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Traditional Martial Arts Training

By Michael Clifford



Some very basic fundamentals to traditional martial arts training can be overlooked in the haste to become a "Black Belt." The first thing to see is that it is the process of training, not the product of the training that matters. By this I mean the discipline of coming into the Do-Jang every day you can. (The "Do-Jang" is the place specifically set aside for Martial Arts training.) With discipline you can learn to clear your mind of the unnecessary, then give the training your full attention. That matters a lot more than how hard or how high you can kick.

This process of clearing your mind before training is an essential part of getting the most out of the training. If I allow myself to become distracted while I am training, I leave myself open to several risks and problems. In the physical context I have a higher risk of injury due to not paying attention. I also have the potential of injuring my training partner. On a technical level I might miss one aspect that will allow a technique to flow from my body instead of having to push and shove to work with it. This missing aspect makes the difference between an easily successful technique and one that does not work. After fighting with this technique for days or weeks I would have to come back to my instructor and ask to have it clarified, then re-train my body to do it the "right" way.

As an additional benefit of this meditative clearing process, if I can let go of all my concerns during the time I train, when I come back to them I can have a new perspective. For example I have used this when facing career decisions as well as life-path decisions. This helps me to see my worries and problems as part of a larger picture in which there are an infinite number of possibilities. If I allow myself to get bogged down by these concerns I can't see the forest for all the trees.


A dichotomy of serious training is that I have to be able to kick the training bag as hard as I possibly can every time I kick in case I ever have to use these techniques to defend my life. However, I must have absolute control over my kicks when I am working with a training partner. If I always pull my kicks, I will be unable to use 100% of my force in an emergency.

Consider driving a car. If I have only been driving at 35 mph for all of my driving experience but now I have to drive at 115 mph, I will not be safe or in control. However, if I have been driving at speeds of over 100 mph then have to slow down to 35 mph, I will be able to control the car.

One of the paradoxes of training starts to show here. When I first started my training I thought it would be 90 percent physical and 10 percent mental. Now I realize that it is just the opposite. After 15 years of training, I have found that the physical aspect of training is a direct mirror of how much energy I am putting into my own internal growth. There is not a specific example of this, but I have found the harder I train my body the more I grow spiritually.


Another important idea to look at is how to bring an open mind and an empty cup to my training. In traditional martial arts an open mind is beyond value. It will allow me to look at life in a way that might be different from what I was taught growing up. When I am rigidly stuck in the idea that my own view is the only view, then I do not allow my spirit to grow with the experience of the day. If I can take the thoughts offered to me and, in a sense, set them up on my shoulder to think about and to question, then I can see if they will work for me or if I want to discard them. I won't know until I examine them, until I critically question these new thoughts and philosophies and their effect on my world view.

"Bringing an empty cup" also refers to having knowledge from one part of my life and comparing it to another. Let's say I have a cup 1/2 full of hot water. If I just fill it up with cold water, it will be neither completely cold nor completely hot, it will be a blend of the two. In martial arts training this could compare to training in one style for a while, then training in another. If I do not take the time to "empty my cup" I will end up with a blend of the two styles, instead of one clear style. Blending the styles is undesirable because unless I have been training a long time I will be unable to see the different principles of motion. Therefore, if I use the same principle in a different motion I may not be able to really comprehend the essence of that principle. After years of training the circle comes fully around and you see that the techniques are interchangeable if you understand the principle. The process of emptying my cup may take on several forms; it is important to learn not to compare apples to oranges, so to speak. As an example, if I learned how to do a kick one way in the first style I trained in and now I see it being done in a different way, I need to learn the new way of doing this kick before I compare it to the first way I learned. It is important to keep each in its own separate container, as the first one is also valuable and not to be discarded unjustly. Later I may want to bring that knowledge and experience back into use.


As with all of my training, the next idea will also be a never-ending process. In order to get the most out of my training, I need to learn how I learn. Each one of us has a different learning style. If as a student, I think that I have only one learning style, it will limit my learning because it is like having only a hammer for my set of tools. Every problem begins to look like a nail because that is all I am equipped to deal with.

As a student I need to learn how to observe the details of the motions, and how to discern the necessary from the extravagant. Each motion has an essential component that cannot be omitted. Focused observation is the first step to learning the essential components of every motion. By learning to observe the total motion being executed, one can learn to absorb the essential components and allow for the differences. The way that I perform the technique will be different from the way someone else would perform the same technique. We are different people, with different abilities and strengths. What is important is that each of us grasps the essential principles of a technique so that we may move in a way to maximize the effectiveness of that technique. Detailed observation and critical analysis of the technique is part of the training process, the product is taking that information and utilizing it to generate an effective technique. The two (process and product) are in-separable and at the same time distinctly different. It is the blending of the two that is the ART in the martial arts. Because of this, the artistic flair will vary from one practitioner to another.

The art of learning how to learn comes from contemplating the different ways that I have been taught throughout my life. Deciding which ways work better for me, I can look at why this way works better than another. Once I can see why a certain type of teaching works better for me than another, I can adjust my training to accommodate my individual learning needs.

For example, sometimes I need to see a pattern of motion over and over before it makes any sense. Other times I need to see the motion in the context it is used. For some motions I need to have my instructor facing away from me so I can align my body and then mimic that motion until I can do it on my own. These are just some of the numerous ways a person learns. If I don't take the time to discover how I learn, I will have to try harder and harder to learn as the moves get more and more complicated; the time spent now will pay off ten-fold later.


The most complicated issue is why I want to train in the Martial Arts. I was unable to see this when I started training. As I have progressed it has become a vital area of contemplation and moral responsibility. If I am training in techniques designed to damage or destroy a human being, I have a very strong responsibility to know why I do that. Part of this question leads me to address the fact that we live in a violent society. If I feel that I need to learn how to defend myself from that element of society, that is well enough. I need to realize that I have the intrinsic right and am worthy of defense. If I feel that I need to be able to beat up anyone that offends me, I need to look at a few things under the surface of that desire. To be specific, I need to look at the reasons why I think that beating someone up is going to solve my problems. As an instructor, I am concerned when I hear that a potential student wants to learn how to hurt others, whether that student says it directly or I get a "gut-feeling." It DOES NOT mean that I will not train that student; however it DOES mean that we will have to reach an agreement and understanding about the intention of his or her training. This "gut-feeling" comes from my own learning about the cycle of violence and from learning to have compassion for someone with whom I fight.

On a sub-conscious level we have all been taught to respond to aggression and abuse with violence. When I am in conflict with a person and I find it difficult to speak my truth about this conflict, I remain stuck in a cycle of taking the abuse until I reach my limit; at which time I respond with anger and more abuse. I have actually switched sides from the victim to the abuser, but I am still in the same cycle. When I see what I have done, I might back down, allowing the other person to respond with more abuse. Each time around the abuse increases and the response increases eventually we are in a full-fledged fight. This is a situation that has no winners. Even if I "win" the fight, if I fought from a position on either end of the cycle of violence, did I really win?

In the first several months of my training I had an experience that has shaped my thoughts and feelings about fighting ever since. I was in a confrontation with another man. He leapt forward to tackle me. Luckily I was able to land on top of him and pin him down. I was holding him down and telling him that I was not going to let him up until he calmed down. He responded by rolling his head over and biting my leg. I still carry the scar as a reminder of the experience. I punched the back of his head three times until he turned to look at me again. I talked to him for a few minutes then I let him get up. He started chasing me again saying, "Where's all that 'Karate' you're supposed to know?"

"I'm using it, I haven't hurt you yet," I told him. He was punching towards my face as we were talking, and I was able to block all of his punches, except one, and it barely hit my nose. There was a fundamental shift in my body. I drew back my hand and punched towards his face stopping my punch about 1/4 of an inch in front of his nose. I told him "You had better stop now, I am through messing around, and the next punch will put you in the hospital." His friends saw the seriousness of the situation, grabbed him, threw him in the back of a truck and drove off.

As I look back on this I can see that I had the compassion to keep from using the fight as an excuse to hurt him; even though I was extremely mad at him, and thought I could hurt him and "get away with it."

If ever again I have to use the physical aspect of my training to defend myself, I want to enter into that with compassion. Though I have to use as much force as necessary, I must know when enough is enough. I must remember that every enemy has parents and family and that someone loves and values them. Just because we have a conflict, hating and/or fighting with someone does not address the situation in its entirety.

I strive to see in my own life, as well as to teach my students, that violence just for the sake of violence is no different for either party. It is a never-ending cycle escalating at every turn. At the same time, this does not mean I should just lie there and take it. I must strive to find a way to step out of the cycle of violence and use my creativity, dignity, integrity and honor to stop the abuse. Self-defense can be as subtle, and yet as powerful, as making a mental/spiritual connection with a potential assailant, telling him or her "What you are doing is not OK, and I am not going to allow you to treat me in that way," or it can be the actual use of the physical techniques. Physically, I have to know where he or she is. In other words is he or she physically prepared to enter into a fight? Mentally, I need to treat him or her with the respect that EVERY HUMAN BEING DESERVES, whether we are in conflict or agreement. I have found that the longer and harder I train, the less I risk using the physical aspects of this training, and the more I automatically use the mental focus.

Another part of the paradox of training is when I train seriously for an extended time, the ways that I "walk in the world" shift; consequently the chances of having to use the training become more remote the longer I train. At the same time I see that what happens in the Do-Jang is a reflection of what is happening in my daily life, if I am out of balance in one area it will show in other areas. For example I can teach myself to be aware of the effects from one part of my life showing up in others; with focused observation I can begin to see if I am expending too much energy in one area of my life at the cost of ignoring others. Again the discipline of daily training comes back into focus. I can teach myself to see the microcosm of what is happening in the Do-Jang as a reflection of the macrocosm of my life. I can be aware of the cycles of my own life.

The proper purpose of Martial Arts training is training the body, cultivating the mind, so as to nurture the spirit and contribute to the welfare of the world." Beyond The Knownby Tri Thong Dang

If you wish to converse directly with the author, Michael Clifford, you can E-mail him at: [email protected] If you wish your comments circulated among members of the Soceity of the Hwarang, e-mail Bob Duggan who will transmit comments to membership.[email protected]

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Copyright © 1996, Bob Duggan
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Redesigned March 2004