As much as I'm a believer in the pursuit of climbing the ladder of ranks within a martial arts system, there are few potential “pitfalls” that students can fall into when considering ranking systems and the perception around one's rank.
One pitfall is becoming too focused on the end result and symbol of achievement, rather than focusing on the present state of learning and developing as a martial artist.
There's a great Zen story that talks of a student who wants to achieve mastery and asks his instructor how long will it take.
Whatever time frame instructor tells him, the young student states he will add more and more time to his study in order to speed up the result. As he proposes to add more time to achieving mastery, his instructor tells him “well, then it will take even longer”.
The student gets confused and doesn't understand how the more time he's willing to commit to mastery, he gets farther away from achieving it.
The lesson is that by focusing on the result, the student misses all the lessons along the way. In doing so, he gets farther from “mastery”.
I have been guilty of this myself. We can sometimes get too caught up in our rank or achieving a rank, rather than being present with where we are at and what we are doing at this very moment. Sometimes students tie too much of their identity to their rank which can muddy the intention behind striving for the next belt.
Another misconception that I see with regards to martial arts rank is that the person's belt or rank or level is somehow a "magic bullet" when it comes to performance or application of martial skills.
I have a Brown Belt in jiu-jitsu which took many years and a lot of mat time to earn, but these past few months I've not been "rolling", which is imperative to maintaining and developing BJJ skills. So when I roll with a lower belt who is constantly training, I'm at a disadvantage. The color of my belt doesn't save me.
Sure, I have a large bed of knowledge in my muscle memory that is still accessible, thank God, but it's not automatic that I can outperform lower ranked students who are putting in more time and effort, and/or have better attributes.
One should definitely feel a sense of great pride and fulfillment when being promoted or passing a test, but you are not suddenly super powered beyond your natural abilities, your physical reality, or the time and effort spent developing your skills under pressure.
On top of that, there are people who are naturally gifted and/or have put in more training time, and can defeat a higher ranked person, or execute the techniques cleaner, learn new techniques faster, etc.
I've seen Blue Belts in BJJ go unconscious because they didn't want to tap to a White Belt. They made the mistake of judging the person by their rank. What they didn't know was that white belt had been training submission grappling on and off for ten years. He just never stayed with a school long enough to get ranked. Some schools or systems don't use ranking at all!
As I've stated a few times already, I encourage the pursuit of moving up the ranking process under whatever system or systems one takes on. It shows loyalty, honor, and dedication to one's school, system, and instructor. But it's important to keep in check the "intention" for getting promoted.
Hope you are having a lovely day and thanks for your time!
When I started training at MKG back in the summer of 2000, I was starting up something that I put off for close to 10 years.
I always loved martial arts as a kid and studied very traditional TaeKwonDo back in 1980 for about 1.5 yrs. and I loved it! I had it in the back of my mind go back into martial arts but I was way too caught up in other sports.
At age 30, I decided to finally take that first step and at least try it out. I stumbled on to MKG by accident. I had no idea what these mixture of arts were or that you could train martial arts to rock music wearing T-shirts and shorts!
But I fell in love with it pretty instantaneously.
Not only could see that this training was helping me with some psychological and behavioral issues I was dealing with at the time (I’ll get into some more of this in another article), but I was also seeing physical improvements like dropping a shirt and waist size!
What I wasn’t really aware of until farther into my training, were the hidden lessons that were waiting for me, ready to reveal some of the “egoic” traps within my psyche.
Here’s one example…
I was hitting Thai pads in class and my training partner was, for better or worse, a guy who could sometimes illicit quite a bit of aggression in me. Which is a nice way of saying this guy really pissed me off.
So while working our knees in a conditioning drill, I was really trying to let him have it. I was driving those knees into the pads with all the power and rage as I could muster. My partner could handle it, but I wanted him to be uncomfortable and…let’s say I was working some things out.
Now, at the time of starting at MKG martial arts, I was coming into it with some significant injuries, one being a very unstable left knee, which, while trying to destroy a set of Thai pads, completely buckled and I fell to the ground.
My partner didn’t know I had knee issues so he couldn’t help himself but to laugh at what seemed like a goofy mishap on my part, which made it all the worse.
I lost my cool.
I walked off the floor and into the back where I began to throw my gloves and equipment into my locker and then stormed out of the dojo.
Basically, I threw a tantrum.
My self created identity as a “badass” was exposed. I was weak. At least that’s how my ego processed it.
I was trying to exert myself physically, with the wrong intention, but the reality of physical limitations threw a big monkey wrench into the perception I had of myself.
But that wasn’t the real lesson.
Guro Andy Wilson is a man of few words. He doesn’t come off as an imposing figure and he can seem a bit awkward and shy (especially back then), but in reality he is extremely bright, insightful, and wise.
When I returned to training, we sat down and went more into how my partner was irritating me and that it’s such a bummer that my knee is jacked, etc.
But what he said was very straightforward and to the point;
“You have no right to bring the class down because of your problem.”
Holy crap he’s right!
I was being a big selfish baby, a spoiled brat!
This is not about me!
The movement of the training, the art that we are blessed to have been gifted to us by people who sacrificed so much, in some cases, their lives, is much bigger than our personal problems, our physical limitations, or who we “think” we are.
In fact, that’s a big reason we train; to put those personal issues past us and in perspective and to concentrate on what we are doing in the moment.
How could I forget that very moment I realized I wanted to be a part of the Inosanto lineage and dedicate my time to this art was when I was training JKD in Los Angeles and was partnered up with a guy in a wheelchair who had cerebral palsy?
(*The man’s name is Sifu Clay Johnson if you want to look him up.)
Here I am bringing down the rest of the class because I’m feeling sorry for myself and my damaged knee. What would Sifu Clay have to say?
I am so very grateful to Sifu Andy Wilson for that lesson…one of many that have surfaced through training martial arts.
I try very hard to remember this in my day to day life as well as on the mats. So many in the martial arts community have reminded me, through their determination and selflessness, to…well basically, “get over yourself!”
Everyone has their own reason for wanting to get into martial arts, and I think most of us understand that it’s beyond self-defense and fitness. There’s something very special and engaging when you start to learn these amazing movements and techniques.
Each individual is affected differently and the outcomes vary from person to person.
For some it’s the empowerment they start to feel and seeing that unfold in their daily lives.
For some it’s the inspiration they get from learning something new and creative.
For others it’s the stress relief they get from training, leaving their problems outside, off the mat, and stepping into a new focus.
And some have been able to completely transform their lives.
Let me give you and example of one of our students from a few years ago, Martin, who had that exact experience and made amazing changes to his life.
When Martin started training at Seattle Integrated Martial Arts, he came in a little hesitant and unsure about himself cause he’d never been much into athletics or knew much about fighting, he was feeling unhealthy and out of shape, pushing 50, and wanted to make some positive changes in his life.
Here’s what he says about his process…
“When I first met Bob I weighed 330 pounds, on blood pressure medication and the doctor was going to put me on more. Bob said, ‘just give me 3 months, don’t quit for 3 months and I guarantee you will feel the change’…. After 3 months I felt a huge difference physically and emotionally. I was off my blood pressure meds and my antidepressants.”
After a few short months of training with us, Martin was a whole new man. And whatever physical limitations he had going into training, we would find ways to adapt the training so he and his partners could get the most out it!
He lost a ton of weight, his coworkers were saying he was like a different person to be around.
Martin credits the confidence he got from martial arts in helping him to radically change his life by ending a 20 year relationship that was no longer healthy.
He even met a beautiful woman who he ended up marrying.
I’m not making this up!
Now, maybe not every person who steps into Martial Arts will experience such drastic life transformations. It’s not for everybody.
But this was definitely something that Martin, and many others like him, needed to add to their lives, and in his case, to drastically change their belief in themselves.
Change your belief in your self, change your life.
I remember this story that, unfortunately I can’t recall where I read it, but it stuck with me over the years. It goes something like this…
A man was working on a construction sight when he fell from a few stories and landed onto an area where rebar was exposed, thus empaling himself, as well as taking significant impact.
Needles to say, he had to be rushed to a hospital. While being admitted and, understandably in a great deal of pain, he was asked, “are you allergic to anything?”. He answered, “yeah, gravity!”
Now this guy had rebar piercing his body and sustained multiple injuries, yet here he is cracking jokes before going into surgery.
The story then goes on to say that days after his fall, this man continued to laugh and crack jokes during his recovery and rehab sessions. His care takers where just so amazed by this.
Finally someone asked him, “how is you have such an upbeat attitude when something so awful happened to you?”
His answer was, “I can’t control what happens to me, but I can control how I respond to it”.
I feel that, even having the awareness that we have a choice in how we are going to let our environment effect our state of being, is a high form of self-mastery.
Even more sophisticated is the understanding that our reactions to events in our immediate environment are almost completely subconscious! It’s a program that’s running in the background and we’re rarely aware of it.
Now I know this may get me into trouble and that I’m “blaming the victim” or something along those lines. That is not at all what I am saying.
But what many people have shown us is an ability to respond to tragedy and get beyond their "victim" status and internalize an "empowered" state of being!
I’ve become more and more aware of this and I continually work to consciously choose higher forms of thinking and feeling such as compassion and appreciation, when I could easily fall into lower forms of thinking such resentment, judgment, jealously, and victimhood. But I don’t always succeed. It’s an ongoing process and I still consider myself a white belt in the area.
We choose all day, every day, how we are going to let something external to us affect our internal reality. I believe training can help with this. Staying grounded and having more belief in yourself can make it a bit easier see a bigger picture and not take things so personally or to feel like a victim.
But it is something that takes continual practice and sometimes you feel like you’re just starting over. Much like martial arts!
One of my students is dealing with an injury to his calf that’s requiring him to wear a boot, which, as you could imagine, is putting a huge "cramp" to his training. But he’s still coming in to class and moving around on the mats where ever and however he can.
I encourage students to do this. If you are injured, you can still come to class and watch or do some of the work in whatever way that’s suitable for the class and that’s not going to aggravate the injury. Watch and study and internalize what’s going on in the class as you would in a school setting.
I used to think that main benefit to doing this was simply maintaining consistency and of course keeping up with what’s being taught. And yes, these are very important and beneficial, but I’ve come to learn there’s even more going on.
There are a great many studies in the fields of epigenetics, neuroplasticity, and psychoneuroimmunology, that demonstrate time and again the body’s ability to initiate a chemical reality directly influenced by the combination of one’s emotional state and their conscious intention.
For example, if you have the mindset that you “aren’t injured” and that you are “healthy”, you demonstrate this to your body when doing things like coming to class and doing minimal movement or even just mentally participating, you’re sending an energetic signal to the body to create chemical and physiological conditions that reflect that mindset. This in turn can speed up healing and recovery. I will go into more detail on this stuff in later posts.
Now don’t misunderstand me, yes, you should listen to your body when dealing with pain and take the proper measures to rest and heal damaged tissues. Seek out the professional medical care of your preference and decide what works best for you.
But, while resting and healing, you don’t have to think of yourself as the victim. In fact try not to. Try preemptively being thankful for your healing as if it’s already happened.
Visualize yourself being healed up and training. You may be able to trick your body into healing faster than you expected.
Most traditional martial arts have a bed of knowledge specific to health and wellbeing that’s inherent in their system. In the Locaste/Inosanto system of Filipino Kali, we call this the 12th area.
With all the other 11 areas associated with different weapon or empty hand application such as double stick, sword or axe, long weapons, single or double knife, empty hand, striking, flexible weapons, etc., the 12th and final area is dedicated to healing, spiritual, philosophical, traditional, and historical aspects of Kali.
I’ve always been a bit fascinated with the internal martial arts and the stories of healing powers some of the masters were claimed to have had. We tend to think of this as material for Kung Fu theater, but what’s very intriguing is modern science has caught up to this ancient wisdom. There are many people able to explain and replicate the supernatural achievements that mystics, shamans, yogis, and monks have been accomplishing for centuries.
For me, seeing some of the science has solidified what I’ve believed since I was very young, and that is there is something beyond what we experience with our senses, and that we have way more potential to regulate our biology, our health, and our fate, than we’ve been programmed to accept.
I’m no master of the healing arts nor am I scientist (outside of the dojo), but the connection from what we do as martial artists, and the phenomenon of it affecting our mindset and lives, continues to inspire me.
Now, don’t make the mistake of thinking this only pertains to folks practicing Kali. This subject is not regulated to Filipino Martial Arts and is relevant to all areas of martial arts and life in general.
The intention of this Blog is to highlight this esoteric aspect of the Martial Arts, and hopefully generate inspiration within ourselves and within each other.
What is "Area 12"?
Our Kali system has 12 areas of knowledge. Areas 1-11 are all different aspects of physical combat.