Many martial arts films depict characters that fearlessly use their martial arts skills to solve problems and defeat enemies. They can seem to be the very definition of courage, they can be powerful, self-sufficient and confident in the face of frightening situations. In real life the most courageous acts of these same martial arts icons may have little to do with their ability to overpower others physically and much more to do with their inner strength. Courageous people are grown, not born, and the seeds of courage are in us all. Here are six everyday ways that all martial artists can develop their courageous spirit.

TAKE RISKS. The fear of risk can be powerful, but facing it can mean tremendous positive change in your life. Commit to taking a risk by weighing the consequences and preparing for them, then go for it!

ADMIT YOUR MISTAKES. With risks comes the possibility that you will make mistakes. Remember, however, that mistakes can teach better than many successes. Rather than beating yourself up about them, think about what you have learned, and use your energy to problem-solve and to decide on new strategies.

BE WILLING TO LEARN NEW THINGS. Lessons in life can come in unexpected packages. Every life experience can leave you more savvy and better prepared for future challenges and opportunities.

ALLOW YOURSELF TO CARE ABOUT OTHERS. Attachments to others can be painful at times. Takes the time to get to know the people in your life, and take a chance on caring. The rewards of being in a mutually supportive relationship, whether it is with family, friends or members of a community, are well with the gamble.

ALLOW OTHERS TO CARE FOR YOU. If caring for others is tough, letting others know you need to be cared for can be even more so. We all need physical contact, social interaction and love to be our best. Find someone in your life that you can trust enough to ask for help when you need to and try saying "yes" when help is offered.

STICK TO YOUR PRINCIPLES. At times it may seem that everyone around you sees things very differently than you do. It is okay to consider the arguments of others (see number 3) but ultimately stand firmly by your beliefs, belief in your principles and belief in yourself.

Who’s in Charge?

We hear a lot about children being in charge these days, about how we live in a child oriented society, how children know more about everything at an ear1ier age than we did, about how they now grow up faster, both physically and emotionally. An issue for our consideration could be, "what do children know about life that qualifies them to decide how they should be raised?" There are, of course, many "experts" advising parents on how to raise children for optimum results. When in doubt about choosing a course of action it is often useful to look at some statistical data. According to John Rosemond, "the parenting experiment of the last thirty to forty years is a near disaster". He cites the facts of the tripling of the teenage violent crime rate and the increase in teenage depression as evidence. What Rosemond and others in his camp advocate is discussed in his best selling books "A Family of Value" and "A Six Point Plan for Raising Happy, Healthy Children". Like myself Rosemond is not a fan of the democratic approach to child rearing. He does not believe that children should be treated as equals by their parents, and asserts that "if you are making good decisions your children will be unhappy with most of them".

I feel in tune with much of Rosemond’s thinking in part because I find my own role as Chief Instructor in our MuDoKai dojo as analogous to that of a parent. In many respects my students are like my children, some grown up, others in the equivalent of the teenage phase and a fair number of real young ‘uns. My dojo does not run like a democracy in large part because I know what everybody needs to learn, I know how they need to learn it, and they must measure up to my standard in order to satisfy me that they have become competent. Naturally I am not interested in how they think they should block, kick or punch, sweep or throw, only that they should learn to do it the way I teach them it has to be done. From time to time students will tell me they do not like a particular kick, a particular training format or that they don’t see why a certain move is a necessary part of their training. The reason for this is that they are not yet fully trained. If they were, these things would be more obvious to them. Generally, in the interests of maintaining clear communication and empathy with the student in question, I will indulge them with a brief outline from my perspective as to why this particular skill is included in the curriculum. However, although I fully respect their right to ask the question, I also do not assume that they can necessarily understand my answer. When it comes down to it I am sometimes basically forced to offer my version of one of Rosemond's six suggested answers:

1) "There is not enough time",

2) You do not have enough experience yet,

3) That would over-stretch our resources,

4) "It is too dangerous",

5) I don’t believe in that,

6) I can not work in that way.

Of course, one of the problems with child rearing is that we often do not know how well, or how badly we have done until our offspring reach responsible age. In martial arts, on the other hand, we can check as we go by offering proof through experience of competence at each belt level. For example, we can have a three hour conversation with our seven year old regarding some decision about whether they will or will not be engaged in a particular activity, and be totally convinced at the time that they have benefited from the discussion and understood our perspective on the issue at hand, only to subsequently discover that we are completely deluding ourselves. On the other hand, if I am sparring with one of my students and I tell them never to throw a back leg kick when I am poised to move forward against them, all I have to do to prove my point is to score on them directly the next time they make that mistake. The evidence for my position is then very clear to them. While it takes some students several such experiences to fully get the point, the reality of the situation is undeniable.

It is likely that my perspective on raising children was influenced in large part by my own childhood, by my training as a developmental psychologist and my experience as a karate instructor. I believe in certain core values and aspire to teach those to my students as I did to my daughter. I believe in competence. I have heard some parents argue that they are not sure that their child should learn karate because they might use it to hurt other children. To me this suggests that they believe that, keeping their child incompetent in this regard, will somehow be useful in avoiding certain negative or violent behaviors.

I believe in teaching emotional balance. If students are overly aggressive or passive they will be out of balance in themselves, perhaps allowing the tendency to fight or flee to control their actions under stressful circumstances. This may cause problems for the community they live in due to a lack of the ability to be appropriately assertive.

I believe in building confidence and self esteem, based in the acquisition of real skills and the attainment of measurable goals. During my time as a Senior Case Manager for the South County Mental Health Center, one of the most noticeable qualities lacking in the majority of the clients I saw for counseling was confidence. One of the challenges I face as a karate instructor with some students, both young and old, is a pseudo confidence in what we could call a "false esteem", apparent in some students at the beginning of their training. This condition is a problem, because the confidence these individuals pretend to, is not based in any competence whatsoever. False confidence of this kind can be dangerous. This condition, however, usually responds quite quickly if students stick with their karate training. Because they can be shown initially that they are incompetent, they can then be trained to develop competence on a beginning level. Provided that they can cope with this educational process they can then be rewarded for their actual achievements. As this cycle continues, they get a sense of real confidence with which to replace their former delusional state.

All of us, children and adults, learn best when we admit how little we know about whatever it is we need to learn. The story comes to mind of the man who sought out a teacher hoping to become his student. The teacher asked him if he would join him in a cup of tea. They sat down at the table and the teacher began to pour tea into the student’s cup, continuing to pour enthusiastically even after the cup was full, so that the tea ran over the table and the student had to jump back off his chair to avoid being scalded.He yelled at the teacher, "What’s the matter with you? Can’t you see the cup is full already? Why do you keep pouring?" The teacher replied that; "the cup is like you! You come to me with a head full of questions and a mind filled with opinions. You claim to seek my wisdom, yet there is no space in your consciousness for me to fit anything that I might be able to offer you. You are like the cup, already full, and yet you wish me to go on pouring. Do you not see that you must first empty yourself before you can be fulfilled?"

Over the years that I have been training and teaching I have heard students ask me to teach them special techniques so that they can "beat" other higher ranking students in the sparring class. To these students I have suggested that as they move through the material in the curriculum, they will continue to improve in their skills, which is exactly what the students did who outrank them, and are therefore more competent. That is exactly why the lower ranking student in question cannot "beat" their more senior classmates. In fact, the whole concept of trying to "beat" your Sempai, (or Senior), is alien to the fundamental principle of the Sempai - Kohai (Senior - Junior) relationship on which proper guidance along the path of Karate depends.

I’ve had parents tell me that their child has made up his own Kata (form) to run at the next tournament. This is a bit like mistaking the grunts and verbalizations of the late John Belushi’s samurai character on Saturday Night Live, as an authentic form of creative Japanese. Kata are not properly "made up" by pupils of Karate. They are the work of Masters, created for the purpose of communicating techniques and principles of strategy across time, so that future generations of students may benefit from their insight and inspiration.

I’ve even listened to deluded fans of the martial arts assert that they knew a Master who could magically transport himself from place to place around the planet using secret oriental knowledge. James Randi of Plantation, a world famous conjurer, has an outstanding offer of $10,000 for anyone who can demonstrate an authentic supernatural skill. He has not had to pay out yet.

Martial arts training is not about fulfilling any of the above fantasies. Rather it is about dedicated and disciplined hard work, over time, to achieve an extraordinary level of physical prowess, emotional stability and psychological insight. The training is real, in the fullest sense of that word, which is why it is able to produce actual results. In this regard again, training karate students is like raising children; it is best done from the perspective of a practical philosophy. Such a philosophy, in practice, must be designed to address the development of the physical, emotional and psychological skills an individual needs to function, on an optimal level, as an adult member of a civilized society. When it comes to karate training, as the Sensei, I am the one who knows what the students needs are. As beginners they know nothing, so that what they want is actually largely irrelevant. Similarly, where children are concerned, our role as parents is to provide them with what they need based upon our own assessment of what life is all about. Again, like the beginning karate students, what they want, or think they want, is largely irrelevant.

I’ve been involved in fitness, sports, counseling, personal growth, bio-mechanics, bodywork, behavior modification, bioenergetics and the corollaries of these fields for most of my life. I believe that the Martial Arts program I teach offers a way for students of all ages to practice important life skills in all of these areas, and more. Whether you are reading this as an adult student, or the parent of a student, I hope that my message is clear. Just as in the Dojo we must follow the one who has "gone before us", this is the meaning of Sensei, so in life we can draw the best benefit from following the direction set for us by our parents, up to our reaching responsible age. From that point on, if they did a good job, we will reap a lifetime of benefit from the values and direction they gave us, both personally, and through the training they exposed us to. If we are parents we must lead our children, and provide them with the training that will equip them for life as adults. We must know "who’s in charge", and build our children's confidence by letting them know that it is us.

Sensei Robert H Mason c1998

 Stay Out of Your Own Way

I was recently reading through Chuck Norris’ book "The Secret Power Within" and came across the chapter "Get out of your own way". Having read the text before and worked with my own students on a similar concept for many years, it was in many ways nothing new. However, what struck me at that moment, in a flash of zen if you will, was the need for us to "stay" out of our own way. I’ve taken some excerpts from the chapter for our newsletter this month. If you haven’t read the book I highly recommend it. It is published by Broadway Books in New York and is available at most bookstores.

In this chapter Chuck relates a story regarding one of his students. "Just a beginner, he was having trouble with his timing. When he moved his legs and arms at the same time but in different directions, he tripped himself up, half the time landing flat out on his back on the mat. Once, after he’d done just that, he looked up at me from the mat and said, full of frustration, ‘I keep getting in my own way.’

"His problem was relatively easy to solve, in large part because of his attitude. He knew he was doing something wrong and was eager to learn the right way, was open to everything I said. For him, it was really just a matter of learning each movement individually and then combining them, fitting them together to make them flow; but a lot of people get in their own way in a far more difficult sense. They prevent themselves from succeeding by creating their own obstacles, by tripping themselves up without any interference at all from the outside world."

The point that I believe is significant for myself, and perhaps for others in this respect, is that this is not necessarily a single occurrence. I know that despite understanding this principle, it is still possible to repeat the error, hence I also need to "stay" out of my own way.

Chuck continues by outlining a famous Zen koan about the proper way of greeting a stranger encountered on the path of life. He says, "You can think about the question in several ways, but to me, the most valid one is that the stranger you meet is meant to be yourself: How will you greet yourself? How will you judge yourself as you go about your life? You can visualize the koan as two figures, you and the stranger, standing face-to-face on a path, and looked at that way, you can see a kind of paradox: Nothing blocks the stranger’s forward movement along the path except you standing there, and, in the same way, nothing blocks your forward movement, nothing at all restricts you except yourself, for you are the stranger."

"That’s a fact that’s hard to accept, even harder to live by. You can usually see your way around the blocks that other people put in your path, but the blocks you create yourself, the ones that come from inside your own thinking, seem rooted in the ground and as wide as the horizon. As indeed they are, for you yourself are standing in the way."

"The way around the block is from the inside; from the Zen point of view, the only place the block has reality is inside yourself. If you’re being less successful than you had hoped or expected, don’t make excuses and don’t look around for some stranger to blame. Instead, check the three components of a winning attitude: mental toughness, psychological preparedness, and physical condition."

From Chuck’s perspective these three areas are like three legs on a stool. An uncorrected deficiency in any of any one element will drag the other two down. Where martial arts training is concerned, for example, Norris says that "being in great physical shape won’t get you far if you’re full of doubts about your abilities, if you’re always comparing yourself to others and finding yourself lacking, or if you’re foolishly overconfident." He continues, pointing out that "no matter how carefully you plan or how clearly you can visualize your ultimate success, it won’t come to much if you don’t dedicate your time and effort to working out". As martial artists we are constantly striving to maintain a balanced state of growth and ever increasing proficiency as we pursue an ideal of physical, emotional and psychological integrity. The mental toughness we can develop can help us in everything we set out to achieve. Chuck points out that "you believe the thoughts you send yourself, your subconscious thoughts, more than the words of others". He suggests that you "make those thoughts positive, one at a time, and then make them move together in time with your life. If you learn to think positively, your subconscious will go along, even working for you while you sleep. You sleep; it doesn’t. In time, all the blocks will disappear, and the path ahead will be clear."

I’ve had the opportunity to meet Chuck Norris on several occasions. "Kick Drugs out of America" is a charity Chuck founded that involves teaching martial arts to middle school kids considered "at risk", in order to raise their self esteem, confidence and inner strength. If children can gain the insights offered through a martial arts program they can develop the ethical integrity to stay clear of drug abuse.

I believe Chuck knows from experience what he is talking about. His insights, as he offers them in his books, have the ring of truth one normally associates with a parable or the wisdom of a sage. In terms of "getting out of our own way" Chuck recommends you "learn to think kindly of yourself, to pay yourself the respect you’d pay someone else. Learn to greet yourself the way you’d greet a stranger—politely, open to the possibility that you might be about to make a friend for life, aware that the person standing in front of you could be anyone, could come from anywhere, could be about to accomplish anything."

"The stranger could be about to make any number of dreams come true. And having greeted the stranger, realize that all those things are equally true of yourself, standing on the path of life."

Sensei Robert Heale Mason c1997