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.