Updated: Jan 7, 2021
The guys in my platoon were some of the funniest people I’ve ever known. I probably haven’t laughed as hard or as often as I did overseas with the Marines. For us, humor had a magical way of balancing the miserable and grim conditions of war. It was one method to help us regulate the nervous system’s response to living in a constant state of survival awareness. Humor can also be disruptive, shaking you out of a funk when your mind is spinning, ruminating, or over-analyzing. The same tool can be used in the dojo. Many people mistakenly believe that martial arts training is like boot camp. They imagine the dojo environment to be strict and rigid, with a “tough-guy sensei” marching around, shouting orders like a drill instructor, criticizing every tiny mistake a student makes. And while there may be a few people out there, with little to offer and a lot to prove, who teach like that, it is far from ordinary. Although TV and movie producers would love to perpetuate that “tough-guy sensei” stereotype further, it simply isn’t the most effective way to teach martial arts. After all, the empty can rattles the most, right? In my experience, and maybe in yours too, some of the most relaxed, easy-going people are the ones who have been through the toughest life had to offer. For example, I remember being stunned to learn that the sweet old man greeting everyone with a smile and a handshake at the front door of my hometown church had once killed an enemy soldier with a shovel in trench warfare. People who have been through hell and lived to tell about it aren’t trying to prove their toughness anymore. They already know. I am not arguing against the efficiency of military-style training, but there’s one glaring difference between teaching recruits and civilians. You can’t quit the military when you no longer find it enjoyable. But you most certainly can quit martial arts. This is one of the many reasons why I try to make training fun in my dojo. With all of the other options available to us for entertainment or personal development, I find people will stick with their martial arts practice longer if they are enjoying it. If they stick with it longer, they will experience more growth from their training. Beginners are often surprised to see smiling faces and to hear laughter from the training floor. After a week or two of attending our school, I like to ask new students what surprised them most about the program. Often the answer is simply, “I didn’t expect it to be this much fun,” or “I thought you would be more strict.” I often reply with a casual, “Hey, I’ve already done the military thing, and I don’t want to live the rest of my life like I’m still in boot camp.” I want to enjoy my time in the dojo too. Shouting at people for making mistakes is not how I want to spend my time. Not to mention, how would that program my immediate mental response to observing a problem? Tension, anger, irritation, frustration? These are not qualities of a so-called martial arts expert, (at least, not in our taijutsu) and they are certainly not qualities you would seek out in a teacher or mentor. Mistakes in learning should not be met with shameful critique. They should be encouraged. Do children thrive when they are humiliated or embarrassed when they fail at trying something new? Of course not. Why would this be any different for adults? The dojo is the best place in the world to make mistakes. It is a safe place to explore your options, and discover your abilities. Try. Mess up. Have a laugh. Brush it off. Learn. Try again. Real life is fluid, messy, and organic. Why do people assume that rigid and robotic martial arts practice will prepare them to navigate real life obstacles in real time? Of course, we all probably know that person who over uses their “humor license.” Everything is a joke. This is often to cover up feelings of inadequacy. Perhaps they believe that if they pretend to not care about something others won’t judge them disfavorably if they mess up. This is why a safe training atmosphere must be cultivated. Students need to feel safe enough to explore, to get a little lost, and to ask questions without fear of embarrassment. Let’s also look at the nature of realistic self-defense training. We’re studying some pretty unpleasant possibilities and scenarios one may experience, or quite often, scenarios some students have personally experienced in the past. If we’re training honestly, it will become uncomfortable at times. There’s a popular saying going around these days, “growth doesn’t occur in the comfort zone.” As a teacher, I am constantly trying to find that perfect balance between delivering a powerful, positive, and empowering experience, and putting enough pressure on the students to push them a little further along than they were yesterday. Too much pressure and people can become discouraged and experience self-doubt. Too little pressure, and people stop growing. A skillful amount of levity can help maintain that feeling of a safe environment and keep the training from becoming so realistic that it causes someone to shut down or fall into despair. A distinct and important advantage we have over military training programs is time. We can be patient, allowing people to grow at whatever pace works best for them. We don’t need to ship them out into combat nine months after they enlist. Whether an individual requires three months or three years to make a breakthrough, we will celebrate it all the same. It is a winding pathway to mastery, not a super-highway.
So, I encourage and practice the skillful use of humor in my training. I use it to dissolve tension and promote freedom, just like the higher levels of our physical taijutsu movement. Parents are often stunned to see that we can get an entire room of squirrely five year olds to sit in seiza or stand at attention, but also to notice that they are still smiling and no one is shouting. New students are frequently surprised by how exhilarated they felt practicing knife attack evasion with their friends in the dojo. Self-defense doesn’t have to be scary.
Seriously, enjoy your training.