One of the great benefits of martial training is discovering a new internal strength, a redefining of who you are based on confidence and complete inner certainty of your ability to face challenges. As you approach black belt, you have been tested many times, you increasingly know in your heart that you are a bright spark in any crowd and that you can stand tall in any situation.
As you find new strength inside you, you also discover that other people subtly start treating you differently. It is mostly a subconscious reaction; they mostly don’t know why you stand out, but people respond more positively to you, think more positively about you, afford you more respect, defer to you, even if they know nothing about your martial accomplishments. As a rule, you like this new version of yourself, and this new way you fit into the world.
Unfortunately, as you discover these new strengths and confidence, you may not realize something else is happening. Before you start noticing that people are treating you differently, a seed has already been planted in your subconscious to make you respond to, and crave increased respect and deference from others. This feedback loop is probably something programmed into us after millions of years evolving as hierarchical, social animals. It becomes a subtle motivator, and without you realizing it can start to define your objectives and relationships with others, and it can wrap a hidden insecurity (fear that others don’t sufficiently respect you) in a cloak of ego and self-blindness.
Saotome Sensei says that the goal of martial training is martial wisdom; discovering deep spiritual insights through pitting yourself against challenges of physical opposition and adversity. It is the pursuit of a perceptiveness of motivations, and emotional strengths and weaknesses, and how they will cause an opponent to act and react. It is a ruthless self examination of one’s own motivations and programmed reactions so one can remove vulnerabilities and emotional triggers that can be used against you, or reveal your intentions, or limit your options or ability to freely adapt. According to Sensei, it is this ability to instantly and intuitively read the whole of a person which gives true advantage when facing a foe on a battlefield who may not even speak your language and is likely trying to conceal their intents.
The essence of martial vision (sho bu) is clarity of perception. That is why in every Shinto shrine and many dojo kamiza there is a small mirror. One can only gain a clear and accurate view of oneself (and the world around one) if the mirror is perfectly spotless and clear. However, the real lesson is that the mirror is already clear; it is our eyes that may be cloudy. To clean the mirror, we must make ourselves clear, polished.
Physiologically, I am very nearsighted (myopic); my prescription is -7.0 diopters, which works out to something like 20:700 vision (what a normal person could read at 700 feet, I would need to be at 20 feet to see as clearly). I wasn’t always that way, my vision slowly worsened in grade school slowly enough that I never noticed there was a problem. It was the others around me… My parents, my friends, my teachers, who noticed the weakness of my vision, the problems it was causing me, and the increasingly extreme steps I was taking to compensate for my changing problem. Of course, when I got my first glasses, it was shocking how different the world appeared to me; things were not exactly as I had thought of them, and of course it opened new vistas (pun intended) and capabilities for me.
Thus it is with the murky mirror of the spirit, and the sneaky myopia of self reflection that comes along with blossoming of the martial student. We cultivate a self image of propriety (we are each our own hero), and embrace a blindness and intolerance of things that challenge that image.
I do not make any claim of spiritual attainment, but I do know a bit about my own shortsightedness. I see many of the traps that appear before me that flatter my ego and entice me to chase different rewards and recognition, or even just to justify resting on my past accomplishments. The traps I see frighten me about the traps I don’t see, which I may have already fallen victim to. But, sometimes, in parts of my mirror I have scrubbed at, I can sometimes catch surprising insights about others. While I have not had call to test them on the battlefield, I am regularly called to use them to become a better teacher, to perceive the directions I must take to help each student find what they need, to see their insecurities and aspirations and destructive patterns and unique strengths, and help them find the motivation to persevere down their own path.
For me, it helps to have more tools for scrubbing my mirrors than only critical self examination – that gets tiresome! I think my greatest tools include the ability to not take myself too seriously, to have a sense of humor and laugh at my mistakes (my wife assures me that somewhere in our wedding vows she took an oath to give me a hard time and not let me get too full of myself. I don’t remember that being part of the ceremony, but she has a better memory than I do). To laugh at everything really. To be brave and allow myself to make mistakes in front of my students, and own up to them. To have compassion for the mistakes and struggles and inner demons of others.
I also find that it’s very valuable to find balance in life, particularly in one’s fields of endeavor. If students can take their newfound strength, constancy, determination, and confidence and apply it to some other part of their lives – their career, their community, their other hobbies – I think they often find that some of their insecurities are taken away. They don’t have to rely upon your martial arts students or colleagues to feed their self respect, because they have cultivated other domains in their lives where they have successes and the regard and deference of others. And in turn, because they don’t need their martial community to define their sense of accomplishment, their sense of balanced inner security can actually help them become a better martial artist. Insights from their other pursuits can not only help them overcome learning plateaus and obstacles in their training, they can define the unique personality (expression, style, whatever) of how each student’s art art is expressed. It can be a virtuous circle, and I usually can see a certain calm satisfaction and strength in those that have traveled far on many paths.
The Tale of Sir Lancelot.
The path of the warrior is an opportunity for gaining incredible insight and perception. Revel in the fruits of your efforts, but keep an eye on the real objective… A spotless mirror. Perspective and perception are some of the most precious things we can cultivate in this life.
This article was not intended as a sermon. Instead, it was meant to share with my friends and students some of the things I am thinking about, some of the meaningful things that have presented themselves in my path, and to take ownership of my own shortcomings.