Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Martial Arts Refinery

I think that an interesting way to look at martial arts would be to think of it as a teacher. I once read a book that talked about personal 'master teachers', which were described as more esoteric and intangible things, such as emotions, id, and ego, but seriously, if you think about it, martial arts can also be thought of as a teacher.

Every time I step on the mat, I learn something. First I learn the obvious things that everybody else can see, such as kicks, throws, kata, and whatnot, but I also always learn something about myself, as well. Not everybody can see what I learn about myself, but I can see it, and I make it a priority to take those lessons and apply them to my life.

There's something about my martial arts journey, though, that I find sort of amusing, and that's my semi-obsessive want to know for sure that I've become a martial artist and not someone who just does martial arts. It's funny because I have this nagging feeling that, like with music, there is never a given point where one becomes a martial artist.

But see, that's not because martial arts doesn't change you. The name of our school is 'Martial Arts Refinery' and I used to think that the reason it's called 'Refinery' is because, as a martial artist, you are constantly refining your technique. There is no set destination; there is always something to learn and improve.

It's interesting that now I'm discovering that it's the other way around; martial arts refines you, too. It's an interesting relationship, though, because martial arts only teaches you what you want to know. Yes, it shows you everything about yourself; there are no secrets...but it never forces. Never pushes. You are the one who pushes. And why do you push? Because after a while, you realize that not pushing wouldn't be fair to yourself. That by not pushing, you are holding yourself back. Stunting your growth. It took me about five minutes to learn that on the mat, but it's taken me eighteen years to learn to start applying it to situations in my own life.

Anyway, I rambled. The reason that my semi-obsession with wanting to know when I've officially become a martial artist is funny is because it's an endless uphill climb. I find myself saying, "Okay, I got ___ belt, I must be a martial artist now!" and then something great happens and I learn something really great, that tops that achievement and I say, "Never mind, that doesn't make me a martial artist, this does." It's a great and wonderful up-cycle that, I think, never ends. Because the learning never ends. I will always learn something new and then I'll be forced to say it again: "Okay, now I'm a martial artist..."

It's as if I'll never be a martial artist, but I will always be one, at the same time.

Also, martial arts doesn't ask anything in return. There's nothing for it to gain from my learning, but there is infinite wisdom for me to gain through learning, refining, and being refined by it.

Anyway, I'm really glad that I'm doing it. Even if it scares me sometimes with its honesty and straightforwardness. Even when I have to say, 'next time, I'll be better'. The fact that I can say that at all is a teaching victory in and of itself.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Sparring and the art of not running away

Sparring is hard.

Yep. That's it; that's the whole entry. I'm done.
Nah, just kidding. But really, I've learned that sparring doesn't just come naturally; unless you're practiced in it (like with most things), you'll find yourself getting hit a lot. Unfortunately getting hit a lot is something that I try to avoid, naturally. 

Of course, with sparring, pain is unavoidable. Which I don't like.
The only way to practice sparring is to get hit a lot. For someone like me, who is...well...not a big fan of pain, this creates a high-threat situation. In short, it freaks me out and I want to run away!
So basically, I'm a martial arts enthusiast that likes everything except...fighting.

But anyway, sparring is also hard because when you're in the moment, it's very easy for your mind to go completely blank. Conversely, it's also possible to have a complete overload of options where you're overwhelmed into inaction...and then you get hit. I think this is why repetition and refinement of a few choice techniques is extremely important.

While I was waiting to spar with Zach today, I was thinking about how I could set up an axe kick and completely surprise him, but my first priority is to not get hit. Of course, that itself is a recipe for inaction and...well, I lost that match, but my point is, I didn't do the axe kick because it was easier to do a front kick. Why? Not because I don't know how to do an axe kick; not because it was physically easier to do a front kick in that position, but because my mind went directly to the kick that I knew would deliver the results that I wanted. Axe kicks are flashy and are also very effective if done at the right moment, but there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that the front kick would've landed and scored me a point.

The axe kick might have given me the element of surprise, but I wasn't thinking about that. My mind went straight to whatever was at the front of my 'bag of tricks', as Sensei calls it. I suppose we could chalk that up to being in the moment, because when you get the adrenaline rush and your brain goes into overdrive, in any situation, thinking clearly is a very hard thing to do. There's hardly any time to think, "Okay, well this kick would be better than this kick in this situation" if the other guy is about to hit you. You're going to do the reflexive thing, and for me, that was the front kick and NOT the axe kick...Even though the axe kick might have been a better choice.

So, the reason that this entry is called "Sparring and the art of not running away" is because the first thing at the top of my list, at the moment, is to not get hit under any circumstance. This, I've found, is a recipe for disaster and I'm trying to change it. Or perhaps I'm not trying to change it, but I'm trying to think of ways to work around it. Changing instinct is extremely hard. Nobody wants to get hurt, no matter what they've trained themselves to do. It's the 'training yourself' thing that I'm struggling with.

I don't have to like getting hit, but I can teach myself to think away from instinct. Perhaps what I need to do is to practice applying the axe kick to more situations. Maybe I need to practice my crescent kicks and my hook kicks as often as I practice my front kicks. I need to find a way to make those other kicks reflexive. And maybe I need to practice getting hit so that I can better recognize the difference between a threatening and a non-threatening situation.

Truthfully, at this point, I'd rather run away from a sparring match than actually make a move. I'd rather block everything, time-out, and have nobody score...but that's unrealistic and it defeats the purpose of sparring, which is to practice applying what you know.
And since getting hit is unavoidable, I suppose there's no point in being hesitant.

But anyway, martial arts is teaching me a lot about courage. And about learning how to think away from instinct. Every time I practice sparring, I learn something. It's win-win, even when I get hit. That doesn't make getting hit feel any better, but at least I know that there's always something to gain from it.

I suppose it's all a matter of perspective.