Friday, February 03, 2006

The Inner Game

People always have their own internalized reasons for anything they do, and this is as true of martial arts as anything else. There are some broad categories of interest in the arts, such as health, sports or self-defense that attract people to different styles, but there is usually an underlying theme of self-image. Whether someone wants to lose weight, win trophies or feel more secure, there is a desire for positive change and to take more control over one’s life.

Self-esteem is how we value ourselves. If it is low, we may seek out experiences that validate a negative self-image, perhaps resorting to self-sabotage or destructive behaviors. It is often difficult to identify these patterns in ourselves, even if we can see them in others. Self-reflection is important, taking the time to assess our own inner thoughts and feelings. There are various tools for this, including meditation, counseling, even dialog with trusted associates. Ultimately, though, change comes from within. No one can fix us except ourselves.

An example of a negative self-image cycle might be someone who gets into martial arts because they were bullied as a kid. Learning self-defense makes them feel stronger, but does it really change their way of looking at the world? Similarly, someone might become a tournament champion because it makes them feel better than other people, but if it is a way of compensating externally for an inner lack of self-worth, then all the trophies in the world ultimately won’t fill that void.

These are not uncommon scenarios, by the way. I’m sure that many of us (since I assume this is being read mostly by members of the martial art community) have encountered others who seem to be overcompensating. For instance, some fighters like to win by intimidation. Part of their strategy is to psyche out their opponent pre-emptively. Their vulnerability is if their opponent simply doesn’t respond to intimidation, or is simply better at that game. This turns the table, exposing their attitude as bravado, a band-aid for their psyche. Now they may be a great fighter and get away with this for a long time, but without inner growth, it is simply a dead-end, because they haven’t developed deeper inner resources to cope with adversity.

Another type of individual may be a hero-worshipper. Such a person may put their teacher on a pedestal and engage in excessive adulation. It’s one thing to admire someone for qualities they possess, and to model behaviors as a way to learn and integrate these qualities. If one gets stuck in a mode of feeling inferior or incapable of reaching such a state, then it is a negative behavior pattern.

Some teachers or schools feed on such energy, creating cults around personality or a mystique of being unique and special. Notice at the end of the first paragraph I spoke of taking control of one’s life. I believe that people approach martial arts with the goal of feeling free, free from whatever fear or oppression they perceive in their life. Martial arts hold out the premise of building strong individuals. If, however, a person falls under the sway of someone controlling, they subsume their original desires to the purposes of yet another manipulator. A grouping of people who are strong individuals is an association based on equality. Create a heirarchy based on feeding into the needs of those seeking truth and it is emotional vampirism. Cults and gangs are based on absorbing the individual into such channels; the group becomes strong by promising what the individual feels they cannot achieve on their own.

So how does one go about changing internal states? Some of it happens naturally through life experiences, but that can be random, and of course one can be stuck repeating the past. Training in a discipline such as martial arts should encourage positive values, strengthening determination, fortitude and goal-setting through positive achievement. One encounters obstacles and plateaus, but learns to persevere and overcome them.

In its broadest sense, martial arts are touted to give one greater self-esteem through accomplishment. This is often advertising aimed at parents for their kids, and in truth such benefits might be well received by a young and impressionable audience. Older individuals, however, usually have more fixed personalities, having had more life experience to set a pattern. This group might do well to look beyond just the training to understand and analyze areas where they could stand improvement.

I’m going to shift gears here now and point away from martial arts to another area, which are interpersonal relationships. You might have noticed an advertisement asking “Think You’ve Got Game?” with a picture of a pretty girl on the sidebar of this blog. A few months ago a book came out called “The Game” by Neil Strauss, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine. He went on assignment to cover the internet sub-culture of seducers and became one of the stars in that world. His book is a first-person exposé of that lifestyle, including some of the negative aspects of inflated egos and manipulation. He himself, however, becomes transformed in positive ways that should resonate with many men in our society. After reading this book, I began looking at online material by the gurus he mentioned in this field, to see what messages they have to offer.

While many in “the game” seem young and have adolescent attitudes towards sex and women, there is a deeper truth that some such as Neil seem to have found, which is discovering their own inner confidence and ability to create their own reality on a higher functioning level. Just as martial arts uses physical training to inculcate mental and even spiritual qualities, the ability to overcome interpersonal inhibitions ultimately resolves around changing inner patterns of negativity and self-doubt. I have that advertisement there because, quite frankly, I have met many martial artists who feel insecure or unfulfilled in important parts of their lives. The fact that some prominent teachers have gone to prison over the years for sexual abuse within their schools only highlights the ways in which their psychological development has not kept pace with other aspects of their lives. If their martial training has not created inner balance, then clearly other approaches need to be considered.

What these “seduction gurus” have done is researched many fields of psychological study, from NLP (neurolinguistic programming) to hypnotherapy to kinesthetics (body language) and more. One can study these things individually (as I have for years) and yet the information might remain abstract and intellectual. Since the goal of this community is to take action (meeting women) all of this has been fine-tuned to translating thought into action. Just as in martial arts, many of those who enter this realm are focused on the external results, resulting in what Neil Strauss referred to at one point as armies of clones mimicking behavior. Ultimately, though, if one pays attention to the message, it is about becoming real, being able to express oneself freely and without the inhibition of negative self-talk. Taken in that way, this is no different than the lessons I was learning in my graduate studies in transpersonal psychology, or the kind of social experimentations of gestalt therapy or in the liberation teachings of Rajneesh.

The “Mystery Method” is one of the best known schools of seduction, but a bit formulaic to my taste. Another proponent of the “inner game” is David DeAngelo, who teaches a playful “cocky and funny” attitude; there are others out there as well, with varying levels of sophistication and awareness. While some may be put off by the “seduction” label, the lessons these guys have applies not just to meeting women but to keeping relationships alive and vital, and also expands into other areas of life by providing inner tools for relating to people in general. I see the value in the information these guys provide as a synthesis that cuts directly to the application of theory. Sure their websites are written in the ubiquitous hype of internet marketing, but you can sign up for their free newsletters and get a good idea of the material right there. What you’ll learn is that money, looks, age, and even fame are unimportant. Though such things can be assets, confidence and positive belief in the inner self are ultimately the tools that help create the life we would choose for ourselves.

Just my $.02 …

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