Posted by: B Gourley | October 13, 2011

4 Martial Arts Lessons Applicable to Everyday Life

Martial arts teach lessons that can be applied to many aspects of life.

1.) A strike on one’s mind gets one two in the lip.

This will be readily apparent to those who practice sparring or other free-form training (randori keiko). When one is struck, if one cannot stay in the moment, one is likely to experience a death spiral of incompetence. Often the source of this obsession is not fear of getting a bruised body, but of getting a bruised ego. By the time one is sparring and / or practicing free-form grappling, one probably has some level of competence with respect to absorbing an attack, and one is likely training with people who have reasonably high levels of control over their own bodies and movements. However, a student may still be worried about who saw the blow land and how he or she is perceived as a result. 

One of the gifts from lifelong martial arts training is the opportunity to be hit a lot. That may sound crazy, but one increasingly learns that in a fight, or even in sparring, one will get hit or kicked. It’s a given. These beatings help one to lose one’s attachment to being unsullied.

While taking a hit may not be your bag, the abstraction of this lesson is to learn to operate outside one’s comfort zone. You may come across people who are quite proud to say, “I’ve never failed a test in my life.”

My response to such a statement would be,  “Oh. How very sad for you.”

If you’ve never failed at anything, you haven’t lived to the edge of your capabilities, and you have no idea what you’re capable of. I’m not saying one should make a life path of doing the things you do poorly, or that one shouldn’t intensely cultivate that which one does well. I’m merely suggesting that at sometime during your life you need to go to the places that scare you rather than hovering in the middle of your comfort zone. Of course, one must realize that comfort zones are situational. There are people who can maintain composure and respond smoothly and appropriately while being attacked with a baseball bat or knife, but who are absolute disasters at public speaking. Conversely, there are some who can boldly get up and give a speech in front of millions, who would literally piss themselves when facing the aforementioned weapons. Being able to do either of those activities well is worthy of respect, but a person who is willing to try the one that is painfully challenging is even more deserving of respect.

2.) If it’s broken, don’t marry it.

Grapplers may be most familiar with this lesson. Say one is trying to apply a lock or throw but it’s not working, so one knuckles down and muscles up. At this point, if one is lucky, one’s opponent is only simulating (or lightly) pummeling one about the head and neck. Note: I’m not suggesting this is a universal dogma. One doesn’t want to develop the habit of giving up on everything when it seems to be failing, but there are a couple key guidelines. Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” So the first thing one must consider is whether one is making a change that can earn a different outcome.  The second thing one must consider is that there are situations in which one’s window to achieve success is quite small, and, in such cases, wasting time on a failed approach is a certain path to failure. The example of grappling locks and throws that I used above remains informative. Depending upon what type of technique one is using, one has a slim instant to exploit during which the opponent is off-balance, writhing or tensing in pain, or both of the above in which to set up one’s technique. If you haven’t gotten it done by the time that instant flickers out, you need to have moved on to the next tack.

3.) Keep your head in the game until the fat lady is in her dressing room with her corset on the floor. 

There is a concept in budō called zanshin, which refers to the “lingering spirit.”  I think in past blog posts I’ve mentioned the samurai adage, “Even in victory, cinch tight one’s helmet cords.”  In the training hall, we begin and end the practice of technique with a bow to our training partner, and at no point in between those bows is relaxing one’s vigilance or being distracted appropriate. When the opponent is on the ground and / or in a lock or choke, one must still treat the engagement as a matter of life and death.

I think this conditioning is important to avoid the temptation to slack off. There are many activities outside the dōjō in which there is also a temptation to treat an inappropriate benchmark as the end. Teenagers often get into trouble when they see that graduation seems to be a lock. When one knows one is leaving a job, there is a temptation to go about one’s work in a half-assed manner. In the military we called this “short-timer’s disease” – when all one’s energies go into preparing for life after the military or at one’s new duty assignment.  

4.) Be attentive in small matters.

Americans (and this could be applied to other Westerners as well) have an interesting and somewhat (for lack of a better word) ambivalent relationship with old style Japanese martial arts. On one hand, to the degree that there is an interest in these arts, it is often disproportionately Western. I have trained in a dōjō in Japan in which there were eight students training at the time and only one of them was Japanese, and I have been told by others who are more broadly experienced that this is not uncommon. For Westerners,  budō offers a path to composure under fire that has appeal in a modern society where such opportunities are not inherent (our lives generally don’t require us to hunt for food or build our own shelter, and so we look for means to build a core self-confidence rooted in being master of one’s domain.)

However, on the other hand, the fastidiousness and deferential nature of the Japanese are anathema to Americans generally. As an example, most of the American teachers I have trained under seem to consider being called Sensei more cringe-inspiring than respectful. As a result, most American students, myself included, tend to avoid such honorifics with their Western teachers, even if they use these terms with their Japanese teachers. For my part, I can say that I  always call my Japanese teacher by an honorific, but almost never do so with an American teacher (and when I do it is at times of light conversation and is intended to watch them cringe). Of course, this is not just restricted to the domain of martial arts; in academia, some Professors are uncomfortable with titles such as “Professor” or “Doctor” as well.  This has nothing whatsoever to do with me respecting an American teacher less, but rather respecting that person enough to not seek to make them feel awkward (in a training environment.)

Why does this dual-standard exist? Because Confucian values hold a measure of sway in the culture and minds of the Japanese and many other Asians, but American culture is quite different. Americans, from our nation’s founding, have been inculcated to the idea that, on some level, all individuals are equal. While perceptions of the meaning of this equality vary considerably, there seems to be consensus that – as a minimum – there must be a uniformly applied rule of law, and that in matters in which control is exercised over an individual it will be done so only in accordance with said laws. That is, rights are not something granted us by the grace of superiors, but rather are an inherent feature of one’s existence. While it may be true that there was talk of offering Washington a kingship (a notion he rejected), America was founded with a foul taste in its mouth about the idea of superior and inferior classes of people. In Confucian societies, however, it is expected that both extra rights and extra responsibilities are a feature of being in a dominant position in a relationship.

My own view is that I should overcome my own discomfort with honorifics with teachers who are comfortable with them, and avoid them with those who are not. I will readily admit my preference for the American mode of thought where honorifics are concerned (both as a teacher and a student), but I wouldn’t arrogantly declare my worldview uniformly superior for all.

The preceding discussion was all by way of starting to talk about another element of Japanese martial arts that also comes difficult for Americans, but which I have found to have great value. That is, being attentive in small matters. I’m not entirely certain why this is so hard for many American students, but there seems to be a certain irreverent devil-may-care attitude inherent in the American spirit – for good or bad. I would suspect that when the average American hears the ostensibly neutral terms “fastidious” or “meticulous”, they don’t instinctively think of them as neutral character traits but rather as negative traits. Americans rail against “bean-counters” and “fine-print.” Being fastidious may not make one hated, but it does make one a target for ridicule. 

So why should one concern oneself with meticulous concern for life’s minutiae? In the interest of full-disclosure, I’ll admit it took me almost a week to master the “slipper scheme” of Japan (i.e. there are indoor slippers, outdoor slippers, and toilet slippers and there is no overlap in the Venn diagram for where each can be worn [for all I know the 3-slipper scheme is a dumbing down in efforts to be kind to gaijin  – this gaijin has trouble enough with left-slipper and right-slipper.]) Having made my disclosure, I will reiterate that I think attention to small details has great value. Eventually, it is hoped, one will achieve a confidence that is born of a composed mind and an inherent understanding, and acceptance, of one’s strengths and weaknesses. However, in the beginning (perhaps for decades), one may have to “fake it till you make it.” The young often do this with arrogance (which I’ll define as irrational exuberance in one’s capabilities), but arrogance has a lot of negative side-effects – in addition to people wanting to choke the life out of you. For some reason, attention to detail (how one stands, where one stands, how one holds a weapon, what one says when one bows to a training partner, what one says and at what time, how one stows a weapon, etc.) helps train in composure.  I think it does this by allowing one to know exactly what to do so that one can do it precisely and without awkwardness. As one begins to eliminate awkwardness, one gains a certain tranquility of mind. Also, the benefits of precision of movement are probably tied to avoiding the need to rush that is so prevalent in American society. Rushing, which is part and parcel of modern life everywhere it seems, brings with it a tendency toward being flustered.

These are among the most important lessons that I have received, and continue to receive, from practicing martial arts.



  1. hi to all shoshinbudo.wordpress.comers this is my frst post and thought i would say hello to you all –
    thank yous speak soon

  2. Hi my name is Eric. I Really like your blog. I def. will be visiting often to read more.

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