(I’m in Boulder right now in case anyone wants to hook up with me here).
I’ve been working on a book, and while we were in Leadville Colorado last week my wife initiated a live reading in front of her folks of an introductory chapter. It was well received considering how shocking the material from my childhood is, but after fielding questions and comments I realized that I hadn’t even touched on one of the defining aspects of martial arts; the use of physical training to transmit values.
On further reflection I realized that I have probably neglected the topic on my blog more than I should have. I have previously discussed precepts in the context of Daoism and the use of precepts and movement practices by lay people as a form of personal exorcism and for the rectification of the bad behaviors one might inherit from an ancestor or a teacher.
But among the most common reasons an American parent is likely to give for putting their son or daughter in martial arts classes is the assumed capacity of physical training to transmit positive social values.
As I age, I have come to realize that I am a fierce moralist. I believe in the necessity of grappling with difficult moral questions and taking strong stands. Most moralists believe it is their duty to put pressure on society to continuously strive for a more virtuous world through modeling and professing upright conduct. I believe that the only effective way to change the way people think is through institutions. I generally believed that moral outrage can be leveraged to force people to confront the consequences of their unconscious behavior, beliefs and values, but without institutions to support those values they will not take root. So the moral imperative I feel is to create, define, challenge and re-make the institutions that define how we live and adapt to change.
As teaching martial arts is my trade, I want to influence the way the institution of martial arts is taught, and the ways people think about and define martial arts.
But when we are talking about martial arts, we are talking about embodying values. One of the most fascistic values of my generation is the notion that everyone should be fit. My use the the word fascistic is intentional. Fitness has been associated with nationalistic movements throughout the 20th Century. Fitness has often been used in an attempt to create conformity of thought and attitude, to shape peoples‘ values in accordance with the interests of the state. My early dance carrier was in open rebellion of this notion. The more wild and weird, the more culturally international, the more chaotic and spontaneous the dance, the better.
Fine dancers, find answers. Break the rules. Write your own script. Dare to be different. Sublime beauty. Rituals of death. Insanity is the appropriate response to an insane society (at least theatrically speaking, I think that is a quote from R.D. Lang). Be a holy body. Be a model of freedom.
A friend recently pointed out that yoga classes are probably the dominant mechanism by which the notion of mindfulness has spread, not just in America, but among an international group of urban elites. That notion of mindfulness often becomes a platform for the transmission of Buddhist inspired Insight Meditation. Probably more often, yoga is a platform for the transmission of Quaker values. As a Facebook friend of mine recently commented, “I took my first yoga class in New York and no one came up to hug me afterwards, that would never happen in California.” I suspect also that both yoga and tai chi are a major force in the spread of leftwing cultural values.
If all this is true, I’m still not sure I understand what the mechanism is by which body and values link up.
The widespread notion that martial arts training will instill discipline has always seemed somewhat suspect to me. Is it possible that people, like me, who naturally have extraordinary discipline are simply attracted to martial arts? And perhaps those few people modeling discipline brings out latent qualities of discipline in new students? Being surrounded by a group of people with a particular value may indeed transmit that value. Exercising as a group tends to have a hypnotic effect, it probably conditions our behavior in unconscious ways.
Taking hikes in nature appears to be the major force in the transmission of pro-environment and ecology values.
What are the most important values that I hope to transmit in my classes?
Self-reliance in health issues is one. Being your own change. Self-defense is the most basic right, the one all others stem from.
Also, the value that wildness and aggression are part of human nature, our nature, and that true self-possession involves exploring, discovering and pushing their limits. Non-aggression is less a value as it is the fruition of seeing how aggression occludes awareness and optionality.
I like to model clean living and openness. The thing about transmitting values, and I believe I got this from Zhuangzi, is that you have to meet people where they are. Be a mirror for people, but also be a companion on the journey. People are often turned off if they even sense they are being judged. They also tend to flee from styles of communication which are aggressive or invasive beyond their comfort level.
When I’m just hanging out with people interacting socially it is far too easy for me to feel like I’m surrounded by idiots. One of the reasons I simply love teaching is that feeling never comes up, I am morally bound to enjoy my students and meet them wherever they happen to be.
Does tai chi transmit specific values? Does the quality of its movement do that? Or is it a process of conversation, feeling and modeling?
I like to think that what I’m teaching is beyond values. Freedom and spontaneity in body and mind is a value, but it is also simply a way of interacting with the world.
Probably the deepest thing I teach, the thing closest to Dao, is to recognize and cultivate the experience of emptiness. It is hard to call that a value. But the process of getting there involves consciously making intensions clear so that they can be discarded. That isn’t a value either but in rubs against a lot of values, particularly the ideals, hopes and wishes people carry around with them.
What are the limits to what can be transmitted through the practice of martial arts? Are there values in martial arts training and practice that are inherent, ones which are transmitted even when the teacher doesn’t talk and the students didn’t socialize together?
It seems to me that a big part of transmitting values is creating, setting and controlling the environment, the mood and the space where teaching takes place. But calm and chaotic can both work wonders. Intimacy, mentoring and honesty can not be overlooked either. Thoughts? Am I missing something?