Making Contact

So, interesting times. Training through them is, well, different. The last session I had in the dojo was over 5 weeks ago. On a usual week, I am there 3-4 times. Sometimes less, occasionally more. The last 5 weeks? Not at all. And not surprisingly, I miss it. I miss the camaraderie, I miss the shared effort, I miss the physical contact. These things have been part of my life for so long having them suddenly removed is both startling and frustrating.

Now, before people get too worked up, of course this doesn’t mean I have not been training. It also doesn’t mean training requires a “dojo”. Or that training outside the dojo or outside regularly scheduled classes, or alone for that matter, isn’t essential. It is, and it is. Training doesn’t require anything, really, but desire, discipline, and effort. But, well, that is not entirely true. At least not if you are training a martial martial art. That requires other people.

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Martial artists are, in my experience, a voluble bunch. While one ideal the community holds up is a stoic, self contained solo training machine, the reality is different. This is not a community that doesn’t care what other people think, or do! We talk about our art endlessly. Blog about it (see what I did there?). Attend class, go to seminars, write and read books. We pay attention to the most minute social details. Who trained with whom for how long, who changed teachers and why,  where person x learned subject y, who was friends with who 60 years ago, who is friends with who now, people are out, people are in, these folks are full of @#$%, these folks are honest but unskilled, these folks are fantastic but annoying, this guy left and started his own dojo but was really just a green belt, this sensei is the one to look at in that dojo not the head teacher, she is a better fighter than her teacher, he hits on his students, what do you think about this technique, this person does it this way but that seems silly to me, old is better, new is better, I don’t like her, he took my lunch at a seminar once, oh my god the chatting goes on and on! We love it! My wife says our community is like a bunch of high school girls- gossipy, cliquey, and really worried about who is with whom. I gotta say, she’s right.

But is that such a bad thing? It certainly can be. If people are unkind or exclusionary, that is not ok. Lying is always bad. Close minded approaches to what is “right” hurt everyone. Spreading rumors and taking any joy in the tribulations of others is a lousy way to be. And talking instead of training isn’t a trope because it doesn’t exist. But being concerned with the connections between others? Noticing social cues and being aware of the power of relationships?  Having a network of people that share a joy in the art? Sharing the effort of growing, improving, and changing? Supporting others in their growth and having a network to rely on? Those seem like pretty good things to me.

And they are, I believe, part of our self defense. What are some of the most vital things we need to protect ourselves from? The data showing that ill health goes hand in hand with loneliness is pretty clear. Particularly as people age having a community that they are a part of is very closely tied to overall mental and physical well being. For most of us physical attack is less likely to be a constant danger than the slow continuous onset of lifestyle related illness. To protect myself from those, I have made my art central to my life. It provides activity, structures a way and a desire to keep me pushing my physical and mental boundaries, and it develops my ability to defend myself and others. So it keeps my body healthy. And I share these goals and rewards with others I respect. We train, we research, we experiment. We communicate. We grow. And we share our lives. I don’t know ANY long term martial artists whose social life isn’t also full with the people they train with. None. And this sense of community is fundamentally part of any traditional art, where social connections- community, clan, family, nation- were often specifically included in the descriptions of the art itself.

So the art doesn’t just keep you healthy physically, but socially. Sure, sometimes that is a bit much. Especially when you are listening to yet another diatribe about how person x does something incorrectly. That’s rude in any social situation. But the relationships that training helps foster are essential self-protection in so many ways.

And so is the contact. Body conditioning, kakie, pushing hands, grappling; all the close quarters work we do requires close physical contact. Night after night we grab, hit, and sweat on each other. Of course it is essential to real martial practice. No amount of solo training can make you a good martial artist. You can develop certain attributes alone but there are essential skills you just cannot learn without a partner. Not a teacher. A partner. Hopefully a number of them, because no one acts or reacts exactly like anyone else. But it is more than that.

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The benefits of frequent close physical contact of just about any type are clearly documented: less aggression, better immune system, greater trust, lower blood pressure, greater learning engagement, and closer emotional intimacy, among other things. These come from simple physical contact with other human beings. I spend a few hours a week in physical contact with people I trust enough to risk injury with. Not only does that help me learn to protect myself against assault, t turns out the act of making contact in and of itself better prepares me to deal with illness, aging, and navigating all sorts of other social interactions.

So without a community of people who trust each other you cannot learn a martial art. You need contact, social and physical connection. Without them your art is hollow, empty of the interaction that makes it martial. And it would also be empty of the benefits, the personal protection, that only that element of community, and the physical contact that goes with it, can bring. Taken together, training this way is indeed holistic self defense.

In these interesting times I find I am missing that interaction, that contact. A few weeks of solo training is not a bad thing. Hopefully I’ll come out the other end with improvement in some areas of my art. But the change in what has been a pretty consistent schedule for decades has made me realize how central that social and physical contact is to the rhythm of my weeks. I knew it was important, but with it taken away I see a little better what it does for me, and for the rest of the dojo. I have a slightly better window on the things that the classical arts bring to the lives of their practitioners, and some new insight into why I have found both training and teaching them so rewarding.

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So yes, I hope to come through this with some good training in, and hopefully some good insights for moving forward. But in the meantime I gotta say I miss the dojo. Not the building (though that too) but the real dojo, the community that carries our arts, and their benefits, within them. I can’t wait to get back to it, feel those connections, and mix it up some!


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