Monday, June 25, 2012

Why I've been out of touch for a while; Martial arts and Speculative Realism; Watch out for culty weirdos and don't make the same mistakes I did

It's very hard for me to make any promises these days, but I am going to try to start blogging regularly again. The reason why I stopped (practically everything, including writing, gardening, cooking, playing music, and physical training) has a lot to do with the "kung fu" or general martial arts aspect of this blog, and since it might be somewhat cathartic (and perhaps instructive to other martial artists or those thinking of becoming one) for me to talk about it, this is as good a time as any.

For some years (about six) I was involved in a martial art that I will refrain from mentioning by name, but I was really involved in it, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars and many sacrifices of other personal aspects of my life. I had begun working for the school as an instructor, arranged my life totally around the school, and breathed, ate and drank the art. For my loyalty, about a week before my black belt test, I was fired without notice (and without, in fact, the requisite motivation for such action or any real, transparent investigation into claims that were made against me) in the middle of the worst recession in living memory, and at a time when all my extra money was funneling back into the art itself. The reason I was fired was because of a very easy (and actually quite trivial) mistake to make on my part, and a sort of fear-based feeding frenzy of the kind that sometimes occurs in groups of people who aren't communicating very well. It resulted in a year of all but suicidal depression for me and considerable emotional hardship for my wife Debra (who, if I haven't mentioned before, is absolutely the most golden-souled and happiness-deserving person I have ever known), to say little of the financial hardships suffered by we who were already having no easy time in that regard. So that's why my last blog post was about a year ago.

Anybody interested in devoting themselves to a cultish group of people for the sake of adding some meaning to their lives should be warned that there is no pension or retirement plan at the end of an experience of the kind I had. You're out on your ear at the end of the whole thing. If you don't fall into step exactly with the behavior patterns espoused by your superiors, you might very likely find that you are suddenly not "family" anymore. And staying in step might prove harder as you learn more.

Not that I have been barred from further training in the art. I could go back, my ex-teammates say, any time I want: it's in my hands. I accept that, although how I was to continue to do that with zero disposable income for a year escapes my understanding, and I would have had to forgive everything that was done to me and just continue my training without any effort being made at resolution (to my satisfaction, at any rate). But I could have gone back if I had really wanted to so self-abnegate, that's true. So now I'm going to talk about why I'm not going back, and why I will be very careful about what martial art I decide to practice next.

At this point I am actually very tempted to mention the name of the art so as to warn people away from a tremendous waste of time. But scathing indictments of the art have already been made in other fora easily located online (which is something I should have paid a lot more attention to earlier on), and I don't say that everyone would necessarily have the same experience as I have. I will simply keep referring to it as "the art" here, and hopefully I will be able to recommend a different art by name some time in the future rather than denigrating a bad one now. In fact, I should keep this as brief as possible, and get on with my life. There are just a few points I should really make for posterity.

1. Most importantly: Thoroughly investigate (google, research, etc.) any group endeavor you are considering participating in, particularly a martial art. Many schools are steeped in cultish authoritarianism, with beliefs and social structures that would never stand the light of day if they were known by people at novice rank and are only gradually learned (usually nonverbally) as one progresses to higher ranks. Lonely people who struggle to find meaning in their lives (a fair description of yours truly) are particularly vulnerable to this process, and cults are aware of this and foster it for the sake of the school, so a martial art that seems from the outside to be about exercise, fun, fulfillment, peace, and constructive activities for kids may actually have a very dark and scary inner core, in which quite a few people are really unhappy and insecure but are even more afraid of finding themselves on the "outside" again. This is true of many religions as well, as we see from the Catholic scandals in recent years, as well as others which easily come to mind.

Above all, I think everyone should recognize the philosophical meditation that there is no "inside". We are all strangers, and it's really best to get used to the idea as gracefully as possible. I believe that my failure to be a good speculative realist in this regard had the effect of prolonging my involvement in a situation where I really did not belong.

2. The above being said, and the fact accepted that not all martial arts schools are bad in this way: The "supreme high teacher" (a loose translation) of the art I trained in and those immediately around her at the top echelons of the art are really bad people to be involved with if you're a free thinker. They coerce obedience and conformity by instilling fear of exclusion and push a lot of very hokey metaphysical beliefs on students, who are then in many cases required to teach the same nonsense, and I know for a fact that many instructors have no real belief at all in what they're saying. This is a philosophical and somewhat subjective statement, but I think that those who do are foolish and misguided. I was one of these, but was starting to wake up long before the incident that cost me my job.

Martial arts should be about exercise and fun. That's it. Form is the only "content" anyone really needs. As with ecological gardening such as permaculture, if your form is correct (your basics and technique efficient, practical and beautiful) then any "content" ("energy", spirituality, etc.) happens by itself, without having to really even be talked about, much less deliberately instilled. As soon as anyone starts talking about any content-like thing (any "energy" or "force" other than the E=MCsquared variety), I would advise you to immediately ask yourself, "But what's wrong with just form? Why isn't form good enough?" If your teachers are not teaching form as the end-all-and-be-all of the art, then they are not focusing on what's really going to get you there. Form is beautiful, matter is great, and every bit as mysterious and wonderful as any idea of "god" or "spirit" or any such thing, with the added benefit of being actually REAL. Also, stay away from any situation in which you are not allowed to ask questions. In the art I trained in, if you asked questions you were said to be "stinkin' thinkin'", or "coming from ego" or "a know-it-all". (One of my favorite quotes is "What is is, what is isn't"; meaning, "anything the teacher tells you is always true until it's convenient for her to say otherwise".) You should always ask questions about anything you don't understand, don't let anyone tell you different: it's a universal entitlement. If they're going to throw you out for asking questions, they're doing you a favor, as you shouldn't be there in the first place, nor should anyone. Of course talking too much wastes time in class, but a good teacher who is really practicing the art of being at peace should know that some time was just meant to be wasted. Like Roy Batty said in Blade Runner: "like tears in rain".

3. Some people have criticized the art I trained in as being useless for dealing with real combat situations (see websites like While I understand that there are many different kinds and degrees of martial arts training, I am a fighter, and I trained in the art long enough to have more experience with it than most (though not all) people who level this criticism. I do not share the opinion that the art is physically useless...far from it. Aside from being very dangerous on the fighting side (I have had many minor injuries and two near-maimings, for one of which I had to undergo ACL surgery, and these happened in training exercises, not tournaments or street fights), the art offers much competence in avoiding fights altogether. Also, the forms are so beautifully elaborate, fast and dance-like (and there are so many of them) that people who train in this art are grouped, as athletes, with people who go out for the triathlons and such: real high-endurance stuff. Therefore it offers unparalleled opportunity for physical fitness and a general sense of physical self-assuredness that would be very valuable to anybody, and without which the human body and psyche are sadly impoverished. For self-defense situations and others in which physical skill in combat might decide the outcome, I would say this art is not useless at all.

This makes it all the more tragic that its flaws are what they are. There is another avowed purpose the art has, separate from fighting, for which it is entirely useless, and that is "world peace". Like any martial art in a capitalist country, its membership dues are significant, and over time this has the effect of  limiting membership to those with gradually more and more disproportionate wealth as the economy declines. (There is a "foundation" that purports to provide money for low-income students to train, but having worked on its board, I find it hard to call anything so inefficient and ineffective a "nonprofit" except in the sense that it is no profit to anyone at all, other than perhaps in some tax-related way.) So hardly anyone in the "world" (notice the W word; why do we want to identify with fake objects that we make up in our heads?) is probably going to hear of the art, much less be brought peace by it. In seminars students have talked about using "principles" of the art to climb the corporate ladder. I should have left as soon as I heard about that. It was a good thing I did soon after, despite how much it hurt. The "peace that begins with the individual and spreads out into the community" (I'm paraphrasing the lingo) is not fostered by such a social environment. It's really a joke to believe otherwise.

But what did I expect? It's a cult. As another person who trained in the art and got even higher in rank than I did (I won't mention his name) recently told me, "to expect reasonable behavior from people in cults is itself unreasonable". So why did I stay so long? Well, I'm not proud of it. An individual can be very smart, but groups of people are often not, and it often takes serious self-deception to continue to be part of a group. I only hope my experience can be of value to someone, and that I've gained some wisdom along with my sadness.

4. One more thing: Children. The art is full of people who are weird about kids, for personal reasons of their own on which I will not speculate. Kids are objectified and romanticized, and there is a schizophrenic juxtaposition in the art between teaching kids to be self-reliant on one hand and treating them like perfect little angels to be protected and hidden from anything "inappropriate" on the other. Of course, it's always one person sitting in a room and deciding what might be "inappropriate" for others, which brings several problems immediately to mind, but leave that aside for the moment. It is of course almost any martial arts school's bread and butter to have kids' classes, as many parents can no more afford not to have their kids in an activity after school than they can to take martial arts classes themselves (not a joke: believe me, I know)! But you can't teach that many kids the real martial art, for the simple reason that learning the real martial art is not why most of the kids are there. They are mostly there so that their parents don't have to stop working at 3:00 in the afternoon. Most of them would be better placed in an activity that suited their own actual interests, but it is an unfortunate reality that a great many parents similarly objectify their children and do not listen or pay attention to their children's interests, and many more who might can't afford to do much about them. So the result is that the school gets a huge influx of kids for whom the martial art has to be watered down. The school, in this respect, has become more of a daycare center than a martial arts school, and this is by no means an exaggeration.

I have trained with highly skilled, dedicated, formidable martial artists who happened to be as young as 12, 10, 8, and even 6 years old. At least two of them were stronger fighters (by which I mean they were simply better at it) than I was. But for every kid who seriously wants to train, there are about a hundred who are simply there to be babysat.

It is my strong opinion that training in martial arts is not for babies. What babies need is parents who train, and who can do the fighting until the kids are old enough to be really apt and inclined for it. The schools should not have "kids' classes"; they should just have "classes", and allow individual kids with aptitude to train at the adult level. Anything that dilutes the seriousness of the martial art is potentially dangerous to its students, who might find themselves in a situation they think they can handle, but really can't. Also, anything that lumps individuals under a label like "kids" and assigns them special classes limits all the individuals' training to the lowest common denominator, which ruins prospects for kids who are actually serious. I have seen this happen more times than I like since the school started focusing on kids' classes so much, and there's nothing good about it. All of the new crop of junior-high age black belts that I've seen should never have been tested. They are irresponsible, disrespectful, boastful, and incapable, and as instructors they teach similar behavior to their peers in age.

That's it, I'm way out of time. I need to get back to writing my novel. Lance Shaw is standing around and tapping his feet at me in impatience. "I told you that martial arts bullhonkey was stupid," he says. "Any of those freaks come around here, I'll make them a broadhead shish kebab, toot sweet."

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