I once read a quote by Aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba which said in essence that anyone who is reasonably competent can learn to wave their hands around in the air, but the true nature of the art was to be found in meditation.
I later read an interview by Kenpo grandmaster Ed Parker, in which he stated the main purpose of training was to learn to keep one’s hands out of each others’ way so they wouldn’t hit each other by accident; after all, that could be as injurious as being hit by an opponent. When then asked if he’d ever used his art for self-defense, he said that he’d experienced three attempted muggings in Los Angeles, and each time he’d simply hit the person before he could think, dropping them immediately. Each time his subsequent reaction was “Darn! I could have done something fancy!”
I’ve often quipped that for all my years in martial arts, the best examples of how they’ve saved my life have been knowing how to fall, or in one case crossing an icy parking lot while carrying skis, how not to fall by using a strong stance. Other times I’ve used awareness to avoid trouble, sensing something subliminally and only recognizing the nature of the danger after it had been avoided. I’ve had very few fights. Most of those have been coming to the aid of others, and the actual skirmishes (a word related in origins to Escrima) were very brief within the context of each incident.
Finally, I-Chuan practitioners were reputed to be devastating fighters, yet their main focus of training was standing in universal post.
So what is going on here? Why do we train endless hours in countless techniques? Certainly we gain skill in waving our hands in the air, learning not to hit ourselves, but then we’ve also trained alongside others who practice diligently and are technically competent but who are not particularly effective in using what they know.
It’s that inner game.
My two previous posts about dog incidents were to illustrate presence of mind under duress, which I believe are key attributes to cultivate through martial art training. Those incidents had nothing to do with the external art, but everything to do with the essence of being present and aware within the moment.
GM Anthony Davis once did an article back in the 80’s about mastering Escrima. Some folks took offense that he was claiming to be a master, when in fact he was still training under Angel Cabales in the 12 angles at that time. Anthony pointed out that he had never claimed in that piece to be a master of the art, but that “mastering” is a process of working towards mastery. At the time I thought his explanation a bit disingenuous, but in fact he hit the nail on the head.
Mastery can be defined as “possession of consummate skill” or as “full command of a subject of study.” Yes, there is also the meaning of “status of master or ruler,” which is based on social roles, but the first two definitions are based solely on competency within the individual. One can have status as a leader without having self-mastery, and so we are free to examine the actual process of inner development separate from issues of hierarchy.
Within Anthony Davis’ use of the term, we spend our whole lives mastering skills, something GM Angel Cabales exemplified. As skillful and accomplished as he was, he was continually refining his art and himself, a process that I believe one can see in the lineage of his students. Those who trained with him earlier have a robust aggressiveness, reflecting Angel’s energy at that time. Later students show a more refined approach to the art. This is not to say earlier trainees lack understanding or that later ones are not as strong, but rather that as students take on qualities from their teacher, this shows how Angel’s approach to teaching his art evolved over time from a more direct experiential method to one that became more analytic in attention to fine details.
I really saw this process of inner development the last time I worked out with Angel in 1991. I took a group of students to meet him; Angel was already very ill at this time. He sat in a chair, looking tired, but as we went through angles for him he became more and more animated, finally insisting we help him to his feet. He turned to one guy, a burly Filipino who was ex-military, with high skills in Kenpo and Wing Chun, and told the guy to punch him. Mack looked at me questioningly, and knowing Angel, I said “Do what he says.” Mack threw a punch and Angel did a takedown.
Now here was a guy (Angel) who could barely stand - we’d had to help him out is his chair – dropping a guy half his age and twice his size, using a technique I’d seen countless times in a way I’d never seen before. Generally in the past he would step into his opponent, ducking under their arm and pinning their centerline with his outstretched arm while trapping their knee with his. In doing this, he would often visibly adjust his own balance to catch their weight. This time he couldn’t move that much. He couldn’t make adjustments when merely standing was so difficult. Instead, he simply did the technique with perfect alignment, and with a light touch sent Mack crashing to the ground.
Angel proceeded to demonstrate this technique on each of us (six in all) and the power he manifested was undeniable. He reminded me that day of a candle whose flame may flare brighter just before going out. I knew in that moment that we were witnessing the culmination of his art. He had perfected it, and his life’s work was done. He died 22 days later.
If a legendary fighter and teacher can constantly investigate the nature of his art, continually refining it to ever-higher levels, that is the best example we can take for our own development within the art. It is not about rank, because that is a social construct. It is something awarded to us by others as a form of recognition, and it can be taken away or disputed, all part of the politics of the arts. On the other hand, our knowledge is something we own, a part of ourselves. It is in taking ownership of our own self that we become powerful. External mastery is only the shell, but it is up to us to embody the meaning.
I recently heard from a former student who called to discuss a rank he’d been awarded in another system. He didn’t feel he was ready for it. If he cannot feel it, then there is still work to be done. I pointed out that it is not a lack of knowledge that holds him back, because he’s trained a long time with competent teachers, but it is a lack of belief that keeps him from accepting his own competency.
I reminded him of something I was told long ago by John Wong, my late Tai Chi teacher. Some people don’t want to accept responsibility for their own growth, and so remain students forever. Sometimes they become dojo gypsies, traveling from school to school in search of that elusive missing “something.” This has nothing to do with technical ability, because sometimes these people can be very good, though it seems the longer they search for answers outside themselves, the less competent they become as self-doubt drives down their confidence.
The most common phrase in the Filipino martial arts (FMA) is “we have that too,” and really that can be extended to almost all the arts. There are only so many basic techniques, though many ways of expressing them. One can learn how to do an arm bar, for example, from many teachers, and each might add a flavor or nuance to the technique, but until you are able to do an arm bar that expresses who you are, you have not internalized the experience and made it your own.
That is mastery. Work on mastering it!