Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ramblings: Bullshido

I've participated in martial arts for a long while now. I feel confident that I'm an expert, even though I've never been in a real fight. The reason why I'm an expert in martial arts is because really the only guaranteed way to win a fight is to not engage in fighting. The martial arts are meant to keep people safe; I've led a very safe life. I can stand up for what I believe in and confront people without being confrontational. I can destroy my enemies by making them friends. It's a much more long term approach to violence I feel.

As for the actual dirty work of failing to get along with people, failing to see ahead, failing to find common ground and finally having to resort to hitting people, well I appreciate that what knowledge I have in that is more theoretical than practical. But to get actual practical experience in actually being in danger and actually getting out of danger I would have to actually put myself in danger. Which runs contrary to the martial arts. See the dilemma for anyone who actually thinks about these things...

There is a message board. I know what you're thinking: message board, place where the nameless and faceless meet on matters so important that you never think to see who it is you're actually talking to. But this board is special. Bullshido exists to try and combat all the assumptions in the martial arts that cause reasonable people to be even worse off in a fight: by giving the wrong impression that they know what they're getting into. This was a noble endeavour. But like so many things on the Web, the site went viral. And now a cause started out of love for something slowly transformed into something more or less driven by hate. Someone cared enough about the martial arts to say "Hey that guys teaching shit, listen to your heart and head first!" and that's where it started. Now it basically amounts to "That guys doing something different than what I think works ergo he's full of shit!" It's become a game, a game to see who can discredit something without any experience in it first.

And for what really? The momentary self-gratification that comes with the insignificant, biased self-assurance that what you're learning is the truth and what everyone else is learning is "bullshido"? Is that supposed to make you more dangerous, more safe? The martial arts are a physical undertaking. All the talk and all the reading in the world isn't going to make you an authority on it. No one's punch or ground game ever got better by spending 3 minutes to write a post about how this style or teacher is full of crap. And even if you fought the guy and beat him, does that mean that your style is better? Or does it just mean you were better than him today? If you lose, should you call the dude "master"?

Bullshido used to be a place by which those with no experience who wanted to start into the combat arts could get some sage warnings about what to look out for, where to start. Now its little more than a clique: like the 'plastics' in Tina Fey's 'Mean Girls', trying to validate themselves by invalidating as much around them as possible.

Which brings me back to my original point. The only certainty in the martial arts. Don't have to fight! People who don't have to fight never lose. People who only fight when its the last resort don't get sued! We like to think that there are more certainties than that: fights going to the ground, knives coming out of boots, tasers putting someone down - but that's all theoretical. Fighting is like water running down a hill. It never takes the same path but the result is always the same. Water runs downhill. People who fight get hurt. To assume anything else is to be full of as much "bullshido" as anyone else. They see a vidclip of some new martial art or some fool claiming to be a master, and it isn't enough just to be skeptical - they have to be outright hostile, certain that there's nothing of any value in it. Which sounds to me the way most older martial arts reject out of hand anything different that comes along. The new martial tradition has come full circle, and become the thing it despised...

Lindsay Lohan (of all people) said it best in Mean Girls: calling something stupid doesn't make you smarter, calling someone ugly doesn't make you prettier. All the posts on Bullshido claiming something is fake doesn't make the posters more legit. All the posts saying someone is weak doesn't make them stronger. I just hope they spend as much time thinking about which techniques will work 100% of the time as they spend writing about which techniques of other people will fail 100% of the time. Because at the end of the day, after we've put down every fighting style and teacher in the world, there will still be just that one technique that will definitely guarantee victory. And you can't practise it on a punching bag...

Ramblings: How not to fight I

So as you may have guessed, I like karate. I consider it the closest thing to a system of faith, a philosophy that I believe in. The reason I like it so is because 1) it doesn't explain everything and 2) what it does explain, it explains through sweat. Not abstraction but concrete example. Marx, Hegel...they could talk your ear off about how the world works and a lot of what they say would make sense. But reasoning, no matter how powerful and able the mind always becomes faulty because at one point people rely on it too much. They rely on deductive methods when induction is needed, or they try to solve emotional issues with rational solutions or they become fascinated so much with theory that they ignore practice. Basically, something starts working, an idea, a strategy, and they try to apply it to everything. "-isms": rationalism, materialism, dialectism, humanism...Always remember - ism is what you put on the end of an idea that's been taken too far. An idea that has lost perspective, lost an appreciation of it's place in an immense world. An idea that has lost Balance.

Karate (the physical system) and karate-do (that is, the philosophical underpinnings of the 'when' and 'why' and 'how' of violence) is all about balance. Physical balance is essential to properly bring to bear the forces of the body. Mental or spiritual balance is essential to using violence in a limited way. And I feel that quality karate training is set apart from other competitive and sporting endeavors of high caliber by this dual nature (I specifically mention 'quality' and 'high caliber' to distinguish good teachers from people whose claims exceed their abilities). How many times have you played chess with someone and known they were going to make a bad move? At these special times you can see someone's mind at work, you can see what they see and what they can't. How many of us have felt the exhilaration of diving to catch a ball, taking a man off the dribble, throwing a tight spiral on a slant, crossing a finish line first? We get a measure of ourselves in our competition with others, an honest appraisal of where we stand, completely devoid of self-deception.

I'm not saying that karate or martial training is better than chess or baseball. I'm not trying to say that a chess player can't be athletically gifted or that a baseball player never sees the game one step ahead of the other guy. The point is that you can go extreme and excel at both of them. You can 'juice' in baseball and be the best home run hitter of all time, and never be considered one of the greatest players. Likewise, we see big men in the NBA with no basketball IQ, surviving on genetically given height and athletic skill alone. A grandmaster in chess need never have done a pushup in his/her life. No balance. I like karate training because you can't be good in karate with either just your body or your head. You have to have both - you have to be looking to strengthen both all the time.

This is a unique aspect of fighting. In solely athletic or competitive pursuits the consequence of losing is slight. A damaged ego and disappointment - the occasional, unintended injury at worst. Because the stakes are relatively small, reflection and contemplation of the undertaking isn't necessary. But there's something about physical violence, pain and the threat of bodily harm that sharpens the mind. That calls it to service and opens an awareness that other undertakings simply do not. In fighting, physical skill set always takes you so far. Roy Jones Jr immediately comes to mind. The speed diminishes, the success follows. Contrast him with Ali who fights dramatically different early and late in his career. Butterfly floating and bee stinging gave way to roping and doping. His physical gifts dominated early, his mental strength won late. Both are indispensable to any meaningful combative training.

"You cannot truly know someone unless you fight them" is the saying from the Matrix sequel that Seraph utters to Neo. That line embodies much of my thinking about the merit of Karate. In looking into someone's eyes, seeing them move, gauging their intent, understanding distance, moving economically there is a form of honesty between two people that I haven't seen anywhere else. Just like chess, where you can see what someone is thinking, but like baseball, where you're moving and physical. Who someone is when they fight - when skin is in the game - is who they'll be when the chips are down. Do they plod headlong, irrespective of the chance of losing? Do they smile even when faced with defeat? Do they give ground, shying away from confrontation? Do they hit you repeated after you've been downed? Do they help you up once you've fallen? Here a person's character comes naturally to the fore, unrestrained by rules reserved for other sports. It becomes easy to see what kind of person you are because your personality is reflected in your fighting and by extension, how your personality harmonizes or clashes with other personalities. It's more than just dealing with violence. Essentially it is about dealing with people.

In discussing karate (as with many things) it is always important to distinguish between a thing and the teaching of a thing. Karate is ultimately more than just a word, or a set of actions, a way of thinking, or a compilation of postures. Karate is what a karateka, a practitioner, makes of it. It would be convenient to say that it is one thing that is unchanging and static, easily identified and characterized. But with each karateka, a little of themselves is rubbed onto the body of knowledge and through its future dissemination, what karate 'is' is altered going forward.

This distinction, between what it is and how it is taught, establishes to my mind the difference between training and 'quality' training - 'quality' training being obviously the goal of any karateka. Because of the industrialization and commercialization of the practice, undoubtedly much of karate training does not satisfy the criteria for quality training. First to go is usually the philosophical underpinnings of fighting, karate-do. Much karate training is just that, training to fight using karate motions and physical fitness methods passed down through time. To teach only the physical aspect of karate is to teach even less than half of what karate is: the mental and physical dimensions synergize to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. To teach someone how to fight without teaching them when to fight, why to fight or what to fight for doesn't make the world any better, it may make the world a little worse.

I suppose it would be more accurate to say that while karate is about how to fight, karate-do is about how not to fight - that is, how to avoid and prevent violence. It is a distinction that seems lost on many – even those who have devoted years to studying karate (more to come). But when both are taught together and feed off one another, it becomes one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever known.


- KD