The Soul of Martial Arts

The Soul of Martial Arts

Before Enlightenment,

chop wood carry water.

After Enlightenment,

chop wood carry water.

– Zen proverb

One of the first teachings that was hammered into my skull when I first started training in martial arts was that a black belt means nothing. Well, nothing beyond the completion of a particular curriculum anyway. Just as with any school, some students graduate with knowledge they have truly internalized, while others pass because they were able to memorize and regurgitate the material. The valedictorian and remedial student both have their diplomas, but that doesn’t make their accomplishments equal. Bruce Lee said he would be more afraid to fight an angry 300-pound truck driver than any arbitrary black belt.

The second philosophical pebble crammed into my brain hole was that the real journey of becoming a martial artist starts at black belt. Where I train, the average black belt takes between six and eight years to complete, which is the equivalent of earning many doctorate degrees. So, you may be asking, what takes so long to learn that you only begin your real training after so many years?


It’s a concept that seems to have lost much of its meaning in a world of instant gratification. Microwaves. Drive-thrus. Online shopping. Netflix. Facebook. Twitter. The slogan “bigger is better” has gone the way of the dodo (except in Texas) and been replaced by “faster is better.”

But there’s a not-so-secret secret that every successful artist, martial or otherwise, has learned through hours and hours of excruciating hard work. It’s also one of the biggest clichés that is drilled into every child in every sport, musical genre, or artistic discipline. Practice makes perfect.

And that’s not even true. Not really. Practice makes you better, but not perfect. Perfection implies an objective ideal, which doesn’t really exist. (I’ll save the epistemological discussion for real philosophers). Who wants to be perfect though? That seems really boring to me, like playing a video game on God mode. Sure it’s fun at first, but without a challenge the fun doesn’t really last.

It’s perseverance – not luck -that is the real key to any artistic success. And it’s hard. In the never ending pursuit of perfection, YOU WILL FAIL. And you’ll fail again. And probably some more after that. But if you can use that failure as a tool for improvement rather than an impediment, your skill will undoubtedly grow over time. So what’s the trick to persevering in a world that values instant gratification?

Create a habit.

Whether it’s going to class on the same days every week, or sitting down to write in the same place at the same time every day, a ritual of practice makes perseverance a hell of a lot easier. You don’t have to think about what you’re going to do or how long to do it. If you have a ritual in place, all you have to do is show up and the results will manifest. But you have to put in the time.

Bruce Flying KickBefore I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick.

After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick. — Bruce Lee

Art is the unending search for truth in an infinite desert of uncertainty. Truths build upon other truths, but there is no ultimate key to omniscience. We can either persever to grow and discover as much as possible, or we can give up and settle for a small but limited oasis of contentment. For some, that’s enough. For me, it’s a waste of the precious life I’ve been given. Death is one of the first and most undeniable truths.

Martial arts has given me a tangible model for success in many areas of my life. I’ve learned to never stop fighting. I’ve learned to practice what I want to achieve until it’s instinctual, and that the same techniques don’t work for everyone. Most importantly though, I’ve learned that showing up is the most important part of achieving a goal. No amount of dreaming, scheming or luck will give the same results as good old fashioned hard work.

Bruises heal. Bones mend. And confidence replaces the diminishing ego of those bold enough to persevere through failure.

So that’s it, the three virtues that I feel comprise the heart, mind, and soul of martial arts (or any art) – humility, mindfulness, and perseverance. With those three qualities, I firmly believe it’s possible to learn and master any skill, as long as you put in the time.


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