by Phillip Starr

I believe that it is through the assiduous practice of martial arts that we see our true selves as we really are; martial arts act like a mirror, which reflects our egos, fears, and shortcomings. This is, I think, why many people give up training. Not only do they see their image and deficiencies…so does everyone else. Our flaws are laid bare for all (our classmates and instructors) to see. And for many people, that’s simply unbearable.

Training tests us in many ways. Sometimes, breaking through one particular barrier isn’t terribly difficult but others appear larger and stronger. We grit our teeth and give it all we think we’ve got but sometimes, that just doesn’t seem to be enough. So we endure and it’s all we can do to hang by by our fingernails until the storm passes. These “storms” expose our “shadow side”; that part(s) of us that we normally hide from everyone else as well as ourselves.

We may try to keep them under wraps (which we normally do), but any attempt to do so only reveals what we’re trying to do! Weaknesses such as poor attitudes, envy, self-pity, criticism (of self or others), insecurities, and anger bubble to the surface where they’re readily seen.

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.

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.

Facing your shadow side is a necessary part of martial arts training and progress. It isn’t easy to do but don’t shrink from it…break through!

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