Defending the Self

As the story goes a young boy wanted to avenge the murder of his parents so he went to a sword teacher and begged to be accepted as a student. “How long will it take me to train myself to be a warrior?” the potential student asked.

“Seven years,” the teacher advised.

“No, you don’t understand. I want this so much that it’s in my blood. I will train day and night, never stop practicing, completely dedicate myself. If I do that, then how long will it take?”

The teacher looked for a second at the boy standing in front of him, then said, “In that case, fourteen years!”

People often come to out Academy for self-defense lessons. This is invariably because they have images in their heads; either scenes from martial arts movies where they would like to star; or pictures of fear-filled confrontations which they would like to avoid.

In the search for self-defense they also have ideas and limits built into the scenarios. “I only want the defensive part.” “I want to be able to respond just enough to neutralize the attacker.” I only need to be aggressive on Tuesdays sand passive on weekends.”

This is natural of course. But Americans have a funny consumer orientation to everything. So many products are touted as being “easy” and “convenient”—why can’t the martial arts be the same?

But the martial arts spend time on the self itself. It tempers the temperament and performs its subtle alchemy  with each repeated punch and kick. It sets personality aside for a while and pursues true nature.

Quick self-defense courses are useful as is any emergency training. They show the rudiments and if you’re lucky the moves you learn will fit the circumstances that arise. But real self-defense is an inner technique and an awareness that had to be cultivated slowly. In fact one of the best ways to learn self-defense is to forget it is self-defense and enjoy the art and the physical training.

Understanding this, martial artists for centuries have practiced things that look very unmartial; beautiful moves, quiet meditation, disciplined reflection. The idea isn’t just to protect the treasure of self but to invest in it. The body becomes stronger and learns to defend itself then the personality is free to grow.

As Raymond Chandler wrote, “If I weren’t tough on the outside I couldn’t survive. If I weren’t soft on the inside there’s be no reason to.”

This piece originally appeared in The Connection.

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