When you learn a martial art what do you really want out of it? The art, the tradition, the lineage, the applications or the skills?
This sounds like a dumb question in that when you learn a system are you not supposed to get all of them?
Yes and no.
In some schools you do get all of them. In other schools you might get some of one or the other but not necessarily all of them.
It is rare to find a school that offers all of them so the next best thing to do is to decide what we want. I don’t know about you but to me I would rank them in terms of skills, applications first and foremost; the rest would be good to have but not as important.
This is how I look at it. Any art is built around a set of assumptions, principles and strategies. They give birth to the techniques. The training for the techniques when consolidated gives rise to the system. The system is taught under a brand which we commonly know as the style through which the entity, the school, propagates. Over time this becomes a tradition.
In life nothing remains constant. Everything changes whether for better or for worse. Unless we happen to grow an extra arm or leg tomorrow chances are the way we can move will not change, meaning there are only so many ways we can move whether standing upright or along the ground.
What we chose to learn can be due to preference, belief or experiential. Given the right circumstances every style is valid. So is every teaching as long as the teacher is able to explain it properly. Over time the original focus of a style, the reason for its founding can change, inadvertently changing its effectiveness in another direction. Over time the original objective may be lost and what once was, is no longer.
The only constant in all this is the person learning whatever the chosen art is. How well we learn what we learn can be due to how hard and how much we train, just as how well we learn it. Since it takes two hands to clap the role of the teacher is just as important. If the teacher being the beckoning finger points you in the wrong direction or a few degrees off the intended course you could end up being not where you want to be.
In a way uncle Bruce Lee is correct to advocate learning by absorbing what is useful and rejecting the rest. Some things I like but no matter how much I like it I will never excel in it. I like to do high kicks but when I saw how tall everyone else was when I was living in Australia I decided I had to forget about high kicks no matter how much I want to be like Bruce Lee. I still use some kicks but now they follow the principle of not going above my waist height.
Over time I realized another thing – everyone learns differently. Some things others can see and do, I can’t. So I do what I can see and do. Some things are easier to do than others. For example, some people can kick high easily, I could never do that. I mean, its good to be able to kick high but its not me and the only high kick I do is this jumping kick from the Open-Close Tai Chi form.
I also realized that age can dampen the things that we are good at. I noticed that as one ages the balance starts to go so being able to kick high, being able to drop into a really low stance, kneeling down to punch and then quickly standing up or just moving on the ground to grapple becomes more challenging. The mind may be willing but the body is not.
Training hard is laudable but training too hard, too much can only lead to pain possibly in perpetuity. It might sound heroic to live with pain but I think once you actually suffer for your art you may wish otherwise. I think this is why in the old days I commonly hear people say 日子有工 which means skill comes over time.
This is not to say that if you just keep practicing you get the skill. You do need the repetitions, its just that its telling you not to overtrain but to keep working on it. In a way its like how you keep staring at something but never really see it until you give it a rest. Having the details is good but you need to train to make them work and to really get it you need to attain that “it” moment, the insight that in that moment everything clicks together, what we call 心得 in Chinese.
Insights are difficult to generate because you need to do a movement enough to know it, not the mental knowing but the physical knowing, the proprioceptive feel of your body in relation to a mental schema. Learning a movement can be easy or difficult. The easy movements are not always easy, it just looks easy but they conceal hidden possibilities. The difficult movements are so either because they are difficult to do due to physical challenges or they have a lot of steps.
The real killers though are the movements which somehow involve contradictory princples. Let’s say you want to hit your opponent really fast. To achieve this you would want to be be non-telegraphic, able to move fast and be as near to the target as possible. However, being fast can be at odds to being powerful because to have power you need to chamber your strike and having sufficient range for your chosen strike.
If you have to chamber your strike you would need to bring your hand back to your body which means you will telegraph your intention to strike. Of course, now you have a good distance to generate momentum but the same distance also means the opponent can see you from futher away. So what do you do to overcome the conflicting requirements?
This is where with sufficient training and that sudden insight you will realize that the principles don’t actually conflict in the way you think they do. This is where having a teacher will go a long way to helping you solve this problem unless you are smart enough to figure it out. Some of you might think it is difficult to solve the problem by yourself but it is actually possible to do so. If not, how did you think the founder (of whichever style) managed to create his system in the first place.
So when you learn a system, go for the attributes. Learning a complete system, a traditional system is not as important. If your basics suck you will never get far even if you spend decades on learning and practicing. But if your basics are good you can keep improving and reach a good level of skill even if you know but a bit. In one of the arts I am learning they say the way you move is your certificate. This is a good way to look at it.