Outside the school gym, two men sat idly on a bench, waiting for Tai Chi class to begin. “If anyone were to attack me,” the first student offered, “I would simply run away, living to fight another day.”
A faint smile crossed his companion’s face, as both continued to enjoy the summer sunset. Allowing a respectful pause, the second man finally replied: “And how fast can you run?”
While it is true that a fight requires two consenting parties, a brutal beating does not. There are times when strategic retreat is not an option. We all know that martial arts experience is valuable in such times, for everyone.
But did you know that martial arts training offers special benefits for the kind and gentle? It enables you to protect yourself from others, and to protect others, and even to protect others from yourself! Let me explain.
Research shows that predators act for a variety of reasons: chronic frustration, a desire for profit, or the sheer pleasure of physical combat, to name a few. Though their motivations differ, predators do tend to have one thing in common: a lack of empathy. So it doesn’t matter what you deserve, much less what you want; if you somehow find yourself in the wrong place and time, then you will find yourself to be a target.
We can value human kindness without mistaking it for a universal solution to conflict. A mugger is not likely to accept a sympathetic smile in lieu of your wallet. Nor will your show of meekness restore sanity to a violent sociopath.
Not even contests for social status, with their relatively low risk of serious injury, can be reliably settled with deference. Give an inch to a bully, and they’ll attempt to take a foot. Truly, it is kinder to straighten them out as soon as possible; appeasement would be cruelty to yourself.
Each of us carries the responsibility to preserve our health and well being, not only for our private benefit, but also for our friends and family, who care about and depend on us.
The Martial Artist as Caregiver
To the untrained fighter, a punch or kick is more than a physical attack. It is a psychological assault, and the psychic scars can remain long after the tissue bruises have healed. After a few months training under a competent martial arts instructor, however, you experience a profound realization: these wounds are largely self-inflicted.
Trading blows and chokeholds with friends in the dojo separates the physical acts from any imaginary significance. Thus, attacks that might formerly have provoked a hysterical response become increasingly forgivable, even as there is less to be forgiven.
This newfound capacity is only one of the compassionate outcomes from proper martial arts training. Like a master painter who applies precisely the right amount of force from brush to canvas, the expert martial artist can (hopefully) disable their assailant without causing unnecessary damage. This philosophy is expressed in the famous maxim of Shaolin Temple:
Avoid, rather than check;
Check, rather than hurt;
Hurt, rather than maim;
Maim, rather than kill;
For all life is precious, and none can be replaced.
Only a deep familiarity with conflict provides one with the time and space needed to respond thoughtfully, or compassionately to an attack, rather than mechanically. With this experience, savage tactics are no longer the sole means of self-preservation.
Skillfully applied, martial arts allow us to behave in a kind and gentle fashion without jeopardizing our own safety. One who would love others must start by loving themselves.