Saturday, October 18, 2014

My Personal Philosophy on Self-Defense: Meaning, Purpose, and Application

Note: This is the second of two essays I wrote in preparation for my test for sam dan in Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan.

“Every word of this song has enormous value and importance.
Failing to follow this song attentively, you will sigh away your time.”

When I began training in Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan it was primarily as a way to challenge myself while also engaging in a constructive activity that I could share with my family.  My children had begun training with Master Nunan a couple of months earlier and I had reached a place in my life where I began to realize that I needed challenges and goals outside of my career in order to achieve more meaningful satisfaction in life. And for the first year or so of training, that is primarily the purpose training served for me. However, as time has passed and my experience and understanding of our art has grown, my perspectives on self-defense, on training in the art, and in my motivations for doing so have shifted. 

Unlike many people who begin training in martial arts, I have never really felt I needed to train in order to defend myself or learn to fight.  I am fortunate enough to have always been able to live in places that are quite safe, so my personal safety day-to-day has really never been a big concern for me.

Plus, even when I’ve found myself in situations where things may have been less secure and safe than usual, the simple fact that I am a pretty big guy who tends to have a kind of mean look on his face when he’s not smiling (talk about camouflage!) has served me well: while I understand that I am as vulnerable as anyone else to violence should someone choose to target me, I haven’t been approached in an even remotely aggressive manner by anyone in well over 30 years. So while I enjoy sparring and I appreciate the self-defense skills I’ve developed, the application of them in “real life situations” has never been a strong motivator in training for me.

Instead, as I came to truly embrace training in self-defense in general and Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan in particular as a lifestyle, it was primarily from a perspective of self-discipline and self-improvement. As such, my personal philosophy on self-defense since advancing beyond the gup ranks has primarily been that self-defense is a journey we undertake to become better people, not better fighters. Our training provides us with skills that enable us to make better choices, carry ourselves through undesirable situations, and create better outcomes in life for ourselves and those we love.

So, for me self-defense is a sort of toolkit, and the purpose of our training is to improve and extend the skills we learn so that we can better apply them in our daily lives. This is one of the reasons I’ve felt that Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan is such a perfect fit for me, as our organization places such a strong emphasis on martial arts as a method of building and refining the whole person, not just the martial persona.

In describing the purpose and philosophy of Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan our gup manual says “its purpose is to develop every aspect of the self in order to create a mature person who totally integrates his/her intellect, body, emotions, and spirit. This integration helps to create a person who is free from inner conflict and who can deal with the outside world in a mature, intelligent, forthright, and virtuous manner.”  It is notable that the combative aspects of our art are not noted here, and in fact when perusing the gup manual you will find relatively little focus on the offensive/defensive nature of self-defense training.  Even the section that focuses on sparring is careful to note the positive reasons for engaging in sparring as an activity, the emphasis on it as a learning tool and a positive experience that consists of an exchange of energy between partners, not a fight or a competition.

I feel this is a natural extension of the Song of the Sip Sam Seh.  In reading it, I noticed that it really only has one line that specifically addresses combat or conflict, and even that line (“Surprising things will happen when you meet your opponent”) is fairly enigmatic (I’ve been surprised at how many “opponents” I’ve met turn out to be allies and/or friends over time). Rather, it says “What is the purpose and philosophy behind the martial arts? Rejuvenation and prolonging of life beyond the normal span.” Not an especially aggressive or combative tone, there.

And so, I believe that the physical and mental conditioning provided in training, and the confidence built through knowledge and experience in self-defense, are simply positioned as the foundation for the more lasting and significant goal of self-improvement. It is the other qualities we develop through the training and conditioning for battle that are the actual goal. Again, if we look to the gup manual it’s all right there in the Eight Key Concepts:. While it’s certainly possible to apply any of these concepts to a combat scenario or mindset, it is exceedingly clear that they apply to far, far more than just self-defense.

As such, I feel that the natural and intended application of our training in self-defense is primarily to finding ways in which we can incorporate it in our non-martial existence. The skills and qualities that training brings out in us are all, each and every one, applicable in nearly limitless ways in our lives outside the dojang, and the ultimate responsibility we need to accept as martial artists is to find ways to apply those skills to all aspects of our lives.  As we train our bodies and our minds, and as we approach this training with the intent of truly embracing the life-changing impact it can have, we develop skills and abilities that benefit our families, our relationships, our careers … ALL aspects of our lives.

What Makes Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan Unique and Different from Other Martial Arts and Styles

Note: This is the first of two essays I wrote as part of my preparation to test for sam dan in Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan. It is in part adapted from a blog entry I wrote in 2009 entitled The Blessings of Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan.  I find that the words I wrote then applied now, more than ever, so I used it as a starting point.

In looking at the essential characteristics of Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan, and what makes it a unique art in comparison with other martial arts, I felt there were a couple of different directions to go. Clearly, there are technical aspects of our art that differentiate Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan practitioners from practitioners of other arts , or even of other styles of Tang Soo Do.

For example, unlike “textbook” judo or taekwando it is both a classical martial arts and a full-fledged self defense system, not a sport. Unlike many systems that are rigidly defined by the regions or nations in which they were created Mi Guk Kwan built on the Korean foundations of the art and expanded it to include Chinese, Japanese and Okinawan influences as well as new techniques, creating a composite art that incorporates both “hard” and “soft” styles. And unlike many other Tang Soo Do organizations, Mi Guk Kwan strives to keep Grandmaster Hwang Kee’s vision alive, teaching all of the forms he created and endeavoring to adhere as closely as possible to his vision of the proper practice of Tang Soo Do.

And while these technical aspects of our art clearly set Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan apart, I think the philosophical underpinnings of the art -- and the rigor with which they are applied throughout our organization -- that truly differentiates the Mi Guk Kwan. As a Kyo Sa, and as a student, one aspect of this that I find especially important is the focus on the responsibilities of the teacher to the student, particularly in regard to how that teacher represents the goals of this organization to which they -- and their students -- belong.

In many martial arts organizations this is not so much of an issue, as most "modern" American martial arts schools don't have a particularly strict focus on intellectual or philosophical codes or personal development aside from the more general, physically-oriented high-level goals. Better physical fitness. The ability to defend ones' self. The ability to wrestle or fight in tournaments effectively.

In and of themselves these are all perfectly fine goals, but I've always felt that they are also fairly unlikely to result in any sort of significant change in ones' life beyond short-term improvements of one sort or another. If anything, their very specificity leads directly, in many cases, to student boredom. Without an emphasis on applying the skills learned in the training hall to other aspects of ones' life, to abstracting the physical gains and placing them in a more holistic context, then this is all just another form of exercise that will be replaced by a different physical activity when the novelty of "Doin' Karate!" wears off.

Without a larger goal then, training in the martial arts really isn't all that different from any other structured exercise regimen, and without an effort on the part of the instructor to encourage students to embrace the art as something life-changing as opposed to simply health-improving, it's unlikely to result in a lifelong commitment to the specific art.

Now, obviously, this is in many ways perfectly fine with the instructor, who is as often as not also the business owner as well. Students typically sign multi-year contracts, which even if they allow for breaking of the contract typically include a penalty for doing so (and those are the good ones).

If a student chooses to stop training then the instructor doesn't really suffer any direct or immediate negatives. If anything, they get to draw some more cash out of a student who requires absolutely none of the instructor’s time or resources. If the owner is focusing adequate efforts on marketing and signing up new students then turnover is at worst a non-issue and may actually be beneficial financially. The quickest path to profit is to focus on new enrollment, lock students into contracts, and then passively encourage turnover by running a program that allows all but the most dedicated students -- i.e. the students who least need active instruction -- to become unmotivated, stagnant, or bored.

Conversely, in the Mi Guk Kwan there is tremendous emphasis placed on the historical and philosophical foundations of our art, and on one's success in the physical aspects of our art being dependent on expression and embracing of these principles. There is a tremendous amount of focus placed on reinforcing this attitude in our organization, and certainly in the approaches to training and instruction undertaken by all of the instructors I've had the privilege to study with.

Ironically, this approach makes their jobs much harder (in that it requires far more instructor/student interaction in order to be applied properly) and also makes it much more difficult for them to "cash in." This is not to say that it's impossible to do well financially -- it just means that it's not really possible to do so without personal sacrifice and long-term commitment on the part of everyone involved.

Over the years I’ve seen a number of instructors of varying dan levels leave our organization (sometimes by choice, sometimes by force), and in each and every case it was due to their decision or their desire to act in their own interests, as opposed to the interests of their students. Most often it’s a short-cut to their own personal goals of achieving a specific rank, jumping to another organization in exchange for an opportunity to achieve that rank sooner, or with less rigorous requirements, than if they’d stayed with the Mi Guk Kwan. Other times I’ve seen instructors forced to leave because they behaved in a way that was inconsistent with the principals of our organization. In my opinion, when instructors leave as a result of their decision to put their own desires first, then it is addition by subtraction indeed.

When the ultimate goal of training in a dojang is personal growth and self-improvement through the martial arts, it is especially important that the instructors continually present themselves as committed to these goals as well.  They are by long-term goals, and students need to understand that this is a longpterm commitment, not something that will magically occur after 3 months of sweating it out. A large part of the instructor's job is to demonstrate -- by their own example, and through their own conduct -- their own daily commitment to these principals. If they fail to do so, the students will know that for the instructor these lofty aspirations are nothing more than window-dressing, and will move on.

I've always felt that the Mi Guk Kwan places a heavy burden on its students. The curriculum is vast and the techniques demanding, yes, but it's emphasis on intellectual and philosophical development make it heavier still. This is not a complaint, mind you, but rather something I admire and embrace. I am thrilled daily by the challenges the Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan has placed before me.

But the Mi Guk Kwan also places a heavy burden on its teachers and studio owners as well, demanding that they truly live up to the ideals and expectations of this organization in order to truly guide their students. The lure of easy money is a hard one to ignore, and I consider myself so very fortunate to be part of an association that holds fast to ideals instead of pursuing cash above all else. The Mi Guk Kwan is an organization -- in America, of all places! -- that continually places the needs of the students ahead of the shortest route to profit for the studio owners. This, to me is the differentiator that truly places our organization in class by itself.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Obtaining / Spending Cash in Italy, and The Death by a Thousand Cuts

So, tomorrow is the day.  Flight leaves at 11:45AM, layover in Charlotte, NC for a few hours, then overnight to Italy.  Landing in Rome at 9:30AM-ish local time, then meeting our private car service to transfer us to our hotel, and then ...

... well, and then ITALY, and then.

Wow.  Neat.


OK, there's one last pre-trip topic I wanted to cover in the interest of sharing and caring, and that's Cash Money baby. Moolah. Dinero. Greenbacks. How much to bring, how to obtain more when you're there, and so forth. This was actually a pretty involved research topic, but I'll try to summarize rather than belabor.

OK, let's start with the basics.  As we've covered previously, Italy is not cheap.  In general, you'll find the cost of goods, services, food, lodging, etc. is relatively high versus may tourist destinations. Making matters worse, though, is the annoying fact that Italy is on the Euro, while we are on (relatively weaker, historically) dollar.  So, not only do things cost quite a bit more than typical once you get to Italy, but the money you have squirreled away to spend on holiday will experience shrinkage reminiscent of the sensation gents feel immediately following a cool dip in a mountain stream on a crisp spring morning.  Startling, and quite noticeable.

However, at present -- thanks (?) to the smoking crater that stands where the economies of Greece and Spain used to stagger hither and yon -- the Euro/USD conversion rate is at a 24-or-so-month low, flirting all-too dazzling around €1/$1.24.  Still not great, but nearly 10% better than it was when we started planning the trip in earnest just 6 months ago.  As such, I am very, very glad I didn't make the error of buying Euros is advance.  Depending on the state of the world at the time of your visit, your mileage may vary.  Greatly. 

In general, though, there's not much point is planning too far in advance.  Just assume that, whatever money you may have, you are going to leave it all in Italy.  The main question is how to make it go as far as possible.  That's where these tips come in.  These won't make things cheap, by any means, but they will help your cash go a bit farther.

So, you're gonna be in a country that uses Euros.  You're gonna need Euros.  How ya gonna get them? OK, let's keep this part brief:
  1. Aside from acquiring around €50-100 "walking around cash," do not purchase Euros in advance if at all possible. Unless you have some sort of inside angle you're gong to pay a premium on the current conversion rate (typically either a percentage above the current exchange rate or a flat fee) that will make the Euros very expensive versus more economical methods.  Get just enough Euros from the airport or your bank to make yourself comfortable: no more. In our case that will be about €100, as we need €50 to cover our car service on arrival and I want to have at elast a little cash above that "just in case."
  2. Once in Italy, the best way to obtain cash is typically by just using ATMs and Italian Bancomats with your own ATM card. Note that depending on your bank you might still get additional international transaction fees, just like a credit card transaction:  check before you go.  If you have time (say 6-8 weeks head start -- I waited until 4 weeks out and it was definitely cutting things way too close) consider opening a Capitol One High Yield Money Market account, which includes ATM access to your cash with the same no-fee features their credit cards have. 
  3. Before relying on your ATM cards for large amounts of cash, though, make sure to account for your bank's maximum daily ATM withdrawals and factor in the Euro conversion.  In other words, if your bank limits you to $400/day in ATM withdrawals , this will only equal ~€300. Plan accordingly, and if necessary (for example, if you are planning to withdraw cash to pay for large expenses like hotels) spread your money across a couple of checking/savings accounts and ATM cards to increase the amount of cash you can pull per day.
  4. For larger purchases (say, anything over €10-15 or so) try to use a Visa or Master Card that doesn't charge an international transaction fee.  Many cards charge a 1-2% transaction fee in additional to the current USD/Euro conversion rate when processing a charge internationally, so it's worth your time to shop around a bit.  I applied for a Capitol One card 6 months ahead of our trip specifically because they do not charge any additional fees on international transactions (i.e. when you charge something in Italy you will owe the only the current USD/Euro conversion amount at the time of the transaction, with no additional fees).  Pretty much all AmEx cards also offer this, but you'll also find that AmEx is accepted at far fewer places than Visa/MC. Of course, if you use an AmEx you are used to being told "sorry, no" so this should come as no big surprise to you.
  5. Before you leave the USA, be sure to call all of your banks and let them know that you will be traveling and that you may be using your cards internationally. If you don't you might discover just how aggressive your bank's anti-fraud measures can be just when you are least able to effectively deal with them.  Note that if your card gets deactivated typically they will only reactivate it if you call them from the telephone number of record on the account, which is unlikely to be one that is convenient to you while traveling in Italy, so be sure to do this part.
That's really about it.  The main takeaway here is that you're going to pay through the nose for most stuff, but you can at least trim a few bucks off here and there, and in the end that can really add up.  Plan ahead, and your money will go farther.


So, now.  Planning your itinerary.

Yeah, this part sucks.

As I've mentioned, we came to refer to this process as "The Death By a Thousand Cuts." In terms of tourist appeal, Italy is unfathomably deep. History, art, culture, food, architecture, natural beauty ... you name it: Italy's got it, and it's got it in friggin' spades. Unless you're planning to move there for a few years you're just not going to have time to see everything you might want to see.

So, one of the first frustratingly realizations is simple, and brutal:  no matter how much you want to see everything, it's just not going to happen.  No matter how much you want to see EVERYTHING, you just won't.  And if you do try to squeeze in every single thing you possible can, you run the very real risk of missing the entire Italy experience in pursuit of a series of check-marks on your "must see" list. Understand this up front and perhaps ... just perhaps ... the pain of slashing your itinerary to something meaningfully do-able within the time you'll be there will be less painful.

So, let's take our trip for example.  We will be in Italy for 11 days/12 nights total.  This is the single longest vacation we have *ever* taken.  And yet, here are the "very highly desirable" (versus "just cannot miss on this trip") sites we have had to scratch off our list in the interest of planning a trip that was more than a exhausting whistle-stop:
  • Venice
  • Capri
  • Ischia
  • San Gimignano
  • Siena
  • Cinque Terre
  • Herculaneum
  • Paestum
And this just touches on major cities/geographical areas/attractions that are easily within travel distance of places we'll already be.  There are entire *regions* we won't even access, let alone have a shot at visiting.

After a lot of hemming and hawing and back and forth, we finally settled into a fairly manageable list of places and things we are trying to see in Rome, Florence, and Sorrento over our trip.  In Florence and Sorrento, this was fairly easy (Sorrento we will enjoy in the evening, while we will use our one full day in the region to explore Pompeii; Florence is a more manageable/smaller city that can be effectively explored on foot and we have kept out must-sees there fairly limited).  Rome was a much trickier itinerary.  We tried to plan things by picking 3 or 4 must sees that were located close to each other per day, and then created a list of places we will see as opportunity presents, with our evenings unplanned and dedicated strictly to enjoying walks around various areas Rome with frequent stops for wine and gelato along the way. All in all it looks manageable, if challenging.

So, without further ado, I present to you our tentative itinerary.  It remains to be see just how close we'll actually come to sticking to it!
  • Monday: Arrive early afternoon and explore Via Veneto area a bit (Santa Maria della Vittoria and the Cripta dei Cappiccini) before New Free Rome Tour at 5:30 to get oriented/see some highlights (Spanish Steps, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Immaculate Conception and Marcus Aurelius Columns …) . After tour, dinner and just wander and explore before heading back to our hotel.
  • Tuesday: Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica in the AM, Castel St. Angelo, Museo delle Anime dei Defunti, Santa Maria del Popolo, possibly end day with Museo dell'Ara Pacis (if time permits)
  • Wednesday: Colosseum Underground Tour at 9:40AM, San Pietro in Vincoli, Domus Romane della Palazzo Valentini at 1:30PM, Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Capitaline Museums, Roman Forum (if time permits)
  • Thursday: Campo de Fiore, then Palatine Hill, Roman Forum (if we didn’t get to it Wednesday evening), Borghese Gallery at 1:00PM, then … stroll the Borghese Gardens? Catacombs of Priscilla?
  • Depart for Sorrento Friday AM, stroll Sorrento Friday evening
  • Saturday: Pompeii, then climb Vesuvius.  Back to Sorrento in early evening.  Dinner, explore Sorrento Saturday night
  • Sunday: Head to Florence, explore Boboli Gardens and Piazzale Michelangelo Sudnay evening, then hit Piazzo Vecchio Sunday night? 
  • Monday: Train to Pisa, visit Pizza dei Miracoli, but to Luca, explore and bike the ancient wall, back to Florence for early evening strolling and exploration.
  • Tuesday: Accademia di Belle Arte in the AM, climb the Duomo and explore in the afternoong (Bargello Galery if we have time), then Uffiza Gallery in the afternoon.
  • Return to Rome Wednesday afternoon and explore Aventine Hill area -- Circo Massimo, Villa del Priorata di Malta, Santa Sabina, Santa Prisca, Parco Savello and the municipal rose gardens, Santa Maria in Cosmedin.
  • Thursday:  Tears, and a journey.
Tomorrow is the day -- updates as time permits, or a synopsis and follow-up after the fact.  Arrivederci!