Sunday, March 20, 2005


Hello again! Back to the blog after a break. I’ve been busy writing elsewhere, having signed onto an email list that is busy, to say the least; I think addictive is the word most commonly used by those on it. A memo to myself to carry a notepad and remember to use it for blog ideas! Sometimes I just forget it’s there, and a moment of inspiration passes and is forgotten. I’ve had half a dozen ideas for this blog this past week, but once that quick hit is gone, it’s hard to get back. The good news is I travel in small circles, so like the saying, what goes around comes around.

Some circles are bigger than others; a friend who has trained extensively with Dan Inosanto recently said that Guro D’s teaching progression was about a 2 year cycle to get back to material previously covered. This is one reason people who train at that academy might look different from each other, depending on what they got and when in their training they got it. I’ll say this – it takes real genius to keep that much material in circulation. Maybe I underestimate what I’ve learned over the years, but I just stick to simple things because there is always more to do right there. I remember how back in my Kenpo days, there was always more to learn, never enough time to really master what we already had. Come to think of it, that’s about how my flamenco guitar studies feel right now!

In looking at the paths to mastery, what are the key elements? First let me define mastery. My dictionary says it is “1) dominion; also superiority; 2) possession or display of great skill or knowledge.” Both of these are definitions that are applied in martial arts, and they should be synchronistic. Sadly, there is no guarantee the meanings are applied congruously. Dominion refers to a hierarchical structure of social control; too often in martial arts people are concerned with title and rank in order to impress people, pull in students, make more money. Sometimes the title “master” is well-earned through achievement, or bestowed by those appreciative of one’s talents. Other times, titles that are bought, inherited or self-designated may or may not represent actual mastery and are merely window dressing.

The second meaning of mastery is akin to the Chinese understanding of kung-fu, great skill acquired through hard work over time. It does not necessarily mean, as some people try to make it, a magical state of cosmic enlightenment, though that might be nice; by such a definition, the word would be almost meaningless because how many people have that? No, that brings it back into the realm of social mastery or dominion. In truth, most people who are masters of something are simply the best prepared students of the genre, in control of certain parameters of knowledge but by the same token, aware of the limitations of what they don’t know. Mastery is a path of growth, and in the process of gaining whatever else we learn, hopefully the process polishes us as well.

Earlier this morning I read an interview with Nate Defensor, an FMA teacher in the Chicago area. He has an impressive and wide-ranging set of teachers. When asked what quality set them apart, his response was “overwhelming confidence.” This is a great answer, and a big part of the mystery of mastery. To possess skill or knowledge means personal ownership of that thing and a belief in yourself as the possessor. All too often people feel inadequate, comparing themselves to others without recognizing their own innate talents. Modesty can be a good trait in honest self-evaluation, but diminishing oneself is as much a distortion of the ego as self-aggrandizement. It is through experience that we grow what we know; again, as Mushtaq Ali points out, a heuristic learning process. Confidence comes through successful repetition, great confidence through progressively nurturing those skills to higher levels of competency. Ultimately it is not so much how much we know as how well we know what we know. Getting lost in material is wandering in the desert; knowing one thing is like having a star to guide one through the wilderness. Knowing that you can locate that star and navigate allows one to go anywhere, and that is the transition from confusion to mastery. This looks inward for self-validation, not outwards to gain approval from the world. The only dominion that really matters to a master is over oneself. That is where confidence resides.

* An interesting observation on the Defensor interview. He says the older teachers like Cabales were focused on wisdom and tradition, while Dan Inosanto wrote in his first book that Angel was “a true master of the physical art.” While Angel might have had some traditional views on things, I’ll go with Guro Dan on this one. Angel was a master tactician and a detailed and thorough teacher.

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