This is HUGE!
We spend all this time practicing martial arts - no wait - anything, any hobby! But I'm going to talk about this in the context of martial arts right now because it can be a particularly judgemental arena on such matters. SO! We spend all this time practicing martial arts; punching and kicking the air, throwing each other around, dressing up in strange clothing, paying large amounts of money, occupying our incredibley precious free time ... for what?! Well, many people do it because "it works."
What the hell does that mean?
Well, it means many different things, depending on what "it's" working for. Lets simplify and specify this a little more. Let's say the point of martial arts is to be martially proficient: fighting, defending yourself, or controlling others' bodies. If a technique works, then it's a good technique, and was worth spending the time to learn, practice, and ingrain. BUT HOW DO YOU KNOW IT WORKS!?!?!? Some people go out looking for fights to practice techniques, and however much I may negatively judge that approach because I wouldn't ever do it myself, you gotta admit that's a pretty good way to check if a technique works or not. But what about for the rest of us? Because you have your buddies give certain fake (no matter how well your friend simulates the attack, it is never the real thing without intent) attack, you think that's battle-testing it? I would never contemplate a defense against an attack if it came, #1 because I probably wouldn't have the time or peace of mind to do so, and #2, because my natural reaction, no matter how much it may violate the ideals of stances or balances, will do a better job because of my conviction and instincts rather than a contemplated technique.
Anyway, I think I'm getting a little off track. This whole question and realization actually started in the context of iaido. Just the other day I found an extremely interesting flier about iaido (the art of drawing the sword, generally) in Toyama. It actually looks like it's part of a big organization called, "International Batto-do Shizan Association Ryuseiken." (So if any of you have any stories or opinions on this, PLEASE let me know because I want to get as much information as I can in case I decide to join.) Anyway, I've always wanted to try iaido, and I've talked a lot with my aikido sensei about iaido because he happens to be a third degree blackbelt. He's practiced in Toyama, and maybe even with this particular group. I'm not sure, I'll ask soon. But the problem is, he says there are a lot of contradictions between iaido and aikido, and that it can really end up being a minus for each other to practice them both, at least in his experience. For example, do you swing a sword with your hips straight ahead or tilted at a 45 degree angle? This is really important if it's the most basic of concepts you're trying to incorporate into your body's subconcious reactions. Moreover, he mentioned that a lot of iaido schools are supported by kendo practitioners, who practice iaido to get a better sense of using a "real" sword in "real" situations, but that the iaido gets manipulated and changed to better serve the kendoka. This is a real turn off for me.
So I was thinking about practicing iaido, and judging for myself whether the techniques were good or not. Well, what's the criteria?
"Does it work?"
"DOES IT WORK?!?!?!"
What do you mean!? The "purpose" of using a sword is to cut and kill people ... I will never cut people!!! Never say never, I know ... but seriously, I'm way more likely to try and kill someone with a bad joke than a sword (you dead yet?).
Do you see where this is going?
If "working" iaido is the kind that enables me to cut someone in half with a traditional Japanese sword, that's a pretty fricken worthless skill isn't it? Or at least more worthless than learning how to kill people with jokes, which is a better technique based on the fact you spend less time around a traditional Japanese sword than you are able to tell a joke. Furthermore, for empty handed techniques, if the sole purpose of "working" emtpy handed martial arts is to be physically invincible, then I'd say you're spending way too much time on this task when you should just get a gun or ... oh my god, how about this ... how about you train your awareness so you can avoid danger before it engages you physically?
So, if you follow my logic, the purpose of practicing martial arts lies outside mere physical abilities in martial activities. I just watched an interview of Tim Cartmell (a prominent figure in modern martial arts particularly in the arenas of TCMA and BJJ) provided by a certain dojo rat where he is asked various questions about his opinions on the martial arts, and guess what, the question of "why do we practice the martial arts" came up. His answer? Self-cultivation. A person can acquire in a pretty short amount of time a good enough arsenal to protect them in the majority of physical altercations. So why then, do so many people stay at it? There's something else. Tim Cartmell labels it "self cultivation". In a book I'm reading now about qigong, "The Way of Qigong: the Art and Science of Chinese Energy Healing" written by Kenneth S. Cohen, there is a very memorable quote that states, "The purpose of practicing tai chi chuan is to have a relaxed spirit." A fairly simple idea, but how many people physically realize this? Lately, this has been the most recurring idea in my mind, and one that lies at the center of this issue.
In addition to the many wonderful physical benefits, a lot of which include martial phenomenon despite my peaceful agenda, the primary reason why I practice martial arts is to have a relaxed spirit. Self-cultivation is part of it, and actually, may be bigger than merely having a relaxed spirit, but for some reason that quote is too relevant to me right now. The number one reason why I put all this time and energy and thought into practicing martial arts is to have a relaxed spirit.
So now here comes the big question:
"Does it work?"