Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Monday, February 02, 2015

Loneliness and Martial Arts Training

Today we have a guest post by Neil Ripsky.

Neil Ripski has been training in the Chinese Martial Arts since the mid 1980's. Starting with a Chin Woo Master for the first 8 years of training before meeting Master Ma of the Ma Family, the style he now teaches (Ma Jia Quan - a northern Family Shaolin Based Style).This is the training where he learned his Northern Drunken Fist that he has become known for and written books on. 

Since the mid 1990's he has also been training in the Internal martial arts of Taiji, Baguazhang and Xingyi/Xinyi and is a formal Disciple of Master Chen Qi Ming of 18 Lohan Palm. He has published three books on Martial Arts and runs a full time live in training program three months each summer from his school in Creston BC. He is an Owner of Deep Water Martial Arts Magazine and a founding member of Deep Water Martial Arts Convention and the Kootenay Chin Woo Martial Arts Association. Neil now travels internationally to teach and share martial arts with other like minded people. 

Self Inflicted Loneliness

Loneliness. I never thought that the martial arts would lead me to a place where loneliness became the norm but it seems that it is a part of the path. I write this after hearing the same words from many of my colleagues in the arts, people who have studied different lineages of Chinese Arts, Masters in Japanese Arts and Taoist Scholars, all saying the same thing; “The longer I train, the less people I have to train and talk with.” It's interesting how much I wanted to talk about my martial arts when I started training, I wanted to tell everyone how cool it was and what I learned last class and eventually how hard I was working. But it slowly gradually becomes something that you want to discuss less and less with others since there seem to be fewer and fewer people to talk to about it.

Take the typical dinner party or social event with your peers. The inevitable question of what you do for a living comes up, hoping to break the ice in a conversation and suddenly mentioning martial arts becomes a confusing and sometimes startling statement to other people. Usually a polite enquiry about what that's like comes up and then if you want a real conversation killer dive into whats really going on in your training. “Well I have been exploring the use of drinking an opponents power with my torso while I try to cut through their torso with a strike meant to tear their liver....” Yeah that one is a real defense for any social normalcy. Truthfully even less involved discussions about how your training for a tournament and have been working a lot on how to catch an opponents limbs for use in high speed take downs seems to turn people off. Suddenly your the one person who is standing around listening to everyone talk about their facebook and television with a drink in your hand (probably not even a socially acceptable beer either, might interfere with tomorrows training).

But really where the loneliness starts is not at the dinner party, most of us serious martial artists are very used to not exactly fitting in with the cool crowd, I mean how many of us started training to try and get some confidence, defend ourselves from bullies and so on? Not the origin story of the popular kid in school. No instead it comes when we start reaching out to other martial artists for the conversation and sounding boards we are looking for. This has gotten easier throughout my training due to the creation and popularity of the internet. It used to be rushing to buy the latest martial arts magazine from the corner store to read the articles and maybe (if we were brave enough) to write a letter to the editor. Now of course we have the internet forums to rely on and of course there is one for everyone it seems. The Chinese arts, Japanese arts, MMA, modern arts, old arts, scholarly forums, sporty ones etc and when the internet took off I found a place to call home and starting posting all the questions I had and discussing as much as I could with those other anonymous martial arts people on the site. But you can only read or write about the mundane beginner subjects for so long. “I am X years old, am I too old to start martial arts?” “I want to learn to fight in the cage should I learn X?” and so on. So the pool of internet forums grows smaller and as the pool grows smaller so does the number of people in the depth of the water with you.

Eventually it seems you are answering questions more than you are asking them but the questions keep coming endlessly and while it may feel good for a time to the person who has some answers it does not (and should not) be the end of the road. Stroking the ego and being the all knowing one can be fine for a little while, grow your confidence, feel good about helping others etc etc but really get back to the work. The problem is that when you start asking questions that are really on your mind or posting something to try and start a discussion that you are actually interested in, eventually either you are ignored or very very few people work to engage with you. Now remember here I am talking about the internet, not in your own school or dojo, the pool there grows smaller even faster. Suddenly you feel more alone than ever in your training and then, one day, your Master will pass on too. Maybe it is not him or her actually dying, or perhaps you move far away and no longer have them in your lives. Suddenly you are surrounded by students who you care for and appreciate but really they are not looking to discuss the things you are wanting to work on. They are asking you the questions you asked twenty years ago. Lucky for them you have some well worn answers.

The state of your own martial arts are your responsibility and no one else s, either you are moving forward and pursuing them or your not. Its that simple. So there you are, Master gone or removed from you, class time spent mainly working out and teaching others instead of working on your own stuff. Remember the good ole days when you could stand in the corner and spend an hour or so with a technique or skill and just lose yourself in it? Not anymore there is always someone who needs some help and truthfully you owe your teacher and the art more than you can ever repay so you take the tie to teach and help them rather than on your own. So your training becomes a solitary pursuit, if you are a professional teacher like I am then it means training in the middle of the day before the students arrive, working on those things that you know you should be working on. Alone in the midst of the population of not only your town but many times your art as well. How often do we get to link to someone else who is working on the same things we are? Our Peers? Be they in our art or a different one we are all climbing the same mountain. But still there are barriers.

Although there may be other martial artists in exactly the same situation as ourselves, training and toiling in solitude in the same area there are still so many things standing in our way some that can be easily overcome (if we really have the fortitude to do it) and others that are most difficult indeed. Lets take as an example a large city for a population of martial artists. Say in a large city of two to three million people there are 300 000 people studying martial arts. (Nice easy numbers here, this is not a dissertation on percentages of populations that train). Of those 300 000 how many are say Black Belts? Well I have always found that the real truth is that about 1 of each 100 people who train can actually do it (which does not mean they actually will) but lets say then that of those 300 000 people there are 3000 black belt level players. Already this is a staggering and lonely number but at least a newly annoited black belt is still in some company and probably has lots of peers to discuss and train with. So of those 3000 how many will train 10 years? 20 years? 30 years? Even if we are generous and say that 1/10 of them will train 20 years that puts us down to 300 people in a population of two to three million. Think they are all friends? Have they ever really trained together in the past?

So here's the rub of it. Most martial artists do what they do because they believe in it whole heartedly. People who train for decades more so than dabblers who train say a more normal martial stint of say 5 years or so. So these 20 year veterans of which in our imaginary city there are 300 of them are all in different arts and schools. This means that even the best intentioned gathering of these people will be extremely difficult to really break through all the cultural, stylistic and personality barriers to allow them to just train, discuss and drink tea together in a real way as friends.  Culturally you have different rules of respect these people have been brought up in through their training and they can be so very different that in their heightened states during a meeting of minds, where everyones ego is at stake, that a small faux paux can create a huge issue and ruin any chance at friendship. Stylistically everyone will think differently too and if a real discussion takes place there will be differing opinions. Imagine the twenty years veterans from different styles discussion a statement like “All fights go to the ground.” Potentially dangerous ? Now if you have surpassed these barriers you have come down to personality types and whether or not, even with all their martial arts aside, they can be friends just as people. Not everyone is compatible and that's just the way it is, so what kind of number are we left with after all that? How many of those 300 veterans could actually, completely openly discuss, spar, train and fight with one another? Whats most interesting is we all used to do it with our classmates under our teachers, so what is so different about it now?

Some of the highest level people I have ever had the opportunity to train with or under have all in one way or another mentioned this phenomenon. From the Master who had been training 50 years to people I am proud to call my peers about 30 years in. What happens to them all? They train alone, have no one to bounce things off of for one reason or another and live in solitude. Sad state of affairs. But of course it is not so bleak a picture at all, they rewards of good training outweigh it all easily and of course we still have our friends, spouses and parties to go to. The topic is just not going to be about our one true passion with them, since they are not interested or just wont understand anyway and that's fine too.

So what to do about it?

If we can find the beginners mind and truly remove our ego from the conversations and training sessions with one another then there will be no issues. Everyone wins no matter the result of a sparring match or debate. But the ego is such a powerful thing, especially in martial arts teachers who are constantly reminded by their students how wonderful they are, that not everyone can tame it. My advice is to look back to when everything in martial arts class was amazing and getting your butt kicked was a great lesson. What has changed now from then? Only we have. You know why I have, with much help, put together the Deep Water Martial Arts Convention and the Magazine? This. We need to reach out to one another and embrace each others experience and do it without all the pomp and ceremony and ego that seems to be everywhere in the martial arts world. We are all just people and we are a small group that can really understand one another.  So lets just get out of our own way, put the black belts in the closet and become friends damnit! What have we got to lose?


Unknown said...

Very interesting article! Concerning Martial Arts, I'm only one of those students who keep asking many questions^^. But I think the phenomenon you describe can be found in many realms. While I've been reading your article, I thought what you describe is nothing but going your own way in life. Since there are not so many people doing this, it becomes a bit lonely sometimes. What I want to say is, that you might not only be searching for Martial Artists of your calliber, but also for other "Artists" with an extraordinary deep understanding of their Art.
I've experienced that there are many parallels between the Arts, and that one can talk about MA with musicians, psychologists and even handball players - give and get advises even if one has never experienced the others Art.
I'm uncertain if that's the direction your'e interested in. But if so, I can recommend you Scott Peck's "A road less travelled" - a book every human being should read!
Thanks for your interesting article!

Rick Matz said...

Welcome, Ferdinand!

Angelika said...

Beautiful article!
After 10 years of practise I still consider myself as a beginner and I already have the feeling it is hard to find people to talk to about Taijiquan & Qi Gong.

So I really need to find my "crowd" and grow with them so I have someone to talk to now & in 10 years!

Rick Matz said...

Angelika, welcome to Cook Ding's Kitchen. I'm sure that you'll always find your crowd here.

Compass Architect said...

@Rick, When are you planning to have a Cook Ding's beer fest or a tea fest?

@ Angelika, This site is where the intellectual action is. I have learned so much from this site.

Rick Matz said...

Drinking beer is almost always a good idea.

David said...

Great little text. Very much truth in it, IME. Even when you find people to share your art with, I have found them to be very different from me. The art is what is shared and through the art we communicate. But beyond that, there is not much more to communication or sharing. Very strange. But I do believe that many other kind of artists share the same "faith".