The Enemy of Mastery

17 08 2017

This article is a shot out to the lifelong martial arts enthusiasts; those who love these arts and everything that goes with them. Those whose favorite personal items not souvenirs from a memorable vacation, but perhaps a weapon, favorite uniform, a lucky set of a sparring gear. Those who have heard the words from a significant other(s), “It’s me or your martial arts!” The guys who still perform stances and hand techniques anytime you find yourself alone–in a stairwell, the restroom, an empty elevator. You know who I’m talking about… all you weirdos who choose what you will wear based on your ability to move and kick, just in case a fight breaks out–and you are older than 35 years old. A nod to you folks who live, sleep, and breathe the martial arts, and you will do this until you die.

And I mean all of you, whether you train or not, whether you are in shape or not, whether you are simply an enthusiast or an actual practitioner. Hopefully, you will find some value in today’s musings.

So I was thinking about the topic of martial arts mastery, and there are many ways to treat the idea. They range from those who claim extreme humility to the point that they actually consider it a character flaw (arrogance, insecurity, etc.) to pursue mastery, to those who pursue it, claim it, make it a life goal. There are those who consider “Master” a level or rank to achieve within a martial arts curriculum; and then you have those who don’t acknowledge Masters as people, but only “to master” as an action verb. We can argue all day about what a master is or isn’t, whether it exists or doesn’t, who gets to determine who masters are and if mastery can be declared on a piece of paper or not. For the sake of space, I will leave you to do that on social media (or in the comments section of this article). Today we will treat mastery as a thing, whether it is a noun, adjective, adverb, verb, or title.

There is a saying that there is no point in pursuing an endeavor if you cannot do it right. If you’re going to do something, they say, be the best, do it to the best of your ability. If you are going to teach, you’d better have done it well. That seems to be the point of Kung Fu. The martial arts is not just an endeavor, it is a specialty. It is what you have put forth an effort to do, and do well. If we look at the martial arts from a combative context, in order to be effective we must do the martial arts well enough that we can overcome the opponent. In a self-defense and combat situation, casual practice does not help the defender. The attacker without a doubt is determined and will use all of his effort in hurting you or taking what you have. As the defender you will do the same, but your chance of success depends on how much training you have done, whether it was spent on effective techniques, and if the result of doing so is more skill than your attacker. Give your attacker a weapon, and you will need to have more skill, more strength, more speed, more fearlessness, more accuracy, more aggression, and more pain tolerance. Not just more–but enough that you walk away unhurt. It is possible that you can successfully defend yourself, but walk away with an injury that disables or kills you later. Because of this very real need in the martial arts, I would argue strongly that casual practice in the martial arts is a waste of time for most of us, outside of the need to stay in shape.

That said, the focus in the pugilistic arts should be a never-ending effort to improve the practitioner. You should progressively become stronger, faster, more alert/aware, smarter, have better timing, develop more endurance, understand more strategies and techniques, learn more attack methods and how to counter them, become more durable, become more explosive, more evasive and agile, have better balance, learn to use more weapons, learn to fight against more weapons, be able to fight off more attackers… and the list goes on. In every style, there are more techniques than any martial artist can develop to a high level of proficiency. There are more weapons than one can learn, and learn well. You must do more than simply learn and practice; you must develop to a high level, if your concern is combat and self-defense. Attackers are not looking for a fair fight. They are looking for an unfair advantage over their intended victims, they will attack one person or a couple in groups. They will carry weapons. They will surprise you and attack from angles you do not see. They will catch you when you are not ready. They will attack your children. They will be brutal in their attack. If you or your wife are knocked unconscious, they will not hesistate to continue to beat on your lifeless, defenseless bodies. They will hit you with a brick, cut you with a bottle or knife, shoot you at point-blank range. Your casual martial arts practice which leaves you with soft arms and no endurance will do nothing against a seasoned criminal who may have spent the last 10 years in prison pumping iron. Your martial arts skills should reflect more than what you did on your last rank exam or what the presenter in your seminars taught. You need dominant skill, and more ability than anything you may encounter on the street, or worse–in your own home at 2 a.m., when calling 9-1-1 is not an option.

And this is where the argument of if mastery of the art is an “arrogant” goal, a realistic goal, or a valid goal. Please understand this, whatever you had in mind for advanced or expert skill–mastery is beyond that. Whatever you saw in front of you last night in martial arts class isn’t enough; mastery is way beyond that. No offense to your Sifus, but mastery of the art is a never-ending, always increasing degree of skill. Whatever is realized today can always be surpassed tomorrow. In many ways, mastery of the martial arts is perfection of the martial arts. Most of us have this confused. They believe martial arts mastery is time-in-grade; it is not. Some think mastery is something we achieve after training with other masters. Some believe it is based on how well you speak Cantonese or Mandarin, or at a minimum use Chinese terms. Some confuse the ability to perform a great form or a variety of ceremonies with “mastery” of the art. Martial arts mastery and perfection has nothing to do with how often you traveled to China and Japan, what certificates you hang from your walls, how many forms you know, how many trophies are in your collection, or who has celebrated you and your accomplishments. Martial arts mastery as an art of combat only depends on the same thing your enemies will worry about:  Can you take on and defeat any attacker, regardless of the odds? Can you keep your family safe in a home invasion robbery? Can you teach a 120 pound woman to defend herself against a 250 pound man? Can your skills keep you alive in a near-death situation with an attacker who only cares to take what you have, including your life, and will use everything at his disposable to do so–and you have nothing but your hands to stop him? Yes, we build healthy children, prolong our lives through fitness and living right, respecting the Chinese culture and becoming better people, blah blah blah, quack quack quack… that is a different conversation. Today, we are discussing how far you can take these arts as a form of self preservation and defending yourself and your family. There is a level of martial arts that most people don’t even realize exists, and that is it. It is the ability to give the human body a superhuman level of ability. And this journey is what I call the path to mastery; to push the self as far as it goes as a weapon. This path isn’t for everyone.

Many of us, when we first undertook the martial arts lifestyle, wanted this. We may have seen a martial arts movie that intrigued us. Perhaps we read a comic book and aspired to become a Batman or real-world Iron Fist. So, what happened? We came into the arts enthusiastic to become martial arts supermen. But here we are, 15 year later, satisfied to read about the martial arts on the internet with only a fraction of the skills we once dreamed of. Many of us have dared to call ourselves Sifu–or worse, Master. Most of us have even gone so far that while we once daydreamed about being able to defend ourselves against weapon-wielding attackers, we now tell our students that fighting is not the purpose of Kung Fu and that they can be “good” at the martial arts without having “good” fighting skills.Where did we go wrong?

I’ll give you a shortlist of possibilities:

  • You found out how difficult it is to pursue real skill in the martial arts. Many of us thought this art was going to be easy. Maybe some thought the art might be difficult, but didn’t realize HOW difficult it would be. Like the wolf who couldn’t jump high enough to eat the grapes, decided it was easier to chase land animals and assume that grapes were probably sour–it’s so difficult to pursue perfection in the martial arts, it would be easier to simply dismiss perfection as something that does not exist
  • Your teacher was not one who wanted martial arts perfection, so perhaps he changed your focus in the art. I’ve known Sifus like this. One in particular had a student who was enthusiastically in pursuit of combat skill. My friend was more of a casual practitioner with a school and lacked fighting skill himself, and I’ve seen him chastize his student for being too aggressive and concerned with sparring. So because of his own insecurities in the art, he extinguished the student’s fire for more
  • Speaking of insecurities–I have personally known many Sifus who were not fighters, so they discouraged student participation in sparring. They feared fighting so much, they only fighting they did was with each other–and some didn’t even do that
  • On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who came into the martial arts with “natural ability”. I don’t believe in the term natural ability, btw… Many come to the martial arts with athletic ability from other activities, while others are either more agile, more flexibility, or stronger. These individuals learn and develop quickly, and are told they are “good” at the art without having to put forth much effort. The result? If they stick with it, they will either become mediocre instructors or they bring that “good” skill into instructorship. However, because they never had to work hard, they don’t. They’ve never learned to train hard, so they maintain the same level ability they had as students and never improve from that. Satisfied with being good at the martial arts and being complimented by everyone around them–this betrays their pursuit for more
  • The other outcome of the good martial arts student is that he becomes lazy. Some of these Sifus get to enjoy the reputation they had as students and young men. So as they get older, they find that they must work more diligently to maintain those skills. Unfortunately, very few of these naturally gifted martial arts students remain so as adults and they end up out of shape and with poor skill, yet have the rhetoric and disposition of a Sifu who has earned his rank.
  • You discover shortcuts to mastery:  political affiliations, hall of fame organizations, use of martial arts media, seminar ranks, creation of one’s own system, or simply strapping on the title and keeping friends who validate it

In my old school I had two sayings stencils on my wall (among others):

Good is the enemy of Great

Laziness is the opposite of Perfection

Many of us have stopped short of these goals, which perhaps 1% of us will ever see. It exists. But don’t do it for the title, do it for the enemy. Because there are many of them out there, and you never know when you may meet him. Don’t do it for ego. Don’t do it for business. Don’t do it for certificates. Do it for those you love. Your family is depending on you, and your life as well as their life depends on it.

Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.