I stood in disbelief as he continued his infomercial:
“I have accomplished everything in the Martial Arts. I’m a lineage holder with X, have taught the elite forces of Y, and now I want to hand over the Secret of Secrets to some worthy masters such as yourself.”
By now I could hardly stand to hear a word from this 40-ish , self-proclaimed master of many a discipline, but he undauntedly continued with, “the structure of light, the geometry of the martial arts and other big concepts,” all while dropping names that would have made the “Black Belt Hall of Fame” blush.
I was getting angry.
Wanting a way out of his sales pitch badly disguised as an intelligent conversation, I unapologetically started challenging his understanding of the subjects he claimed mastery over. He got the message, grudgingly thanked me for my time, and walked away. After that encounter, he chose to avoid me both in person and online, knowing I would not serve his purpose. This is a good thing. For if he had pushed any further I would have had to invite him to “prove what you say you can do, in real time.”
It all happened at a popular Martial Arts event and the whole episode bothered me for days. But why did it (has it) weighed on me so much?
It comes down to two fundamentally different set of values and interpretations regarding :
- The purpose of Martial Arts
- The role of its Teachers
It was a clash of Old School and New School perspectives.
He represented the New School, and I… the dying Old School.
In the Old School, the paramount purpose of Martial Arts is effective self preservation. It is not about the theory of everything nor is it about esoteric concepts. Don’t get me wrong, I love late night intelligent dialogue into esoterica. However, those are only meaningful when one has earned the right to do so by the humble single-minded pursuit in the dark corners of ones existence.
Teaching is serious stuff. And Old School teachers do three things exquisitely well.
First, they pass down the personally verified patterns that work. Second, they embody the student with a code of generative learning and humility. Third, they serve as an enzyme to the student’s growth . Old School is all about extreme functionality, engineering ones attention, respect and unending mutual growth.
The New School is an alien creature to me. Marketing, bravado and social association have replaced demonstrable skill as proof of martial prowess. The role of martial arts has moved into the realm of building and protecting a differentiated business proposition. The teachers role has shifted from trusted mentor and lifelong friend to a service provider you can hire. With this shift, one now teaches flash, builds a cult of personality and entertains the student. The New School is a lot about entertainment, capturing attention, self -glory and business growth.
I explained these distinctions to my students on a later date. One of them asked if they made the difference in the Art itself or something else.
I told him, “I don’t think it has much to do with the Art. It has more to do with the instructor’s approach and their perceived sense of control.”
When the instructor thinks s/he can control the environment of his Art, it can lead to proficiency over a limited set of controlled situations. Therefore the New School model works for those who seek the security of established maps to mitigate all risks. However, it closes open learning and can lead to great arrogance if the known maps are not constantly supplemented with new maps.
The more maps one traverses, the more one learns there is very little one can control. The only thing you can control is your own response…and then you embark into the realm of spontaneity. This path is fraught with great risks and discovery. Success does not come easy. One has to embody humility, great awareness and an ever-curious mind. That…is Old School.
If you are seeking to be educated in the martial ways, entrained to growth and embark on an undefined journey then look for what I call Old School. This path will be marked with the insignia of humility, working for years in solitude, and a small strong community.
The reward is in the pursuit.
If you are seeking to be entertained and have a clear path to stardom then follow what I call the New School. This path is marked by great publicity, loads of acquaintances/networks, years of trading public acknowledgements and the reward of a “following“.
A student wanted me to clarify the distinction between the Network/Following of the New School and the Community of the Old School. I responded, “Post on your Facebook that you are moving away and that you have a tons of unfinished work. Your Network will like your status and comment, where are you moving to? But your Community will ask, when can we show up to help?
It is a profound difference.
The student asked me for a simpler distinction between the New and Old Schools. I needed an easy analogy. After thinking a bit I responded,
“Imagine a trip to Antartica. You can either take a cruise ship or set out on an expedition. Cruises are sold to many people on different levels with promises of safety, fun and the envy of your friends. On the cruise all your needs, wants and whims are catered by a willing staff. You just need to show up looking good for the photo ops. Then show those pictures to all your envious acquaintances and you can even fancy yourself as an Antarctic traveler.
The expedition is a self-selected group that embarks on a journey most will call madness. This is the man who goes solo or in a small group to the continent and gets on a small boat to set out exploring. He has no guarantees of his needs being met on an untravelled path let alone returning safely. This is a different creature all together.”
My student blurted out, “the expedition is not for everyone.”
I agreed. “That is why the cruise ship captain should not try to sell to explorers. And why explorers should not try to convince cruise ship captains to change course. Two different sets of values and ends. There is room in the world for both kinds of journeys. Like Old School and New School…it’s best to keep separate things separate.”
Let me be very clear, this does not mean there shouldn’t be a New School, that there should not be any cruisers. This is not about Old School vs. New School. In fact, New School is necessary because without it…no one would be intrigued enough to peer into the depths of the Old School ways. Without the cruiser getting bitten by the travel bug, there would be no explorer wanting to go at it alone. We need both.
All I’m saying is…be cautious in promoting the New School to those of the Old School. While we understand the language…we remain uninterested.
To each their own journey, and the fruits that come with it. For me, that means back to my dojo and the happiness of the struggle. And above all PEACE having learned not to confuse the cruise ship journey with the expedition or advertisements that invariably come my way.
Does this make sense?
Mahipal Lunia, Sensei