Yin and yang: vulnerability, worry and martial arts

I’m told that there is an old Chinese saying that goes: “A storm never lasts all day.” I first heard this back in the early ’80s when I commenced training and it has stuck with me ever since.

Clearly, storms can and do last longer then 24 hours; this is meteorological fact. So what is the old proverb trying to say? Well I have always understood “day” to mean “a relatively short time”. For example, storms clearly don’t go on for weeks or months. They mostly last for much shorter periods. And these come and go. They are part of a natural cycle.

So, in times of great stress or difficulty I’ve always drawn comfort from the knowledge that, in a relatively short time, things would change. Indeed, change is the one “constant”. As my first teacher, Bob Davies, used to say: “Things have a habit of happening.” You can’t stop them.

When you apply this realization to your worries and troubles at a particular point, you will (in most cases anyway) notice that the issues underlying those particular worries and troubles will soon be determined - one way or another. A new status quo will be established and life will go on. Or not. Either way, the worries and troubles are a product of that particular point in time. They are like a storm. They won’t be directly relevant to another time before or after that point. Even if they leave consequences behind, the events that caused them will be gone. You will have come to grips with a new status quo and will (no doubt) start worrying about other things that may or may not occur. Yes, you may well dwell on the past. But you won’t worry about it. The worries of yesterday will be part of the backdrop of your life - not something looming in front.

I had all this in the back of my mind on Saturday when talking to some students after class. I mentioned how, almost exactly 29 years ago to the very day, I had suffered a particularly nasty knee injury during sparring in a grading. I threw a roundhouse kick to my opponent and he managed to catch my foot on its retraction. He then proceeded to twist my knee inwards by levering my captured ankle up and around. I tried to ride the force but, quite obviously, my body could not move as fast as the forceful circular twist he employed to my knee. The result was nothing short of catastrophic; the knee was so badly twisted that I limped for months and did not have full use of the knee for a year.

Then in 1988 during a lengthy sparring session in my black belt (shodan) grading, I went to block a kick and fractured the bones in my hand (an attempted application of the kata jion which, needless to say, doesn’t work!). As a result, I still have a sharp lump of bone sticking out the back of my wrist, courtesy of the break that healed crookedly.

And I’ve previously written about how I fractured my spine (among other injuries) in the infamous “Decadal Gashuku” in 1990.

I’ve also written about other injuries, particularly those resulting from contact, whether accidental or from deliberate “thumpings”.

In each of these cases I suffered the relevant injuries without medical assistance or even advice. This seems a rather odd thing to do from my present perspective but, looking back, I used to think that seeing a doctor was only necessary if you were at death’s door. Back then we’d bandage up the damaged body part and carry on. When you’re young you assume everything will heal (and very often it does, if somewhat imperfectly; a young body has a remarkable capacity for healing that is often taken for granted).

Going back to the subject of “worry”, discussions like this of injuries past have a tendency to produce in my present-day students a note of consternation: might they expect me to go all “old school” on them? Or, as one student asked me on Saturday, is training today not nearly so “hard”?

The answer to these questions is that while attitudes have changed, there will be times when you will be faced with challenges in your training that you would rather avoid. This is true whatever your level of commitment to training and whatever your goals and motivation might be. Training in serious fighting arts will always have elements of both hardness and hardship. What do I mean by this?

By “hardness” I mean that you will face tests that have an element of danger (ie. injury potential). Fighting is like that, even if it is “just pretend fighting”.

My instructor used to speak about levels of sparring as “soft and slow”, “soft and fast” and “hard and fast”. It is the last level that is required of black belts. It involves not only speed, but a level of commitment and penetration in your techniques (not to mention, contact). By black belt you should have a measure of control which helps to offset the danger, but the risk of something going wrong is still ever-present. This is what I mean by “hardness”. You’re not playing with something benign. It is serious business.

Even if you’re not into “fighting” drills, martial arts can still be dangerous. The next time you pick up a wooden sword or staff and start swinging it around, imagine for a moment what might happen if you miscalculate the distance between you and your fellow students and your stick catches someone in the eye...1

Imagine that you are asked to do a fairly simple trip or footsweep to a partner and (as happened recently to a good friend of mine) your partner falls unexpectedly and awkwardly with his foot jammed between yours, resulting in his knee being dislocated...

Just because you’re not doing “hard and fast” sparring doesn’t mean you’re not doing something that is potentially dangerous.

There is another meaning of “hardness” that I must also address, and that is: difficulty in learning whatever you’re trying to learn. Martial arts techniques require skill; the kind of skill that takes years and years of dedicated practice and concentration. You have to study and you have to do so earnestly and diligently. You can’t simply turn up at the dojo and “check your brain in at the front counter”.

This sort of study can be hard. Darned hard. Try concentrating on a complex sword form on the eighth hour of training on the eighth straight day of a martial arts camp. It can mess with your mind not to mention your emotions.

So now we come to “hardship”. Not everyone trains for “fighting” but, if you do, you need to be conditioned appropriately; you need to undergo some rigorous training. There have been many times in my “career” where I’ve trained to the point of vomiting; where I’ve exceeded my VO2 max so much that I can barely breathe; where my muscles were so fatigued that my legs shook uncontrollably when my knees bent or I could barely lift my arms; where I’ve sweated so much that my whole body has gone into cramps

Even if you don’t do martial arts for fighting and you have no intention to “condition” yourself for it, you will still face the inertia that (for most people) accompanies any exercise or other effort. As I’ve mentioned in my article “Why we train”, we humans seem to have two competing instincts which Sigmund Freud called “Eros” (“life” - a desire to get out and do something) and “Thanatos” (“death” - where we just want to lie down and do nothing). These instincts are always in constant conflict. We are both inherently restless and inherently lazy. The latter is always something we have to overcome to make it to the next class. This is made harder if we know we’re going to raise a sweat, or that we’ll have to concentrate on learning new material, but sometimes the inertia presents itself in the mere challenge of making it out the door.

So “hardship” in martial arts might well be relative - but we all face it. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your level of intensity in training is. Just getting to the dojo/kwoon/studio/gym can be darned hard. That is why the Chinese often refer to martial arts as “gong fu” (kung fu) - skill that is acquired through diligent effort. The term has no "martial" connotation whatsoever.

Exacerbating both “hardness” and “hardship” are myriad psychological issues: Will I pass my next grading? Will everyone else be promoted ahead of me? Will I forget my kata while performing it before the class or in a public demonstration or competition? Will I make a mistake and hurt someone in a paired exercise? Will my body stand up to this or that? Do I have what it takes to do/learn this movement? Am I too old, too fat, too lacking in talent or intellect, etc. etc.?

These are insecurities (real or, more likely, imagined or certainly exaggerated) that we all suffer. Yet our shared experience doesn’t make it easier. Somehow we all plod along in our own isolated worlds of worry about the future.

Which brings me back to my discussion at the start of this essay: We martial artists worry about “hardness”. We worry about “hardship”. We worry about a million incidental psychological issues. How do we reconcile this worry with something that is meant to “make us happy” and be “good for us”?

The answer is somewhat startling when you first come across it. Consider this address by social worker and academic researcher Brené Brown:

If you watch no other video this month on the internet, make it this one. Brené describes her own study of people who are happy and contented and finds one common thread: their ability to embrace their vulnerability. They know they can’t control every variable in their world. And more importantly, they seem to know intuitively that it is their very vulnerability that makes life worth living.

As Brené notes, most people today spend their time trying to numb their sense of vulnerability. They medicate or otherwise distract themselves so as to avoid experience “hardness”, “hardship” and the attendant worry.1

But to do this necessarily means that you numb yourself to pleasure as well.

If you spend all your time in a state of numbness, you experience neither “ups” nor “downs”. And if life is really like a sine wave (ie. always alternating between ups and downs - which I think it self-evidently is) and you're constantly numbed to this fact, you’ve effectively flat-lined: you aren’t really “living”.

Is it possible to live life on a constant “up” and somehow avoid the “down” periods? Anecdotally and intuitively I’d have to say “no”. Brené’s research confirms this. In order to have happiness you must have some unhappiness. In order to feel secure you must accept your vulnerability. To quote Bob Davies again: “You won’t appreciate light until you’ve experienced darkness”. It is contrast that gives meaning to terms such as “happiness” and “sadness”. Without contrast, terms that are largely relative lose their meaning. If you always ate the finest foods and enjoyed the finest entertainment you would soon tire of them. The finest foods would taste not much better than cardboard. The entertainment would be as riveting as watching the proverbial paint dry.

You can try to engage in a “war of escalation” - ever increasing the levels of "perfection" in your life. Indeed, this is the psychology that underlies drug abuse; people start with small doses, then find they have to “up” them to get the same effect. And so on, and so on. Such a pursuit of happiness ends up being an exponential escalation. It becomes a fruitless search for that which cannot be found.

I’ve noted before:
    "Happiness, it seems, is found not in the presence of “happy thoughts”. Rather it is found in the absence of unhappy ones."
And this is all predicated on the basis that you actually have some unhappy thoughts from time to time. Without them you have no point of reference.

So the next time you find yourself worrying about something in your training (whether it is about “hardness” or “hardship” or some other related psychological issue) accept that this is part and parcel of a bigger package; a package that can ultimately add value to your life by bringing you happiness.

As author Robert A Heinlein famously said: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” This is much the same as saying: “Find me a drug with no side effects and I’ll show you a drug with no effects.” You never get something for nothing. Life is like that. So is martial arts training; a mix of what the Chinese call “yin and yang”. Embrace your vulnerability and you’ll embrace the fruits of your labours. Try to numb it or run away from it, and you will end up with nothing.

Remember that every time you back away from a challenge you emerge weaker than you were before.2 Marital arts training is nothing if not a challenge. Face it head-on. And be comforted by the fact that individual challenges are temporary. In the grand scheme of things, they are really quite ephemeral. A storm never lasts all day. But achievement lasts a lifetime.


1. Bob Davies was a great one for storytelling. I'm still "dining out" on the many anecdotes he told me over the years. One of these concerned a young chap who used to train with us and got to a relatively high level (just before black belt, from memory).

It seems he was training in the dojo one day when someone carelessly swung a bokken (wooden sword) back and into his face so that the tip went into his eye. He sustained a serious injury and was rushed to hospital. Thankfully he didn't lose his eye - it was saved and all was well in the end (although things were touch and go at one point).

However the student (fuelled by his mother's panicked reaction) gave up martial arts training completely as a consequence of this episode.

This anecdote illustrates that the danger in martial arts training is very real - even when one is not engaged in a contact activity. However it also illustrates two more important things:
  • The student (and his mother) had both failed to embrace his patent vulnerability; they chose to deny it.
  • The failure of the student to resume training was not a direct consequence of the danger of the activity. Nor was it due to the level of danger suddenly increasing or becoming apparent (when before it was "hidden"). Rather, the risks were always what they were. The student's abandoment of his training was occasioned entirely by the fact that the student (and his mother) could no longer engage in a denial of the dangers; the accident had made this impossible.
Rather than embrace vulnerability and take measures to prevent a recurrence of such an accident, the student chose to give up altogether. I can't help but feel he was poorer for this decision.

2. Bob told me many other stories that illustrated the vagaries of backing away from a challenge. He told me how he once had a student who was an accomplished trumpeter. He was forever panicked by the thought that he might get hit in the lips and be unable to play. It consumed him so much that he quit training. The truth is that I can count on one hand the number of times over the past 30 years that I've seen punches to the mouth sufficient to prevent the playing of a trumpet. His response was totally disproportionate to the risk; it got the better of him and he ended up giving up a hobby he otherwise greatly enjoyed. He emerged weaker for giving in to his fears.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic