The essence of martial arts


“Fighting style is not something handed down, but something created.”
-Guy’s ending, SFA 2

The quote I just shared is obviously not from a canonical martial arts source.

It’s just a cool idea that seems to have stuck with me through the years.

I use it here to pose a question: When you hear that quote, would you put the emphasis on “fighting” or “style”?

Like many kids in the ’80s and ’90s, I was put in Karate at a young age.

I remember really wanting to quit at first, probably for about a year, but my dad kept me going week after week.

Then I started really getting into it.

In my teens, I’d spend hours in bookstores and libraries absorbing everything I could about the histories and philosophies behind all martial arts.

Whenever my family traveled, I remember checking out all the martial arts schools listed in the local Yellow Pages.

My dad always told me that martial arts should stay part of my life, but that they shouldn’t become my whole life.

I didn’t get it.

I put off all sorts of other important things to train and learn.

I was infatuated . . . obsessed.

Now, society’s opinion of martial arts actually changed as I grew up, which was somewhat surreal.

Before the ’00s, martial arts were seen as this cool and mysterious force.

It was commonly accepted that martial artists had near superhuman powers once they reached certain levels of mastery.

Kung Fu movies had us convinced that individuals could easily subdue massive groups of attackers (after a suitable training montage, of course).

Ninjas were seen as magic, at one with darkness, and able to disappear at will and to kill without ever being seen.

Then Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) erupted onto more macho elements of the zeitgeist, and public opinion changed.

Objectivity has a funny way of dispersing smoke and smashing mirrors.

I’ll put it this way: Forty years ago, most people in most societies still believed that there were monsters . . . somewhere.

It was widely held that special, hidden, foreign groups of people really did have secret, supernatural powers.

And then there were cellphones.

We now all have the ability to basically see everywhere, so our expectations and beliefs about the supernatural have changed.

I mean, if there really were monsters or magic monks in the next town over, we’d probably be able to find them on YouTube, right?

My point here is not to deny the supernatural, but just to say we now tend to associate the mystery of what’s foreign less with otherworldly powers of legend and more with simple cultural differences.

I believe the objectivity I’m describing also levels the playing field in terms of hierarchical power structures and the idea of reserving “secret knowledge” for only the initiated elite; but we’ll touch more on that near the end of this section.

MMA revealed that practical arts (like Jujitsu and Kickboxing) were more effective in fights than the softer, slower, more inward-focused arts.

That’s not to say that someone who studies a less directly practical martial art would be useless at defending themselves.

I’d rather not have a slew of Aikido masters show up at my door and put me through the floor for my comments here.

MMA simply seemed to remove the whole we-have-powers-that-you-don’t-understand dynamic attributed to masters of less practical arts before the ’00s.

But were martial arts ever really supposed to be about fighting?

At my Karate school as a teenager, they had a night for fighting and a night for technique.

I attended the fighting night almost exclusively, which I now regret.

I wish I’d focused more on technique and form.

In my twenties, I saw this video where a guy went on and on for an hour about how awesome a martial artist he was.

He then let a confused bear out of a cage and maimed it for no reason.

I can’t describe how deeply that affected me.

I like bears; but, more than that, I felt like the idea of congratulating oneself for having those sorts of “powers” was diametrically opposed to everything I’d come to believe martial arts should really be about, at least for me.

So I quit martial arts for about ten years, got fat and out of shape, and then discovered moving meditation.

I’ll share more about that process in the next section, A history of movement.

As MMA captures the external “edge” of martial arts—pragmatic combat skills and sport—I believe moving meditation can celebrate everything else beneath the surface.

For me, it touches on the “art” component of martial arts.

Actually, I believe moving meditation can resemble and incorporate almost everything about martial arts—internally and externally—except for the actual fighting moves.

According to legend, Chinese martial arts began as a physical exercise to help monks accomplish extreme meditations without getting injured or falling asleep.

Along with meditation, martial arts are a great way to practice existing completely in the current moment.

Just watch an Iaido demonstration, and you’ll see uniforms drenched in sweat after mere minutes; it’s incredibly focused, calm, and controlled.

Such practices can help you learn not to be distracted or pulled in all the directions that each part of you (and everything outside) might pull as you live your life each day in this chaotic world.

Moving meditation serves the same purpose as the original martial arts of those legendary monks of old.

It prepares you to work, to think, to create, and to be at your highest level in whatever you do.

Your life is worth preparing your mind and body for so you can focus and move the way you’ll need to for the rest of it.

Have you ever seen Parkour—people artfully scaling structures and doing flips through buildings and things?

According to Parkour founder, David Belle: “Parkour is the art of moving through your environment as swiftly and effectively as possible using only the human body. More broadly it might be defined as the discipline of developing the physical and mental capacity of the human being through training to overcome obstacles.” (Source:

Sasuke (Ninja Warrior) is similar; it’s a sport where men and women train to complete difficult obstacle courses.

While those of all ages can train and attempt Parkour and Sasuke, both activities seem at least somewhat age-restrictive.

There are things teens and twentysomethings can do that most over fifty cannot.

I plan to practice moving meditation for the rest of my life.

I imagine I’ll slow down quite a bit as I age, yet I’ll always be developing focus.

I’ll always be practicing living in the moment, working with my body at whatever stage it’s at, and letting it do whatever it does to be whatever it can and wants to be.

Moving fast is great.

It’s exhilarating to see what your body is actually capable of when pressed closer to its limits.

But I think moving slowly is even more important, bringing you more into the present moment as you focus on control and balance.

Control and balance will be far more useful throughout your life than speed and power.

Anyone can practice moving meditation.

You’re only competing with yourself.

Start where you’re at.

Do it with me.

The beautiful thing is that the way your body moves will adjust as your body adjusts.

To put that another way: Rather than being something to improve at, moving meditation improves you.

Through the centuries, martial arts have come to develop their own systems of ranks, belts, titles, and competitions.

These have been used to establish schools and record official progress.

I don’t want moving meditation to ever be official in any sense of the word.

There are no grades or uniforms.

I just wear whatever I’m already wearing.

The purpose is to prepare you for your regular life, in which I’m guessing you wear your regular clothes, right?

I move in slacks or jeans.

It could be in a suit or pajamas.

I do it wherever I happen to be.

There are no institutions or grades because this is about doing something no one told you to do.

It will always be about this moment, alone—not the future, the past, or any hypothetical scenario to imagine or get distracted by.

Just move…

We’ll look more at identity in the last section, A mask.

For now, I’ll just say this: It’s funny how clear a picture of yourself you can gain when you do something that’s not meant to identify you with anything else (groups, names, ranks, etc.).

It’s just you, in this moment.

Again, my point here is not to be critical of established martial arts or schools.

I love martial arts.

I’m just saying that the internal, metaphysical components of martial arts aren’t mystical superpowers to be kept from all but the elite.

Quite the opposite.

My experience with chi (ki; qi;), meditation, and working with energy transference, is that such things are really quite basic and normal beyond all the jargon and mysticism used to keep them exclusive and expensive.

Everything is made of energy (amongst emptiness), and energy is always moving…

The mystical master who eats spheres of manifested chi in order to restore his health so he can properly harness his anger as fire to launch at attackers in waves is . . . well, a videogame character.

Real chi and energy transfer are for the old person in the park who slowly practices Tai Chi without ever being seen, rated, or associated with anything.

When I was in Karate, there were only two ninth degree black belts in the world in my particular style.

Legends arose that these men had lived in volcanoes and learned to harness power from the earth’s core to destroy opponents.

To train under either would have been an indescribable honor, which very few privileged pupils would ever enjoy.

Oh yeah, there was also a third, honorary ninth degree black belt.

He was said to have gone off into the wilderness for years before returning with skills more akin to Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat than anything I’ve seen in reality.

Again, I don’t believe the essence of martial arts should be an elite system for only the chosen to obtain special powers.

I’d have it be for anyone, at any time, for free.

As I said, bringing yourself fully into the present moment is not something you can really get better at.

You can get more used to the experience, and perhaps learn to practice it for longer; but to say there’s some extra, mystical level you hope to one day arrive at…

Well, you tell me.

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