What Does Life Have to Do with Martial Arts?

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

I used to have a blog strictly related to Brazilian jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts; then it evolved into a blog about life and philosophy. It seemed a natural conclusion. And then I remember a disgruntled reader commenting, "WTF does life have to do with martial arts?" That question lies at the crux of this essay. What does life have to do with martial arts? Everything. But why is that not obvious? That is the more perplexing question. Like hearing someone say, "WTF does the Sun have to do with the Earth?" I wanted to know how this person came to believe that the Sun and the Earth were incompatible.

The WTF Moment

I get where the reader was coming from; in his eyes, I was going off topic. But in how he thinks about our chosen arts lies everything that is wrong with modern martial arts training: that is has nothing to do with our lives; our chosen arts are entirely different subjects than the subject of living. How did we come to believe that the things we do every day, the things we obsess over, exist on a different planet from the one in which we live? Yet this has become the pervasive thought, where conceiving of another possibility causes a WTF moment. Like watching two people spend every moment together than claiming their lack of a relationship is self-evident. Why would you think that's self-evident?

Rather than our art coming to us, we go to our art. We make our lives about our art rather than make our art about our lives. We serve it rather than have it serve us. We exist for it rather than it existing for us.

I have seen even the most intelligent of martial artists and fighters compartmentalize life and art in this way, and their recommendation is to fall in love with selfishness, to fall in love with obsession. This isn't an exaggeration, they often say it's a selfish art where you have to put yourself first but that's what you should love about it. And that obsession, though it's unhealthy, is the only path to greatness. I have seen very few who can talk about life and art as one fluid thing, I can think of, perhaps, Renzo Gracie, and before him, Bruce Lee. Other than that, yes, a few well-spoken fighters can make compartmentalization sound poetic or inspirational, or like a self-help sermon, but that is not the same as a holistic philosophical view — and it is no practical guidance on how you should carry yourself. Unless you believe yourself to be a machine: plug in here and fulfill a program, then go home fulfill another program (or never go home and only live in the cyberspace of your art).

Being a Decision-Maker

Why do we enjoy martial arts? It’s about choices, a series of hard choices. What grips to make; what positions to use. There's an urgency to these choices that leads naturally to flow. When distracted, you risk bodily injury. You accept these consequences every time you step on the mat.

But when it comes to regular life, choices break us. They're hard, and we don’t enjoy them. So what do we do? Run to the mat and try never to leave. Chase your love, some will tell you, but how do we know we aren't just chasing comfort? Is martial arts secular from life? Is it its adversary? Its competitor? Are we live-action role-playing? Cosplaying as ancient fighters? We treat it like a video game that exists on a screen, in our imaginations, when martial arts are real and exist in the same world as we do. "IRL" is what gamers call life off the screen, "in real life," and it's given a different name because it's foreign and confusing. Martial arts is supposed to be as real as it gets, and then we made it a game, our fantasy world, where we avoid life choices and choose the mat over IRL. "I won't do this;" "I won't go to school;" "I won't enjoy my life in other profound ways;" "I will sacrifice IRL living for this mat game."

In our comfort zone, the risk of getting our elbows popped is less scary than having to carry ourselves as adults. Yet your chosen art is supposed to teach you how to break your dependence on comfortable bubbles, not entrench you into a new one. Instead of chasing your love, why not share your love? And share what you've learned? And step out of your comfort zone; take the lessons from the mat and carry it with you into the world.

But this is not what we do; often we do the opposite, bring the ills of the world onto the mat. Weird head space, bad rolls, unhealthy egos, and emotions and insecurities on the forefront rather than humility and growth mindset. We go hard when we should be going light; we can be obnoxious then blame everyone else. We romanticize the mat, but is the mat really a utopia? I mean, how could it be if we the participants are never improving ourselves and our lives? If we go to disconnect? (And when I say "improving ourselves," I mean as people, not mat technicians.) We can pretend it's enlightening and follow basic etiquette and tell ourselves nothing else exists, but there’s always petty drama. We are the agents of our culture, and if we do not develop as human beings, it will show on the mat.

Our Attitudes as Beginners

Life choices are stressful, whether it's relationships, school, work, or finances — they all take a mental toll. But that's how anything is at the beginning. At the start of our training, we had no concept of relaxation, we were in constant fight-or-flight. Some quit and some stick with it. And then we get comfortable. We forget our beginner attitudes that helped us learn and overcome. We forget the awe and wonder we took off the mat. We stop asking ourselves: How can I maintain this level of clarity off the mat?

All a white belt has is imagination. And with enough imagination we could apply martial arts to anything. Where did that imagination go? Did it get destroyed by hubris? Is it humility and imagination, hubris and fixed thinking? We should have never let our technical improvements go to our heads.

There is a collective bewilderment whenever we see an expert on the mat have a complete mess for a personal life. It's more ironic than a someone having a top notch professional life and a mess for home life because we understand that work can do that. Martial arts is supposed to do the opposite. Though we think our art and our life have nothing in common, we are keenly aware when one is not improving the other. It seems disingenuous. Somewhere in our unconscious, we understand that life has everything to do with martial arts.

Mastering the Self

What you will learn over and over in the martial arts is that you can’t control everything, but you still have control over the most important thing: yourself. That's why we train, to master ourselves. And after a while, that’s enough to overcome most predicaments. We get better at it. We develop self-confidence. When we’re in uncertain positions, something new, we improvise. When it's within our control, we stay responsible. When it's out of our control, we stay calm. We learn to enjoy the process. The step after that is to transfer these skills sharpened on the mat to other areas of our lives.

We know we love the physical aspect of martial arts, we know we love the bonds of community, but why not just take up dance or join a bowling league? I'm sure most of us who've put in the grind have been asked why we don't take up something else. Maybe it's our doctors and physical therapists that ask. Maybe it's our romantic partners. Maybe we've asked ourselves. And if you have, what have you come up with? Well, here's what I think: martial arts make us fall in love with ourselves. Perhaps our experiences in school were different, but on the mat we are systematic and informed. Martial arts bring out parts of ourselves we don't ordinarily identify with: as a confident decision-maker, an improviser, and as a risk-taker who doesn’t shrink from challenge but runs towards it. And when we fall flat on our faces, we immediately want to do it again. Because these are the traits we have developed.

These skills should automatically follow you off the mat, and for some lucky folks, it does. But if it's not done consciously, it's in limited capacity. Proper self-development is a conscious act, just as having a good day is a conscious act. (You can't leave quality to chance.) You have to know what you're developing and the value you bring to any table. And if not, rather than clarity, you bring confusion. Rather than confidence, you bring a fighter's insecurity. Leaving martial arts philosophy to chance can arm a bully with fighting skills. And why not? It's tempting to take every situation to our most comfortable arena: combat. But that is the inherent danger to thoughtless training; it creates insecure and confused fighters.

Living Art

"Flow" is common jargon in the martial arts. But we modern participants have forgotten the roots of that term, which goes back to the Way, the Taoistic concept of the flow of life, to flow like water. And in the Way, everything in life helps you get better at living — but only if you are aware of its purpose. (I can imagine someone reading this and saying, "What does flow have to do with martial arts?" But after hearing what they just said, I hope they follow up with, "WTF am I saying?")

Life is experiential, and if you can face the highs and lows of the mat, you can face the highs and lows of the world, just the same. The dojo is an allegory for the rest of the world. But the allegory isn’t meant to be lived in, it's only for practicing.

Rather than making my life about my art, I made my life living art. I train to live, I don't live to train. Jiu-jitsu for me isn't an identity or a noun, it's a verb. It's something I do; it's a way I live life. It doesn't matter what you train; your particular art is your exploration of living. We get so stuck on categories — I train this, I train that — but how does it help you live your life? And that's a point we often miss. Training but forgetting to live.

A Life Worth Living

So what's it all about? What is anything about? Every action we take or don't take, from big to small? I believe it's about living a life worth living. Your life doesn’t exist to serve your goals (or your art), it’s the other way around. Step off the mat and get some perspective. We take an activity and believe it to be our authentic selves, but it is not our true selves, but rather, it's a tool to help us discover our true selves. That's the gap to meaning, and if never reconciled, we are left in a despair where earthly needs are met, but our souls starve for meaning. What does life have to do with your chosen art? How you answer this question will make all the difference. It's about choices.

Between you and the mat is a world of opportunity and it is meant to be lived.