A copy of the essay i submitted for my 5th Dan grading:
One night, when I was in training for my 4th Dan grading, I was on a train travelling home from a session at Boronia branch. As the train was about to leave Richmond station, two men with bicycles decided to jump off just as the carriage doors were beginning to close. The second bike’s handle bars became stuck in the door and the train began to move, while its owner was desperately trying to hold on to the bike with one hand and force the door open with the other. As the train started picking up speed, I could see that what was needed was for someone to open the doors from the inside so the handle bars could get clear. I suddenly realised that no-one was going to do anything and that I'd better go help him, so I got up, walked over to the door and forced it open so the bike came free. The guy took a tumble on the platform, but hopefully had only a couple of scrapes and bruises to remind him not to try something like that again.
What struck me about that incident wasn't the fact that everybody else in the carriage just sat there staring, but that usually I would have been doing the same. I started to wonder what was different about this time that allowed me to act instead of sitting there dumbstruck like everyone else. It occurred to me that all the time I'd been spending in training for my grading, especially for the self defence section, playing the role of someone in control and calm under pressure, had actually left me in the sort of alert and confident state that let me think clearly on the spot like that, as if I was still 'in character'. I have read that a big part of the 'bystander effect', where people fail to help others in an emergency, is that people aren't confident enough to take action and risk looking foolish if they get it wrong, so they wait for someone else to do something first.
I began to see how developing a more confident state of mind can actually help overcome this tendency, and that this is a real benefit that can be gained through martial arts training.
This started me thinking about different ways in which Taekwondo training can help in daily life, aside from the usual aspects like self defence and physical fitness, or the commonly discussed benefits like discipline or better grades at school, and ways in which we can try to encourage this, both for our students and for ourselves. This what I would like to explore in this essay.
As noted above, one of the key benefits that can be built through training is a degree of self confidence. I am convinced it was this, or perhaps a lack of self consciousness and doubt, that made a difference to my reactions on that occasion. If someone was to gain nothing else from martial arts practice, this sense of confidence would perhaps be the best thing they could take away with them.
In all of our training activities, we should always be aiming to raise people’s level of confidence in themselves, as well as helping them to achieve their best. It's important to keep this in mind, to remember to focus on encouragement, not discouragement, especially when correction or criticism is needed. As well as positive reinforcement, there are many small ways in which we can help people find their confidence.
One of my favourite rules from our Doncaster branch is that when someone puts their hand up, they're not allowed to raise it in a small or timid way. Everyone has to raise their hands high and speak in a strong and clear voice. This is a great idea, as by practising acting in a strong and confident manner, even if you're feeling the opposite, you can not only give a more confident impression to others but also learn to convince yourself, as in the incident mentioned above. This is also a benefit to be gained from competition, particularly in poomsae, where you may be feeling nervous and doubtful inside, but you step out on that mat in front of the judges and put on a show of confidence and mastery. In my view, that part of it is even more important than how well you perform the poomsae, particularly at a beginning level, and is why participating in competition is of benefit even to those with limited technical skills or physical abilities. When higher degrees of skills are developed, additional goals like winning medals or competing at higher level competitions can add new challenges.
Another avenue to encourage confidence is in the use of voice. Many students, especially teenagers, are very shy about speaking up and speaking in a strong, assertive manner. As well as teaching this as a self defence skill, with words like "leave me alone", "let go of the knife" or a simple "no", we have many other ways to use this in the course of training. Through use of kihap, saying "charyeot" and "kyeongrye" together at the beginning of class, or counting "hana, deul, set.." together while doing leg-ups, there are many ways we can encourage students to use a big, strong voice, as a way to boost confidence and overcome shyness. For more advanced students, I've found training as a fight referee to be a good way to bring out this skill, as well as being a challenge in its own right. Within class, other approaches can be used to bring out a confident manner. Having more experienced students talk the class through stretching exercises at the start of class or instruct small groups of beginners is a great way to do this, and for the more advanced (black belt) student, calling a grading can be a wonderful exercise in confident presentation and using voice to encourage the best from those grading.
Beyond acting in a confident way, another great source of confidence comes from the simple fact of doing something difficult, whether through learning and improving difficult techniques or skills, through specific challenges like gradings or competition, learning valuable skills like first aid and self defence, or even through some training sessions that are simply a hard physical slog.
Last year, I attended a two day poomsae seminar with a visiting master from Korea. The training on each day consisted of a morning and afternoon session of three hours each, with only one water break at about the 90 minute mark. The pace was fairly arduous, with barely enough time to fix your uniform between drills, let alone rest, and I found the going pretty tough, as did a lot of the others. But I was determined to keep going, and found a sense of satisfaction and strength from reaching the end of each day without giving up or sitting out. That served as a good reminder of why it's important for at least some of our classes to be physically challenging for students - not necessarily an hour and a half without a water break, but enough for people to struggle with and feel some sense of achievement and confidence at having 'pushed through' In contrast, the risk of training that is too easy can be boredom, dropouts and, perhaps most importantly, denying students the opportunities to grow and develop in their perseverance and inner strength.
One other aspect of confidence, that's specific to martial arts, has to do with the ability to defend oneself. This can actually be a tricky subject, as you need to balance helping students to build enough confidence in their defensive skills to be able to protect themselves if necessary, without being hampered by doubt or uncertainty, but without encouraging them to hold unrealistic views of their own invincibility or developing 'something to prove' attitudes that may get them into trouble. Part of that I believe lies in working to make those skills as strong as possible, while noting the limitations of controlled training compared to a real, chaotic, violent assault, and placed in the overall context that self defence is about avoiding harm from violence, not winning a fight. It is also useful to introduce ideas such as having the strength of character to willingly lose face and walk (or run) away from a fight that doesn't need to happen, and also building up a person's overall confidence in a range of areas, not just dependent on their ability to fight.
On a similar note, in the area of personal safety, I feel that a balance needs to be struck between helping students be aware of potential dangers and practical considerations for keeping themselves safe in daily life, but without encouraging an exaggerated sense of fear or mistrust, leaving people afraid to walk the streets, talk to strangers or catch public transport after dark. This can be hard as the specific considerations for safe behaviour will be different from one person to the next. In my view, the role of a self defence instructor here is to equip students with tools to help them go about life in an alert and sensible manner, with an understanding of risks and sensible options for avoiding them, so they can decide for themselves how best to go through life safely but without undue fear. I believe one key element in this is awareness.
An important factor for both self defence purposes and for general safety and wellbeing is awareness - not just of potential risks and safety concerns but also situational awareness and mindfulness of what's going on around us. Having knowledge of risk factors can help us plan activities and enable us to stay safe as we live our lives, without unnecessary fear or paranoia, while being aware of our surroundings allows us to make decisions, act and stay safe in the present moment. Both aspects are important skills to learn and need to be included in any discussion of self defence and safety, perhaps as a formal part of syllabus.
While in a martial arts and self defence context we often speak of situational awareness in terms of spotting potential attackers, ambush sites or escape routes, the importance of this skill goes far beyond that. I sometimes say that the most dangerous attacker we are likely to encounter on the street doesn't go on two legs but on four wheels. Someone walking around listening to loud music on earphones, with their head down typing a text message on their phone, is not going to see or hear the car they're about to step in front of any more than the sinister stranger lurking behind the bushes.
The same situational awareness that can lessen the chance of being caught off guard by an attacker can also help you avoid crashing into other people on the street, keep you from tripping over obstacles or stepping in front of cars, and might also help you notice someone in need of help, whether it's an old lady struggling with shopping, a lost child, or even someone having a heart attack. Approaching the topic in this way can help give an idea of the benefits of building awareness without limiting it to the possibility of a violent attack.
While this kind of awareness is something people need to practise and apply for themselves in their daily lives, there are some ways in which we can work on building these skills, or awareness of these skills, in our classes. Even simple warm-up games can be used in this way. With a large enough group, exercises where everyone is moving in different directions but not allowed to touch or collide with each other can build an awareness of surroundings with an element of spatial awareness and tracking of moving objects. Even simple 'tag' games with multiple people as 'it' can have a similar benefit, especially for juniors, while seniors can practise multiple attacker self defence exercises. For more general awareness of surroundings, asimple exercise is to have everyone close their eyes and then visualise what’s around them in the room - who is standing to their left or right or across the room from them, where are the exits in the room, what people or obstacles are between here and there? This can give just a taste of the sort of considerations that can be practised and applied outside the dojang.
One really good exercise in this area, which I came across on a martial arts forum, is called 'commentary walking'. Based on the skill of 'commentary driving', it involves observing and naming things you see as you walk down the street: "White van pulling away from kerb, red car on side street, man walking a dog, rusted letter box, street sign, etc". With time and practise, this can help build a habit of staying alert and observant while out and about, and lessen the tendency to be 'lost in thought' and distracted.
Presence of mind
A vital part of situational awareness is presence of mind. It's very hard to be aware of what's going on around you if your mind is somewhere else. On quite a few occasions, I’ve found myself walking down the street, preoccupied with something on my mind, and after a time I've realised I've walked half a kilometre without being aware of anything that was around me, or of even seeing anything but the footpath in front of my feet. One experience that really showed me how easily we can 'tune out' our surroundings when lost in thought came one morning when I was doing some T'ai Chi in a reserve near my house. My mind was racing along with all manner of mental chatter, until I realised I was distracted and told myself to concentrate on what I was doing. All of a sudden, as if someone had adjusted a lens, the trees and houses in front of me suddenly snapped into focus, which made me realise how much being lost in thought quite literally dimmed the physical senses and dampened my awareness of what was around me.
Mindfulness is a key factor in martial arts training, especially those far eastern martial arts that have a connection to Seon/Zen Buddhism. Japanese martial arts in particular have a strong emphasis on the concept of 'zanshin', or complete presence of mind, and while this word doesn't translate well into other languages like Korean, the cultivation of this quality is just as relevant in Taekwondo.
While it's obvious that we have to have proper attention when doing something like sparring or self defence training, when we take a closer look at some of the formalities we practise, aside from cultural and etiquette issues, they can also be seen as exercises in attention and presence of mind.
Recently, I started a course in Chan (Chinese Zen) meditation. As well as learning various meditation exercises, at the end of each class we are taught to maintain our mindfulness afterwards, in actions like carefully folding the towels we are given to use as blankets and placing our cushions back against the wall.
This idea of attention to detail on something as small as folding a towel made me think about similar approaches in Taekwondo. One that came to mind is tying our belts evenly. I've sometimes heard that an unevenly tied belt is a sign of an unevenly balanced mind but, in thinking about it, it seems to me to be more a sign of a distracted or inattentive mind. To take the time to tie a belt evenly is a way of paying attention to what we're doing and where we are. In fact, the simple act of tying on a belt can be used as a way of bringing the mind to attention, ready to start work in training or competition.
This focussing of attention can also be prompted through other formalities we use. When stepping onto the dojang floor, we bow. While we may chat quietly to other students and instructors, we are aware that we are there to work and learn. When the class begins we bow again - training has now started, and takes priority over socialising. When working with an instructor, we bow again - our focus is now on what we are being taught and practising and not other distractions. And when working with a partner, again starting with a bow, our focus should be directed to our partner. In this way, the bow is more than just a reminder of courtesy, but can also be used as a mental cue to focus attention on the task at hand.
Beyond these reminders, the effort should be made to stay focussed on what we are doing. When doing poomsae, for example, attention should be paid to the technique being performed at the time. If we're thinking about something else, even another technique in the same pattern, we can get distracted and perform the current one badly. I know quite well how much a simple thought of "that last front kick was bad" or "here comes that turning side kick" can increase the chances of making a mistake or losing balance on other techniques, especially in a competition or other times when nerves come into play. In this way, poomsae becomes an exercise in paying attention to the present moment, not the past or future, and this is the real meaning of the idea of poomsae as a form of 'moving meditation'.
And, of course, being distracted or inattentive during sparring or self defence practise can be disastrous from a safety point of view, so the highest degree of attention must always be paid during those activities.
With presence of mind comes self control, beginning with control of our bodies and movements.
When we perform technical exercises such as poomsae, one of the key things we are learning is how to be aware of and in control of our body. Formal Taekwondo techniques have a precise form, with specific positions, paths, distances and angles involved in the correct technique. In practising to execute these techniques precisely, we are not only making them more effective but also gaining control over our body's movement. Knowing where our hands, feet and other extremities are and being able to place them where we want them to be is a key part of this exercise.
Due to the physical nature of the activity, Taekwondo naturally builds our coordination and bodily control,but there are other ways we can incorporate this in our training. For example, I like to use certain transitions between stretching exercises at the start of class as a way of staying aware of our bodies and movements (eg maintaining height while transitioning from quad to calf stretch, or bringing the feet together in one smooth move from hamstring to butterfly stretch).
Even something as simple as standing up straight, rather than in a slouching posture, can be a reminder to pay attention to the here and now and makes the semi-formal 'at ease' stance an exercise in both physical and mental discipline. I've often said that one reason we stand up straight in a formal way is that when our body is slouching, our mind is more likely to slouch as well. As Chan master Hsing Yun put it: "One of the best places to begin getting control of yourself is through your body. The mind is subtle and fickle and more difficult to control than the body. (..) We should all strive to gain some measure of control over our basic muscle movements and bodily functions; fidgeting, nail biting, scratching, yawning and other nervous habits should eventually come under the control of our minds." In this sense, conscious control over our bodily movements is a first step to gaining control over our minds and impulses. Making a conscious effort to stand in the correct way and not fidget or slouch is a good way to keep the mind focussed where it should be.
I've also noticed something curious when paying attention to my own posture as a mindfulness exercise. On a few occasions, while consciously making an effort to stand up in a straight but relaxed manner while out and about, I've had people come up to me asking for help, like a lost child looking for his father or people asking for help finding a train platform. It seems that just standing up tall somehow gives out a sense of trustworthiness, reliability or maybe even authority. This has interesting implications for making a good impression in social or work situations, as well as the possibilities to be of help to others.
On a related note, good posture is not only beneficial for our physical health but is in itself an important element of self defence. Studies, such as the famous 1984 study by Betty Grayson and Morris Stein, have shown that predatory attackers, such as rapists or muggers, will choose to target those whose body language and posture suggests that they lack self confidence and are less likely to fight back. Someone with an upright but relaxed posture and confident walking style is less likely to be seen as an appealing target for such attacks. In this sense, posture and body language is itself one of our first lines of defence.
Of course, control of the body and its movements is just the first step to exercising self control throughout our lives. The good manners and etiquette that we practise in Taekwondo is another - maintaining a degree of conscious control over our conduct and behaviour. This can be hardest for children, especially those that don't yet have the maturity to understand the reasons why, but even as adults we can find ourselves slipping into habits of inappropriate behaviour or language, and maintaining that control in the dojang can help us develop a discipline that we can work to extend into other areas of life.
Such simple exercises in self control can be a good preparation for facing more difficult issues in life, where self discipline may become crucial. If we are unable to stand for just one hour without slouching, fidgeting, talking when we shouldn't or otherwise messing around, then how will we be able to deal with other problems which may come up in our lives where self control will be necessary - issues like alcohol and other drugs, someone trying to provoke a fight, gambling, overeating or even impulse shopping? It's up to each of us to work out how to take the discipline we learn in the dojang and apply it to our daily life.
Another aspect of our etiquette is courtesy and respect.
It is said that martial arts begin and end with courtesy. All of our classes begin and end with a bow, as do our sessions working with an instructor, partner or opponent. It's important that we recognise just what we are doing when we perform an action like this and what the meaning is behind the formality. Karate master Mas Oyama said: "Courtesy should be apparent in all our actions and words and in all aspects of daily life. But by courtesy, I do not mean rigid, cold formality. Courtesy in the truest sense is selfless concern for the welfare and physical and mental comfort of the other person". This view of courtesy gets to the real point of our etiquette and takes it from an abstract set of rules and formalities to something with real meaning and human value.
At Boroondara, we encourage students to be more like Doctor Frankenstein, who was about 'building people up', and less of an 'Aussie knocker'. Insults and put-downs, even half-joking comments like 'oh, you idiot' are discouraged. While constructive criticism can be useful, it always has to be about helping the other person, not bringing them down or scoring points. All of our rules of etiquette, aside from being exercises in self discipline, have at their core the need for consideration for others, and this is the context in which we present them, especially with juniors. Other aspects, like respect for rank and for instructors, are also important, even essential for the smooth running of a class or club, but respect and consideration for each other as human beings is vital if we want to have a society and a world worth living in. If we can help foster and encourage this attitude, we will have done something to help not just our students but also benefit the world at large.
One final aspect I want to talk about is a little different, in that it's something that doesn't automatically derive from Taekwondo training, but that I've found to be a common quality among practitioners.
Some years ago, when I first received some money for teaching Taekwondo, I was discussing with a couple of other instructors about how to declare it on my tax return. I found myself justifying this by saying that I didn't want to have any problems from the Tax Office. It was only when the others said quite matter of factly that they always declared everything that I realised I was actually making excuses for being honest and doing the right thing. Thinking about why this was, I realised there was a very different culture at Taekwondo than I was used to elsewhere. At work, for instance, there was something of a culture of dishonesty, where 'playing the game' for whatever you could get away with was the norm and being honest was seen almost as a weakness. While I never agreed with that view myself, it seems I had been influenced by it enough to think that being honest was somehow something to apologise for.
A while later, I was attending a seminar at another club, where they still started each class by reciting the old Taekwondo Oath. The middle line in particular caught my attention: 'I will endeavour to maintain a high standard of physical fitness and develop my character and personal integrity'. In other words, this was saying that character development, and personal integrity in particular, was regarded on the same level as physical skill in Taekwondo. More than that, in looking at it this way, personal integrity and honesty are shown to be a matter of strength of character, not weakness. It takes effort, courage and a degree of self confidence to try to be honest and ethical in your dealings with the world, especially when those around you don't. It's much easier to just go along with the crowd so as to not look like a mug, and it takes no strength of character at all to cheat for personal gain or lie to cover up your mistakes. As with anything that takes effort, aiming for a high ethical standard and doing your best to live up to it has its own rewards in building confidence and self-esteem. This realisation was profoundly important to me.
What I find interesting is that, even though we don't tend to recite the oath or even talk about issues like this very much, I've found quite a few times in talking to members of the club, especially black belts, that this idea of maintaining personal integrity as a characteristic of how a martial artist should be seems to be quite common. Whether it's fostered by simple statements in our club manuals like 'develop a strong character and integrity', a general image of the martial artist in popular culture, or just the example set by black belts and instructors, that notion seems to somehow get through.
While I tend to shy away from phrases like 'warrior code' or similar for modern life, I do believe that promoting the idea of a martial artist as a person with strong ethical values, personal integrity and strength of character is something that we should try to encourage. This can be as simple as casually mentioning the idea from time to time, including in our manuals and syllabus (even obliquely by reference to things like the Taekwondo Oath, the tenets of the Hwarang, or the meaning of Poomsae Koryo) or, when appropriate, discussing it directly. I don't necessarily believe it is our role to dictate just what values people should hold, but rather to indicate the importance of being true to your own personal code.
If it is our business to help people develop confidence and self esteem, then this can be a solid foundation on which to build.
As Mas Oyama said: "If you have confidence in your own words, aspirations, thoughts, and actions and do your very best, you will have no need to regret the outcome of what you do."
If we can help people be confident, considerate, mindful and true to themselves, this is perhaps the best gift we can give.