At this point, its a cliche to say that martial arts changes lives.
We all know that feel-good story: a scrawny, bullied kid meets a sensei, picks up martial arts and fights back.
He secludes himself in the mountains and trains night and day. He eventually beats his bullies, managing to impress his teacher and win the heart of a pretty girl in the process.
It’s the entire premise of the Karate Kid and hundreds of coming-of-age films.
It’s the simplest of story plots, and direct too — nothing at all like what happens in real life.
Which is exactly why people love it so much.
Life is complicated, and we all need our fantasies.
A Young Bookworm In An Old Library
I was a skinny kid growing up, more interested in books than in parties (I still am to this day.)
My childhood aspiration was to be a wildlife biologist, mainly because of how much I loved “The Crocodile Hunter”.
Steve Irwin was my hero.
I binge-watched nature documentaries, and read a lot.
And when I say read a lot, I mean read A LOT.
I would spend hours and hours in the local library, nose deep in whatever caught my attention.
I remember reading in that old, sunlit building, a child surrounded by the warm, secret-wood scent that any library worth its salt smells like. This particular scent always reminded me of an unopened book, waiting for the right reader to come along.
The old library is long demolished, yet another victim in the name of progress. It exists now only in my very fondest memories.
My point is, I really loved the pursuit of knowledge. I have an obsessive mind.
Simply put, I’m the type of person who needs to get lost in something.
This trait has often been the cause of both my joy and my sorrow.
If life had gone as planned, I likely would’ve been well on my way on a “scholarly” career, a biologist or a literature teacher or some such.
But, as I mentioned above, life is very rarely simple and direct.
When I turned 10, my life would get flipped on its head.
Neverland, Where Boys Never Become Men
When I was 10 years old, my parents got divorced.
The writing was on the wall for years, so it didn’t come as a surprise, but it still took my life by storm.
Seeking shelter, I retreated into the world of make-believe.
Lost Boys do all sorts of things in a bid for belonging.
Some join gangs. Some get addicted to hard drugs. Others date around, one girl after the other, perpetually searching in others something they’re missing in themselves.
I suppose I should be glad my poison of choice was the escapism found in books and video games.
They became my comfort, a place I could retreat to in my mind when the seas of Real Life got too rough.
They became my joy and my sorrow.
For years as an adolescent, I lived to be transported into a gripping story, or as another character in a Role-Playing Game.
It wasn’t until I found martial arts that I found my rock in the storm.
It wasn’t until I found martial arts that I stopped treading water, delaying the inevitable, and started paddling, slowly but surely, to shore.
On Martial Arts, & The Meaning Of Life
“Thus it can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being. We should not, then, be hesitant about challenging man with a potential meaning for him to fulfil. It is only thus that we evoke his will to meaning from its state of latency. I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology “homeostasis”, i.e., a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”
― Viktor Emil Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
The quote above was my single biggest takeaway from the great book, Man’s Search for Meaning.
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal”
So many of us are looking for what Frankl describes as “homeostasis”, a state of balance.
A state where everything is magically and perfectly in place, where there is not too much stress to make one tear his hair out nor too little to bore him, not too much stress-inducing work or too much play.
The problem with the idea of homeostasis bringing happiness to our lives is that it's as overly simplified as a Karate Kid film.
It's a fantasy.
The fact of the matter is tension is not something to be avoided, but to be embraced.
True happiness lies in the striving of a worthwhile goal.
When I started training and later competing in martial arts, I found that worthwhile goal.
Every day was a challenge.
Life suddenly had meaning.
I had something to look forward to every weekend when school was over and I could retreat to my second home, the mats.
Much like how I retreated to the sanctuary of the library, all those years ago.
Instead of endlessly drifting from one mode of escapism to another, I had a goal to work towards.
The goal was to get better, every day.
1% better, every day
As simple as that.
The list below sums up my goal setting when I was new to the sport:
- Stretch to get more flexible so my Guard wouldn’t get passed so easily
- Come 30 minutes early to class so I could drill Triangle Chokes with a partner
- Stay late after class to do pull-ups and climb ropes to increase my grip strength and endurance
- Skip parties so I could sleep earlier and recover well
- Read articles and watch videos online so I could learn everything I could about the sport
Looks simple right?
And yes, on paper it is indeed very simple.
But I have found that
It is the simple things, compounded over time with routine and discipline, that produces the greatest changes
Routine and discipline often come with negative connotations, but for a teenage boy desperately in need of a direction in life, it provided me with some much-needed guidance.
Routine was a life-buoy in choppy waters, Discipline the shining North Star guiding the Lost.
There are numerous benefits to Martial Arts
At this point, it is a cliche to say that.
This article is not long enough to cover them all, so I focused on the #1 aspect:
Martial arts gives my life meaning
That is the crux of it.
Martial arts, however, lends itself to much more than that.
Some of which I have already written here, others I will write about in the near future.
Martial arts helps with a great many things. Physical fitness is one big, obvious aspect, but another often overlooked aspect is something I like to call “mental fitness.”
Martial arts taught me the value of discipline and routine.
It brought a shy kid out of his shell and unearthed the confident young man that was buried deep within.
It taught me the value of community — so much so that I’m running an event startup completely dependant upon on the efforts of the Singaporean Jiu-Jitsu community.
Martial Arts taught me how to respect and interact with people, gave me the opportunity to travel to new places, meet people I never otherwise would’ve met and experienced things I never would have otherwise got to experience.
There are a million seemingly-small things martial arts has taught me, and there are a million more I’ve yet to discover.
I’ll write them down the best as I can, to share with others as I journey through the never-ending path of self-improvement.
Thanks for reading my story (: