People often discuss the character-building and life-enhancing aspects of martial arts training. But I doubt that many of them have the same idea about it that I have.
Some may be referring to the discipline martial arts training is supposed to develop, particularly in children. But this has less to do with the martial arts themselves than it has to do with the traditional authoritarian Asian didactic system simulated in most mainstream martial arts schools. Similar sternness applied to all aspects of a child's life will produce the most effective results in that vein. Western children who would not normally accept such an atmosphere of authority due to the relative permissiveness with which they are raised are more prone to accept it in a martial arts school specifically because of the air of exoticness and excitement that surrounds the Western stereotype of the Asian martial arts. It is debatable whether this type of training for children develops true internally motivated discipline and work ethic, or a tendency towards obedience and a deep desire to please those in authority. For adult students (emotionally adult, that is), beyond the personal preferences of the individual, any improved discipline gained from martial arts study could be gained at least as well through the intensive study of any art form, such as calligraphy, dance, etc. In any case, for most adults, gains in discipline would likely remain specific to the chosen activity itself, overall work ethic and life habits having been ingrained earlier in life.
Some people emphasize the health aspects of martial arts training. However, Western-standard physical fitness, to include cardiovascular fitness, strength, strength endurance, flexibility and appearance, is better and more safely achieved through exercise methodologies not to be found in most martial arts training (e.g. aerobics, weight training, gymnastics, etc.). Most martial artists who are serious about physical fitness owe their physiques and high levels of conditioning to activities other than martial arts practice. Even the internal, Eastern-standard health often associated with Tai Chi practice can be achieved more directly through the practice of Chi Gung, Yoga, etc. In fact, most Tai Chi practitioners today practice Tai Chi exclusively as Chi Gung, not as a martial art, just as many today practice kickboxing exclusively as aerobics training.
Real martial arts training is MARTIAL, i.e. having to do with war or combat (Mars being the Roman god of warfare). To discount or relegate to secondary the martial aspect of "martial art" is to turn it into something else, such as an inefficient method of exercise or a way to get kids to listen to authority figures.
Only by studying and practicing the martial arts with the martial aspect foremost in mind can the life benefits unique to the study and practice of the martial arts (as distinct from any other art form or physical activity) be realized. Further, these benefits are most easily accessed by focusing martial arts training on the life-and-death dynamic of real all-out combat and protection of the self and loved ones, as distinct from a competitive or arrest-and-control focus. Brutal honesty and realism are key.
This is how it works for me:
Training with an awareness of the reality of all-out human violence, with instructors who know of this first-hand, and with a focus on keeping myself and my loved ones alive in the worst circumstances, ingrains in me an intimate understanding of my own fragile mortality and the fragility of all life. When you study the dynamics of real violence honestly, you realize that no matter how hard you train and no matter how good you get, virtually anyone and anything can still take you out at almost any time. A little bad luck can go a long way, as can the tiniest mistake in awareness or movement. We train to maximize our chances, but there are no guarantees. Working with instructors highly skilled in lethal violence allows you to feel your own life's fragility in a uniquely clear way—and the more skilled you become, the more clearly you understand this.
With such awareness comes a certain clarity of what is most important in life, and a heightened appreciation for the true gift each additional hour of life represents. This may sound fatalistic to some, but in my view, it is realistic and healthy. Never travel far from your loved ones without first telling them that you love them. Understand that you may not get another chance. Make an effort never to part with someone you care about on bad terms. Even if not every argument can be resolved before going to sleep, a truce should at least be reached, along with acknowledgement of true feelings and apology for any inflicted hurt. Treat those you care about as if each time you see them may be the last—because you understand that it might be. Granted, you can't control other people's emotions and thoughts, but you can do your best to shape their impressions of you through your words and actions. I'm not saying to live only for the moment and neglect any planning for the future, but try to remember while planning for the future that if it arrives, it's a gift, and appreciation of the present should not be completely sacrificed for it. All that's guaranteed is where you are right now. How will you be remembered by those who matter if this moment were your last? Live well, and enjoy it.
It may seem dumb to quote a Hollywood movie in reference to such a heavy subject, but The Last Samurai actually has a good line that pertains to this:
Katsumoto ("The Last Samurai"), trying to explain to Captain Algren the ideals and mindset of the samurai, says, "Like these blossoms, we are all dying. To know life in every breath . . . every cup of tea . . . every life we take--the way of the warrior. . . . That is Bushido."
Now, there is certainly more to Bushido than this. However, this quote captures much of what I'm getting at—only the samurai's understanding of such things came from actual experience of life-and-death battle combined with a philosophical prism through which to view it.
For us civilians who do not regularly go in harm's way, honest, realistic training for life-and-death combat is the best means I know by which to understand life in this way. I don't think one can so easily get there by training only for competition, health or entertainment.
It's one of the most important gifts that Guided Chaos has given me.