on “this isn’t fair”, “why does this always happen to me”, “this b*****d is always picking on me”.  The are still partly in the past.

Some will be thinking, “I’m going to get killed”, or “this could really be humiliating”.  They are still partially in the future.

Over time with many sessions of partner activities (whether free sparring or pre-arranged activities), we don’t just get used to physical technique, but we get uses to being in the present moment.  We get better control over our fears and become more able to instinctively push out the fears of defeat/humiliation or feelings of victimisation.  It is often said that martial arts fosters courage.  One of the main ways it does this is by teaching you to be in the present rather than focusing on the past or future.

Usually if you get a black belt sparring with a somebody of a middle range grade (say purple/blue belt) then assuming all other things are equal (age, build, strength, size, etc) the black belt will usually dominate.  Obviously the black belt should have the better technique, but if you put the 2 of them side by side and tell them to perform say a punch at the same time, the black belt will be only a split second faster.

Does this split second account for the level of domination that most black belts have over lower grades?

Obviously it is part of the reason, but I don’t think it is the full reason.  By the time somebody reaches black belt, usually they are much more used having their mind in the present moment and not worrying out defeat, humiliation, fighting a higher grade etc.  They find it much easier to commit to their technique and just go for their target, un-hindered by a mind worrying about what the outcome might be.  There is a greater sense of certainty about the way they move.

This is where the mind is trained to be “present”.  It is more important than just the physical technique that the body is performing.  This is where fighting becomes “mental”.  This is where your focus and concentration over many years will take you to.

A side effect of this is of course is that you learn to be more “present” in your everyday life as well.  You usually find that high grade martial artists often have more resilience to deal with the everyday problems that life throws up than most other people do (whether it’s divorce, career, health, whatever).  Why?  Because you can solve your life problems much better if you are thinking in the present rather than resenting how you got there (thinking in the past) or fearing the outcome (thinking in the future).

So many martial arts talk about making you a better person with a stronger character and it is irrefutable that they do.  Most however are short on explanation on how this actually happens.  I personally believe that learning to be “present” is one of the most central principles of the “Do” (The Way).

This concept is a continuation of the idea of silencing that little voice inside your head (which I’ve written about before).  You know, that little voice that keeps telling you that you can’t do something for this or that reason.  That reason is usually something in the past – dragging you back there and away from the present moment.

 

Note:  Being “present” is a very big subject which I cannot do justice to in one posting.  If you want more information then I would suggest that you check out either:
A Bug Free Mind (heavily marketed, but has changed my outlook)
The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle (I’ve seen this recommended several times.  I have a copy waiting for me to find the time to read it).

Look Them Straight In The Eye . . . . . Or Should You?

Every now and then the question comes up, where do you look when you have to square up to somebody, be it for a real fight or just for sparring.  The common answer that comes back is, “look em straight in the eye”!

But is this always the right thing to do?  Let me draw an analogy.  When you learn to drive (or cycle if you’re younger), what are told to look at.  You’re told to keep your eyes on the road.  The road is quite big and can take up practically the entire range of your vision.  You’re not told to focus on the car in front, or focus on the street signs, or focus on your mirror, or focus on the pedestrians on the side, or focus on vehicles coming from the other direction or focus on any vehicle overtaking you.  You are expected to be aware of  ALL OF THEM, all at the same time.

What’s that got to do with martial arts?

I’m glad you asked me that.

If when driving, if you focused one thing, you would miss the other things.  So it is with sparring or fighting.  Many a car accident has happened because a young lad sees a shapely young lady and focuses on her to exclusion of all else.  He then fails to notice what is right in front of him.

Many a young fighter has been punched in the head because he/she knows that their opponent is a good kicker and was watching their feet (or kicked whilst watching their opponents hands).

So what’s the answer?

Going back to the driving analogy, when we drive we learn to relax our eyes.  The pupils of our eyes dilate and become bigger, so that we can take in more information.  The price we pay for taking in the more information is a tiny loss of clarity, but anybody with reasonable eyesight will have ample clarity for the job of driving.  This allows us to be aware of the road, oncoming traffic, traffic in front of us and pedestrians at the same time.  This awareness allows us to detect and react the instance something happens, like a pedestrian stepping out or a car breaking hard in front of us.  Obviously we instantly focus on the problem, but by doing so we lose some clarity of the other potential hazards around us.  This is usually OK when driving, because we seldom have more than one real hazard at a time, and having spotted the first, we are already taking action (usually braking).

However, when we are fighting (or even sparring) we can have multiple and continuous hazards coming at us all the time in the form of multiple punches, kicks, headbutts, elbows, knees, etc; which can come at from different level and directions.  It could even multiple opponents.

So when fighting/sparring we have to try to maintain the relaxed dilated pupils so that we can keep track of these multiple hazards.  I have sometimes sparred with lower grades, where I have just sparred defensively in order to help them build up their confidence in attacking.  They are sometime frustrated and bemused that I can block/parry multiple attacks coming in at different levels and directions.  I’m not trying to say that I’m brilliant, but the point is that when you get used to relaxing and dilating your pupils you can keeps track of multiple attacks be they kicks, punches or combinations of both.  The split second you focus only on that kick coming in, is the split second that you get punched.

Going back to the driving analogy, if you have to squeeze between say a parked car and an oncoming lorry, would a driving instructor tell you focus on the lorry?  Would he tell you to focus on the parked car?
No!  He would tell you to focus on the road in the direction you want to go in.

Why?  Because when we focus on either the lorry or the parked car, we tend to drive towards them instead of where we want to go.  Notice however, even if you keep your eyes on the road and drive straight ahead, you are still very very aware of that big lorry right next to you (even though you don’t look right at it).  When fighting/sparring we don’t want to focus on blocking/evading/parrying all the time as we can never win like that.  We can only win by hitting the other guy (or throwing/locking etc, but you get the point).

By focusing on the attacking limbs you are drawn to them (like focusing on the lorry will make you tend to drive towards it).  By keeping your attention on the whole of the attacker, you will spot the openings that will allow you to counter attack, (like keeping your eye on the road will allow you to steer clear of the obstacles).

From the self protection point of view, it also allows you to be more aware of a possible second assailant.

Now with many people being into reality based martial arts and studying the psychology of fighting and the effects of adrenalin, I’m sure that some of you are already thinking, “yes Charlie, but when you have an adrenalin dump you get tunnel vision”.

This is true.  However, tunnel vision is a possible effect of an adrenalin dump and not a guaranteed effect.  Also, part of your training should deal with the effects of adrenalin so that you get used to it and the negative effects of adrenalin are minimised with constant training.  Also, if you train your eyes in this manner under pressure, then you’ll be able to do it under pressure.  Just keep it in mind when you are doing any partner work at all.

So does that mean that we never make eye contact at all?  Well in may well be necessary at some stage, particularly in the pre-fight build up stage.  Very generally speaking, there are 2 main tactics used by reality based training when dealing with the pre-fight build up:

1.   Match their aggression with equally assertive behaviour so as to get them to back down (often used by FAST Defence).
2.  Act mildly so as to lull them into a false sense of security and hit them with a pre-emptive strike.

If you are matching their behaviour with equal assertiveness, then you will want to meet their gaze and stare them in the eye.  However, as soon as it is clear that it’s about to go physical then you relax and dilate your pupils to take in all of their weapons (even if its only hand and feet).

If however, you are trying to lull them into a false sense of security so as to use a pre-emptive strike, then you don’t need to stare them in the eye as this will be seen as a challenge and alert them to be more cautious of you.

There is no point in having fantastic blocks, evasions and parries, if you are not aware of the attack coming at you.  Although this is not often taught, it is a very necessary and vital skill.  Fortunately as people learn to relax their bodies in training, so they usually learn to relax their eyes and very often over time start doing this naturally.  But it must be practiced under pressure so that you don’t lose it due to the effects of adrenalin when you need it most.

Of the subject slightly, it is also a very good metaphor for dealing with any of life’s problems, be it family, business, relationships, whatever.  One of the most terrifying things that can happen to a person is a physical assault.  If you learn to relax enough to keep sight of all the weapons that your attacker will throw at you; then with everyday life problems you should be able to do the same.  Don’t look too closely and focus on just one detail of the problem.  Stand back and take in the whole picture so that you are able to react to any circumstance which may arise from this particular problem.

Keeping a Beginner’s Mind

The article below was written by Paul Mitchell, my Karate Sensei and Tai Chi teacher.  It’s a brilliant insight into the mental approach to your training whatever your style.  Paul has always had a very practical approach to martial arts and teaches for real self defence, not just scoring points.  Having said that, he is also a great believer that martial arts are a great form of self development.  Practical streetwise martial arts (“Jutsu”) and self development (“Do”) do not need to be separated.  In fact they each works best with elements of the other blended together.

The article below was written for the Lotus Nei Gong (Tai Chi association) newsletter, so it is primarily from the Tai Chi perspective.  That said, it can just as well apply to any martial art.


Really, this article is just a few rambling thoughts of a martial artist that has trained daily for 30 years and yet still calls himself a beginner.

In Japanese martial arts there is a saying that came from someone who truly understood the martial way: Keep a beginners mind. Sounds easy enough but remember a beginner is always ready to take advice and is always enthusiastic. Day in day out, week in week out, year in year out and decade after decade to jeep training with this concept in mind may not always be so easy.

Then of course we have to look at that concept of ‘following the martial way’. To a non-follower of the way it would seem quite likely that to train daily in a martial art, studying the philosophy and practice of combat would cause a person to become aggressive and confrontational. The truth is that (if studied correctly) martial arts make a person peaceful and well-rounded. The only true fight is internal, the war is against your ‘inner demons’ and lets be honest with ourselves, we all have some of those.

My favourite martial saying is: The fist and Zen are one. Still makes me smile, still just a beginner.

I sometimes say to my students that the only reason we have wars is because the world is run by ‘white belts’. If one truly understands conflict then one avoids it at all costs.

Up until this point I have not distinguished between external and internal martial arts. To me they completely compliment each other, they are indeed two sides of the same coin. Many people studying the martial arts refer to themselves in terms of one art: I am a karate practitioner, I am a Taijiquan practitioner etc. To me there are only martial arts, not styles. Although I have my core systems of Yang Taijiquan and Shotokan Karate I simply think of myself as a martial artist. To limit oneself in any other way seems to contradict the term ‘art’. An artist by my way of thinking should be a free thinking, free flowing, freedom loving individual. To limit the art is to stunt our personal growth in free flow.

I loved the article written by my dear friend Neil Lodge (editors note, see September 2010 newsletter) where he stated that he found Taijiquan so uplifting because it emphasised principles other styles simply touched upon. Principles such as meditation, breath control and Dan Tien rotation. I agree wholeheartedly and reading it made me once again…feel like a beginner.

I have currently studied Karate for 30 years and Taijiquan for half of this time. Although I love both arts I recognise that for me, Taijiquan starts where Karate left off…From the beginning in ‘external styles’ we are taught to be substantial. This means that you study to be strong and forceful. You train to become fast and strong, both physically and mentally. This can be painful, has its moments, but if done slowly, gradually and correctly this process is surprisingly enjoyable! As one progresses through the grades to brown and eventually black belt/sash the martial artist (as this is what the student is training to become) practices more technical, more subtle techniques which aim to make him more ‘insubstantial’. Instead of meeting force with force an advanced practitioner aims to deflect and neutralise incoming force. Eventually it becomes very difficult for anybody but other experienced martial artists to lay a hand upon you. Some good advice is to always assume your opponent has a knife. Good advice I feel as it helps to reinforce the idea of being insubstantial and avoiding an incoming force. This is the point in a persons training where Taijiquan needs to enter their martial path.

Every practice in Taijiquan and its related exercises in Qi Gong and Nei Gong, pushing hands and other two man drills is designed to help the martial artist become more insubstantial. Over time one learns how to lessen the use of their external force (generated by muscular power) and begin to use their internal power which, I feel, is such a complex subject that it warrants several more articles on this subject alone!

Obviously, as practitioners of Taijiquan our study is not just related to martial arts in their narrow sense but the study of conflict on every level. Realisation of this makes approaching resolution of fighting (literal, internal and cosmic) anything but narrow.

Final words of advice from this rambling beginner…Keep practicing…