I’ve trained in many martial arts and martial sports. Countless times I heard various senseis tell us to “keep martial intent!” While all arts and sports are designed to be practiced safely, our teachers often remind us that there is a very serious side to what we practice, and we are often reminded to keep in mind how we could use our training to more devastating impact if the stakes ever become higher.
For a very long time, I used to think that this meant I should apply (and rehearse) a certain grim imagination during my training. While punching, I should consider targets that would knock out or destroy (“one punch, one kill”). When doing a technique, particularly against somebody who was strong or skilled enough to resist me, I should look for physical targets that cannot offer resistance – spine, eyes, trachea, ear drums, pressure points, joints, etc. I think that most people trying to add a “martial” component to their training operate in this mindspace, and certainly any martial artist who is impressed with his or her ability to be dangerous will be quick to list the ways they can destroy an attacker – the old “I know 100 ways to kill you” routine. I don’t know, maybe some version of this is a stage all martial artists have to work through.
However, as gained more experience as a martial artist and lost my need to prove myself, and as I gained more responsibility as a teacher, this attitude changed for me – and I think I gained a much deeper understanding of what “martial intent” really means.
Most of us don’t pay attention to how close we are standing to the edge of the cliff.
I honestly believe that practice in the various martial arts I’ve pursued in my life were really quite safe (statistically speaking) – I am certain that I saw more frequent and equally devastating injuries in the high school sports I participated in (tennis, volleyball etc.) than in these arts which ostensibly were designed to cause injury. I like to think I have always been a safe and conscientious training partner, causing few injuries to others and that I have done a very good job of preventing lasting injury to myself. That being said, I’ve been training for 37 years, I’ve always trained with a high level of seriousness and energy, and as a result I’ve been at “ground zero” for a lot of devastating injuries resulting in hospitalization. Every single one of these injuries happened between well-intentioned partners trying to practice “safe technique” but whose focus lapsed at the wrong time. I have been personally involved in dozens of close calls where only being really really focused and well trained and lucky prevented death or maiming – yet still I was not unscathed. Here are a few examples that are always close to my memory:
- I’ve seen a man (a senior student) receive permanent, personality-altering brain injury from helping a kohai practice hip throws.
- I spent 10 years in physical therapy and 10 more in recovery from a blown out knee resulting from showing a new student (kohai) how to do slow, basic leg sweeps – the student lost her balance and fell on me. Even though I outweighed her by 80 pounds, my knee spread open like a rubber band.
- I have seen knees and ankles bent sideways or backwards on about 4 different occasions from the simple act of walking and moving under pressure in training – with no help from an opponent needed – resulting in ACL replacements, multiple surgeries, and decades of grueling therapy and recovery and permanent loss of function.
- I have been the recipient of, and been the accidental deliverer of, relatively light arm and elbow techniques (hiji nage, shiho nage) that left the recipient wearing orthopedic braces for up to a year.
- I have had contact lenses removed from my eyes by weapons and punches (and from my partners’ eyes). That’ll wake you up, I guarantee you.
- I have had weapons defenses where the opponent accidentally stabbed themselves in more creative ways than I can describe. I have a small scar over my eye where I once did a really good job taking a practice knife away from a senior student who was attacking with intent – the knife bounced erratically and with more energy than anyone would expect.
- I came so close to killing or maiming a senior student during a high-speed weapons practice who just “spaced out” and canceled a block at precisely the wrong moment that it left me shaking and awake all night. It was only my training and focus (and admittedly luck of the moment) that turned a killing strike to the temple into gentle “caress” from the sword.
- I have dislocated partners’ shoulders and kneecaps from practicing the most basic and gentle techniques that you can imagine – including techniques where I wasn’t even touching my partner (their grip alone).
- I have seen shattered shoulders, broken clavicles and dislocations from simple rolls and slow arm techniques.
- I saw a trained kickboxer go into spasms from falling on his neck after a relatively gentle ura nage (back throw) by a much smaller person – yes, the technique where all you have to do is sit down to be safe.
- I’ve seen people lose teeth surprisingly easily, and I won’t even get into broken noses, “gushers”, or scalp and face cuts that resulted in stitches and visits to the E.R.
- I have received broken ribs and broken bones more times than I can count – and always in regular, “safe” keiko. I have, without exaggeration, come closer to having my neck broken more times than I want to think about.
If you have ever been involved in situations like these, you know that you do not have to be taught how to recreate them – the “how to” is already seared on your memory.
In writing even this short list down, I probably am giving the impression that It’s really risky to train near me – but if you have been training any length of time yourself, you probably were nodding your head while reading that list and thinking of similar experiences where you were at “ground zero” yourself and saw, or had, close calls.
“Martial Intent” means vigilance, compassion, and taking responsibility
Over time, the awareness of my responsibility for those moments grew, even if they only happened in my proximity, between other students, as most were. I stopped thinking about what I could do to make my techniques more dangerous if I needed them to be, and started remembering the sound of a friend or student laying on the ground, shrieking in maddening pain from a life-altering injury so bizarre and severe that it was impossible to wrap my head around. I started to recognize a particular sickening category of sounds – crunches, snaps, whines, that would make my stomach flip and my skin turn cold. I started to pay more notice to, and remember, the months and months of recovery and braces and doctor visits from close calls that I saw happen. And somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that human beings are incredibly fragile, and that the purpose of my training was to prevent injury, not generate it.
If you are impressed with how much of a bad-ass you are because of how badly you can hurt someone, you haven’t had to deal with one of these situations or had to sit in an ambulance or E.R. with a good friend. If you are still willing and interested in getting better at intentionally destroying another human being after going through that, there is something very unbalanced with you.
To me, “martial intent” doesn’t mean an awareness of how to be more lethal, it means a vigilance and an awareness of the fragility of human beings. It is my job as a teacher and training partner to always be aware of, and protect my partners’ vulnerabilities. I know, from all my experiences, that for me to be lethal because the stakes are higher all I have to do is withhold the care and caution I am taking to protect my partner. This is not ego, this is just the realization that all of us are very, very brittle things.
People sometimes ask me how I prepare for teaching class, how I select my techniques and lessons and plan. This isn’t the answer I usually give, but inside my head the very first thing I tell myself is “today, I’m going to make sure nobody goes to the hospital.” The one class where I let my focus slip as teacher might be the night I regret for the rest of my life.
I suppose you can ask, “how can you live like that?” “How can you always be in fear of hurting someone during training?” “Wouldn’t that cripple your training?” To me, there is no fear, there is only responsibility and vigilance. I protect my partners not by holding back or doing less, but by being more focused and more aware – never asleep, never not paying attention with my whole being. The training is no less beautiful or joyful or intense for the knowledge of the potential dangers that the training brings. I believe deeply in the purpose of the training and the art, and the impact I am having on people’s lives. Being aware of the constant threat of injury does not mean submitting to fear of it; rather, it requires a cold acceptance of its presence and a commitment to personal responsibility while pursuing a greater goal.
Vigilance doesn’t end with the Dojo
If I haven’t convinced you that the distinction is important, perhaps the next discussion will. I practice and teach Aikido as an art of living; that means how we deal with problems in the dojo is how we deal with problems out of the dojo.
Outside the dojo, the people we love the most are the ones who are most able to hurt us – our friends, our family, our spouses. Imagine if you built your marriage always considering what you could do to really hurt the feelings of your spouse if you needed to…. what a horrible relationship that would be! I’ve been married for 20 years, with the same partner for around 25. During that relationship, there were many unintended lapses of good judgment, moments where I said or did the wrong thing out of thoughtlessness and carelessness that temporarily put our relationship “in the E.R.” Obviously, our relationship was strong enough to recover – but not without hard work and healing, and I suppose a few scars. I like to think I have gotten much better at being vigilant and always aware of the vulnerabilities of my partner – the many ways where should I lose focus, my actions can be responsibility for causing pain to my wife and injury to our marriage. I do not live “tiptoe-ing” around, my marriage is full of love and humor and beauty; but I am aware that the marriage is something that can be broken or hurt through carelessness, and I have a responsibility to be alert against that happening.
To achieve completeness as a martial artist, one must cultivate a ever-present awareness of vulnerability, and one’s own responsibility in protecting them – whether they be our own vulnerabilities or somebody else’s.
Thanks to Dakota Noel, Barry Engh, Matt Stephen, and Alan Abelson for after-class conversation on this topic, and motivating me to get my thoughts down.