How we are Perceived as Martial Artists

Back in the early 90’s I attended a 10 day martial art retreat in northern Vermont. It was a traditional japanese martial art retreat, in that we all wore kimonos and hakama. We dressed like that the majority of the time. One day I decided that I would run and get gas for my car during my lunch break. I did not think at the time that I would remember this little outing almost 20 years later.

Before completing this story it is important to give you a little background on the area surrounding the retreat. The retreat was in the middle of nowhere. The closest McDonalds was about 20 miles away. It definitely wasn’t a common occurrence to have someone walking around in a kimono.

Typical Day in the Local Town (not really but you get the idea)

So off I went to get gas, looking like someone right out of the Seven Samurai and not thinking anything of it. It turns out that the only gas station I could find (I ended up finding more the next year) was also the favorite hangout spot for the local teenagers and people who looked like they were in their early twenties but still thought of themselves as teenagers. I again didn’t think anything of it and got out of the car and started pumping gas. You would have thought I was an alien that had just beamed down to earth and was being seen for the first time. From the time I started pumping gas until I was pulling out of the parking lot, I was bombarded with every imaginable insult. The mildest was the strange otherworldly sounds that some of them were making in an attempt to sound like, I’m assuming, Bruce Lee.  It should be noted that I never really felt like the “aggression” was going to escalate to the point were they were going to physically confront me.  However, it still wasn’t very enjoyable, especially the, “does your mommy dress you like that?” comment.  Joking aside, I was glad to get out of there.

The Gas Station Teens (not really but you get the idea)

A couple of days later, I was invited to go to lunch with the master instructor for the retreat. This was a huge honor and I immediately accepted. I went with him and two of the assistant instructors and his personal assistant. We went to eat at a local restaurant and yes we all wore our kimonos. No one really even looked twice at us (it turns out that the instructor had been going there every day of the retreat for lunch and everyone there was use to our interesting dress). After lunch it was decided that we were all going to the local mall. Truth be known, I was never asked if I wanted to go to a mall in the middle of nowhere looking like a samurai.

The Mall (this is a real picture of the mall)

Off we went. Once there, I realized that the local’s definition of a “Mall” was substantially different from mine. Let’s put it this way, their “Mall” would fit inside one of my “Mall’s” hub stores. The driver dropped all of us off at the entrance, found a parking stop and then joined us before we all proceeded into the mall. As customary, we quickly went to hold the doors open of our instructor. He then, as was customary for him, insisted we enter first. Somehow, I was the first one to enter the mall (at the time I was the junior to everyone I was with and for some reason none of them wanted to enter first). Literally the second I walked through the door I saw them, the group of teenagers from the gas station (ok maybe it wasn’t the exact same group but they looked and acted the same). As soon as they saw me the comments and the Bruce Lee sounds started. These only intensified when the other two instructors walked through the door. By the time the assistant walked through, the group was so loud that they were drowning out all the mall’s background sound. Then it was as if someone pushed a mall remote’s mute button. When our instructor walked through the door, all the teenagers immediately stopped making comments, noises and looked away as if they were all 5 years old and were just caught doing something they shouldn’t be doing by their parents. We then walked around the mall without a side glance or comment or noise from anyone.

It was as if everyone in the mall knew our instructor and they were all scared of him. So why does this event stick in my mind? He was and still is after all the twentieth generation head of the martial art he teaches. There is no one that even comes close to his knowledge in his art. He was like a lion walking through a herd of zebra (that can’t run away).

So again, why does this event stick in my mind? Because our instructor, Kanjuro Shibata XX Sensei, was and is the twentieth generation head of the Heki Ryu Bishu Chikurin-ha school of Kyudo. For those of you that don’t know, Kyudo is the “Way of the Bow.” We spend all of our time learning how to shoot a bow, not how to punch or kick or how to defend ourselves. From a physical standpoint Shibata Sensei could no more defend himself in a physical conflict than any other person of his age. I can say with certainty that if one of us were to have been mugged, it would not have been Sensei. So why the attitude of every one in the mall?

Kanjuro Shibata XX Sensei

As martial artists we, as a previous post pointed out, wear a belt with two ends. One end represents the physical part of Taekwondo and the other end represents the mental part of Taekwondo. Most people assume that the mental part consists of memorizing terminology, the history of Taekwondo, and the various other “things” that have to be memorized. Some people even think this part contains meditation practice, breathing techniques, energy work (Chi Kung), etc. Very few people think it contains what this entire post is devoted to: our self-image. As martial artists, as we practice every day and make small but perceivable improvements, so too does our self-image improve. It isn’t our perception of how we look, it is our understanding that we are capable of achieving anything. I once asked one of my instructors, “how can you do that?” His response was, “because I know I can.” When we start knowing that we can do anything, our outward expression of our self-image comes across in the form of self-confidence, indomitable spirit, and sometimes even arrogance (like any journey in life it is possible to go down the wrong path and in this case it would be an instructor with a huge EGO).

Start watching our seniors and take note of how you perceive them and how other people perceive them. You can easily tell how far along an instructor is in their training simple by observing their self-image.

Something to think about…

by Master Sean Pearson

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Throughout his career, in an effort to become a truly well-rounded martial artist in both practice and philosophy, Master Pearson has studied a wide variety of martial arts: Taekwondo, Kali, Kyudo, Iaido, Aikido, Judo, Jodo, Bando and Tai Chi. He holds dan rankings in six of these arts and master ranks in three of them. To this same end he has studied and achieved national recognition as a wilderness survival instructor, a certified hypnotherapist, and a lecturer in Neuro Linguistic Psychology.

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