Developing an Independent Mind in Martial Arts

No one is allowed to have their own mind in the martial arts. 

I was pondering on this thought the other day when I was driving and lamenting about one of the colored belts getting to do some cool stuff for an instructor. I made the idle comment: “They’re probably asked to do that because they won’t question the instructor. They’re a yellow belt – they haven’t developed an independent mind in the art yet.”

And it got me thinking – who has their own mind in the art? Do I, because I’m a black belt? Am I an independent thinker? Then, of course, I ran into the thought of; what does it even mean, to have my own mind in the art? What does that look like, what does that sound like? (Pardon my teacher-like trains of thought.)

I can tell you right away what it sounds like. Having “your own mind” in the art means you generate plenty of seriously strong opinions. From how patterns (or kata, poomsae, forms, whatever your chosen word is) are supposed to look in terms of movement, pacing, set-ups… to something as big as having opinions on how testings and promotions are to be conducted, or even what the business model of martial arts is. It sounds like less “yes, sirs and yes, ma’ams” and more questions, more curiosity. More “well, why?” And less demure compliance.

Under that definition, I can tell you right now that I have an independent mind. And sometimes it’s very loud.

That’s not to say I’m disrespectful. And I believe that none of my instructors would ever say that about me as a collective description of my character. 

… but I have my moments where I KNOW the instructors are looking at me and thinking “just accept what I say as truth and stop questioning me” because they find my occasional lack of compliance to be troublesome and annoying.

I suppose I could own it on my end – because of my independent thoughts, I tend to be a bit more high maintenance. I ask more questions, I take longer to learn something because I ask about it and I want to know everything so that I can work on it and KNOW it, perfect it. It takes me longer to learn a pattern because I want to know everything about it, I want to learn it completely. There have absolutely been times where my instructors have looked at me and said: “don’t worry about that right now, just do this for now.” 

But I worry about it. And you better damn well believe that I’m gonna ruminate on it and ask that question again.

That makes me a frustrating student to some instructors, especially when I’m in the learning process.

Bet your ass though, it makes me a good fucking teacher later down the road.

 Jesachi! You said earlier that no one is allowed to have their own mind in the martial arts!

Don’t fret, dear readers. I’m gonna tell you why.

We discussed – or rather, you listened to my diatribe – about what “having your own mind” sounds like. A lot of talking, a lot of strong opinions, some mild sighs of frustration and annoyance coupled with a cocktail of questions.

What does it look like though?

It looks like a disrespectful student, that’s what it looks like. It’s not revering the masters when they are out of uniform and being on a first name basis with most of them. It looks like me wearing whatever uniform I want to – if you tell me once that it’s okay, I’m gonna wear it whenever I want in class. It looks like me choosing whatever style I want for my personal patterns. (I’ll still teach it how the instructors want me to. I said I have my own mind. I didn’t say I was a rebel.) It looks like my hands on my hips instead of behind my back, it looks like not participating sometimes for reasons I don’t need to share.

Case and Point: I train at two schools. Both instructors teach patterns a little differently, and I will respect how they teach those patterns, but I’m going to choose to do my patterns in whichever style I think suits me and suits that pattern. 

Does that sound disrespectful and rebellious?

Only if you don’t appreciate students who have developed an independent mind.

I challenge you to think about each great instructor and school owner you know. I challenge you to think about THEIR instructors. Are they all just the same? Are they exactly like their instructors before them, or are they slightly different in terms of martial arts style, teaching, business model? What about uniforms or leadership and competition teams? What about their priorities within the art?

I’m willing to bet they are all different from each other.

Because at one point in each of their martial arts careers, they said “Nay, I shall not do it this way. I want to do it my way.”

They developed their own mind.

On the flip side of that, instructors don’t always like students who have their own minds. Oh, sure, they might say they do. After all, they are supposed to teach us to be confident and self-assured, right?

But instructors don’t like the opposition. They don’t like the perceived rebellion or the perceived arguing or the – albeit polite – sass that comes with being an independent thinker. The culture of martial arts itself does not breed independent thinkers. Martial means military, and in the military, your CO asks you to jump, you say “Sir, yes, sir”.

You don’t even ask “how high” or “where” or “for how long”. You just do it. 

Martial Arts Instructors are not so different. They teach you a pattern or self-defense, or a kick, and they expect that you will do it exactly the way they teach it, that you will not question it. The only questions they will answer are for clarifying purposes only. I.E: “Do I put my hand here or here?” Versus “why am I putting my hand here? Wouldn’t this way be more effective?”

Even between my two schools – if I perform a pattern the way one instructor showed me, the other instructor will say something; “Who taught you that way? No. You do it the way I want you to.”

“Yes, sir.”

But I go home and do it the way I feel suits that pattern the best.

Take Home:

To bring that back to my original lament about colored belts being asked to perform certain functions and doing so without question… stop. Learn the subtleties of questioning and fulfilling curiosities in the martial arts. On the one hand; do as you’re told, for you are still young in the martial arts and there is more to your journey. You may not understand everything yet and you aren’t supposed to in some fashions. Even as a black belt, there are (few and far, but still…) instances where the instructors look at me and tell me that I will understand more as I progress. On the other; learn everything you can and absorb it all. It will make you a better black belt. A better teacher. A better adult in society, capable of carving your own path.

And you know what? All the best minds in the world carved their own path. Scientists, writers, martial artists, painters, medical professionals… They saw how things were done and they said “Nay, I shall not do it this way…” and they questioned their world. It’s so important to question the world you are in, and never take anything at face value. Have confidence and respect, but foster the questions and the curiosity. Don’t be afraid to have your own mind.

Even in the martial arts.

Until next time!

Peace, Love, Kamsahamnida

Jesachi

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Jesachi

Jessica (Penname: Jesachi) is a 2nd Degree Black Belt in Traditional Tae Kwon Do. English/Special Educator in Middle School by day, Martial Artist by night. Some of her passions include: writing/blogging, self-care, TKD, nerdy pursuits, feminism, arts, and spending time with her 5th Degree Black Belt husband. Check out her personal blog at teakdstudio.wordpress.com
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1 Comment

  1. I love this, Jesachi! So true, and I’m exactly the same 🙂
    In fact, I just put out a blog on my home page about something almost identical, will be happy to share it with you if you are interested!
    Thank you for the great read.

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