When I started writing this post I wasn't sure where it was going to go. It started with a question raised while reading one of Rory Miller's books and as I really began digging deeper into why I train and I got really honest with myself I realised the truth of the matter. I struggled with deciding whether to publish this post or not because it is of a more personal nature than anything I have written before.
I did publish it because maybe one of my readers out there may appreciate me sharing, I'm not really sure. Maybe it will help in some way.
I have asked myself this question many times over the years. Why do I train in the martial arts? While learning aikido I asked myself this question at certain points in my training. When I was a brown belt and close to getting my first black belt. When the weapons training didn't make sense to me. After achieving another dan grade. Why am I training? What's the point?
My answer to this question has changed over the years. Believe it or not, I got into aikido for reasons other than self-defence. I never felt I needed to learn 'how to fight' or do cool martial art moves. I had learned over the years that the best self-defence was to avoid trouble. It had served me well up to this point. I had never really been in any serious physical confrontation and never intended to start now. I was 25 when I started aikido and got into it because a workmate was doing it. I was single, had time to kill and energy to burn. I had a blast! Aikido's philosophy intrigued me and I learned how to breakfall pretty well. Outside of my job at the time, it gave me purpose and something to work towards. During my time training in this martial art I met my wife, started a new career path (as a high school teacher) and not long after that we had children.
At some point I began seeking something else from my martial arts training that aikido did not provide. For about two years I started looking for that new thing. Eventually I discovered Robbie Smith and Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu.
My training moved up to another level. I trained in both aikido and TSYR for a while but with a young family and a job and now two martial arts, I was squeezing things pretty tight. Something had to give. As much as I still enjoyed aikido I decided to focus on TSYR. This martial art has a different feeling to it. There is an edge to it. I feel that the stuff we are taught comes from a place of knowing what it really was like in a violent confrontation. Toby Threadgill's sensei certainly had an air about him (according to those who knew him) that he was dangerous, not someone to be messed with. People don't just get a presence like that without having been through some stuff. I joke that TSYR is like aikido on steroids but joking aside, there is a no-nonsense training to the art that I never felt in aikido circles.
Studying a martial art is studying violence. No matter how much you pretty it up, that's what we do. I live in New Zealand, probably one of the safest places in the world, and I live in the countryside away from big cities. I am probably one of the least likely people to be confronted with violence in the near future. So shouldn't I be spending my leisure time pursuing something more meaningful or useful? Hell, I am more likely to be killed in a car accident than by a violent offender. Shouldn't I be working on defensive driving skills? What is this attraction I have to martial arts, to controlled violence?
Even if I do find myself in a violent confrontation is any of the stuff I have learned even useful or accessible to me in those extremely stressful situations. I'm currently reading Rory Miller's book, "Meditations on Violence" and he looks at martial arts training compared to real world violence. He talks about the freeze response and the debilitating effects of an adrenal dump. He talks about how all martial training has flaws to allow our training partners to be safe. So we can train with them again another day. So what does that mean for my training? What does it matter if I enjoy it and I live in a relatively safe society anyway? Why should I even care?
Why do I bother?
I feel I have to justify why I train to myself. I will continue to ask myself this question because it is a point of reference for me. It relates to where I am in my life and what my goals are. I am now a 40 year old father of two children and have a loving wife. My reasons for training have changed from my earlier aikido days.
I have kept a quote that says,
A student said to his master, "You teach me fighting, but you talk of peace. How do you reconcile the two?" The master replied: "It is better to be a warrior in a garden than to be a gardener in a war."
I like this quote. It speaks to me but am I a warrior? What constitutes a warrior in this day and age. I am not a member of the armed services. So am I fooling myself by training in the martial arts? What drives me to pursue combat arts from another time?
My first answer is because I enjoy it. It is fun. I still think this is the main reason I turn up to the dojo week in and week out.
It also keeps my body moving through a full range of motion. I sit in seiza which moves the ankles, knees and hips through a range of motion most people would not experience normally. I am placed in joint locks and take breakfalls. I get up off the ground again and again after taking falls. I am pushed around, twisted and attacked with wooden weapons. All this movement keeps me healthy and strong and gives me a better quality of life (you could argue being whacked with a wooden sword does not promote good health).
I train for camaraderie. Many of you may know that Robbie Sensei passed away suddenly a few years into my training with him. The loss was staggering for all. Dealing with the grief of his death brought me closer together with some of the members of the dojo who I still train with to this day. We practise potentially dangerous techniques on each other and laugh and joke about it afterward while getting changed. I value these people and count them as friends. I trust them.
I train to keep myself sane. The kick (pun intended) I get out of exercise makes me a happier person. A better father and husband. It helps me deal with the stress of teaching in a co-ed state school.
I find myself thinking about one other answer that lurks beneath all these other ones. I want to know what I would really do when confronted with violent, physical assault. I have a short temper, but I am very good at restraining it. Controlling it. I am very good at avoiding situations that may get me agitated. In fact, I would say I had mastered avoiding confrontation. When my wife first met me she jokingly called me a 'fence-sitter'. I believe that strategy kept me safe for a number of reasons. You see, there have been times of high stress when I have snapped, really saw red and I have had to get professional help to pull back out of it. I was caught in an ever increasing spiral of blowing my fuse over small things. My responses were more extreme than the situation warranted. I started to loath myself. I felt guilt and struggled to find a way forward. I have since been given strategies to de-escalate my thinking, to spot the triggers and know when I am close to exploding. I know now that when the flight or fight response kicks in, I fight. That scares me. That scares me more than being attacked in a dark alley. It scares me because in those moments I don't think, I just act and I act out physically, violently. I have no rational thought in those moments. It scares me because I worry that one day it will surface at the wrong time and be aimed at the wrong people (those I love). Even as I write this my heart rate has increased and my palms are sweating. In my gut I know this is at the core of my motivation to train. I want to confront this and deal with it.
I have been told I am too passive in my techniques. I think I hold back while training, not because I'm afraid of getting hurt, but of hurting others. There have been a couple of instances in my training over the years where I have felt myself lose it, quietly, inwardly (before I sought professional help). One time I was struck in the nose and the pain enraged me and I threw a training partner too hard. Thankfully he took the fall well and got up smiling and saying well done for the good throw. One of my seniors of the aikido club (who was also a good friend) saw my body language and said to me firmly, "Dean, breath". That simple command snapped me out of it. The other time did not end so well. I was training with a twenty-something year old and we were working on a technique . He started to fool around, he was young and strong. He started to test my technique, I saw red and threw him to the ground, my forearm pinned across his neck. Our eyes met and I could see I was scaring him. I released him and he got up. We continued training but the damage was done. I had lost his trust. I have not had this issue while training TSYR. This may be partly due to the fact I sought professional help with my anger around the same time I was training in this art. It could also be that my training partners are more mature and there is less a feeling of proving ourselves with each other. Who knows.
Perhaps I see martial arts as an opportunity to be pushed to/over the edge by people I trust in a safe environment and finally confront my demons. I am reminded of an article Ellis Amdur wrote titled, "Hiding in the Shadows of the Warrior." He talks of raging against a training companion and of being pushed over the edge. This article still resonates with me.
If my training can turn my fight response into calculating calm, then I will feel like I have achieved something more valuable than to how to fight in the street or face physical aggression.
I'm not sure how much of this makes sense to people. Writing this has certainly clarified things for me.
It would appear that I ultimately train to confront myself.
Thanks for reading.