Monday, October 05, 2009

Martial Arts and Self-Improvement - A Self-Fulfilling Goal?

I'm writing this a bit reluctantly. It's the next item on the "Why practice sword arts" list, but it's probably the hardest one to tackle. "Self-improvement" is difficult to define. We have to define a "good person" before we can decide what it means to be a "better person", and the first one has eluded philosophers for centuries. We can't really measure self-improvement either, except subjectively, and there is certainly no way to prove if it has happened.
Of course, we all have anecdotal evidence. "Before I started martial arts, I was spineless, cowardly, weak, selfish, and morally bankrupt. Now, 20 years later, I am somewhat less so." Not exactly scientific, is it? How much did martial arts have to do with it, and how much of it was merely "growing up" a bit? We each have to answer that one for ourselves.
I want to take a look at Kendo. Kendo is an art that is practiced mostly for the purpose of self-improvement. Nobody is out there taking kendo for self-defence. And as I said before, it's good exercise, but it's a lot easier to do 40 minutes on a stairmaster while watching TV, than to go to the dojo and get whupped for 2 hours twice a week. Which leaves the idea of doing it because it makes you a better person. According to the All-Japan Kendo Federation;

The concept of Kendo is: To discipline the human character through the
application of the principles of the katana.
The purpose of practicing Kendo is:
To mold the mind and body,
To cultivate a vigorous spirit,
To hold in esteem human courtesy and honor,
To associate with others with sincerity,
To forever pursue the cultivation of one's self,
And through correct and rigid training, to strive for improvement in the
art of Kendo.

Therefore from kendo we hope to
Proper ways to interact with others.
Continuous concentration as
we aspire and reach towards goals.
Total commitment to what is right.
How to become contributing members of society.

Kendo is hard. I can definitely agree that it molds your body while providing you with mental toughness and powers of concentration. By adhering to strict etiquette, it teaches courtesy. At higher levels, you must become aware of your opponent/partner's intentions, which makes you sensitive to others. But what about the other points? "Total commitment to what is right?" How does that happen?

I think this is kind of a chicken-and-egg thing. People come to kendo because they are already interested in self-improvement - "becoming a better person" - which means that they are already thinking about what it means to be a "good person". Kendo attracts and keeps ethical people who are receptive to these ideas. It's kind of like church, particularly in this day and age when fewer and fewer people are raised with religion. The people who drift back to church are the people who are interested in questions of morality, right and wrong, good and evil. Even if they don't agree with every tenet of religious teaching, they find themselves part of a group of like-minded people.

Next, telling people "By doing kendo, you can make yourself into a better person" is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Kendo provides people with a specific type of social interaction, with juniors and seniors, and rights, and responsibilities, over a backdrop of physical challenges and pain. The way you cope with the pain, while still maintaining your responsibilities, teaches you something which, because you've been made aware of the possibility, you then extend to your life outside the dojo.

If you practiced another activity - let's say bowling - with the same kind of attitude as kendo or kyudo or iaido, I think the results would be the same. "Clear your mind before you bowl. Extend your ki towards the pins. Bow to the pins slightly, acknowledging that they are one with you. Begin your approach and release the ball in one fluid motion ..." I think the self-consciousness is the important part: finishing a practice, feeling exhausted, and asking yourself, "Why did I put myself through that? Is it making me a better person?" We look for changes in ourselves, signs of improvement, and it is that process that changes us.

Is there anything inherently beneficial about martial arts? I don't think so, any more than there is something inherently beneficial about waking up on Sunday morning and singing hymns with a bunch of other folks in a building somewhere. But if we are self-conscious that we are doing it for a reason, and that reason is that we want to become a better person, then the potential for improvement is there.


Blogger Patrick said...

I thought people joined Kendo so they could bash people on the head with sticks.

8:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

An insightfull post. Will definitely help.

Karim - Positive thinking

10:58 PM  

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