Image above: the statue of Roger Bacon at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Oxford, England.
Studying from a great teacher can help. But, really, that will not even get you halfway there. If your teachers are worth their salt, then they will have continued to learn and evolve throughout their lives. You cannot hope to learn all that they know, or even half of what they know.
The meanings of what you learn will change over time, and you will learn new things that improve or contradict your previous understanding.
What worked for our ancestors may not work for us. The world they built is different from ours. The art that they created is theirs. We need to make our own.
In traditional Asian martial arts, there tends to be a lot of emphasis placed on a Confucian vertical hierarchy. That sort of thinking may serve monarchies and franchises. But it is not conducive to creative or critical thinking.
In addition to the "Classics" promoted during the Ming and Qing dynasties, you should also read Mozi, Laozi, Sunzi, and their various translations. Read all the classic texts about martial arts. But don't only read those from one culture. In order to adapt to multi-cultural reality, study the martial arts of all cultures, as well as their customs, creeds, etiquette, and philosophies. And if you want to expand your ability to understanding and make practical use of those tomes, I suggest also reading the works of Aristotle, Jacques Derrida, and the Bacon brothers (Francis and Roger) 😉
Don't be a slave to a style. The style was intended to serve the students. The students were not created to serve the style. If you find yourself more dedicated to the style than to improving the practical pedagogy, then you are becoming a museum piece, and probably a cheap knockoff at that. The style will not make you a master of a martial art, any more than playing Beatles songs will make you one of The Beatles.
When you learn anything profound, the meaning of the lesson is often lost in translation, obscured through interpretation, and changed by the passage of time. What the lesson means to you now might be very different from what it means to in five or ten years.
When you imitate a teacher, you are not only imitating their positive attributes. You are also imitating their pathology. I remember when, as a student in my 20's, my teacher said to me, "You move like an old master." I was flattered, thinking that a decade of training under great masters was starting to pay off... until he said, "But you are still very young. Why do you move like an old man?" I thought I had been imitating the perfection of my teachers. But I had been really just been mimicking their external shape, and often their weaknesses.
We should learn from as many teachers as we can. But we should never, at any point, presume that we have understood them. And know that there is only so far that a teacher will take you. You must learn how to learn, and how to critique both yourself and the ancestors.
So, here are some basic steps that I recommend to students wishing to becoming a master of martial arts. These are not my ideas. They were passed down to me by my teachers.
Step one: Question
Step two: Hypothesize.
Step three: Predict.
Step four: Test.
Step five: Analyze.
Step six: Repeat
Above images 1: Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. 2: Jaques Derrida. 3: Francis Bacon. 4: Aristotle. 5 (top): Yip Man and Bruce Lee. 6 Boxers of ancient Thera.
About the author.
Ian Sinclair is a Canadian martial artist with a studio in Orillia, Ontario, and students around the world. He has 40 years experience in martial arts, healing exercise, and meditation.
Me: "Why not."
Student: "When I try to meditate, there are too many thoughts in my head."
Me: "Where did you expect your thoughts to be?"
The act of meditation does not require the perfection of a still mind. Meditation is the process of becoming aware...aware of the mind...aware of thoughts...aware of awareness itself. The process has so many benefits that listing them would be a distraction.
Are you aware that you are being distracted by your thoughts? Congratulations! You are meditating.
Believing that you can't meditate because of your thoughts is like believing that you can't listen to music because of all the notes.
Do you find that focusing is more difficult if you don't get enough sleep and exercise? Congratulations! You've discovered one reason why martial arts became so popular with monks. Another reason is that the right kind of martial art practice can provide an effective kind of biofeedback for meditators. "Is my mind clear?" *whack* "Apparently not."
Of course, martial art practice doesn't need to be painful, and neither does meditation. There are many types of training that are suitable for different personality types, and for people with different mental and physical characteristics.
- Ian Sinclair