Shh, it’s a Secret!

The idea of secrecy is pretty important in some arts, and to some teachers. I have trained in a system where for literally hundreds of years no one who is not a member has even been allowed to watch training without an invitation. Where even some important training methods are not shown to members of the group until they pass a certain threshold. Many of my older teachers hate video and did not want themselves taped. If they allowed it they made people promise not to ever share the footage. I know people who will not allow details of their training to be shared publicly, or who won’t share video or historical information they have, even with a community of students of a mutual teacher who are not part of their group, because it is their secret. So many training methods, forms, theories, drills, applications, videos, etc., are often kept private. Sharing them can ruin relationships, personal and teacher-student. Secrecy can be a serious business.

From one perspective it makes sense. If you are teaching a combat art it is certainly better for you if no one but your training partners, hopefully by extension people you can trust and rely on, knows how you move and how you fight. This is particularly important, I would hazard, where there is a dueling culture, i.e. people get into violent altercations with time to prepare and learn about their opponents, and there is limited mobility, i.e. all the people you might fight live and train relatively close by. But otherwise, is it really helpful?

It does lead to some ridiculous ideas, like that techniques are hidden in kata, the movements changed and disguised so they can’t be stolen by people watching. Really? Kata are only for people actually training the system, right? And they are supposed to be methods for ingraining essential movement into the body, right? It is usually pretty easy to keep strangers away from your training, unless you train in the middle of the town square, isn’t it? So you are going to spend a lot of energy training into your body incorrect movements, ones that are modified enough that they hide the techniques from a potential observer that you can pretty easily avoid? That seems silly to me.  More like an excuse for not understanding the kata than a real attempt at secrecy. But I digress.

I deeply value the knowledge I have been gifted, and understand its worth. I also have a deep respect for my teachers, and have taken their requests to heart. But they are not the only word on how the arts move into the future. To me, most of the secrecy around the arts these days seems as silly as the idea above, an attempt perhaps at a certain mystique, but otherwise useless. Why? Well first off, most of it seems pointless, or even counter productive. Looking again at The Secrets in Kata, little of the meat of a system can be transmitted by video, text, or voice alone. It just isn’t possible. I know I can tell pretty much immediately if someone has learned something from one of the systems I teach from video, and often which video. That is because the mistakes they make are consistent. While one, particularly with some training, can get take in a lot there are certain things you can’t learn from video, or a book. So I don’t really care if there are videos of all our forms and such out there. If someone really wants to learn they need to find a good teacher and if they want to learn from video the limits they have put on their own skills and knowledge don’t really affect me at all. They are only fooling themselves.

But that is, in many ways, besides the point. Because hiding technique aside, I don’t think secrecy is helpful in engendering growth or strength in the arts. Sharing, on the other hand, is. Why? Well, I can think of a few reasons.

First, having the chance to see, even if not fully understand, different training methods and environments can do a number of good things for personal practice. It can give you some ideas for your training. It can show you variants and different understandings that can help break down places you are stuck or where you are lacking. It can inspire, and at the same time give you perspective. A more open view of your practice is almost always helpful. And sharing also means you have to be willing to let it hang out, have confidence in your practice and be ready to take criticism. You have to be willing to say your art is valuable for more than the “secret” piece of information you hold, the bits you don’t want to show anyone. That, for want of a better phrase, you can walk the walk.

Second, it can be helpful for research and preservation. How much information has been lost because someone wanted to keep it secret and then never shared it? How much nonsense in martial arts writing would have been avoided if access to valid information was easy? Sure you can’t share some of the meat unless you are touching hands, but that doesn’t mean you can’t share something of value in a variety of ways. Books, video, social media, all can have a place in learning. By making things more open many questions- historical, technical, personal- become easier to answer. A more nuanced and factually accurate perspective can be developed, and new questions can build off good information, not guess work. Of course that is a two edged sword- if your school or lineage has stories or claims that can be disproven by better public access to information that is certainly an incentive to secrecy. A pretty poor one, I think, but an incentive none the less…

Third, it can help the community. Perspective can show people who is full of @#$% , by exposing their nonsense in a more educated environment. It can demonstrate similarities and differences in approach that can be both enlightening and, at times, bubble-bursting. (What is the old line- a secret technique in one art is a basic one in another?) It can bring people together and make the larger environment more knowledgeable, and interesting. It can also expose good, solid training practices to the larger public. These days traditional arts seem to be waning. If nothing else, MMA is the yardstick by which all arts are measured and “in the octagon” many of the public presentations of traditional arts don’t hold up. While I thing that is in many ways a very poor yardstick I also honestly think that is in part because most of the folks who present themselves publicly are either primarily teaching kids or are not really a good representation of what the traditional arts can be. (Yes, that was the polite phrasing.) The groups focused on training seem to hold on to the idea of secrecy, or at least are not outward-looking. Changing that might change the public perspective of these arts.

But while the impetus for secrecy is often explained technically, as hiding one’s fighting skills, I don’t think that is the real reason. Even going back a few generations the majority of people training the Okinawan, Japanese, and Chinese arts didn’t fight very much. Sure some did, but not most. However, there are three other reasons why people might want to keep secrets.

The first is simple- lack of knowledge or skill. If your training is too “secret” to share with the world you don’t have to worry about how you compare to anyone else. Your students are not allowed to show anyone else what you do. They probably are not allowed to train anywhere else either. With no yardstick, there is no way to measure what you are doing. So while it may make you feel cool, full of secret knowledge, that falls apart pretty quick if you touch hands with someone else and get a clear demonstration of how little those secrets actually mean. To be honest, the dojo and teachers I have seen that were the most concerned with secrecy have usually been the weakest as well. The plural of anecdote is not data, but that is what my personal experience tells me. But that is just one reason, and I don’t think the most common. Thankfully.

The second is marketing, or its compatriot protectionism. I have friends who have worried that if otherwise rare practices were made public then you would quickly have people “teaching” them. That these valuable practices would be spread about and debased by improper treatment. Honestly, I think they are right, there will certainly be people teaching from video or whatever if more is made public. Shame on them. But so what? If more is made public you should also be able, pretty easily, to do a little research and know who is not being truthful about their material. Experienced people can probably just tell by looking, or touching hands. So sure, keeping things secret can protect them from people of poor character. It can protect them right out of existence as well. And this same method works equally well for training methods that are, for want of a better term, not so special. While keeping stuff in-group then is a form of protection, it is at the same time marketing. In short, it says: only we have x, you can’t get it anywhere else so if you want x come to us, because it is awesome. But we won’t let you know much about it until you join up… Indeed, at times the things being protected are tiny. Tidbits of technique, or history, or documentation, or theory. And honestly, if that is all you have you don’t really have much to offer do you? Real arts are more holistic than that. So protection and marketing are two sides of the same coin, albeit with very different goals. But either one can work two ways, preserving and destroying, hiding real or not so real secrets, all depending on who is doing the hiding, what they are hiding, and of course why. And in the end, does it help anyone grow? It can keep bad stuff from being measured, like in the first reason above. It can keep good stuff from being shared and preserved. It might keep good stuff from being devalued, maybe, but is that really enough of a reason? I don’t think it really works out, on balance anyway.

But in my opinon it is the third reason that is the most important, particularly in a world where most martial arts training is done by people who don’t live violent lives. To it, it doesn’t matter how valuable or useful the secrets are. Their technical nature is secondary to their social use. There is a huge amount of social capital that can be invoked by belonging to a group that has “secrets”. You become an initiate, a member of a special circle of people, an insider. And for the seniors and particularly the teacher you get to be the locus of this secret knowledge, gatekeepers and status holders. That is strong motivation to keep material in-group. People have a fundamental need to belong, be part of a group, and to measure status within that group. Clearly defining that group, who is in and who is out, who controls knowledge in it, makes that belonging process easier. Secrecy does that, and it also makes for easy status markers: who knows x? Race, gender, political affiliation, school, work, and a myriad of other traits or choices can create categories of belonging, ways to define a group. In the case of the martial arts, this idea of secrecy is a very powerful one. We have x, “they” don’t. We are special. But while this may work very well in some specific ways, I really don’t believe this kind of thinking, this way of developing group cohesion or identity, is very healthy.

Sure belonging is essential, but othering is kind of dangerous, and that is at the core of secrecy. However, it seems pretty easy to have one without the other. Sharing information might be one way to foster that. Make your training, your group, special by welcoming and supporting each other. By being a locus of knowledge and sharing within the group as well as a group not afraid to let go and help others grow. Most importantly by having something valid and valuable to share. Knowledge and skill are not the same as secrets. They are real; you can’t fake either. They take a lot of work to develop and I certainly think you should hunt down real knowledge and develop your skills. If you do, then you don’t need secrets. Or at least the kind of secrets you can hide easily. You can tell people about your “secrets”, even show them, but if they don’t do the work they simply can’t access them. So shed the little “secrets”, and the illusion of “specialness” they give and instead learn, grow, and train hard. Make sure you actually have something special in your training and have put in the effort to develop it. Let other people see it and welcome them to partake. That is the real secret, and should most definitely be shared.

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