Today we have another guest post by Jonathan Bluestein.
To Study Martial Arts
By Walking the Middle Path
By Jonathan Bluestein
This article is in a way a spiritual sequel to another article I have previously written, titled: “Martial Arts and the Great Learning”. It is advised to read that first article first before tackling this one.
Confucius said: “Men look for happiness in that which is above or below them. But happiness is at the same height as man”. Likewise, the longer I teach the martial arts, the more I observe that most beginners stray from the right path to success (and happiness) – the middle path endorsed by Confucius and many other philosophers through the centuries. This pertains to a major issue in the teaching of the martial arts novices, which I shall now explain.
When people approach the study of the martial arts, or any other new endeavor, as mature adults, they come to us teachers already bearing an ‘attitude’ and a personal ‘method’ for learning. Most commonly, this method they have adopted and adapted over the years was not of the own invention, but is of the generic kind they were taught either by schools or trends in the popular culture of their time. There is always among all students the struggle to reconcile this method of theirs with the new learning method presented by the teacher. The fact that the traditional martial arts have their own preferences for how one ought to learn makes the experience more challenging.
Most students realize early on, most often without admitting, that their preferred ways of learning are mostly useless in the context of traditional martial arts, and that they have to change. But change rarely comes with ease to anyone – and so, they bargain. There begins a long process which I call ‘the struggle to accept the art’. During this period of time, the student attempts to learn, but cannot do so well because much of the learning is still being done ‘his way’ and not the ‘art’s way’.
Usually what is created is a mixture of attitudes, with the student willing to accept some things as a given, and others he might reject ferociously. This stage of learning is recognizable by the willingness of the student to argue against the teacher and/or the art. In Western societies where criticism in the face of superiors is deemed acceptable, this arguing is often done in an obvious and overt fashion. The student will utter clearly before the teacher his dismay at a given technique or his wish to avoid doing certain things the way he is told. In more traditional Eastern societies, when a student feels uncomfortable sharing such thoughts out loud, he may nod in acceptance for the teacher or say he understood something, but in reality do something else more to his liking. These are generalizations though, and students in East and West adopt both these passive and aggressive tactics for disagreeing with the teachings of the art.
One is prompted to ask, why is it that most students are prone to act in such a provocative and uncooperative manner, which only hurts their own efforts? After all, they came to study with a certain teacher in order to hopefully gain his knowledge, insights and skills. Then why come forth, and then reject much of the teachings? The reason is that people fear change, and the beginning stages of traditional martial arts training intimidate and threaten the core of people’s values and personality. To change one’s way of thinking, learning and physically acting is to convert a person into a new being entirely. A positive process for sure under the tutelage of a good and responsible teacher. Yet, consider that this is not what most people had in mind when they first signed up for classes. They were yearning for feeling better, becoming healthier, being happier. In this cheerful future outlook was not at all included the idea that to achieve all this, they will have to change! Now, as reality slaps them in the face and bitter, painful work begins, they naturally ‘rear their legs’ and demonstrate argumentative tendencies, attempting to protect themselves from this new ‘threat’ which they had not anticipated.
Alas, the process of letting go of this defensive stage of learning can be difficult, often lasting several months. Some people can never get over this stage, and such individuals will never reach even a moderate level of proficiency in the study of the traditional martial arts. That being said, I find that with most people, they can resolve their difficulties and raise themselves out of this trench which they had dug, if I simply take care to patiently explain to them why arguing with me over what is right or wrong is not the most brilliant strategy for progress. Once they can understand this intellectually, many people can then slowly but surely give up on their ego-driven fears and become more compliant and open in their learning within a short amount of time.
Among those still stuck in the ‘argumentative’ stage of learning stand out two very stereotypical characters. I would affectionately refer to them as the ‘micro-scientist’ and the ‘macro-fantasizer’. Both types of individuals reflect two very common strategies people use for making sense of the world around them.
The ‘micro-scientist’ is a person who always reiterates and insists on receiving answers to the smallest questions, in accurate detail. When walking the path of martial arts learning, he is tempted to constantly stop and examine the flowers, insects, pebbles and other little wonders of nature. In Confucian terms, he is looking for “everything which is below him”. He will not do with a foot angle which cannot be attached to geometric logic. A metaphor for how to perform a movement cannot be taken as-is, but begs a breakdown to the muscles, tendons and joints involved in it. A strike cannot be really learned unless its power-generation method is analyzed in a rational manner with a clear explanation. Furthermore, if something cannot be ‘proven’ right then and there, it is to be rejected or taken with a grain of skepticism. All of this is very characteristic of people with a college-level education and above, especially those classically trained in the sciences. This approach is also correlated with personalities which demonstrate (even slight) inclinations for being either neurotic, anxious, feature an urge to manifest control over people or situations, are resentful of spontaneity and unexpected changes to plan, etc – or all of these attributes together in the same person. For the ‘micro-scientist’, insisting on the investigation of the smallest details and being provided with the most ‘accurate’ answers is the manner by which such people can protect themselves from having to change.
The ‘macro-fantasizer’ is a person who finds it difficult to take anything for what it is, and insists on discovering correlations between everything taught to him and grander, more majestic themes. When walking the path of martial arts learning, he is tempted to constantly stop and wonder endlessly at the lakes, mountains, stars and similarly inspiring natural monuments. In Confucian terms, he is looking for “everything which is above him”. A breathing method must be a way to connect with a greater consciousness. A partner practice must also suggest a technique for realizing the depth of the other person’s psychology. Anything which exudes power must be tapping from the vast energy reservoir of the cosmos. Furthermore, in the art and its way must always feature ‘hidden meanings’, which often they can discover but even the teacher must have not paid attention to before. All of this is very characteristic of people who have a spiritual vibe going on for them in their lives for this or that reason, who are not often enough told by society that it is high time they stop uttering so much vague bullshit and start focusing on the production of coherent speech and thought for the sake of themselves and everyone around them. Basically, they have been on the loose with their energy talk and hippie new-age crap for many years, often decades, and were never under circumstances dire enough to force them to even consider becoming more rational and to the point. Like the ‘micro-scientists’ they are a product of modern society, in which too few people reveal their true thoughts and feelings concerning the actions and beliefs of others. This approach (of the ‘macro-fantasizer’) is also correlated with personalities which demonstrate (even slight) inclinations for being either delusional, schizoid, schizotypal, bipolar, overly dreamy, detached from reality, hostile to criticism, manipulative, etc – or all of these attributes together in the same person. For the ‘macro-fantasizer’, insisting on uniting one’s understanding with something bigger than himself is the manner by which such people can protect themselves from having to change.
[NOTE: Obviously, these are merely stereotypical examples, and life is more complex. Additionally, not all ‘argumentative’ students fall under such categories – although most of them do. These stereotypical students are not specifically correlated with Jungian personality types, although some personality types do tend to be associated with either this or that type of problem student’]
The irony is that in a way, the approaches of both types I have described are completely valid. There is a truth and legitimacy to all of their strange mannerisms and ideas, and they are all excellent interpretations for how to further explore and explain one’s martial art. The problem is not in that they think in the way that they do (as long as it is not excessive), but in that they attempt to force this type of thinking on something which they have yet to fully comprehend.
There is after all a time and a place for everything. An infant cannot be talked to in a complicated language. A toddler is not to be handed tools requiring complex dexterity. A child is not ready to absorb the full meaning of sexual intimacy. A young teenager has no emotional capacity for realizing the complete role of a father. A young adult is seldom ready to lead a nation. So is the beginner student neither adept nor prepared to explore his new martial art of choice to its uttermost depths or great heights without having first understood it thoroughly at a basic level.
This is the middle path in learning the martial arts. It requires of the beginner student, during the first few years of his diligent practice, to not stray too far above (macro) or below (micro), but maintain a steady progress on a road laid out by a competent teacher and those who came before him. By following this middle path it is later possible to see the road diverge into many others. But by foolishly wishing to take every twist and turn from the start, one will end up forever walking in circles. To avoid walking in circles, simply try to listen to the person providing directions, rather than arguing with him over which road seems the most correct to you…
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Shifu Jonathan Bluestein is the head of the Tianjin Martial Arts Academy, and teaches Xing Yi Quan and Pigua Zhang in Israel. He is also a martial arts author and researcher. If you liked this article, please ‘like’ the page of shifu Bluestein’s book on Facebook:
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