When Are You A Martial Artist?
Lessons in Mindfulness
The study of martial arts is a path of personal
growth, encompassing body, mind and spirit.
The Lessons in Mindfulness program is designed
to support and supplement your physical practice,
to motivate you and inspire you on ever deeper levels.
between sport and
art, is primarily in
More than a belt
Once you begin to study martial arts, when are you a
martial artist? Do you qualify after your first introductory
class? Or are you a martial artist after you enroll in a school
and become an active student? Maybe you are not a
martial artist until you learn a few techniques well. Do you
have to take your first test? Are you a martial artist when
you reach green belt? And, of course, all black belts are
martial artists, aren’t they?
This is a difficult question. An easier question is,
“When do you think that you are a martial artist?” To
answer the question, we must examine the true meaning of
being a real martial artist. Frankly, most people believe the
moment is when they put on the uniform. Becoming a
martial artist, however, requires much more than wearing a
uniform. Participating in exercise fitness classes, throwing
punches and kicks to the latest pop music doesn’t make
you a martial artist either. Neither will you become a martial
artist by training with bouncers and bodyguards, cage
match bullies, and bad-tempered tough guys capable of
pounding someone into dust.
Are you collecting techniques or perfecting the details?
The aim in this topic is not to give a definitive
answer to the question of when you become a real martial
artist. Instead, the intent is to offer ideas that encourage
you to think about your practice. After years of serious
study, you will begin to profoundly understand what it
means to be a martial artist.
In the beginning of your practice, no matter the style or
discipline, you learn basic techniques. Basic techniques
are the building blocks or foundation of the system.
Through continuous repetition of the basics, you will
become a technician. Adding intermediate or even
advanced techniques to your repertoire does not make
you an artist. You simply become a technician with more
tools. Many people develop habits of consciously or
unconsciously collecting new techniques. Indeed, learning
new techniques is exciting…new punches, new kicks, and
new forms. But, you must learn to enjoy the basics. In
order to develop the essence of the art, you must learn to
concentrate on the details. As you practice, ask yourself,
“Is my hand right? Am I striking with the right surface? Am
I relaxed until the moment of focus? Did I drive through my
target? Did I recover quickly? Is my stance right?”
Perfecting all the details is an important aspect of the
art. After all, a student who has practiced more than five
years should know, not only more techniques, but his basic
skills should be better than one who has practiced for only a
year. A student of ten years should have even better basics
than one who has practiced for five years…after twenty
years, better still.
execution are both
important parts of
the process we call
A fighter is not an artist, and an artist doesn’t have to
be a fighter. But, to be a martial artist, you have to be
both a fighter and an artist.
Martial arts…not martial arts
begin with a blank
canvas, or a piece
of paper, but the
martial artist begins
Two words describe our practice: ‘Martial’ and ‘arts’.
The definition of the first word, ‘martial’, is certain. The
meaning is, “of, pertaining to, or suggesting war,” and
unfortunately describes the prevalent view of martial arts.
Today, most people relate martial arts to violence of some
sort. We usually ignore or forget the second word, ‘art,’
in the context of martial arts. Art suggests spontaneous
creativity, a changing of consciousness, beauty and
elegance. Art inspires us and adds to our life.
Martial arts or fighting?
So what distinguishes martial arts from any other
violence and fighting techniques performed since the
beginning of time? Martial arts began in the sixth century
with Tamo Bodidharma, a Shaolin monk. In a simple
monastery in Hunan Province, China, Tamo realized that
martial techniques, if practiced with the correct mindset,
could be used for much more than just self-defense.
Tamo pushed the monks to challenge themselves to
greater heights, forcing them to break through limitations
and develop their bodies in remarkable ways. By concen-
trating to master difficult physical moves, students learned
to better focus their minds. More importantly, they
cultivated powerful discipline and will, which changed their
self-image. The earlier picture of simple monks, overweight
and lethargic, transformed to one of acutely focused
individuals, living up to their personal convictions and
beliefs. Under the guidance of Tamo Bodidharma, these
first practitioners integrated deep introspection, meditation
and physical techniques to create a complete practice that
is now known as martial arts.
Bringing ancient principles into modern life
By practicing martial arts, as those monks did so
long ago, you also begin to realize your own power in life.
Diligently practicing the art, you change your self-image,
becoming more confident in all situations. You see yourself
as strong willed and focused. You know that you are
mentally tough, and able to overcome obstacles and
achieve goals. A real martial artist is a martial artist in and
outside of the dojo. You do not become a superman or
superwoman, never hesitating or fearing anything, but
rather a person of discipline, fully conscious and aware of
all thoughts, feelings, emotions, moods and actions. In all
moments, you maintain control, or at the very least, you are
able to regain control of yourself quickly.
When the concern
for victory and
falls away, all that
is left is you.
What you then
express is art.
Don’t think so much
Artists use the term “blocked,” to describe periods when
they are unable to move forward. Writers can’t write,
painters can’t paint, and musicians cannot compose. This
block usually comes from an overwhelming or nagging
pressure originating in the mind. Uncontrolled thoughts
manifest as self-talk such as, “I used to be creative, but I
fear that I’ll never have another good idea. I don’t feel
inspired-what if people don’t like what I do? What if I fail?”
As a martial artist executing a form, you might tell your-
self, “Everyone is watching, don’t screw up. Here comes the
hard part. Wow, I did that really well!” During sparring, your
inner dialogue might consist of anticipating your partner’s
moves and planning how you will respond. “A back fist is
coming next…he always throws a back fist after this
technique. Here comes a roundhouse kick…as soon as he
moves, I’ll hit him,” and so on and so on. The inner chatter
constantly flows, so we must deliberately train our minds to
slow down and stay in the moment.
Surrender to your practice
Art flows when
your breath is
slow, your mind is
clear, and you are
out of the way.
Our desire to perform or produce excellence is precisely
what inhibits our art. If you are concerned with ‘it’ coming
from you, then you are not able to get out of the way and
let ‘it’ happen. For ‘it’ to come, you must become a
spectator of your performance, rather than merely focusing
on the outcome. How does one reach the state of being and
not doing? Ueshiba Sensei said, “Let spirit flow through
you.” You must learn to meditate deeply, clearing the mind
of all thought, and remain still. Only then are you able to
bring a calm peaceful state into your practice. By keeping
the mind calmly active and actively calm, the artistresponds,
rather than anticipates. The artist harmonizes and does not
force. Art comes without effort. Surrender to the practice,
without judgment, and just be.
A Zendo (a place where the philosophy of Zen is shared)
inspires change of consciousness, but does not teach
martial application. Self-defense teaches martial application,
but does not change consciousness. Real martial arts
taught in a dojo (a place of enlightenment) uses martially
effective techniques to teach self-defense and to change
consciousness. The Japanese tea ceremony, performed
correctly, produces a fine cup of tea in the end, but the
primary aim is to inspire one to be more mindful…to
experience life fully, moment by moment.
In that moment when you are a martial artist,
spirit is flowing through you, raising your
consciousness. Strive to stay in that state,
consciously and consistently, throughout life.
The art comes through you…not from you
A martial artist understands and consistently uses the
principles, both physical and mental, of his art to raise
consciousness and increase mindfulness in every act. With
great compassion and humility, a martial artist recognizes
that the art comes through him but not from him. Being a
hindrance, he has but one job: To remove himself. Bruce
Lee said, “Let it happen.”
So, can one simply proclaim that he is a martial artist
and thus become one? Or are we only martial artists, when
we learn to get out of the way and allow the practice to
A student asked a great master, “Sir, do you know
martial arts? The master responded, “No, I study martial
arts, and when I am still, it flows through me.”
Remember that you cannot skip steps. All great artists
of any discipline were first great technicians. After years of
dedication, unceasingly perfecting their skill, and learning
to still their mind, art found them.
The aim of art is to
represent not the
of things, but the
Greg had practiced martial arts for many years.
He was in his early thirties and was a corporate
executive for a large company. His position required him to
relocate every few years. In some cases, his appointments
were only temporary. In other instances, he remained in the
new area for years. His family was accustomed to his life style
and took the moves in stride. Yet again, the day came when a
superior informed him that he would be moving to another
area of the country…this time, thousands of miles away.
The true work of art
is but a shadow of
the divine perfection.
As always, within the first week of the move, Greg looked for
a new dojo. He really enjoyed the workout and discipline in
martial arts. Because of his relocations, he had experienced
different styles of martial arts. He had practiced Chinese
styles, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian and Okinawan styles.
After researching schools in the new area, he found one close
to his office and joined.
Each time, Greg began again as a white belt. Rank
wasn’t important. In fact, he just enjoyed practicing for
himself. He was a white belt with great etiquette and
discipline. Adapting to and embracing his new environment,
Greg fit in very quickly.
Six months later, several co-workers who had transferred
with him asked, “Greg, what are you doing differently? You
are so calm and never appear stressed. You are more
pleasant to work with and more productive than ever.”
Another commented, “We have known you for years. You
are just not the same person. What are you doing?”
Greg answered, “I have been practicing martial arts.”
One of his friends said, “You’ve been practicing martial
arts for years. That can’t be it.”
Greg responded, “My new instructor teaches the
philosophical and mental aspects of the art.”
One of the men said, “So, you’re learning history of
martial arts? How does that help you?”
Greg sat down and started to quietly explain, “No,
actually it is much more than history. My instructor
teaches how to take practice into everyday life. I am
learning breathing techniques, and meditation techniques.
These techniques help me control my thoughts and
emotions, and have taught me not to separate my life from
my practice. For many years, I thought I was practicing mar-
tial arts. But, I was really just learning self-defense and getting
I realize that studying true martial arts causes physical and
mental changes. I could be transferred to another job location
at any time. But I can always take this knowledge with me, no
matter what style I practice. Punching, kicking, throwing and
grappling are just tools to help me discipline my body and
mind, so I can live a healthier and happier life. Before I
learned this, I was healthy, but not as happy. Learning to dis-
cipline my mind and control my thoughts has made all the dif-
ference in the world. Only now, do I really feel like a martial
Some people say
that art is an
actually, it is
Learn to meditate deeply. Be able to clear the mind of
all thought and remain still. Carry this calm peaceful
state into your practice. The artist responds and
does not anticipate. The artist harmonizes and does
not force. He allows the art to flow without effort.
The artist is too busy
looking within to
notice the score
or hear the praise.
Reflect on your practice
Write a two-page paper on why you practice martial arts.
What does it mean to you and what exactly are you getting
Write down your thoughts from your heart and not your
head. There are no right or wrong reasons. Take your time
and write with passion and honesty. Very rarely will your
first draft be the final version. Enjoy this opportunity to
reflect and examine your practice.
Make a copy to turn in to your instructor and keep one
Once the fight begins
anything else that can
be done is not worth
The artist’s world is limitless. It can be found
anywhere, far from where he lives or a few feet
away. It is always with him.
Analyze Your Activities
In this lesson, the technique is to analyze your activities
every day for at least one month. Spend ten minutes at the
end of each day to analyze your day—primarily your
thoughts and behavior. Ask yourself, “How did I faire
No great artist ever
sees things as the
masses. If he did,
he would cease to
be an artist.
Create a good list
On one side of a piece of paper list all of your good
thoughts, behaviors and intentions.
Create a bad list
On the other side list your negative shortcomings for the
day. These could be things that you said, thought or did that
cause you to feel sad, embarrassed, or ashamed. Also list
anything you wish you could do over or do differently.
Using the lists
After completing your lists, look for areas that you want to
improve. Analyze your positive column, as well as your neg-
ative. Vow to repeat your strengths, while you work on
• Don’t be too self-congratulatory or too hard on yourself.
• Use the technique to truly assess your thoughts and
• Reserve time each day to complete the exercise.
• For one month be very disciplined, not missing a day.
In the end, the exercise develops your will and your follow-
through ‘muscles’. Most people don’t stick with things long
enough to see them through. Everyone has good
intentions, but success or failure is often determined by
the level of perseverance.
The artist belongs
to his work, not the
work to the artist.
• Only spend about ten minutes a day on this technique.
Longer periods of time make it a chore and increase the
likelihood of skipping.
• As you are making your list, write down whatever comes
to mind. Do not be concerned with its significance. Don’t
struggle to remember things. If it matters, it will come to
• When you are finished, take a few minutes to recognize
your strengths and weaknesses. Do not just toss out a list
and be done with it.
• Perform the technique alone in a quiet relaxed place,
free from distractions. Turn off the television, radio, or
telephone. Contemplate deeply about your day.
• You can perform this technique before or after meditating.
Some like to use this technique to empty the mind before
meditation. Others meditate first to relax and calm the
mind. Then, in the relaxed state, they do the technique.
• Be careful not to think about your list while you are
Shining a spotlight on your thoughts and behaviors
encourages change. You’ll notice areas, which need
improvement, and you will reinforce positive thoughts and
tendencies. It also helps you to become a master over your
actions rather prisoner of your reactions.
*One Day One Lifetime—Kaicho T. Nakamura
The Way of a Warrior—Robert W. Smith
Aikido and Chinese Martial Arts—It’s Fundamental
True art cannot be
All art is simply an
expression of oneness
No matter how great the artist, he is still just a tool
in the hands of the cosmic artist.