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Are you stuck in the "proving grounds?"

Updated: Jan 9, 2021

I believe this to be a necessary continuation to my previous essay, "Self-Defense Doesn't Have to be Scary." I recommend reading that article before you read this one.

It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.” -Aristotle I believe it is important for people to go through some sort of "proving process" in life. It is valuable to discover for yourself what you are capable of. And, in many ways, our modern culture lacks these important “coming of age” or “rite of passage” rituals. (I highly recommend the book 'Tribe' by Sebastian Junger if you haven’t read it yet.) Martial arts can deliver that proving ground experience for some. But those experiences, I believe, are meant to be temporary. Boot camp is only a few months long. Even if you are an infantryman, you will typically only serve as a frontline war fighter for a few years until you are promoted into a leadership position, directing troops instead of kicking in doors and clearing rooms yourself. Drill instructors do not spend their entire career in that field. It would be harmful to their mental well-being to do that job, needing to be that on-edge for more than a few years. A friend of mine who served as a senior drill instructor told me that he had to work extremely hard to avoid shouting and snapping at his kids when he was off duty because that habitual response is so strongly ingrained as a critical component of that job. What would happen to your mind if you taught like that for your entire career?

The martial arts teacher who is only able to teach in a “tough-guy” military style appears to me as someone who has never healthily transitioned out of that proving phase of life. Perhaps they were prematurely promoted into a teaching position, before developing confidence in their own abilities. You may have seen a prior military service member who, despite having left the service years ago, still bedecks themselves in their old combat boots, dog tags, and “veteran” ball cap every time they head to the grocery store. It’s as if they’re asking the world to thank them for their service. Or perhaps you’ve met that middle-aged guy who has never appeared to move on from the “glory days” of winning championships with his high school football team. Were these experiences the last memories of significant achievement, camaraderie, or purpose in their lives? What recognition do they still seek from others?

I understand the legitimate need for recognition from the community. (Seriously, go read ‘Tribe.’) Historically, one’s proof of “passing the test” would have been made apparent to all in the community in some kind of ceremony following a “coming of age” or “rite of passage” experience. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with occasionally showing your stripes. You can bet that I wear a Marine Corps hat on Veteran’s Day. In the dojo, I wear the belt that indicates the rank that I have earned from my seniors in our martial art. And friend, go ahead and wear that old jersey, alumni pin, or championship ring whenever you attend a local sports game. But please, (and I am speaking as much to myself here as I am to anyone reading this) do not let the memorabilia become your entire identity. Don’t allow yourself to get stuck longing for the “good ol’ days.” You are so much bigger than your past, capable of so much more, and you no longer need to place so much importance in the approval of others to feel confidence in yourself. At some point, the "proving yourself" phase needs to pass, allowing for one to naturally evolve into the role of an elder, mentor, or guide for others. The highest levels of our To-Shin Do taijutsu requires this evolution, first within the mind and then it can manifest in physical movement. When I received my godan (5th degree black belt) one of my seniors said to me, “Now you have to stop being good.” Confused, I asked if he could elaborate. He explained that at this level of training I needed to allow the attacker to win. So, trusting in the advice of my senior, despite it not making sense to me at the time, I gave it a try. Through this process I came to understand that when you are always trying to win, whether on the mat or in life, quite often you create “enemies” where previously there were none. The desire to control the situation is strong, and in doing you will miss out on many wonderful opportunities. “Strike me down and I shall become more powerful than you could ever imagine.” -Obi-Wan Kenobi

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