Saturday, September 17, 2011

At the Heart of the Martial Arts

2011 marks the 26th year I have been actively involved, learning and now teaching martial arts. As I reflect on the experiences, tournaments, travels and teachers I contemplate what motivated me to begin this quest in my youth. To understand this, I had to return to the beginning.
My introduction to the martial arts was a unique blended system of Korean Tang Soo Do (Moo Duk Kwan) and Sip Pal Kae (Chinese Kung Fu). Later I would discover that my primary teachers were also Shotokan Karate Black Belts and champions. From the very start I learned to respect all styles, disciplines and systems. As the promotion for the 1988 Olympics in Korea increased, my first teacher began referring to us as Taekwondo - the modern umbrella name for several Korean martial art kicking and striking self defense systems. This eclectic beginning that included a heritage of traditional martial arts being blended together gave me respect for tradition and culture with a love and curiosity for learning.
It was in those early days, the formative initial weeks and months that I experienced dramatic change within myself. As a child with asthma and allergies I formed a limited view of myself and my potential - especially as it related to athletic endeavors. I discovered the unique and amazing power the martial arts had on health, mindset and physical performance. I was transformed and felt I had discovered a very special secret - a treasure of wisdom and source of unique empowerment.

The Dojang ("place of the Way" in Korean) was unique in that it was no respecter of persons. It didn't matter if you were a Doctor, Attorney, Judge, carpenter, mechanic or janitor. It made no difference if you were a male or female, young or old, wealthy or broke, from a respected family or not. In the Dojang, we were all equal; wearing the same uniform and nothing to distinguish us apart other than our merit. Merit, time and grade were reflected in the Taekwondo belt rank structure, but everyone started at White belt rank. Hard work was the currency and in this action philosophy, actions spoke louder than words (no talking was allowed in the school).

I loved that I had a clean slate, a new beginning there and I earned my position as did the other students. I soon discovered that it may take longer for me to learn a skill or develop a technique, but I could do it with dedication and a martial arts mindset. Martial Arts is individually paced so I could learn on my own time without worry of letting down my teammates. Each of us struggled with some aspect of the training but with indomitable spirit we learned we could conquer it. This spoke to me. It was a microcosm of life.

The Martial Arts school was to me a safe-haven from the things going on in the world, your family, school, work or daily life. For the time we were there, you were working so hard, focused so much that you didn't have time to even think about other matters. Practicing martial arts has a calming, centering effect on me. I feel happiest when I am training regularly. In the Dojang we were present minded - not thinking about the past nor the future, just giving our best in the moment. We learned to make every second, every movement, each breath and opportunity count. This was a welcome break from my easily distracted mind (perhaps undiagnosed ADHD).

I also witnessed the transformational power martial arts had on others. You could see the change take place, some right away, and others over time. It happens from the inside out. From building confidence, to internalizing the character traits, values and time-tested wisdom, it showed. Not only were these changes reflected in the martial arts school, they were often radical improvements in other aspects of life. Families mended relationships, people regained health, lost weight, gained strength. Very often the students improved their confidence, compassion, discipline and dedication. Shy people came out of their shells, arrogant people learned humility and much more. Virtues such as loyalty and perseverance were soon more than the meager meaning others we know held true.
I loved that the martial arts school was a place to improve yourself from the inside out. It was a place where we had to submit our own ego, learn to follow structure, yet create and express yourself honestly. We had to face challenges like spar an opponent bigger than ourselves, compete in a tournament or break a board. Each of us had to face some fear in order to grow and stretch to the next level. The Dojang is a place where we face the truth - the truth of ourselves and have the opportunity to develop and grow into the person we would like to be.
As an Eagle Scout, Airborne Army reservist, and multiple Black Belt holder after all these years I have come to the conclusion that few things in life can have as profound impact as a journey in the martial arts with a caring and experienced instructor. I can state unequivocally that much of who I am and the achievements in my life are directly related to the lessons, attributes and traits I gained from my martial arts journey. It would be impossible to put a price on that. My martial arts journey has truly been invaluable.

Since that time I have gone on to study numerous martial arts, each reigniting that passion and child-like fascination with the different expressions of the martial arts. I also gained an appreciation for the cultures and unique histories which shaped them.

Each teacher has offered me something unique and special. I carry a piece of them with me and continue to pass it on to my students to the best of my ability. My aim is to honor them with my actions and responsibly carry on the martial arts tradition with respect and dignity.

Today my greatest reward is seeing my students lives improved with the same magic I experienced all those years ago. My mission is to make each of my students better than me. Striving for that each day I endeavor to be a good-finder, to challenge and push students to new limits so they are amazed at their own God-given potential. My wish is that they see the extraordinary things they can be and do when they dream big, have courage and follow their heart.

At the heart of the martial arts is a child-like fascination at the amazing potential of the human spirit. Our ability to overcome challenges, adversity, fears, and self-imposed limitations is truly astounding. Through the dedicated study of these ancient disciplines, guided by a wise teacher, your potential is far beyond anything we can imagine. We are truly fearfully and wonderfully made. What are you waiting for?

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