Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Respect, Open-Mindedness, and Martial Arts Dilettantism

In many ways, this is a great time to be a student of the martial arts. Thanks to Bruce Lee, the UFC, and the tough guys in the bad parts of Honolulu who melded several traditional styles into Kajukenbo, the idea of crosstraining and experimenting with different arts is usually acceptable if not encouraged. This more tolerant approach to martial dilettantism allows individuals to become more well-rounded as they explore the rich world of the fighting arts.

Of course, there can be problems as well. Some students can become plagued with a sort of martial attention deficit disorder, flitting from one art to another without really taking the time to learn anything.

Then there is the issue of respect. A little knowledge—or even a lot—can be a dangerous thing, and can lead to arrogance and closed-mindedness.

Several years ago, there was a young, douchey dude visiting Hawaii who decided to try out one of Burton Richardson's Kali classes.  Before class, I heard him talking to his girlfriend, telling her he had never practiced Kali before but he had participated in some amateur cage fights, so stickfighting should be "no problem."

Watch your head!
That bothered me. Douchey Dude's comments were arrogant and disrespectful to Burton, everyone in class, and the Filipino martial arts in general. I looked forward to sparring with him.

The end of class came and we all put on our helmets and gloves and took out the soft sticks. I don't make it a habit of going hard when sparring with newbies. With Douchey Dude, I made an exception. For better or for worse, I wanted to teach him a lesson regarding the reality of stickfighting. I sought him out as a sparring partner, and made sure to hit him on the head really hard over and over and over again. As someone said to me afterwards, "You lit him up!"

Afterwards, Douchey Dude came over to me. "Man, you kicked my ass!," he said. "You just kept hitting me on the head!" I asked what he thought of Kali. He replied that it was way harder than he expected. We shook hands and parted on good terms.

The point of this story isn't my badassery. There is a good chance that if I found myself in Douchey Dude's combat milieu, he would have had the upper hand. But here's the thing: If I found myself at his school, I wouldn't get mouthy and disrespectful.

Another, less offensive way to show disrespect when training in an unfamiliar art is to
second-guess the instructors or not follow their instructions. I recall going to a martial arts seminar featuring many different teachers. One of them was a really good boxing coach. At
one point, he was having everyone do focus mitts drills. Since he was a boxing coach and we were doing boxing drills, we all threw boxing-style punches. With one exception. A woman who clearly came from a Karate background consistently threw Karate-style punches (such as reverse punches). She got visibly frustrated because they weren't really working all that well. It wasn't that the punches themselves were somehow bad. They just weren't the right type of punches for what we were doing. She tried to shoehorn Karate into boxing instead of just going with the flow and allowing herself to try something new. While I'm sure this wasn't her intention, she was inadvertently being disrespectful to boxing and the coach. She also cheated herself out of a great learning experience.

If you are going to experiment with a new martial art, you have to be open-minded if you expect to learn anything. There is a famous story about Zen master Nan-in, who told a student, "Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?" Same goes for martial arts.
Umm... no.

This isn't to imply you can't ask questions. We don't live in The Village. You just have to go about asking your questions the right way.

If you are attending a seminar, be very restrained in your questioning. After all, time is limited. If you are actually enrolled in a class, there are more opportunities to ask questions. Just be respectful. Many people ask questions not because they want an answer, but because the question itself is a way for them to show how clever or smart they are. Incidentally, I am skeptical of martial arts instructors who discourage their students from asking questions. That's taking the whole sensei/guro/sifu mentality too  far. Class should be a place for learning, and there can be no real learning without questions.

So take advantage of all the martial arts world has to offer. Just be respectful, empty your cup, and let yourself learn something new.

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