Posted on 3rd, April 2015
By Kirk D. Weicht
Loosely defined, self perfection implies the improvement of one's knowledge, skills, status, abilities or attributes by one's own efforts. Self preservation on the other hand, is a primitive survival mechanism; the innate desire to stay alive and protect oneself from harm or destruction.
Today's martial arts student has a plethora of arts to choose from. Some of these arts focus their attention onself perfection through the use of katas, energy drills, and patterned sequences of training. The ultimate goal, attribute development, is obtained through repetition and mastery of techniques. Attributes such as speed, timing, sensitivity, line familiarization, and distancing all become heightened through this training. Martial arts instructors can usually recognize those students who have inborn or natural attributes that enable them to excel, learn at a faster rate, and stand out among their peers. If we look at those professional athletes who are consistently regarded as the best of the best; Bruce Lee, Jerry Rice, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Mohammed Ali, and Anderson Silva to name a few, we see attribute development at its pinnacle.
Alternate martial arts training tends to focus on self preservation, providing the practitioner with the necessary tools to survive when life is threatened. Often, we find ourselves in this training to overcome differences in size or strength while managing the physiological changes that become reality when the fight or flight mechanism is initiated. This survival mode is dependent upon a force continuum which dictates always being able to escalate the level of violence one notch higher than the attacker. The ultimate goal, the ability to deploy a nuclear button at the appropriate time, is analogous to the attribute development with self perfection training.
A discussion of these two training styles begs the question which is better? Do we use self perfection drills to develop one's attributes to such a high level that we can consistently parry a jab or avoid a takedown? Or, do we repetitively drill techniques that are "all we need" to survive an attack? I think the answer is a resounding we must have both.
Bruce Lee recognized and promoted the concept of no one superior art. He extracted portions of 26 different arts in the formation of Jeet Kune Do. It is important for us, as martial arts students and instructors, to understand that at any given point one art may trump another. The 80 year old Tai Chi practitioner may survive a brutal attack by sailing a knife-wielding assailant into oncoming traffic. Similarly, an 110 pound female may escape to safety from the grips of a rapist accomplished in Jiu Jitsu with Kina Mutai, an art employing eye-gouging and uninterrupted biting.
Equally important, is the recognition of our audience. Military, special forces, and law enforcement personnel are consistently placed in harm's way. Self preservation training becomes paramount for preparing these individuals to survive an assault. Martial arts instructors incorporating self preservation drills into their curriculums must constantly reinforce the appropriate application of these techniques. The instructor must be mindful of the litigation potential for the high school student who decides to engage a civilian who angered him/her during a period of road rage with a technique recently learned. In contrast, the same technique deployed by a Navy Seal in the course of duty, becomes an expected visceral response, without legal scrutiny. Multiple self perfection drills may have diminished importance to the woman attending a women's self defense seminar. Here the student clearly needs a few basic survival techniques that are quickly learned, highly effective, and easily applied. The counter argument to that point being, if the women attending leave the seminar and never practice the techniques to develop self perfection attributes, will they be able to effectively implement the technique allowing them to escape to safety?
At the end of the day, self perfection and self preservation must coexist. The two cannot and should not be separated. Training in these two different modalities should be like yin and yang. That is, they cannot occur independently and must complement rather than distract from one another. It is a beautiful sight when the instructor can take a student through a flow drill that incorporates self perfection training and all of a sudden a turn of events requires the student to quiet his mind, be in the present moment with his breathing, and flow into a self preservation drill. Bruce Lee's famous quote, "Be like water my friend," was intended to convey the need in martial arts to blend with a moment, not to think but act. The ability to adapt to your surroundings (as water does to glass) is a powerful life skill. Water can be both powerful and still. The ability to flow like water seamlessly between self perfection and self preservation gives the practitioner a unique advantage over those that train with emphasis on one over the other.