by Phillip Starr

For many martial arts enthusiasts the main goal of training is to become stronger and faster, and to master fighting techniques and tactics so as to defeat any aggressor who dares assault them. Basic techniques are drilled over and over while muscles scream and the breath comes in gasps. Forms are practiced over and over and then studied and analyzed in minute detail until their true meaning is understood. Students leave their blood on the striking post and their sweat on the training floor. But underneath it all is something more, something personal, insidious, and dark.

We’ve all faced times of hardship and times of “testing” as we’ve traveled the martial path. These difficulties come in all manner of shapes and sizes, from minor to major injuries, illnesses, delays, loss of interest, problems with relationships…and there is simply no way to intellectualize or buy your way out of them. Oftentimes, you must work or even fight your way through them and at other times you must simply grit your teeth and wait them out. Sometimes simply staying on the path is all you can do. The legendary founder of aikido, Morihei Uyeshiba, put it succinctly:

“In extreme situations it seems as if the entire universe has become our foe.
At such critical times unity of body and mind is essential.
Do not let your heart waver.
Bravely face whatever God offers.
One should be prepared to receive 99% of the enemy’s attack and stare death right in the face in order to illuminate the path.
Transcend the realm of life and death and you will be able to make your way calmly and safely through any crisis that confronts you.”

In the practice of martial arts we must eventually confront our own “shadow side.” All of us have fears – from a simple fear of the dark to fears of pain, financial ruin, loneliness, and disease. And although these fears seem to come from outside of us, I think they are often the result of an internal process. This is a process of which we may not be consciously aware, a process that lies below our surface personality.

In training we strive to perform correctly, even under pressure. It usually doesn’t take long for inhibiting problems to begin to surface; poor attitudes, envy, self-pity, criticism (of self or others), insecurities, anger bubble to the surface to be seen by everyone. You can’t hide them although you may try and then it becomes obvious that you’re trying to conceal them!

The fact is that we’ve lived with these “shadows” for so long that we’ve developed our own personal ways of handling them. They’ve become a part of us – habits, if you will – and we’ve become so accustomed to carrying them around that we don’t even notice them until we get involved in martial arts training, which is really very different from most other physical activities because we’re dealing with the basest form of human relationships…a punch in the mouth. We have to learn to respond appropriately to physical attack while we must simultaneously “be with ourselves” under gradually increasing levels of physical and emotional pressure.

Before long we must face the ways in which we typically handle this and other forms of stress; how we armor ourselves against them, how we withdraw (into ourselves) or attack aggressively and what we see may not be pleasant. We’re exposed not only to ourselves but to all of our classmates as well. The way we defend ourselves under great pressure (as when a partner tries to punch us in the face) shows us how we work to survive in daily life.

As Wilhelm Reich said, your body acts as a “prison” that holds “you” (or what you perceive as “you”) in place. Although you can see an open door before you, you are held back in your “prison” by your limiting beliefs, attitudes, and so forth.

A skilled and caring instructor will see immediately what you see but he cannot present you with an instant “cure.” All he can do is encourage and guide you and you must listen. He’s been where you are. Your chosen martial art can be used as a vehicle to explore those things that you find undesirable in yourself – your fears, what threatens you, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, and so on. It is at this time, when we recognize various aspects of our “dark side” that we must take master Uyeshiba’s advice to heart.

You face your opponent (your training partner) and he becomes you. You project your fears, your weaknesses, and even your strengths onto him and confront them as you practice fighting. And as you strive to “not lose”, it isn’t really your opponent who you are trying to defeat. It’s your “shadow side.” This is why practice fighting is so very important because in actual combat it’s the same thing. Your opponent, whether he’s just a training partner or a real assailant, is a mirror.

I believe that the willingness to face our “dark side” and striving to understand and eventually overcome our weaknesses, fears, and the many things about ourselves that we would rather keep stashed away is what makes a true warrior. You must begin by being bold enough to admit the truth of what you see about yourself. Then you must be strong enough to resolve those aspects of yourself that you find undesirable. This can be accomplished through correct martial arts training but it isn’t easy and many students will quit training in order to avoid having to face themselves although many of them, perhaps even the majority of them, are unaware that this is the reason they’re quitting.

Remember the word of master Uyeshiba.

moriheiueshiba“In extreme situations it seems as if the entire universe has become our foe.”
(Ever felt like the whole world – maybe even the whole universe – was against you?)

“At such critical times unity of body and mind is essential.”
(First, recognize the situation and the feelings it evokes. Then “Get One-Point” and exercise reverse breathing. Unify your body and mind!)

“Do not let your heart waver.”
(Don’t get cold feet. Don’t even think about the possibility of giving up or failing. Ever. Those are not options.)

“Bravely face whatever God offers.”
(Face the problems directly and remember that every problem you face has a hidden gift to give you.)

“One should be prepared to receive 99% of the enemy’s attack and stare death right in the face in order to illuminate the path.”
(Like the old Japanese saying; “You only live twice. Once when you are born, and once when you look death in the face.” )

“Transcend the realm of life and death and you will be able to make your way calmly and safely through any crisis that confronts you.”
(When you have overcome your fear of death, you can make your way calmly through any crisis.)

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