The Journey Back to Martial Arts

“Fighting fundamentally makes you see the world differently.”

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

I was in my last year of high school, about to move away for college. I was putting my childhood behind me, and somehow that also meant stopping martial arts. It seemed normal and natural; many train in their youths, but stop as adults. I didn't realize martial arts was the barometer I used to measure all other conflicts. Without that anchor to shore, I slowly began to drift.

In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald

There are expectations of college life; though formative aspects of the shared adolescent experience, I found myself on the outside of that world. I would often leave house parties, only to sit out on the lawn, and gaze up at the stars. "What was I doing at this party? What did it matter? Why does anything matter?" I struggled with the concept of existing to exist and living just for pleasure.

The Dark Night

16th-century poet and Roman Catholic mystic, Saint John of the Cross called this the "dark night of the soul." It reflects the hardships the soul meets in detachment and the difficulties we must face to grow in spiritual maturity. In one word: hopelessness.

Then there were personal struggles, relationship struggles, and finding that many of people I knew were vapid, cruel, and selfish. Not that the people I knew were any worse than other people, and that made it worse, that this was the standard. While others were grappling with identity, I was lost in a spiritual void.

What I lacked was a coherent philosophy to guide me through these challenges. I couldn't balance "typical" expectations with this unexplainable want for significance and to live a meaningful life.

Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life.
— Buddha

Though the need for coherence is more than ever, philosophy no longer holds the same societal value. College was the time to go from boyhood to manhood, when I was supposed to have it figured out. Instead, I felt cast away — broken.

A New Awakening

"Shakubuku" is a term that originates from one of the early Buddhist texts. It is the breaking of preliminary thoughts; old thoughts must be subdued to keep advancing. The Buddhist monk Nichiren refers to it as a method of "opening the eyes." However, the film Grosse Pointe Blank eloquently refers to it as "a swift, spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever."

Fighting fundamentally makes you see the world differently.
— Demian Maia

When all seemed uncertain, I turned to the one thing I knew that was tangible and real — my martial arts practice. I was initially attracted to the violence, but what brought me back was its unseen philosophy. Since what I needed was different, what I saw was different. My eyes opened to the unseen, to its underlying feature.

I never considered it or tried to make sense of it. It was just something I did, something I thought was cool. But dedicated physical practice is hard, especially when you must consistently train with opponents larger than yourself. Though I was running through familiar movements, my reasoning for doing them had changed.

There were years of philosophy classes, but it all ended in speculation and wonder. With martial arts, I didn't have to wonder. I'd find out. You think a, I think b, well let's find out. It was empirical, it was experiential — proof through the senses. Just as contemplative as it is physical; if you allow it. If you consider it.

The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting by fools.
— Thucydides

Philosophy without a physical practice is too abstract, perhaps this is why it leads to so many academic arguments, they will think, but they will never find out. They had no way to know. Martial arts was my bridge to knowing.

Why train? Why do any of us train? Why voluntarily make your life harder and do something if you aren't sure you will be successful? It would be more natural to avoid hardship than to run towards it. It's unconventional, yet a quality shared by those who do anything "new."

A timeless spirit — no different than that of tinkerers' — built on curiosity, a want to understand and test boundaries. As Henry Ford was curious about the capacity of a car and what comes after, a martial artist is curious about the capacity of the self — and the eventual the ability to move beyond the self.

Stages of Spiritual Development

Kaizen: continuous change for the better. You can be born like everyone else, and even become extraordinary, but if you remain curious, you'll continue on the path to becoming a fully developed human being.

Mythology teaches us about the hero's journey, not the physical but the transformative. Heroic effort, a series of trials, entering the belly of the beast and coming out with newfound knowledge. It begins with a commoner, an "everyman," who ventures into self-discovery, becoming a better person, then finally changing the world around him for the better. The final part is the one we miss. Making the world around us better.

Some of us are fascinated with samurai culture, a surface level appreciation for their attitude and spirit. But look further. "Samurai" does not mean warrior or fighter; though that is how people mean it today. "Samurai" means to serve profoundly and to be a samurai with no one to serve was a shame worthy of death.

We ignore the lessons of humility and have twisted the meaning to suit our purposes — feeding our ego. Turning a type of service into an identity.  Samurai spirit is not about making yourself better than others, it's about humbling yourself to others.

Destroy Your Self

As babies, we know, "Me, me, me." Then, along the way, we learn about "you" and "you" and all these other people that are not "me." And what do we do with that knowledge? Do we stop there?

The journey has several stages; if you only continue on the path of the self, you will never make the final transformation — of becoming a human being. Self-discovery is a necessary step, but to never go beyond that risks losing your touch with humanity altogether — questioning why you were ever on this journey, what the point of it all was, lost in a spiritual void, endlessly filling the vacuum with things that do not matter.

"Death" is merely a metaphor for the death of the self; that you are willing to put other things above yourself: a cause, a people, an ideal. The samurai spirit is one of humility. The ideal of Buddhism is the eventual destruction of the "self" to bring connection, a fragment reconnecting with the whole — this is enlightenment. "Ego" is the "sense of self." Ending your "self," is ending your ego. It is not about the actual end of life.

In the event of my demise, when my heart can beat no more, I hope I die for a principle or a belief that I had lived for.
— Tupac Shakur

The fear of missing out is another kind of death. When the ego thrives, other parts of you die. Not accumulating enough stuff, it is built on insecurities; this is a coward's death. And when the spirit is replaced by ego and faintheartedness; this is spiritual death.

Society constructs our value system, telling us that it is self-interest that leads us to happiness. There are more sales, yet less satisfaction. When we do those things that are self-serving, we temporarily find pleasure, but without any meaning, what lasts is emptiness. Pleasure seeking never exhausts; it's tiring and never satisfying because we will always find something else worth consuming.

We corrupt spirituality into the spiritual hedonism of self-interest: "How much stuff can I get?",  "How great can I be?", and "I am special." We have grown to love ourselves too much and not love our neighbors enough. We can do those things that are not always pleasurable, but if we find purpose in what we do, it is impossible to be unhappy. When we do those things that help others, we create value, giving away our emptiness and filling our void with fullness.

Wild Expectations

Our priorities are mental constructs, we have the ability to shift them if we work at it. Just as we work on getting what we want, we must also work on changing our wants. These things can never be self-evident if we never dwell on them. When we avoid contemplation, we are willfully giving away our consciousness.

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive — to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.
— Marcus Aurelius

Beyond being the best in the world — challenge the self, challenge your beliefs. There are things beyond a chase for self-interest — "my goal", "my passion" — such as compassion and empathy for others.

When we're young, we want to rack up accomplishments, everything off of our so-called "bucket list." How much we can take, devour, destroy, and consume from this world before we're gone? Yet when we do near the end, what we will regret most are failures of kindness, not things from our bucket list. Our thoughts will be of the impact that we left and how much we gave. Did I help the world or was I too busy trying to be better than the world?

Heal to Heal

As the warrior retires, her real life begins, the life of a steward. The hero's journey is a metaphor for self-development, sacrifice, and service — to ultimately become a human being. (No different from the Buddhist's journey of enlightenment.) It's practical advice, heal yourself, then heal your world. After you've tested how much you can endure, what remains to be tested is your capacity to serve.

Instructors will tell you to treat your training partners with respect, they are not your toys. Teachers will tell you to show the world respect; mistreatment of your surroundings and those around you is no different than mistreating yourself. Fighting without a code of honor does not diminish violence and aggression, it only increases it. You hit a bag, and your want is to hit it harder; aggression and cruelty never exhausts, it is unlimited. Inflicting damage becomes easier if we can see others as different from ourselves — as separate, as inhuman. Then our attitude towards the world can be of apathy and ambivalence — "That's not me, that doesn't concern me."

It is difficult to know yourself if you do not know others.
— Miyamoto Musashi

Fighting without a code of living is no different from training to be an attack dog. To the uninitiated, it looks like stylized violence, because that’s all we show them. This is why emotions must be channeled and techniques coupled with a coherent philosophy focusing on spirit, discipline, and control. Fighters are a rare breed, curious about themselves — but to become a martial artist, one must be curious about others.

I believe we naturally want to care about others, but we are also told all that matters is winning. We are locked in dissonance. Winning is an attitude more than it is a material possession. As long as you gain something from your experience and grow from it, your spirit remains undefeated.


When you think beyond yourself, you will find other with like-minds, and they too will find others with like-minds. And efforts combine. You connect to the world and the world connects to you.

Movement: it can mean change (social, spiritual, emotional, musical), it can also mean changing location or position. Rather than having a planned destination, allow life to move you. Then, as you move, you can send a meaningful vibration through the web of humanity. Rather chasing happiness, spread happiness. Rather than holding onto a single thread of fabric, make a tapestry.

Become a steward. Don't tell others what to do, go and do it, and if it is meaningful, others will follow. Rather than standing at the top, enjoying the view alone, pull others up to enjoy it with you. Don't boss, don't save, merely serve.


Today, I am still studying and training. Life has become my practice, and I am curious to what is possible. During my spiritual crisis, my questions brought despair. Now I have more questions, but they bring me hope. What I have learned is that, life is good, even when it's not.

If you are struck by incongruence, look for the unseen underlying philosophy. Once you find coherence, you will find, things are never all that bad. Because . . . we all need a unifying truth to live by.

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