February 5, 2014

Truth and Disillusionment

Upon my return from Japan I reconnected with an old and dear Buyu. A brawler and natural athlete, he was a semi-professional climber, who had literally won awards for his ability. He owned and operated his own school of martial arts - an amalgam of styles - about an hour from Chicago. Intrigued by my years in Japan, he wanted to train together again, but with one caveat: I'd have to, "prove it worked." I laughed. I had no intention of proving anything, I just wanted to train. So, we trained. And it was just like old times.

About six months later he wanted me to take over his school. Just like that. He was convinced by the training and felt he was at cross purposes - he couldn't keep teaching his people his way and then train with me - it was too confusing. Reluctantly, I accepted.

Over time, my friend improved. He started relying less on power and speed and seemed content. But over the next year, I saw less of him. He went back to teaching his way - he owned the place, after all - and then told me he was going to, "take a break." Pretty soon, he stopped training altogether. 

He would eventually close his school, move out West, and settle down. We talk from time to time and wish each other well, smiling about the old days. But of all the guys I knew, I never thought it would be him who ended his training. Why do these fellow “lifers” quit? These folks who've been training for years, invested enormous energy and finances - how can they just walk away?

Martial Arts are rather new to the West – introduced in only the last 100 years or so. They’ve mostly been treated as a cultural affectation and with that came confusion – pop culture got a stranglehold and squeezed until they turned blue. This benefited in their proliferation, but it came with a price – an inauthentic and completely unrealistic set of viewpoints that grew around the training like thorny weeds in a vegetable garden. Getting to the fruit is to risk getting stuck or worse, becoming so lost as to misinterpret the weeds as the fruit and the fruit as the weeds. 

Martial training - regardless of how any of us believe it's defined – is a process, an "agent of change." It has to be. Otherwise, why would people bother with it? If it was not a process that provided, for example, confidence, tactical awareness, physical defensive skills, or the power to shoot lightning bolts and fly (see what I did there?), then folks simply wouldn't volunteer themselves to its ways. People engage in it because they are convinced it will cause them to change in ways they are eager to change into.

Yeah, but Peggy was always a bitch.
Suck it, Peggy.
I realize there is great debate about what that change entails and even greater debate about how exactly to achieve it, but we can't deny the change itself. Just like education or religious faith, when we participate voluntarily, martial training can be a process of habituation that grants us opportunity to transform our perception and understanding of the world around us. However, if someone believes this process is stalled, stopped, or worse, does not exist, there's a good chance they may become "disillusioned." 

Interesting word, look it up. I have yet to find an actual definition, only like-minded words: Disaffected. Disappointed. Dissatisfied. But what does it actually mean to be "disillusioned" with martial arts? 

When someone is, say, disillusioned with politics, chances are they believe a politician will make changes they value and/or prevent changes they value. When the politician doesn't, and instead reneges on their values and violates them, or makes deals for self-profit, we are left feeling deceived and betrayed. We lose trust in them and that’s one step from losing trust in the system itself, the idea of civil governance by republic. With religion, if someone of faith begins to doubt, and over time comes to believe there is not an active God in our lives, there’s a good chance they could come to believe there’s no God at all.

Here’s what they all share in common: The uncertainty in the discernment of metaphysical truth is a precursor to acceptance of the relativity of truth and the idea that truth itself does not actually exist. In other words, if there’s no way to be certain about our ability to discern what is true, that must be because truth is relative - what is “true” for one person, may not be “true” for another. If this is, in fact, the case, then maybe there’s no such thing as truth at all and it’s simply about what we wish to believe. 

This gets applied to training: Once one starts believing that “truth is relative,” everything becomes suspect - style, authorities and teachers, and eventually even yourself. Even you can’t trust you. We can wind up losing confidence in our own ability to discern the 
necessary and worthwhile aspects of training.

Slipping into disillusionment is not about being unable to find what one is looking for. It's that one doesn't know what they're looking for - they're clueless as to what they "ought" to find in the first place. It's like being lost in the woods using a compass with no needle: If we have no sense of direction, how can we possibly know which way we should go - every direction looks the same. Without a standard, like magnetic North, how could we know truth? 

And now I'm disillusioned. Somehow, things will never
be quite the same again.  
Bear in mind, confusion is a normal part of the martial process – not everything makes sense right away. And that’s okay, provided one has faith that confusion will eventually give way to clarity as one matures in their training. But even this becomes doubtful if one doesn't believe it. Without trust in our teachers, our training, our history, and ourselves there’s no room for anything else.

I can understand why some folks might have trouble here. Admittedly, discernment of truth begs the question of truth itself – it takes for granted truth exists and can be discerned. "But," they will say, "Just because we discern, does that mean we can identify truth? If the saying, “truth is stranger than fiction,” is actually true, then truth can be as unreal as bad fiction and be just as unreliable to discern." Sure, but that depends how one discerns.

There are three parts to any argument: Claim, reason, and warrant. For martial arts, the "claim" is what we train. The "reason" is why we train it that way - the evidence to support our claim. But it's the "warrant" that keeps that reason relevant to the claim - makes it matter. The problem for both arguments and martial arts is when one's reasons (evidence) bear no relevance to one's claim. YouTube frauds and "Ninjers" commit this sin at an appalling rate - what they're doing ultimately bears no relevance to the claim they are masters of certain teachings, let alone can protect themselves or others. Thus, when "evidence" (sometimes mistaken for "the technique") alone is the paramount value for one's training, it can lead to all kinds of confusion. 

Nagato sensei once told me that Budo was "illogical," but that we needed to train it in a logical way. I agree. But answering the illogical with logic is not enough. We have to know that that logic is also "reasonable." In other words, "what" we are doing is not as important as "how" we do what we're doing.

US Marines are going house-to-house in Iraq looking for insurgents. They're tossing flash-bang grenades into suspect houses before they storm in. On this particular occasion, one Marine approaches a front door, grenade in hand, and reaches for the handle. Before he opens the door, it swings open and standing there, AK in hand, is an insurgent, with a bunch more milling in the room. The Marine looks at the insurgent, the insurgent at the Marine, and matter-of-factly, the Marine offers the grenade to him. He takes it. The Marine then closes the door. I don't really have to write BOOM here, do I?

So far as I know this is a true story - I trust the source on it. But is that enough to include it as tactical training at Camp Quantico? It happened and it worked, so, does that mean it's a viable technique? People confused about the relativity of truth and instead relying on evidence-based occurrence are going to have trouble here. 

I can just picture Marines drilling this "technique" and yelling because I always picture Marines yelling: WHEN YOU APPROACH THE DOOR HAVE YOUR GRENADE IN HAND! WHEN THE INSURGENT OPENS THE DOOR YOU WILL HAND HIM THE GRENADE! Silly, but the moral in this example lies not in exactly "what" the Marine did, but "how" the Marine did what he did. Any other Marine in that scenario might have gotten themselves shot or killed, or started a firefight that endangered others. The lesson is: Don't lose your head under stress. That's the truth. If it's a technique you're looking for, there it is. Not only is it logical, it's reasonable. Everything else is gravy.

This is martial "art" after all, not martial "science." We can all debate (and some do - endlessly) on just what is and is not "art" in martial art. But it will always come down to this: One person's ability is not another's for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is what they personally can and cannot perceive based on their own capacity and understanding.  

So, here's my advice: To stave off or escape disillusionment one must keep their training viable, "capable of life." This is about going back to the roots - calibrating ourselves to the “warrant” that makes training matter to begin with. In essence, rediscovering what must be, has to be, the truth about martial arts for martial arts to exist at all. 

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