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.