...you wake to find yourself sitting naked, watching a theatrical production of the musical “Oliver” surrounded by an audience of formally dressed patrons, all of whom are eating blue cheese and pineapple…
Whilst this could be the content of a rather strange dream, or a surreal novel, consider the component parts of this piece for second; waking up; watching live musical theatre; being part of an audience; eating blue cheese and pineapple. All of these are perfectly “normal” and “reasonable” sets of behaviour and actions. However, the very nature that presents them as “normal” and “reasonable” is due the context in which they are considered. The conditions we place on the performance of these behaviours determine their very appropriateness. The behaviour itself is not wrong or inherently unreasonable, it is only the specific context in which the behaviour is elicited, that results in it being presented inappropriate or incorrect. Taking this premise on stage further, is it possible to apply a similar thought process to analysis of martial arts and their effectiveness?
There is a plethora of information available to us through media. The continual advance of information communication technology and associated media provides an ever increasing number of available sources, from which we can obtain information on whatever subject we wish. In the specific field of martial arts there is equally ever increasing volume of information being made available concerning specific thoughts, practices, drills and analysis of forms, techniques and styles. Some of these are useful, provided by legitimate sources, others are less so. It is not the aim of this article to take issue with the increasing army of “keyboard warriors” or “armchair experts”, simply it is important to understand the context in which this subject is being discussed. There are many sources and voices available to watch and listen to, the question is which ones are the right ones. In a world of wild opinion and fake news how do we determine if something is the right or wrong way?
Although it may be a challenge to do so, have you ever thought what happened before the days of the internet? How was information on martial arts practices shared and analysed? For certain it was down to the interpretation (and inevitable personal biases) of the individuals who were receiving that information. Tradition will always suggest that a master provided information to their student and the student accepted this information, assimilating it into their being without question or modification. However, when we temper this with a little realistic thought and a sprinkling of understanding of human nature, it becomes more than reasonable to suggest that the original context in which that specific movement, technique or style was based subject to repeated re-interpretation and individual bias. The mind boggling volume of different “styles” and “associations” (each with their own specific syllabuses) provides tangible evidence in support of this view.
How then can we from analytical appropriately determine that a movement or technique is “correct”? For certain, the above view of the evolution of martial arts provides a context for this evaluation. The very same individualised, interpretative factors which have affected that specific “style” of martial art (or suggested application of movement) provide the contextual measures on which the evaluation on which technical success can be based. For example, Master X performs the form with an inner forearm block but Master Y performs the same form with an outer forearm block. Can both be correct? In the specific context of their individual dojo/dojangs absolutely they. However challenge of determine “correctness” becomes even more difficult when we take a step into the application of that form, that specific movement or that particular techniques.
Let’s suggest that three practitioners of the same martial art meet for coffee and their conversation turns towards a specific movement within a form. This conversation could quite possibly be:
Student a: “Master X may teaches that specific movement as a block vs….”
Student b: “Oh no Master Y says that is a grabbing movement and moves into…”
Student c: “Hang on! Master Z told me that this is a strike....”
So which one is correct? How can all three interpretations of the application of a singular movement or technique be correct? Some would linearly argue that they simply cannot. That two of the three is just wrong. This mindset, whilst extreme and conservative, unfortunately still exists within the martial arts. Reactionary, limited thinking which obscures any opportunity to naturalistic evolution and clings almost hopelessly to interpretations made by previous Masters, which is justified by nothing more than the “blinkers” of tradition. It is however the direct opposite of this which secures and underpins the future of the martial arts. The recognition and understanding of the origins, traditions and roots of the form/style/art will always be important. In the same way as we all as children should respect our ancestors who can before us, those who possessed the knowledge which has been passed to us as current custodians, should be correctly respected and valued. However, this is not to say that all we are taught is absolute, without question and beyond further insight or analysis. To take this back to the context of technical application, it is entirely possible, that in the previous example all three were correct. In a particular context the technique being discussed and analysed could be used as a block, a grab or a strike. Ultimately the interpretation is determined by the “personal bias” of the Master, however the true application is determined by the context in which the technique is being employed.
The way any content is interpreted is dependent on the
individual context in which it is presented!
Openess and flexibility in thought is fundamental to understanding. The ability to perceive and empathise with anothers thoughts and perspective is paramount within all aspects of life. There is very little in nature that is wholly binary, either it’s zero or it’s one. In fact much of the universe is seemless interaction where the lines of this simple dualistic model become inextricably blurred and broken. Martial Arts is a great example. If are too rigid and linear in our interpretation then by default we limit our scope of understanding. My remaining open to new ideas, new theories and applications inherently we grow and evolve our knowledge so as to be robust and appropriate for the future.
As a final thought here, contextual appropriateness can be defined as being the ultimate function of the technique. As a teacher when faced with the question, “ Can I do this…?” the answer should be “Can you make it work?”. For the student then there are three possible outcomes, (i) it works (ii) it doesn’t work (iii) it kind of works. Each outcome provides a insight for us to learn from and further analyse. The fundamental point in this analysis being the situation in which this movement/technique was used. In this way there is no longer a good or bad interpretation of the technique, only an appropriate context in which it can be used.