Sunday, November 25, 2007

I am thankful for my first martial arts lesson

Recently I read an autobiography of Harry Truman. Perhaps not #1 on your list of Must Reads, but this was really interesting. I got it on a library discard shelf for 10 cents. You can probably find it under its original name, Mister Citizen, but it was also republished as Harry Truman Speaks his Mind. Reading his reminiscences of his childhood put me in the mood to write a childhood reminiscence. I'm sure y'all are not interested in 99.9% of my childhood, but this brought to mind my first martial arts lesson...
I was about 16 years old and, as I've said before, had no clue about what martial arts was about. I'd never watched any martial arts movie or even heard of Bruce Lee. A buddy got me into TKD by telling me it was, "like boxing but you kick people." Well, I still remember one of my first couple of lessons. Instructor, Pat Little, had us standing after a workout one day and he told us to hold our arms out to the sides, make fists, and imagine that we were holding buckets in each hand. Heavy buckets. Five gallon buckets filled with water. We were told to imagine the weight as unbearable. He walked around us talking to each of us as we held our arms out. Pretty soon we were all convinced that there was no way we could hold up our arms. One by one we began to surrender and collapse.

After a couple of minutes rest and shaking it off, we repeated the exercise, but this time the verbal cues were different. We were to imagine strings tied to our arms holding them up. Imagine that our arms were hollow and weightless, filled with helium. Cool breezes blowing upward helping us hold. Soft pillows propped under our arms so that it was no effort to hold them up at all. You guessed it. We all sustained the posture much, much, much longer the second time.
So, what was it about this simple, almost trite, demonstration that was so memorable, even so many years later? This was perhaps the first time I'd heard the moral of this exercise and had it so clearly linked to a practical, physical thing: "The mind drives the body. The body serves the mind. Change your mind and you change what you are physically able to do."
And that is one of the most amazing things about the martial arts. Learning to change how you think about your circumstances in order to change the circumstances in your favor.

1 comment:

  1. Pat, I don't think that the lesson is trite at all. One the lesson is valuable and second it illustrates an important point about martial arts - that a lot of what people attribute to "ki" and other mystic wa-wa is completely explainable in rational, verifiable terms.

    It reminds me of a Hapkido seminar I attended where the grandmaster did the old "unbending" arm trick essentially doing this same exercise you are talking about. Experience, respectable people, some with PhDs, were amazed at his demonstation of control of ki. Little ole me just rolled his eyes.

    So the other important lesson is: there is a natural, rational, explainable reason why something works or doesn't work. If we can't describe what is happening in testable, replicable terms, we shouldn't be teaching or using it.

    There is also a lesson here on being very careful about cause and effect; we are easily led into some very wrong assumptions in the martial arts (and life).


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