Spirituality In Traditional Martial Arts

Many traditional martial arts talk about Mind, Body and Spirit; or that training develops you spiritually. But what does this spirituality actually mean, how do martial arts help develop it and (probably of most interest to many readers) what use is spirituality in a martial context?

First of all, it could take a whole book to cover this big topic, so I’m not going to be able to cover it all in a blog post. All I’m aiming to do here is to give a brief overview of how I see it.

To quote Deepak Chopra, who is widely revered as one of the World’s greatest spiritual leaders, “if we understand spirituality not as some kind of religious dogma or ideology but as the domain of awareness where we experience values like truth, goodness, beauty, love and compassion, and also intuition, creativity, insight and focused attention”.

So is spirituality a higher level of awareness than most people experience?

Yes it is.

Most of us have conditioned responses and reactions to whatever happens in our environment. For example, let’s consider 2 people on a bus going to work in the same office for the same boss. The bus is stuck in a traffic jam and both people will be late for work. Let’s call them Peter and Paul for convenience. Peter gets stressed and upset, worrying about how late he’ll be and what the boss with say, whilst Paul just decides that there’s nothing he can do about it so just looks out the window and enjoys the view, the trees and the birds.

Which of them will get to work first?

They’ll both get there the same time as they’re on the same bus, so Peter’s worrying will make no difference at all.

Both Peter and Paul are subject to the same circumstances, but they have a very different experience of those circumstances!

Assuming that there is no favouritism from the boss, it is fair to say that Peter is acting out of a conditioned response. He probably reacts like that to most adverse situations. Now at this point I could write a lot about neural pathways and peptides, but let’s just call it as a conditioned response for now.

Paul on the other hand was able to rationalise that there was nothing he could do about it, so he was actually able to choose his response. That is a higher level of awareness! He would have been able to experience of the truth of the situation and the beauty of his surroundings as Deepak alludes to above.

Now try and think how many conditioned responses you have which lead you to being upset and unhappy? No sane person would actually choose to be unhappy. Given the choice, we’d all rather by happy and/or in a state of peace. So why do we allow so many things to upset us, which if we are brutally honest with ourselves, we don’t really need to be upset about!

Part of spirituality is about being able to mentally stand back from a situation, weigh it up, make the best impartial decision for the given situation and to be at peace with the circumstance, your decision and the outcome. Now there is an awful lot more to it this; many will talk about being connected to source/higher self, accessing intuition/divine guidance etc; but like I said above, this is a blog post, not a book. So for now, I’d suggest that this clarity of mind is one of the most practical applications of heightened awareness/spirituality!

So how does martial art training help us to achieve this?

It works on a number of levels. In many styles of Karate we have the Heian/Pinan katas which mean “Peaceful Mind”. As we learn to defend ourselves we feel more confident and with this confidence comes peace of mind.

Most martial arts exercises requires us to be very present in the moment such as focusing on getting basic movements rights. Anxiety is caused by focusing on where we want to be which is different to where we are now (living in the future). Regret is caused by focusing on bad things that have happened to us or mistakes that we’ve made (living in the past). Only by having our attention focussed in the present moment can we be in a peaceful state of mind, which is the most effective place to be when dealing with whatever issue faces us in that moment. But that is a subject for a whole book as well!

When practicing kata/patterns/forms we focus not only on the pattern of movements, but our balance, posture, body structures and mechanics, efficient generation of power, breathing and knowing where ever part of our body is at any given time. With practice we develop a great degree of body awareness. As mind and body are linked, body awareness helps to develop mental awareness.

Partner activities also make us stay very focused, even the pre-arranged activities. When we have a well trained martial artist coming in full speed and power, and we have to either block/evade or have our head knocked of our shoulders, we are usually very present in that moment.

This part varies a lot from school to school, but pressure testing our techniques against a non compliant training partner also leads to higher level of self honesty as to what actually works and what doesn’t. Sport martial art can do this too as long as we are honest that it is sport fighting as opposed to real life combat; you still find what does and doesn’t work under pressure. This knowledge gives an extra layer of self awareness.

Many martial arts, particularly Chinese and Japanese, include meditation which is good for silencing the internal voice in our head (which is usually negative), hence help us to stay focused in the present moment.

There are of course other examples of how martial arts teach us to be present, calm our mind and even silence the voice in head, but again, that could take a book to explain thoroughly. Together these aspects develop our self awareness and spirituality.

So is this just a nice side effect of training, or does it actually help us in a practical way with self protection?

This could be a subject of great debate, but I would say a definite yes. Just considering the advantages of having a greater clarity of thought:

• Do you actually need to fight some jerk that is provoking you, or can you stand back and decide that your ego is secure enough that you don’t need to fight him over his insults/provocation. You could even apologise to him if your ego will let you!
• Do you respond to provocation out of a conditioned response (be it fear, anger, whatever); or do you actually consciously choose your response?
• Does your tongue freeze, or do you find the right words to calm the situation and de-escalate it?
• Should things actually get physical, do you panic, does the “red mist” come down and you lose control; or can you keep calm enough to let your training do the work and exploit openings in the attackers guard?

There is a story of a Zen master whose students confronted him one day. They had been talking to the students of another Zen master who apparently could walk on water and they asked their master, what can you do? He replied, “I can eat when I’m hungry and I can sleep when I’m tired”.
Spiritual development is not just about being able to do special things. It has more to do with simply being more aware of your own mind and body and having clarity of thought without the ego adding filters to how you see your world and circumstances.

I am not suggesting for one second that being a spiritual person is enough on its own for you to be able to defend yourself. However, it is an extra level that works with the physical training and psychology of combat to help you survive a confrontation. Unlike reality based martial arts which gets results very quickly, spiritual development will generally take a long time to learn. However, it is important for self protection and it can also help you lead a much more happy, peaceful and productive life. Many people see self development and spirituality as the nice and fluffy side of martial arts; but they do have very practical applications, not only in self defence but in every aspect of your life.

And finally, just for fun, for those old enough to remember it, here are some relevant clips from the old Kung Fu series with David Carradine.  Whilst the actual Kung Fu may be lacking (it had only just been introduced to the West back then), it is still to this day probably the best TV show of all time for covering the spiritual aspects of the martial arts.

Striving For Perfection: Combat Effectiveness And Spiritual Development

How often have you heard the phrase “before you can overcome others, you must first overcome yourself”, or “your main opponent is yourself”.  If you’ve never heard these phrases, then take a long look at who’s teaching you!  You should have heard these phrases before as this really is one of the most central core philosophies of doing any traditional martial art.

Whether you are looking for effective self defence, sport or simply aesthetic mastery of the art you practice you must first develop co-ordination, agility, speed, power, poise, balance and grace.  From a combative point of view, the need for speed, power, co-ordination and balance are obvious; but grace?  Do we need to be graceful in a fight?  Many consider the very act of fighting to be very disgraceful.

However, if you execute a technique and for whatever reason the opponent deals with it and counters, you have to react exceedingly fast to defend against his counter.  This kind of speed requires an instinctive reaction rather than a thought or reasoned one.  If we are focusing on strength, we become rigid (the more you tense a muscle the less it can move).  If we are rigid, then we cannot react very fast to an abrupt reversal in the fight and we have to hope we can absorb the punishment long enough for us to recover the initiative.

Whilst we would all no doubt agree that the ability to absorb punishment is useful, I’m sure that we would also all agree that it is not something that we should rely on as a fighting strategy.  If we can move out of the way with ease and fluidity, we don’t have to absorb so much punishment and can regain the initiative much more quickly by simply not being where our opponent expects us to be.  To move very quickly like this requires a high level of fluidity, and fluidity requires graceful movement!  Don’t be fooled into thinking that grace lacks power, as it is quite the opposite.  Grace comes from perfection of technique and perfection of technique comes from mastering the self.  This brings us back to our opening paragraph about overcoming yourself before you can overcome anybody else.

This is why so many traditional martial arts place so much emphasis on drilling basics and kata, and why these are very often done before any partner activity.  In the modern world where there is an upsurge in what has become known as “reality based martial arts” and the pressure testing of mixed martial arts cage fighting; traditional martial arts have become seen by many as obsolete, too stylised and more for sport or self development than for real world self protection.

Note:  Reality based martial arts are often scenario based.  It may include shouting, swearing, abuse and verbal threats to psychologically prepare the defender as this is obviously more real to a street confrontation.  Sometimes even high grade martial artists do not know how to deal with this raw aggression and psychological pressure.

It is often pointed out that many traditional martial arts applications only work when the attacker is co-operative and conveniently attacks with a single straight punch (or kick) then freezes whilst the defender practices his counter.

These charges do hold a lot of merit.  However, reality based martial arts can easily be included into traditional martial arts (and in my view, should be) and there are many people researching practical applications to replace the pre-arranged stylised attacks and counters that are still very widely taught.

Traditional martial arts however, are more technique based than scenario based and goes deeply into perfection of movement.  Is this waste of time compared with learning the psychological aspects of scenario based training?

To draw an analogy, many professional dancers in the big shows, backing the world’s most famous pop stars have a foundation in ballet.  Ballet is such a precise and co-ordinated art form that once the dancer is adept in it, he/she can apply that high level of control and co-ordination to almost any other form of dance.

Some of the most charismatic actors have a background in Shakespeare.  Look at the authority and commanding screen presence of actors like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.  The classical background in most cases (dancing, acting, martial arts and others) gives the practitioner a deep foundation on which almost anything can be built.

Kevin O’Hagan, internationally renowned teacher of reality based martial arts and author of many books has said that traditional martial artists always pick up the reality based teachings more quickly than those who have not.

Seeking perfection of technique is not only developing us physically and mentally, but is actually very practical in the long term for building a foundation for self defence skills.  Over the years I have visited many martial arts clubs.  In one particular Kung Fu club, the instructor was proud to tell me that he made all his classes different every time.  He did not bore his students with endless repetition.  One of students agreed enthusiastically, telling me how he used to do Shotokan Karate and got bored drilling the same old basics every single class.  However, this student who had done the Shotokan drilling stuck out amongst the rest and was clearly better than the other students.  The repeated drilling had given him a foundation and an advantage that he had not appreciated.

I want to make clear that this is not a criticism of Kung Fu, only the way that this particular instructor taught it.

Striving for perfection, even though we know that we’ll never actually reach it, does in itself also develop a certain mindset.  A mindset of wanting to make something the best it possibly can be.  This has many connotations for other areas of our lives, be it school, work, relationships, driving, other hobbies, whatever!

The Japanese have the concept of delayed gratification.  This is also known in the West, but is not emphasised as much.  The idea is that we work at something over a period of time and delay our feeling of gratification until we have achieved it.  Like a grading for example.  Even going through the Kyu gradings (coloured belts) we have to wait 3 months in between each one.  But when we do pass it, we have a feeling of gratification which lasts.  When we get our 1st Dan the feeling of gratification is much stronger and lasts much longer.  We still have a feeling of pride years afterwards as we know that we have achieved a benchmark in our training.  For many of us, it even becomes part of how we identify ourselves, which along as it is not accompanied by arrogance is a good thing.

Too many people, especially in the West are very much into instant gratification, be it drink, drugs, sex, smoking, or just watching a good movie.  I’m not saying that these things are necessarily bad (being a normal healthy guy myself who . . . . err . . . . likes a good movie); but if they are our only sources of gratification in life, then they will be short lived as there is not much to sustain us and maintain a feeling of fulfilment from one source/event of gratification to the next.   We are therefore not really at peace with ourselves.

Having a long term goal, a long term project or training regime does give us that something to sustain us and help us maintain a feeling of fulfilment in between the other more instant sources of gratification.

There are countless things that people can work on, train for, set goals about; but few can inspire for a lifetime like martial arts.  In most sports or physical pursuits people reach a peak then tend to move on as they age.  Martial arts (when taught properly) can be adapted as we age and we can work on other aspects.  In our youth it is good to make the most of our raw athleticism of, but as we get older we may focus on for example our timing and deception.  No matter how much we know, how much we’ve trained, how much we’ve taught; there is still something else we can work on and improve however old we get.

The fact that we will never reach perfection means that we can spend our whole lifetime looking for it and rather than feeling bored we feel fulfilled the closer we get to it.  This is part of where spiritual development comes into martial arts, something often referred to but seldom explained.

Moksu: Does It Actually Have A Martial Application?

For those not familiar with the term, Moksu it is Japanese for the kneeling meditation at the beginning and end of a martial arts class.  It is often seen as just clearing the mind from the day’s ups and downs to prepare you for training.  It does of course do that, but it can actually represent a lot more in the long term.  Apart from just clearing the mind, when practiced regularly it can over time help to completely silence the mind.  Silencing the minds usual internal chatter has a feeling of peace and tranquillity (a bit like the sudden quietness of turning off a factory air conditioning system).

This can sometimes be achieved quite quickly, but sometimes it can take years.  How often have you knelt there thinking “my knees hurt”, “how long is this going on for”, “I hope we do sparring tonight” or “I hope we don’t do sparring tonight”, whatever!

Moksu is as much an exercise for the mind as a reverse punch is for the body, but it is often underrated and its potential overlooked.  We are not simply looking for peace and tranquillity (though this is a worthy achievement in itself), we are also looking to directly take back control of our own minds so that it does not undermine us at crucial times.  It is about being able to silence at will that voice in our head which undermines us.  The voice that says “I can’t do this”, “he’s bigger than me”, “I’m going to get killed here”, “he’s always picking on me”, whatever.  Gradually, bit by bit, we take this quietening of the mind more and more into the rest of our training.  It is often said that combat is more mental than physical, well Moksu is actually a practice for the mental side.

When we can free the mind of it’s internal clutter, then we can use our mind more efficiently.  We become more conscious and more aware of whatever our present situation is.

It is almost like we have 2 minds; one which is a powerful tool that we deliberately think with and one which almost acts independently of us and usually undermines us.  This undermining part of our mind is often referred to in many self development/spiritual texts as the “ego”.   It relies on past experience rather than original thought, therefore it keeps us where we are rather than allowing us to move forward.  It acts to cover up weaknesses with a false show, rather than face and conquer the weaknesses.

Unfortunately both “minds” do not work well at the same time.  When the ego is in full flow giving us negative thoughts, we find it very difficult to access the power of the deliberately thinking part of our brain or our intuition.

When facing an opponent (whether sparring or for real) we need to be able to think tactically, yet at the moment of action we need to let our intuition take over and react according to how our opponents moves (or doesn’t move).

This can of course apply to almost any part of our lives, whether it is our job, driving, relationships, school or whatever.  We always function better when we can silence the ego, think more logically and engage our intuition.  The ego left unchecked can rob us of access to these facilities, which is why people with low self esteem or those who worry a lot seem to be unable to find a way out of their situations; whether in training, street attacks, or in any other aspect of life.  You are more capable of finding solutions to problems within any area of your life when you can think clearly.  You always think more clearly when you can silence the ego.

Just to clarify, I refer to people of low self esteem above, which might on the surface at least appear to be the opposite of what we normally consider to be a person with a “big ego”.  We tend to see what we consider an egotistical person to be somebody who brags, boasts and puts on a show.  However, this kind of egotist putting on a show is in actuality usually a person of low esteem, but is putting more effort into hiding their own perceived weakness rather than facing and conquering them.  A person of low self esteem (whether they are depressive or showy) is usually focusing a large part of their conscious thought on their past experiences which they cannot escape.  They are in many respects living in the past as they measure all new experiences/challenges in terms of their previous experiences.

Now this is a very human thing to do and is very common.  But silencing that inner voice, accessing your intuition and higher intellect are the best ways to escape that cycle of living in the past and to become more conscious of your present situation (living in “the now” as some people say).  Solutions to problems (both in self protection and everyday life) appear much more readily when you are focused in the present then when you’re being held captive to your past experiences by the ego.  Moksu (or any form of meditation) is a great tool to help with that and ideally should really be practiced more often than just at the beginning and of the Karate class.

Do you practice your kicks and punches at home?  Then why not practice Moksu at home.  It may take time to produce noticeable results, but it will in time allow you to access higher martial skills by engaging intuitive responses as you stop your own ego getting in the way!