Updated: Sep 30, 2019
None of us had ever been instructed in how to fight as a team, and we had no time to prepare a strategy before hand. We fanned out, following the dictates of our own instincts, and surrounded our Mr. Tuttle. Apprehension crackled between us like electricity, and each waited for another to make the first move; it was Lionel that gathered himself, and tested our sensi first. I saw little of what my fellows did—whether attempted, or landed. It was enough that Mr. Tuttle was preoccupied with others, and could not see me as I crept to the blind spot at his back. Feeling a measure of safety, I engaged. I have a clear memory of the movement that undid me: the rustling sound his gi made as his knee loaded the kick. An iron-dense knot of callous-shrouded bone found the soft place beneath my sternum, and I bounced off of his heel like a rubber doll. Upon hitting the ground, I gathered myself into a ball and groaned uncontrollably as my diaphragm cramped.
The exercise came to a stop. He instructed me to sit up, to calm myself, to lift my arms above my head, to breathe slowly. When I did not, or could not, he grasped my wrists and provided the posture for me, repeating his other instructions. Calm down. Breathe slowly. These things I saw through a blur of tears and the white light of panic; being unable to draw a complete breath is scary, especially for an eleven-year-old.
Although the preceding story may conclude harshly, I have to acknowledge the wisdom of my sensei, Andrew Tuttle, in his actions. A good instructor must necessarily give pain to students of the Budo if they are to learn; pain is a valuable schoolmaster. It keeps us honest against charlatanry, it conditions us to cope with the pain of an actual attack. Ultimately, pain instructs us in an honest dojo.
Let us examine these claims, one by one.
First, pain protects us against charlatanry.
Unfortunately, the world of the martial arts is polluted—to a dismaying degree—by con men. In many cases, these folks are plying their half- truths and outright lies in ignorance or arrogance; they, too, were misled by a sensei whose instruction was clouded for one reason or another, intentionally or otherwise.
Consider Lorraine, a hypothetical martial artist who trained under a skilled sensei, achieved a fourth degree black-belt, Yondan, ranking in her system, after which she branched out on her own. She opens a dojo and begins to teach. As a student of the Grandmaster O-sensei of her system, she had demonstrated technical brilliance and athletic prowess on the embujo, or training floor. Now, as she instructs others free from the corrective hand of her O-sensei, the ego which fueled her achievements as a young person is allowed to gallop freely. Lorraine boasts to her students of her combative prowess, both as a way to satisfy her own desire for validation, and as a way to reassure her students that these methods are valid and effective.
Then, at a later date, she suffers a debilitating injury that greatly impairs her ability to perform as a martial artist—a lumbar fracture, perhaps. Lorraine no longer has the ability to perform the feats of martial prowess on which her self-image was built, and because she has never developed any concrete sense of self outside of this identity, her ego grows sore. To compensate, her boasts grow in frequency and magnitude. Her student’s confidence, likewise, is inflated, and they are ignorant of the fact that the more mundane, elemental aspects of their instruction have begun to suffer. There’s no flash, no impressive flourish in the fundamentals, and Lorraine’s desire to feel impressive now drives the way she teaches others, and the direction she takes this dojo. Her students still believe that they are being taught practical combat, and she encourages this impression with tales of her own exploits as a fighter, although the rigor of her instruction has atrophied.
“Lorraine” is an example of how a sensei can mislead her students without intent. Her personal problems manifest themselves in a way that is damaging to the people who’ve paid her to train them. In short, she was once very good, but made for a terribly ineffective teacher who at best is disingenuous, and at worst is setting students up for failure in a moment of crisis.
How, then, does pain protect a student from a false-teacher? Pain keeps our technique honest.
In certain branches of the budo, it is common for training to occur against a compliant opponent in order to allow the student to learn about movement, space, and the mechanics of the human body. This is an appropriate beginning; however, if the environment never changes to reflect an actual aggressor—one who is tense, strong, committed— then the student has never distilled that learning into its most necessary components. Ultimately, a technique that has never met realistic resistance will fail the budoka in the moment of necessity. Injury to body and pride, and the resultant pain tells us that we, perhaps, don’t know what we know.
A less serious realization might come when we attempt to demonstrate to a friend a joint-lock we “know,” but when the friend tenses up, we are unable to perform; the friend does not hurt us physically, but the embarrassment compensates for this, along with our own damaged credibility. Again, it seems that we don’t know what we know.
An aggressor assaults a younger, smaller man. The Youtube channel, Aikidoflow, discusses such an encounter. The younger man grasps his attacker’s arm and attempts a kotegaeshi wrist manipulation, which fails. He clarifies that the error was not in the training he had received, but in his own application of the technique. He emphasizes that, in his youthful arrogance, he attempted to use “strength against strength.” Dismay followed his failure. He emphasizes his own mistakes in the video, and clarifies that the training had not failed him, but that he had failed his training. In those moments, where we abandon what we have learned, we, ourselves, are the charlatans. In our inflated confidence, even arrogance, we bypass the very fundament of our understanding as though in our very natures we were superior. The result is humiliation and injury.
Second, pain conditions us to receive the difficulties of the future.
The preceding sentence is very carefully worded. In the Budo, uke translates as “the one who receives.” We train to exhale upon being struck, we train to meet the ground—to receive it—as we practice our ukemi break-falls and rolls. The uke’s role in dojo practice is to become familiar with the devices by which we can be destroyed, to receive them, and to redirect their energy into useful forms.
That being said, it is absolutely imperative that the defensive combatant becomes intimately familiar with pain of myriad kinds.
Often, the dojo advertises the merit of the art it is selling on the premise of self-defense. “You might get attacked by a maniac on the street, and what are you going to do about it if it happens to you?” The image conjured in my young mind at the idea of self-defense—of disarming and dismantling an attacker with a practiced gesture, and getting away without a scratch to show—was naiveté. You are going to be hit, kicked, choked; it is inevitable if you are ever assaulted. The issue of pain, then, is not how to avoid it completely—which is impossible—but how to manage it once it comes.
It is important to know how to defeat a strangle-hold. It’s also important to know what it feels like to be strangled.
As a young, self-possessed (verging on arrogant) man, I believed I knew how to get out of holds, how to defeat chokes, and I asked someone I knew to help me demonstrate. The rear-naked choke is a dangerous lock under the best of circumstances. It didn’t help that I was under the impression that I could perform a release by activating pressure points; pain is rarely as effective at creating compliance as we initially believe it will be. In short, I depressed the pressure points, and my friend tightened the choke. Immediately, I released him and grasped his arm, trying to get a breath. Like getting the wind knocked out of me by ushiro-geri, the back-kick, panic had blinded me, and I had reverted.
If we desire the ability to cope with an actual attack, then we must understand how it feels to be attacked. If you want to neutralize the threat of a choke, then you need to be choked. You need to feel the discomfort of having your trachea forcibly closed, first in a controlled, friendly environment, so that if the day should come when an aggressor should grip you by the throat, you are calm despite the urgent signals being sent to your brain by the nerves in your neck. Pain in the dojo allows us to cope with pain on the streets.
The injuries we take, and the bandages we apply, are simultaneously actual and hyperbolic. They represent the holes in our training, be they physical or mental. Then, when we have been hurt, the person who gave us the pain we received—the tori to our uke—is instructive, and constructive, and helps heal the wound they created. Then, after a time— if we are humble— just as Ernest Hemingway said, we are stronger at the broken places.