10 things the martial arts should have taught you about life!

10 things the martial arts should have taught you about life!

I’m a great believer in the ability of the martial arts to enhance life as well as preserve life. Gichin Funakoshi’s tenth precept is “Put Karate into your everyday life any you will find its subtle secrets.”

There are lessons that are learnt in the microcosm of the dojo that we can apply to the macrocosm of everyday life. So in this article I thought we’d look at ten lessons that you SHOULD have learnt from your time in the dojo that apply to everyday life. If you take them to heart, they can help make life more productive and enjoyable.

These ten lessons as not meant to be a definitive ten and they are presented in no particular order.

Anyone with even a moderate amount training should have become aware of these. They can be earlier overlooked, but are in plain sight in any well run dojo. But that does not mean that they are basic or any less potent for their obviousness.

I also picked ten simply because ten is a nice number. I could have done more or less. Regardless, I hope these ten give you pause for thought and help you to underline some of the non-physical benefits of martial arts training.

So here we go with ten things the martial arts should have taught you about life!

1, Improvement takes time and effort

Many of us start the martial arts with the idea that we simply need to be initiated into the secrets in order to develop skill. That was certainly my view when I started training as a child (I’d watched way too many kung-fu movies!).

However, the harsh reality of how long it takes to get good is quickly impressed upon us. We don’t go from being beginners to experts instantly. We need to make consistent and regular efforts over a long period of time.

We know this from training, and the same lesson applies to everyday life. Whatever it is you want to get good at, whatever it is you want to achieve or do, it will take consistent effort over a long period of time. Half-hearted and sporadic efforts won’t cut it.

We can’t make ourselves better martial artists simply by wishing we were better. We need to train consistently over long periods of time.

So your martial arts training should have instilled into you that whatever it is you want to achieve, it is going to require effort and time. Make that effort, over time, and you will make progress.

2, Growth is uncomfortable, but the rewards are worth it

I think Muhammad Ali summed up how most martial artists feel about training when he said,

“I hated every minute of training, but I said, 'Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”

Training is rarely fun. It’s hard work! However, the sense of achievement and the results of training are fun! Training is something I most often enjoy when it’s over! Our martial arts training therefore instils into us that we need to accept that discomfort as a precursor to growth. We accept discomfort as the necessary price of growth.

While some may quit at the first sign of difficulty or discomfort – mistakenly believing that they are a sign that something is “wrong” – we martial arts types know they are a precursor to growth. We just stick with it, we keep showing up, and we know that progress will follow.

So you should know that whatever you wish to progress in, it is going to involve discomfort and difficulty; and, as a martial artist, you should be totally OK with that.

As Miyamoto Musashi states in the Earth Book of the classic treatise on combative strategy ‘The Book of the Five Rings’, "It may seem difficult at first, but everything is difficult at first." We martial art types know that. And we fully accept it and never deny it.

3, Failure is always an option; failing to give it your all is not

We can lose. We can fail. Success is not guaranteed. Ever!

Many people want a guarantee of success. They fear failure and hence don’t attempt things. That’s not the martial way!

Every one of us in the martial arts has experienced failure. We have got technique wrong, being punched, kicked, thrown, strangled, locked, etc. We’ve failed gradings, been beaten in competitions, been totally outclassed in sparring, and so on.

We know failure is always possible. We accept it as part of our journey; but we don’t accept it as is our final destination. If we fail, then we learn what we can from the experience and try again.

Basketball legend Michael Jordan sums this attitude up well in the following quote:

“I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

We don’t fear failure, but we don’t court it either. We fully commit to something and give it our all. There are some great quotations from the Samurai Treatise the “Harakure” on this topic.

I think the following one captures the idea of resolute commitment very well:

“Nothing is impossible in this world. Firm determination, it is said, can move heaven and earth. Things appear far beyond one's power, because one cannot set his heart on any arduous project due to want of strong will.”

No matter how resolute we may be, and how strong our will, we can still fail. The Hagakure also tells us:

“If you must fail, then fail magnificently.”

We don’t fail meekly through lack of effort or resolve. We also don’t fail stupidly through lack of preparation, impatience or impetuousness. If we do fail, we will fail intelligently and majestically. There will be honour in such a failure; and certainly no shame in any form.

As martial artists, we commit to success, but we accept the possibility of failure. However, we will always give it our all, and should we not succeed, our failure will be beautiful and majestic.

We accept failure as a possibility, but we never fear it. Because of that, fear of failure never causes us not to try or to act without conviction. It is that attitude that makes success all the more likely.

4, Being both unrelenting AND flexible are needed to progress

This is a lesson we quickly learn through sparring. As just mentioned, being determined and relentless is a positive, but that is a million miles away from being pig-headed and stubborn.

The old saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” can be misleading. Einstein – who everyone agrees was a clever bloke – defined “Insanity” as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” So being unrelenting is not a matter of doing the same thing repeatedly. As we know from sparring, if something did not work, we are generally best advised to switch to something else. We don’t give up, but we do change the way we intend to achieve the goal.

The traditional martial analogy for this attitude is “water”. Bruce Lee, Sun Tsu, and many more all said that a warrior or army should be like water.

If you think of a stream flowing down a mountain side, it never quits and goes back up the mountain! It erodes the earth where it is weak and flows away from where the earth is strong. If it reaches a blockage, it will build up until it either goes over the top or builds up enough pressure to break through the blockage.

If water is struck, it simple moves out of the way and then reforms. It will always adapt to perfectly fit the circumstances that contain it. It can become ice and break rocks. It can become vapour and float into the sky.

We need to be unrelenting and flexible; just like water. So when you set your goals be resolute that you will achieve them, but be flexible about the means by which you achieve them. Adapt to your ever-changing circumstances. Differentiate between the objective and the means by which you achieve that objective. The objective is clearly defined. The means by which we achieve that objective must be flexible.

In sparring and combat, we are resolute about achieving our objective, but the means by which we achieve it will is never fixed but entirely dependent upon circumstance. Life is best when we approach it in pretty much the same way.

5, It’s OK to be weird

It really is; but you are a martial artist, so you know that already.

As I often say at the seminars, one of the reasons I enjoy them so much is the fact I get to spend time with people just like me. People who share this fascination for the details of karate, who laugh when a techniques hurts, who can smile at the brutality of a given method, but who don’t revel in brutality. We dress in "pyjamas" and enjoy punching our friends. We congratulate people who strike us.

We … are … not … normal! And we are totally OK with that!

We enjoy what we do. We spend long painful, sweaty hours doing it.

We know that makes us seems weird to others who couldn’t fathom the attraction if their lives depended upon it.

Many people are imprisoned in a life of grey mediocrity. They never venture out of the fur lined rut of the mainstream and the conventional. Not us! We know that there is lots of adventure and treasure to be found by going against the grain.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was bang on the money when he said, “A man must consider what a rich realm he abdicates when he becomes a conformist.”

If you have big plans, you can be sure those who “play it safe” will try to encourage you to be “normal” ... as if that’s a good thing! Don’t aspire to be a spectator. Do as Joseph Campbell advised and “follow your bliss”. Don’t aspire to be ordinary or average. Commit to excellence and seek to be extraordinary.

To quote Emerson again, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

6, Having trained people throw punches at your head makes life easier

Again, we know this. But the concept seems totally insane to those not of the martial persuasion.

Asking the boss for a raise, going for a job interview, changing careers, indeed making any positive change is sure to be accompanied by anxiety. But all those things seem pretty small by comparison when the evening before you had a 200lbs guy kneeling on your chest raining punches down on you.

We get used to fear, stress and challenging situations. The mini universe that is the dojo prepares us for the changes of the outside world.

Funakoshi said, "One whose spirit and mental strength have been strengthened by sparring with a never-say-die attitude should find no challenge too great to handle. One who has undergone long years of physical pain and mental agony to learn one punch, one kick, should be able to face any task, no matter how difficult, and carry it through to the end. A person like this can truly be said to have learned karate."

Could not agree more. We submit ourselves to the austere nature of training because we understand this process. We don’t only develop a never say die attitude so we can fight, we develop such an attitude so we can fully live.

7, We make the longest journey through a series of little steps

This is related to the first lesson, but it is also important that we learn that every little step counts. We should not get despondent because the results are not immediately obvious. You don’t become slim the very first time you decide not to have sugar in your coffee, but when done consistently it will contribute toward weight loss.

When Anko Itosu wrote down his ten precepts of karate in 1908, the first part of the third precept was, “Karate cannot be quickly learned. Like a slow moving bull, it eventually travels a thousand leagues.”

We need to ensure we focus on the day-to-day process and not overly fixate on the product.

There is an oft-recited tale in the martial arts where a prospective student visits a master and asks how long it will take them to become the best fighter in the area. The master tells the would-be-student that it will take at least ten years. Thinking that ten years is a long time, the prospective student asks how long it would take him if he trained twice as hard as all the other students; the master tells him it would now take twenty years! Confused, the would-be-student asks how long it will take him to become the best fighter in the region if he only stopped training to eat and sleep; the master replies that in that case it will take thirty years! The student asks the master to explain why he increases the number of years every time he tells him he will work harder. The master tells the student that the more he fixates on the destination, the less able he will be to concentrate on the immediate tasks that will take him to that destination. As the student’s fixation on the goal intensifies, his ability to concentrate on the day-to-day tasks required to achieve that goal will decrease, hence the extra time needed.

We live in an age where people want effortless success, immediate rewards, and ‘pats on the back’ for every effort made. If the ‘product’ is not immediately forthcoming, many people quickly abandon the process. Nothing of any real value is achieved quickly and if we want to be successful in the long-term we need to keep focused on the process, regardless of whether progress is readily apparent or not.

Ensure that you take lots of little steps towards your goal. They mount up! When you reach this time next year, you will be amazed at how far you’ve travelled!

In the words of James Lane Allen, “Work joyfully and peacefully, knowing that right thoughts and right efforts will inevitably bring about right results”.

8, Life is hard, but human resilience is harder

The true martial artist by definition is someone who is prepared to take on challenges. We don’t seek an “easy life” instead we seek ever greater challenges in order to ensure growth. Once we’ve learnt one technique, passed one grading, the very next thing we do is start work on the next one.

Some challenges we seek out; others are thrust upon us. But the way we deal with them is largely the same.

Winston Churchill famously said, “When you are going through hell, keep going.”

The nature of martial arts training develops that internal endurance to push beyond perceived breaking points. We know that in doing so we grow stronger and more able.

We push ourselves in training beyond the limits of our skills and physical abilities. And we know that leads to an increase in our skills and physical abilities.

Everything we need to defeat a problem in our lives can often be found within the problem itself.

Problems can develop strength, insight and resilience.

As the Roman poet Horace said, "Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents, which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant."

In his book Karate-Do Kyohan Gichin Funakoshi includes the following words from Confucian philosopher Mencius:

“When heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on any man, it will exercise his mind with suffering, subject his sinews and bones to hard work, expose his body to hunger, put him to poverty, place obstacles in the paths of his deeds, so as to stimulate his mind, harden his nature, and make achievable what would otherwise not be.”

I fully agree with that. As Nietzsche famously said, “That which does not destroy us serves to make us stronger.”

In the movie Rocky Balboa, the title character says the following to his son:

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done! Now if you know what you're worth then go out and get what you're worth. But ya gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain't where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody! Cowards do that and that ain't you!”

It’s true. Nothing does hit has hard as life. But we learn the process of how to deal with the hits that life gives us through the hits we take in the dojo. We know that our bodies can fail, and we also know our resolve and will can be unbreakable.

If we get knocked down, we learn, we get up, and we go again. Our trials don’t make us afraid, bitter or angry. They make use wiser, more compassionate, more able, and stronger.

The hardest battles are rarely the ones we fight physically. Most of us will face great hardships in life at some point.

We are warriors and we live a warrior’s life. We will sweat, bleed and weep. We will repair, rest and recoup when needed. But we will never quit trying to push forward. We may be brought to our knees, but we will always will ourselves to stand once more.

As the great Miyamoto Musashi said, “The Way of the warrior does not permit you to accept an inferior position to anything.”

We are martial artists, we know this. We live this.

That does not mean we never fail, fall or despair; but it does mean we will grow from every failure, we will rise from every fall, and despair will always give way to determination.

9, Friendships forged in shared adversity are the deepest.

I’ve said many times that the most valuable thing I have ever got from training is friendships. I’m very blessed that I have friends in the martial arts all over the globe. I have good friends outside of the martial arts too, but the one thing they all share is that we have shared adversity (whether that be inside the dojo or outside it).

The company we keep is very important. Martial artists tend to be positive people, who lead healthy lifestyles and are keen to better themselves.

And as discussed, they are also more than a little weird and eccentric too. What’s not to like?!

One of the main factors in how happy we are is having close friendships. Friends stand by each other, guide each other and help each other. The martial community is a great community to be part of.

Martial arts are often thought of as solo activities when compared to team sports. However, as we know, it is the “dojo team”, made up of instructors and all the various levels of students, that ultimately all work together to progress the whole group.

When approached correctly, there is a lot to learn about friendship, leadership and community within the dojo environment.

Thomas Aquinas said, “There is nothing on this earth to be more prized than true friendship.”

As you know, the dojo is a good place to find those friendships.

10, Insert your own

OK, So I’ve cheated a little, but with good reason!

I’ve given you nine lessons from the martial arts that I feel can help you. But as I said in the introduction, there are many more. So now I need you to do a little work.

If you analyse any of your achievements in the martial arts you will be able to see that the process you followed to make those achievements is every bit of relevant to life outside the dojo.

What is it that you would like to achieve, do or become? During the earth’s next short trip around the sun what will you be doings so that this time next year you are living an even better life than you are now?

What problems do you have? What tests and difficulties are you facing?

When you’ve answered those questions, what have the martial arts taught you that will help with all that? This is stuff you already know. It’s the exact same principles just in a different context.

If you still feel a little cheated by number 10 being a “do it yourself” one, then we can return to the beginning of this podcast and switch “insert you own” for Funakoshi’s “Put Karate into your everyday life any you will find its subtle secrets.”

Any achievement you’ve made in the martial arts (a passed grading, turning up for your first class and overcoming the nerves, struggling to learn a technique but eventually getting it, etc.) will have lessons within that apply outside of the dojo.

It’s not that martial arts are anything uniquely special. Any demanding activity will include lessons that apply beyond the activity itself. And it always worth reflecting on these lessons in order to maximise the benefits of engaging in that activity.

The martial arts have more to offer than physical fighting skills. I feel that’s something worth reflecting on.