Know Thyself

As many of us are aware, we are all fallible and every self-defence situation is unpredictable. Anything can happen. Someone who has been training in a combat system for many decades can make a mistake and fall afoul of this kind of unpredictable situation. Seems a shame, doesn’t it? All that training and dedication and one little mistake and it’s all over. We don’t even need to examine the high-octane environment of a self-defence situation because even in a completely safe world without any need for self-defence, every one of us is going to eventually fall and go the way of all flesh. Regardless of how healthy, fit and strong we are. So what’s the point?

I posed this question in one of my recent classes. In the light of the unpredictability of self-defence situations and the incredible investment of time and effort required to follow the path of traditional Wushu, what’s the point if some thug can get lucky and end you in an instant?

As you can imagine, I got a few answers on the spot, all of them true to some extent. One answer focused on statistics. If you have been training in some form of self-defence, the odds of surviving safely increase (depending of course on the type of self-defence situation that you are facing and the type of training you have received).

I agree with this answer in that the odds of survival are dependent to a certain extent on your level of preparedness, but is that a satisfying answer? Is it enough to play the odds game? If we play the game of odds, we have to acknowledge that (depending of course on where you live in the world) the odds of being involved in a violent attack or crime are usually very minimal. If I play the odds game, I am already comfortable about my survival in regards to violent crime because I am unlikely to face any. This precludes the need for any kind of self-defence training and the investment of time and effort required. The students who were considering this question had already made up their minds to practice Kung Fu with me, which meant that they had ignored the odds game and made the choice to invest in preparing themselves for an event which was unlikely to occur.

Another answer that I got was about enjoyment. To a greater or lesser extent, all of my students enjoy practicing Kung Fu with me. That’s a really good answer because it is true. Life is short and unpredictable (like a self-defence situation) and it is good to do the things that you enjoy doing with the time that you have. One day, all of us will pass away like the grass of the field and everything about us will vanish except perhaps our impact on the lives of others.

Many people live their lives in a state of half-sleep, not thinking about the fact that they have limited time. Perhaps they are too scared to make peace with this. Instead, they turn the music up to drown out their thoughts and fears. It is a pity to see people who would love to do something but always put it off until it is too late. I am reminded of the beginning of the movie “Up.”. Still one of the saddest build-ups in an animated film, I feel.

I think this answer is very relevant, but possibly not complete. You see, Kung Fu training is not always enjoyable.

Shock! Horror! Gasp! Yes, it’s true. You heard it here first.

In fact, the term Kung Fu does not really mean ‘martial art’ as many people think. It is a term which can refer to any skill or discipline achieved through hard work and practice. The thing about hard work, is that it’s not always enjoyable. Ask me after a few hours of training on a cold winter morning whether I love Kung Fu and I’ll say “YES!”. Ask me if I love Kung Fu at quarter to five in the morning as I head out of the door bundled in multiple layers and my answer may not be so polite.

A few days after I posed the question, I got another considered answer which is in fact the answer that I was looking for. The answer that I got was “To know yourself.” I agree wholeheartedly with this answer. This is the real reason that I train Kung Fu. To know myself. The thing about self-knowledge is that it cannot be developed in comfort. You only learn more about yourself when you are placed in very difficult situations. Either through training or through harsh and unpredictable life experiences (like self-defence situations).

The thing about self-knowledge is that it cannot be developed in comfort. You only learn more about yourself when you are placed in very difficult situations.

We are often faced with really ugly parts of ourselves when we are put under pressure. These parts don’t come out when everything’s comfortable. The ego tries to undermine us when we are under stress because the ego doesn’t like discomfort. It panics and makes poor decisions, like a spoiled child, in an effort to remove itself from the source of discomfort.

If you, like me, are familiar with the internal concepts of traditional oriental martial arts, you will be aware that every real and enduring skill or ability starts within and flows out. For example, if we want to be more sensitive to our opponents and our environment, we have to become more sensitive to our own minds and bodies.

The same principle extends to knowing things. If we want to know what’s outside, we have to first know what’s inside. We have to know ourselves before we can really know anything else. Think of it this way: If we understand that everything that we see, hear, taste, smell or feel is really just a set of electro-chemical impulses from our sensory organs interpreted by our brains, then we should also understand that what we interpret may not really be as it appears. Our brains may have misinterpreted the electro-chemical signals OR some part of us which we are not aware of may have interposed itself between the raw data from our environment and our conscious mind in an act of deliberate sabotage.

As an example, let’s imagine person A who works alongside a colleague whom they do not like. Let’s say that A walks into the office and their colleague greets them by saying the following: “Good to see you in so early.” Because of A’s dislike for the person, they may assign motives to their colleague’s statement which may not actually be present. Perhaps A automatically assumes that their colleague is being sarcastic or is insinuating that they are usually late for work, when in reality A’s colleague may merely be greeting them. A’s petulant and uncontrolled ego has interposed itself between the raw data that they were receiving from their environment (in this case their colleague) and has forced them to misinterpret the data. If A was fully aware of their petulance and their dislike for their colleague, they would be able to pierce the smoke-screen thrown up by their ego and acknowledge that their colleague (though not well-liked), is possibly just being polite.

As another example, there are many people out there who gravitate towards inauspicious relationships. Let’s imagine person B who is a long-term victim of various types of bad relationships. B has never honestly examined why they have sought after these types of partners in the first place. Perhaps part of B’s uncontrolled and unacknowledged ego is looking for validation and approval from offensive or abusive people. So every time that B manages to break free from their current bad relationship and starts looking again, a hidden part of their ego manipulates the selection process for future partners to ensure that B keeps choosing people with a mean streak. Instead of seeing the danger and avoiding it, B is duped by hidden elements of their psychology that have never been acknowledged. The cycle repeats itself and it’s a case of “out of the frying pan, into the fire” again with another negative relationship. If B was fully aware of their inherent need for approbation from abusive people, they may be able to wrestle control of the selection process away from their needy ego and ensure that reason prevails in the selection of any future partners.

There is a reason that the great visionaries throughout history spent time separating themselves from society and placing themselves under times of great stress. Consider the ascetic who lives on the top of a mountain. No one ever thinks about how uncomfortable and stressful it must be to live on the top of a mountain in the cold, danger and loneliness. He or she has willingly placed themselves in an uncomfortable situation in order to become more self-aware and thereby to enhance the breadth of their vision.

I read an article about the secret stressful lives of successful entrepreneurs a little while ago (http://www.inc.com/magazine/201309/jessica-bruder/psychological-price-of-entrepreneurship.html). One of the quotes stuck in my mind and is appropriate for considering in relation to the hard path of self-knowledge. Toby Thomas, CEO of EnSite Solutions (number 188 on the INC. 500) is noted as comparing the process of building a successful business to a man riding a lion. He says,

“People look at him and think, This guy’s really got it together! He’s brave! And the man riding the lion is thinking, How the hell did I get on a lion, and how do I keep from getting eaten?”

The only way to truly know things ‘out there’ is to fully know everything ‘in here’. If we try to know things ‘out there’ without dealing with who we are ‘in here’, we will always be influenced by elements of our psychology that are active but unknown to our conscious minds.

As you can imagine, being undermined or sabotaged by your ego during a self-defence event may severely hamper your attempt to survive. This is often what happens to people in life-or-death situations. They freeze up with feelings of fear, self-reproach and other emotional responses and existential thoughts which have no positive effect on their ability to act to defend themselves.

The concept of self-knowledge being key to survival and greater illumination was identified by great martial artists of the past and also grew out of some of the Eastern religions and philosophy that formed the back-bone of traditional Wushu theory and practice. Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism all contributed to a greater or lesser degree to the concept of self-awareness in traditional Wushu. Because it is key to our performance as martial artists and to our understanding of our place in the world, it is still an important feature of the training process, although one that is not clearly defined or visible.

It is a subtle but all-pervasive principle which is most clearly discerned by students during times of exposure to controlled crisis while under their instructor’s observation. Most often during the various types of tests or gradings that are carried out in classes. These events are typically extremely uncomfortable and force students to confront hidden parts of the psyche. These are times when the good, the bad and the ugly elements of our psychology make themselves known.

This is no different to real life. Times of hardship bring out the best and the worst in people. I remember the 2011 Queensland floods. Many people became absolutely heroic in their efforts to save and support their fellows while others took the opportunity to loot and steal.

I personally feel that it is a terrible tragedy that so many people live their lives on auto-pilot. They crave and seek after comfort at all times. They seldom see the inside of their heads or feel the inside of their bodies. They are born, eat, sleep, defecate, procreate, age and die without ever really knowing who they are. Motivated by desires and proclivities that they are not even consciously aware of. Like leaves blown by the wind. Personally, I would rather face discomfort, pain and death to know who I am and where I stand. How about you?

Written by Lester Walters, head of Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia

* Cover image from The Matrix. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1999. DVD.