Gentle, Sweet and Mild? You Still Need a Martial Art

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.


  1. That sounds ideal. We can only hope that in the event we’re faced with those decisions, we can execute.

  2. You believe that physical assaults cannot be avoided in some situations. Instead of taking a certain level of risk for granted, have you asked yourself how you could e.g. avoid muggers in the first place?

    Do you know the places you would most likely get robbed? Have you informed yourself about these things together with the threads that you likely face? If you have not yet done so and do not actively try to avoid such situations, don’t you think it would be a worthwhile investment of your time to learn this?

    The “schoolyard bully” seems to be an even worse excuse for getting into a fight. First, people start Martial Arts as adults. In most countries an adult would get locked up pretty fast if he used physical violence. In fact, provoking someone to hit you, then call the police and let them arrest him is what some people do to get rid of others. Personally, I think it is preferable to not be the one “winning” the fight and being rewarded with prison for it.

  3. Learn to avoid physical assaults, OR learn to deal with them? Why not do both?

    This article is informed by Geoff Thompson’s research and analysis. He writes:

    Whenever I talk about the need for self-protection, invariably someone will say, “You’re scaremongering.” Yet every day on our television screens we are confronted with grim statistics of deadly car crashes that warn us not to drink and drive. Even the relatively obscure danger of carbon monoxide poisoning is more publicized than [the threat of] violent crime.

    Last year (1996), in London alone, 50,000 people fell victim to violent attack, in comparison to a national total of only 16,000 estimated casualties caused by [drunk driving]. So who’s scaremongering? I make no apologies if this book shocks those who are living in denial.

    Bullying does not stop at the schoolyard, and bad behavior goes unreported and unpunished every day, in every country in the world.

  4. Chris, thanks for the quote. However, I am skeptical about the actual numbers. Is that a comparison of total reported incidents of violence (i.e., including minor incidents without anybody getting harmed) vs deaths from drunken driving? Or what exactly do the numbers mean and where do they come from?

    On the other hand, I do agree with you that there is nothing wrong with learning both. However, I probably disagree with you on the importance of either step (but I may also just misinterpret your statement, see below my comments on bullies). I claim that learning to avoid violence is more important than learning how to deal with it. If you are in the latter situation you obviously failed at the former, so the former is what needs improvement.

    I also read your article on “Bullying and Harassment Prevention Tips” and I must say that I really like it. In the comments section you talk about how you handled different situations. However, what you did there is in most cases exactly what I would call “preventing escalation”. Your responses have been very effective at a) stopping the bad behavior, and b) avoiding physical violence. With the possible exception of the “In high school” incident where you may have reacted a little too late to prevent violence.

    In all the other cases you show that you are very capable of reacting effectively and thus stopping bad behavior early on.

  5. I don’t have the details on Geoff Thompson’s numbers, but I am sure that many incidents of violence go unreported. Personally, I would be embarrassed to call the police just because someone punched me a few times. An old friend of mine was stabbed in the gut, and didn’t bother to report it; just a “light stabbing”, one might say.

    Assault prevention training is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Furthermore, is it not a strength of the average martial arts instructor, and I don’t like to see instructors violating their own sphere of competence, indoctrinating their vulnerable students with oversimplified self-defense tips. In the context of a martial arts class, “just run away” is bad advice. (And if you study martial arts for years and still cannot fight, why assume you are a competent sprinter with no practice at all?)

  6. When looking up numbers on Wikipedia, I found that London has a population of 7.5 million. Looking up Washington D.C. (often quoted as being the city with the highest murder rate), I found a homicide rate of about 30 for 100,000 inhabitants. This rate would correspond to 2250 homicides for London. That’s quite different from 50,000. However, when considering the rate of violent crimes, we would have 1,500 incidents for 100,000 inhabitants, corresponding to 112,500 for a city of 7.5 million. So it is possible that Thompson compares apples and oranges.

    You bring up another good point – *how* and *where* should one learn violence prevention? I actually agree with you that martial arts teachers might be the wrong people to attempt to teach this subject since their area of expertise is different.

    On the one hand there are weekend courses on how to defend yourself if you are attacked by a knife/gun/rocket launcher/tank or whatnot. Students coming to these classes want to learn some cool moves to show off. They don’t want to be told that they should not be there in the first place. If a teacher told students that it is pointless to charge the tank with a spinning kick, his students would consider him less competent than the one who told them how to punch through the hull and kill the people inside with a projected Chi attack. So the honest teacher would disappear from the market, while the Chi master would prevail.

    There is a certain danger in this type of classes that people end up believing that what they learn is useful for “the street”. If they just stay at home, feeling competent to fight if need be, there is nothing wrong with that. But if they seek out high-crime areas and start to play Batman with their newly acquired “skills” …

    I don’t claim to have a simple answer here. But you also link to Marc McYoung’s website at several points which has lots of good advice on how to avoid getting in a mess in the first place. Which is probably a good starting point for those who are seriously interested in protecting themselves.

    But beyond that, the question still remains how you might find a good teacher? It’s probably not easier than finding a good martial arts teacher if you want to learn martial arts. That’s quite difficult – you also have a nice blog entry on this one.

    A good “violence deescalation” teacher would probably need to teach you social competence beyond just those situations which can come to blows. In the aforementioned example of the high-school bully it was your initial hesitation to take action that led to the physical assault. As you correctly pointed out, advice people give in such a situation is often ineffective and can aggravate the problem rather than alleviate it.

    This, in turn, is similar to the “how to fight a tank” teacher. We feel competent in dealing with bullies, when, instead, we are not ready for this situation at all.

  7. I’ve read the blog “Karate_and_Taiji_student ” and some of the other blogs posted. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that there are martial artists and others who are interested in helping people to consider alternatives to engaging in a physical altercation, if possible. Unfortunately, some people still prefer to learn from the “chi” instructor who teaches his/her students how to fight a “tank.” I, too, agree that if we become good at avoiding (certain places and) situations, we can avoid getting into (most) fights. However, it doesn’t hurt to know how to get out of a situation with some fighting skills when there’s no other way out.

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