Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Gift of a Weapon: Thanks, Trust, Lesson, Hope, and Responsibility

     In my years as a martial artist, I have come to understand that the giving and receiving of gifts is an important tradition.  There are many reasons why gifts are given between martial artists, and that idea could be an entire post unto itself, but there is one type of gift between two martial artists that stands out among the others. This is the gift of a weapon.  As I was training tonight, I began going through the various weapons I had on hand, using each one, and I realized that many of them had been gifts. Of the weapons pictured below, I only "paid" for one of them, and that was such a paltry sum in comparison to its actual value that I still consider it to be a gift.

     In addition to them being gifts, it should also be noted that each was a gift from one of my seniors. This is important.  A gift from a junior is important as well, and should be equally cherished, but a gift you receive from your senior can often hold more meaning than you may initially realize. If I went through additional weapons I do not currently have at the dojang, I could include several more not pictured above, and I appreciate and value each and every one. Why? Because each has meaning, and honestly, I can only touch upon the very surface of that meaning here.
     The first meaning of this gift is often thanks. Thank yous come in as many varieties as weapons, but generally a junior is the one giving thanks to his or her senior for the lessons provided. Often juniors may even feel that they never receive thanks from their seniors for what they do, but they are almost universally incorrect in this belief. Seniors genuinely do appreciate what their juniors do, and often even appreciate their appreciation. In other words, seniors appreciate it when their juniors ask them to come to an event in order to teach or share their knowledge. Often this is a situation in which the junior gives a gift to the senior, but at times, the reverse can be true as well.  The gift from the senior or mentor could be simply a thank you for the junior's (student's) dedication and willingness to learn as well.  It could also be a thank you for being a friend.  There are, as I have said, many reasons why a senior may want to thank his or her junior, and giving a gift is one way of doing so.  The gift of a weapon, though, conveys more than just simple thanks.
    The gift of a weapon signifies trust as well.  On one level, it is acknowledgement that the junior has actually made progress and has learned something.  In this respect, the gift of the weapon is saying, "Here, I acknowledge your ability. I trust you not to hurt yourself with this."  This is a mere acknowledgement of physical ability, though. The senior is also trusting the junior to use the weapon wisely, and to hurt no one else as well. This is recognition of the junior's mental, philosophical, and spiritual development, in addition to the development of physical skills.  Finally, it is symbolic of the senior trusting his or her junior to remain loyal to the relationship existing between the two. The gift of a weapon is a direct physical representation of saying "I trust that you will never stab me in the back." In the case of an edged weapon, this is both symbolic and quite literal. Beyond even thanks and trust, the giving of a weapon means still more.
     Almost any significant interaction between a junior and a senior in the martial arts, including the giving of a gift, should be viewed by the junior as a lesson.  The lesson may even be directly apparent in the type of weapon that is given.  The senior recognizes that the junior has enough knowledge to not get hurt, and to not hurt others, but this certainly is not necessarily an acknowledgement of any level of mastery with the weapon in question.  After all, Ben Kenobi may have trusted that Luke Skywalker wouldn't cut off his own hand with his father's lightsaber...

...but that doesn't mean he was ready to confront Darth Vader with it, now does it?

Okay, geek references aside, there is a point to be made here.  By giving a junior a weapon, the senior is often saying, "I've shown you how to use this without hurting yourself, but you still have a lot to learn.  I think you can learn something from using this particular weapon. Now, go and learn, but don't get cocky, or you might get hurt." Some of you caught the Star Wars reference there, too.  I know, I couldn't resist. Beyond even the lesson, though, there is more meaning to be found in the gift of a weapon.
     More than the thanks, trust, or even the inherent lesson in this gift, there is hope.  The senior giving the weapon truly hopes that the junior receiving it will take it and learn, in order to develop something new to share with others. It could be called A New Hope, I guess, but that might be pushing it.  Okay, I promise, that's the last one... I think.  All joking aside, this hope genuinely exists in many seniors' minds when handing a weapon to a junior, and that hope often blossoms into new knowledge, new instructional methods, and a new curriculum being developed. Granted, these "new" discoveries are often just re-discoveries of something old, but as long as it is new and valuable to the students who are learning from it, the gift has more than served its purpose, and the cycle can start anew.
     The gift of a weapon may signify any one of the ideas above, or it may include all of them at once. There may be deep personal connections as well, depending upon the weapon itself, who has owned and trained with it, and the exact circumstances under which it is given.  As I said, I can only scratch the surface of its true meaning here.  However, I can share one more meaning to this gift. Although it may be in back of our minds, we often do not wish to acknowledge it.  
     To share this final meaning, I will discuss the gift of the weapon that often holds more symbolic meaning than any other, that of the sword:

In this case, it is the master's sword, given to each master in the World Tang Soo Do Association as a gift from the Grandmaster.  This gift contains all of the meanings listed above.  It says, "Thank you for your service, loyalty, dedication, and sacrifice."  It says, "I trust you, not to hurt yourself, your students, the general public, your peers, your seniors, the Grandmaster, or the Association."  It says, "Teach with this, yes, but never stop learning.  You may be a master, but you will always be a student as well. Be careful with this, and with all the knowledge you have received, or you will get hurt."  It says," I have great hope for you, that you will go forth and develop new ideas to enhance our art and our Association."  All of these meanings and more are contained in the seemingly simple act of giving and receiving this blade.  I did say there was more, though.
     Some of you may notice that this gift says something else as well.  Quite literally, on the sheathe, it says, "Death Before Dishonor to World Tang Soo Do Association."  The gift at this stage is expected to go both ways.  By accepting the sword, the master accepts his or her responsibility to give something back, and to remain honorable throughout life.  Symbolically, the master swears an oath upon the sword while the blade is bared, and it is returned to the sheathe before being accepted. The oath always remains, though, as does the blade, even when it cannot be seen. This then is the final meaning.  This gift says, "I thank you, I trust you, I promise to teach you, and I have great hope that you will learn and teach as well, but if you turn your back on all of this, I have given you the instrument with which to take responsibility for your dishonor."  
     In a literal sense, soldiers and warriors of ancient times were expected to take their lives with their own swords when they committed an act of dishonor. Many people believe this to be derived from the practice of hara-kiri, or seppuku, by the samurai of feudal Japan, but the practice can be found in Ancient Rome, various European cultures, is referenced in the Bible, Torah, and Qu'ran, and the concept is probably as old as swords themselves.  Today, thankfully, we may not be literally expected to fall on our swords in times of dishonor, but we ARE expected to take personal responsibility for our actions, and to do what is right.  The gift of the sword is a reminder that this must ALWAYS be foremost in our minds, and that sometimes, there are no second chances.
     So, if a senior ever gives you a weapon, remember to think beyond the simple surface meaning of this action. I thank Masters Vaughn, Kaye, Homschek, and DiMarco, as well as Grandmasters Shin and Beaudoin for the gifts they have given, and I promise to do my best to accept their thanks, to be worthy of their trust, to heed their lessons, to fulfill their hopes for me, and to accept the responsibilty these gifts place upon me.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff. 


Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Get UNComfortable.

     As an instructor, there are numerous sayings I use in my classes in order to communicate certain concepts to my students, some of which I have no doubt they get tired of hearing. One of these is:

"If you're comfortable, you're probably doing something wrong."

This isn't to say that no technique should ever feel comfortable to the student, or even that a martial artist can't feel comfortable in a certain stance or during a sparring session.  All too often, though, comfort on the part of the student equates to complacency or worse yet, laziness.  When I looked up the word comfort, the words relief, soothe, console, satisfy, solace, and ease appeared in the various definitions. While it is true that as we learn to defend ourselves, these words do convey a state which we hope to attain, they are not often words we associate with the actual training process itself, and, more importantly, they are not states in which we should attempt to stay for too long.
     If we get too comfortable at any point in our training, we become less open to new ideas and concepts, and are likely to have certain negative habits become ingrained.  As both students and instructors, we need to fight this. A little comfort is good, but too much of anything will eventually have a negative effect.  Too much comfort leads ultimately to complacency, and too much complacency leads to stagnation, which in turn leads to self destructive behaviors.   As students, we need to always seek new ideas, new training methods, and new ways of seeing the same "old" techniques.  In so doing, we must never forget the "old" ways either, or we are simply cycling back towards becoming too comfortable with the "new".  Only when we embrace both will we find that we are actually training in the true "old school" way.  As instructors, then, when we find either ourselves or our students becoming too comfortable, we must work to become UNcomfortable instead.  If I went into all the various ways to do this, it would be a REALLY long post, and that isn't my intention, so I will instead focus on one method I have used in my own training.   
     I would be lying if I said I was ever truly comfortable using a staff. It is not my favorite weapon, nor one that I feel I am truly adept at using in comparison to my understanding of various other weapons.  With that said, though, I have recognized this deficiency, and have started to spend some more time working with it.  This isn't a post on staff technique, though, so I digress.  Here are a few of the staves I am currently using in my own training:

It may not be apparent from the photograph, but each of these has very different qualities from the rest. They are made from various different types of wood, including  Pine, Canadian Ash, Waxwood, Oak, and others.  I also have a staff made of Rattan, and one that is a solid piece of steel, which are not pictured above.  Some are tapered, some are not, and one is thicker on one end than it is on the other. All are different thicknesses and weights, and even vary in length. So, including those not pictured, why do I need nine different staves?  I don't...I actually think I need more.  I actually don't own just one of any type of weapon, and neither should you. If you only train with one weapon, you will eventually get overly comfortable with it, and we know where that leads.  Each and every staff moves slightly differently in my hands, and each has different properties that will carry through into a block, strike, parry, or twirl. Some are designed more for speed and others are geared more for brute force.  Some are made to use flexibility as an advantage, and others are designed to be rigid.  Some are meant more for spearing or thrusting with the ends, while others are better for striking with the edge.  Still others attempt to be more balanced in their various properties and characteristics. I won't claim that out of all of these staves I don't have a few favorites, because I do.  Part of training is finding what is best suited for you, and this applies to both weapons and individual techniques.  These become our favorites, and  will inevitably be our "go-to" choices.  However, as soon as I become too comfortable using one weapon, I will try to pick up a different one.  I have recently tried this with swords as well, and found that by simply changing the length and weight of the blade, I definitely needed to refocus myself and my technique as well.
        So, if a student comfortable using a light staff, hand him a heavy one.  If another student always uses a heavy staff, give her a lighter one.  If your students are rigid in their techniques, give them weapons that flex.  Across the board, this idea can be applied: weight, length, shape, thickness, etc.  Remember, too, that the staff is merely a tool I am using to illustrate a concept.  As soon as students are becoming too comfortable, it is the instructor's job to make them uncomfortable.  So, what do we do with the student who seems to be adept with every type of staff?  How do I make this student uncomfortable?  Simple, give him two staves:

Or, if that's still too comfortable, how about three?

Is this practical for application of the weapon?  Probably not.  Will it teach students who have become comfortable with how they move their staves new ideas and insights on hand, wrist, and finger dexterity, alignment of the staff relative to the body, and angles of movement? Absolutely.

So, what are you doing to get uncomfortable?

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.