As Practical As You Make It

What do you do with a BA in English?
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college and plenty of knowledge
Have earned me this useless degree

I can’t pay the bills yet,
‘Cause I have no skills yet,
The world is a big scary place.
But somehow I can’t shake,
The feeling I might make,
A difference,
To the human race.


I actually have a BA (hons) in English, so when this came out during my university days, it was quickly seized upon by my friends in the more respectable faculties. Of course, our lives have all diverged greatly since then, and I may have a BA in English, but I am also living my best life as an instructor.

But back to the issue of practicality. What’s practical about a Bachelor of Arts? What’s practical about karate in an age of guns, knives and pepper spray? Most people start a martial art with self-defence as a primary motive, and they are not mistaken in seeking this goal in their training. However, building the necessary muscle memory, calmness and repertoire necessary for self-defence takes several dedicated years, whereas most people assume it’ll take mere months.


I’ve written before about how much people underestimate how much work goes into being basically competent — never mind skilled — at something. It’s the training montage effect, that six weeks or six months is enough to match wits with someone who has been training for years. The Karate Kid is still the worst offender of this trope, as David Wong puts it. When it comes to the practicality of the martial arts, and especially traditional styles, it takes a long time to build the foundation necessary for a wider self-defence application. It does not happen over a weekend workshop.

Modern martial arts would never have survived the advent of the gun if there weren’t a number of vastly important and useful tools to be gained from a formal martial arts education. Just as a toolbox does not only contain a hammer, practicing martial arts is not only for self-defence. The longer one trains, the better equipped we will be to face a variety of challenges. In this toolbox, my favourite tool is discipline. (And here my metaphors fall apart, since the only tools I own are a Leatherman 19-piece, a hammer, some screwdrivers, and a camping Swiss army knife.)


“True freedom is impossible without a mind made free by discipline.”
— Mortimer J. Adler


Discipline is what truly sets us free, as it allows us to take control of ourselves given any situation. To follow the Stoic example, we cannot control all that happens to us, but we can control how we react to it. As Marcus Aurelius, the king of Stoicism puts it: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” 


Similar to the Japanese concepts of  mushin, or mizu no kokoro, we react only as necessary, and as much, as the situation deserves. The mind is still, like the surface of a lake. It reacts only when disturbed, then it ripples and rapidly returns to its stillness once more.


Mushin is achieved when a person’s mind is free from anger, fear, or the ego during combat or everyday life.

Discipline, with its suggestions of self-regulation and mindfulness, allows us to control how we interact with the world around us, rather than being helplessly buffeted by circumstance. It is the choice to not overeat, to go for a run on a winter’s morning, or to calmly withstand the irritations of modern living without being overwhelmed. It is the ability to withstand the storms of life without taking on water and sinking.

“Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.”
― Seneca

This all comes from the large and small disciplines of training: the neatness of a gi, the hierarchy, the courtesy, the patience to repeat something hundreds of times. Learning to accept criticism of a technique and posture with grace, and the humility to copy (at least for the first, long while) while we are beginners. Just as a toddler can only learn to walk through imitation, so we must be humble enough to accept how little we know and to copy as best we can the teachings of those who have gone before us. (For more, read up here on shu-ha-ri.)

It is difficult for the exceptionalist, individualist Western mind to accept this kind of top-down guidance, but this is largely because we mistakenly carry over expertise in other areas into the dojo, when in fact the knowledge is rarely transferrable. It would be as arrogant as walking into a university physics lecture with a background in primary school mathematics, and expecting to parse the complexity of the subject matter right away. Similarly, a Westerner whose entire understanding of martial arts has been formed from movies and anecdotes is not even remotely equipped to understand the actual mechanics and application of genuine traditional martial arts. They must empty their cup, as it were, and start afresh. This is where the lesson truly begins.

“Be honest in your efforts, and balanced in your expectations.” -Michael Clarke, The Art of Hojo Undo

It takes time to cover the basics and build a foundation. It also requires humility and honesty in our approach. Just as a professional baker must learn to make cookies before croissants, a beginner must first learn how to punch properly before dealing with multiple attackers. Unfortunately, nearly everyone wants to jump straight to the cool stuff, and when they can’t or aren’t allowed to do it, then they quit.


It’s the skills and tools we learn and gain on the path to mastery that truly matter. I may not be able to execute a technique that would impress a fifth dan, but I have also learned to fight for two hours without stopping. I am not, by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, a phenomenal practitioner, a polished example of karate-do. But what matters is that, over more than a dozen years of practice, I have learned to find and trust my own strength and skill.  That confidence and growth alone is priceless, and is very difficult to measure given our limited ideas of what success looks like.

There’s no real shortcut up the mountain, even if you are rich enough to hire sherpas to carry everything for you. Perhaps you are talented, and your burden is that much lighter (the number of sherpas you have), but you still have to get yourself to the top. And sure, for the smart-asses out there, yes you can get a helicopter to drop you at the top. Well done – that means you’ve joined a McDojo, where black belts are only a matter of cost, not effort. You have gained and learned nothing, and it will be made evident if you ever have to go toe-to-toe with someone who has the experience and grit.

So, after all this: is it still practical to do a martial art, even with guns? Yes, but only if you accept that the best self-defence is prevention, and that part comes from all the other tools you learn along the way. Whatever style you train in, it will be as practical as you choose to make it.

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