The insider reality of martial arts can offer a deep, rich soil for growing and nurturing enlightened masculinity.
So many people think that the martial arts are mainly about learning how to “beat people up.” But actually this could not be more wrong!
I’m a female martial arts practitioner with fifteen years’ experience, who trains in Aikido, Aikijujutsu, and Karate. As well as loving the physical side of the arts, I’m also passionate about how martial arts can empower and enrich our lives.
I have a special interest in what martial arts can do for women; and I also believe there are powerful, little-known factors which make the martial arts perfect for incubating and cultivating enlightened masculinity. If you’re already a martial arts practitioner, you’ve probably never really thought about the martial arts as a vehicle to explore and achieve “Enlightened Masculinity in the 21st Century” (to use the iconic words of The Good Men Project.)
Here are 8 of the most powerful ideas to give you a new and different perspective on these incredible arts
The martial arts are a sanctuary for positive masculine values
Masculinity gets a bad name when people equate it with its negative form—emotional detachment, toughness, the need to dominate and ultimately violence. But positive masculinity is a set of superb qualities, including nurturance, courage, strength, initiative, independence and a sense of adventure.
The stated principles of many martial arts are often a direct expression of these traits as core values. Nitobe Inazō’s famous (albeit heavily romanticized) summary of the Bushido Code comprised: Rectitude, Courage, Benevolence, Politeness, Sincerity, Honor, Loyalty and Self-control. Many Karate clubs repeat the “Dojo Kun” at each lesson:
“Seek perfection of character / Be Faithful / Endeavor / Respect others / Refrain from violent behavior”.
It’s good for both men and women to cultivate positive masculine and positive feminine traits. The dojo offers a dedicated place which unselfconsciously honors and promotes the “positive male” values—and teaches us how they play out in action.
Being “over-masculine” is a disadvantage in the martial arts, and students learn to move beyond it.
The martial arts tend to blend hard and soft elements; and if a student can only get one of these, it’s a big disadvantage. Sometimes we need to give a strong block; but other times we need to yield to the attack and blend with it.
Strangely, many of the techniques don’t actually work as well when you apply them with your full physical force and muscle power. As you become more experienced, you learn to relax and use your breath, precise technique and “whole body” power instead, to achieve the most powerful results.
For this reason, women and smaller men are often said to have an advantage—because having less muscle power in the first place, they tend to more quickly give up on trying to “over-power” and move to the next level.
Some (not all) women can struggle with the harder and more aggressive sides of the martial arts, just as some (not all) men can find the softer, more yielding aspects difficult. The people who can truly master this duality are beyond awesome in their art, and generally are beyond awesome in their day-to-day life.
Very aggressive “macho” types are not welcome in a good dojo
Obviously there are some very macho dojos out there, where people do bully, injure, and generally ill-treat each other. In the long-term this behavior makes no sense, and is not tolerated in a good dojo.
Yes, you learn techniques that can injure or destroy other people. But you obviously don’t actually injure or destroy each other in class. On a practical level, this would soon leave you with no one to train with! Because of the nature of what you are learning, everything has to be highly controlled and kept safe.
There is NO PLACE at all in a good dojo for macho traits such as unhealthy aggression, callousness, or eagerness to seek out excessive danger and conflict.
Some senseis will speak with an offending student directly. Others will simply just hurt the person who is hurting others; or make the lesson undesirable for that student in other ways.
One piece of research found evidence that male martial arts students who considered themselves to be “good men” actively policed their dojo against macho, over-aggressive behavior. They readily used physical “punishment” if necessary. Their simple explanation was that they wanted their dojo to be a safe environment for the production of “better people”.
It’s a place to experience and explore intimate non-sexual touch
In “The Good Men Project: Select Voices from the Conversation No One Else is Having,” Mark Greene writes about how men are so afraid of being seen as inappropriately sexual towards women, other men, or children, that they end up, “physically and emotionally isolated … Starving for physical connection. We crave touch. We are cut off from it”. (Page 13)
But there is a place where people touch in a warm, collaborative, non-sexual way; and that place is the (good) dojo. This might be hard to understand if you’re not experienced in the martial arts, because a lot of the things we do to each other hurt! In the end, it’s a community where people want to work together and learn; not to destroy each other.
We have a saying in one of my dojos:
“It’s fine to hurt each other, but it’s not ok to injure anyone”.
Full contact training very quickly breaks down the barriers that Mark Greene refers to in his article. It’s a place where men can grab other men’s bodies; men and women can grapple; adults and children (if the club teaches kids) can touch – in an intimate but non-sexual way.
It’s a place that offers access to strong role models, and the opportunity to be a positive role model yourself.
This is of course not a given. There are plenty of not-so-good senseis out there. It’s like anything in life—there’s good and bad out there.
If and when you find the right sensei and dojo colleagues, it can change your life. Sensei is not someone to look up to like a god (and you should be very wary of any expectation to do so). The word literally just means: “one who has gone ahead”. A good sensei is someone who is very much on their own never-ending journey; and who is just that bit further ahead than you and willing to help you along the way.
Your other role model(s) can appear in all kinds of guises. They might be another student of any grade, or they might appear in an inspiring martial arts book you read, or a documentary or so on.
The dojo is also the perfect place for you to learn and practice leadership, whatever your level—and ultimately become a role model for others.
You will learn a more mature and nuanced understanding of aggression and be encouraged to express healthy aggression.
The myth that masculinity equates with aggression, which equates in turn to violence is common, but it isn’t actually true.
Miriam Miedzian helpfully identifies four types of aggression:
- Constructive—assertiveness and determination
- Antisocial—extreme competitiveness and concern with dominance
- Destructive (defensive)—protecting oneself or others from assault
- Destructive (offensive)—violence
Learning a martial art teaches you that not all aggression is bad. That, in fact,, some types are necessary, healthy and productive. You also learn how to differentiate between the different types and to become skilled in harnessing and using the positive forms.
You will learn how to meet with the negative forms in others, and block, neutralize and/or counter as appropriate. Although you will learn this primarily on a physical level (through responding to simulated attacks), your kinesthetic learning naturally spills over into and transforms your everyday verbal encounters with others.
As for the opportunity to express healthy aggression during training and sparring—there really is no substitute. It’s a heady, empowering experience—both visceral and emotional—which has to be experienced to be truly understood and appreciated.
You will learn to understand, protect, and nurture your body.
Without wanting to over-generalise, it’s pretty well known that men can be neglectful of their physical and mental health, in ways that women tend not to be. For example, men are known to dislike seeking medical attention, often leading to negative health outcomes.
But when you practise a martial art, you absolutely have to pay attention to, and take care of your body, as the precious machine that enables you to train. You will learn to fall safely, and to take blows, and to be assertive with people who might injure you. You’ll learn that it’s far from “weak” to pay attention to small injuries and practise self-care.
There’s also a surprisingly nurturing side to the martial arts, which outsiders may not be aware of. Joint locks can of course be used to immobilize and injure, but they are also often said to be beneficial to the joints when properly applied. They can even be used for massage by someone who knows what they are doing.
Dojo colleagues will dress or otherwise tend to each others’ minor injuries. Practitioners become sensitive and attuned to each others’ bodies, and will carefully stop applying a lock, or release it, just at the right time.
And above all, there are actually so few injuries in training. If you’re a martial arts practitioner yourself, you will know that when people turn up with big support bandages on, it’s more often because they hurt themselves playing football or another sport, DIY-ing around the house, or something as mundane as getting drunk and tripping over a curb. It’s actually comparatively rare to sustain a substantial injury during well-run martial arts training.
You will be trained to understand and manage your emotions.
Few people would deny that Bruce Lee was a very masculine man. And yet, one thing he is really famous for saying is: “Don’t think; feel!”, as famously cited in the movie “Enter the Dragon”.
Mastering and positively using your emotions runs right through the core of martial arts training. Someone who can’t keep their temper when sparring with a cocky youngster, or who shows their frustration when a technique is difficult to grasp, will hold themselves back until they learn to manage these feelings more effectively.
A good dojo will encourage you to experience stress training, sometimes through competition; or else through attacks given with enough intent to present danger appropriate to your level and ability. (Stress training is not the same thing as bullying, although some dojos fail to realise this).
The benefits of this include being conditioned to respond to stress in other situations (not just physical assault, although this of course is a key objective) with calmness and presence of mind.
The martial arts can also help us to deal with stress, and emotional hijackings in general, through teaching us to control our breath and mental focus. Some arts include various forms of sitting, kneeling, standing or moving meditation.
So there you are, eight reasons why the martial arts are so much deeper and richer than many people often realize, and why they can actually provide the perfect setting for incubating and cultivating enlightened masculinity.
If you’re already training, I’d love to hear from you about any other ways in which the dojo can host the Ultimate Good Men Project.
If you’ve never set foot inside a dojo, or even really thought about martial arts as something that might be for you—have a think and maybe even give it a try! And let me know how you get on.
Photo: Getty Images