Excerpts From The Protector Ethic

“People come to the martial way for all kinds of reasons, some of them good, most of them not good enough. Others have watched too many action movies. A select few seek the supernatural, working hard to sound just like the gongfu master’s master whenever they open their mouths, which is often, far too often. Deceit is at its worst when we believe our own lies, so avoid those who talk like Yoda and move like Jabba.

It took years for my own temperament to change, but that’s not just my story; it’s the life cycle of any serious martial artist. To break the mold of the form and enter the fray of the formless, where the real training takes place, you have to give up looking for answers. Only then can you do what must be done: ask better questions. You have to. Skills like exceptional punching and kicking only improves further once you understand and articulate an ethos for it. So you start with the question most avoid asking because they have a less-than-inspiring answer or, worse, none at all: Why?

Why am I doing this?
Why should I learn any of this stuff?
Why train?

Logic and reasoning can lead that inquiry. Other times a simple story convinces in a way argument cannot. Isn’t clarity the point? In fact, clear thinking on big questions begets bigger ones, like resolving right from wrong, deciding action from obligation, and facing up to the musts, oughts, and shoulds. If we’re going to use our bodies as weapons, and weapons as weapons, we’d better train our minds to discern wisdom from knowledge so we can act in the right way at the right time. Do this and avoid the worst possible fate, the one where we’re too late to make any difference.”

Why train? is the single most important question that anyone can ask themselves whether they are new and naïve to training or an old, grizzled veteran because it speaks to the connected tissue of the martial way itself and all of the myriad good reasons that intertwine our lives that we can identify and even some we cannot.

“Imagine training the chest-compression and breathing techniques of CPR but divorced from their purpose of saving lives. Without their purpose, why learn them? What’s the point of the skill if we’re training ourselves to be incapable of recognizing when it ought to be applied? In fact, without that “ought,” that sense of obligation, what makes it at all necessary?

Some years ago I traveled to the West Coast for training at a weekend event. During one of the segments, I was called to the front to physically defend a fellow who was to be attacked. Now, I was a highly adept martial artist who’d been training since I was a kid, and I’d even lived in Japan for several years, getting my butt kicked by the very best teachers of my art. I was little concerned about defending anybody from anybody because I knew something the attacker did not: I was about to attack the hell out of him.

The moment my protectee was threatened, I leaped into action with more than twenty years of expertise to thwart the assault. I remember feeling pretty satisfied as I loomed over the aggressor, now facedown in the dirt and dust, and twisted him into an airtight submission. I was proud of myself—I’d been called out before a crowd of my peers, so my aim was to impress, and I was pretty sure I had. I remember that moment as well as I remember the next: turning to confirm the safety of my protectee, only I couldn’t find him. He’d been silently nabbed by an unknown second attacker. Cue the laugh track for this fool.

A teacher, mentor, and friend, Jack Hoban, arranged the fiasco. He had nothing against me; he was simply taking advantage of the chance to teach a larger lesson. And I have never forgotten that lesson. It laid bare the one thing no professional ever wants to admit he possesses: a weakness he wasn’t even aware he had. My confidence to serve up skill lacked the one thing truly necessary for right action: clarity of what I ought to do. My job, my role, in that moment was not about attacking an attacker. It was about defending someone, about safeguarding his life. It was about being a protector.

After all my years of training and experience, you might think I should have already known this, that it would be second nature, a given. It was not. And it is not for many other professionals. In that crucial moment, I was convinced I was doing the right thing, but I was wrong. I was confused. And I failed. Instead of being a protector, I behaved like a thug.

No one trains martial arts to get worse at martial arts. No one trains to gain less understanding and ability. Everyone trains to get better, gain comprehension, and enlighten themselves. Even weirdos dressed as Power Rangers who flood the net with claims of secret training from Master Cucamonga believe this through the fog of their own self-importance. In fact, it is this unanimous motivation to gain proficiency that’s translated into the variety of reasons folks train in martial arts. But real proficiency is contingent on a central truth: it must protect and defend a clear sense of obligation. It must know its ought.”

If you’d like some waypoints in figuring out your own sense of obligation, your own “ought,” pick up a copy of The Protector Ethic.