Mat Chat with Shihan Dunn

As a young martial artist coming up through the ranks, I really tried very hard to be a tough guy. I thought it was the most important thing. I fell into the whole trap of posturing, of ego and of trying to impress other people. And then on top of that, I fell into the trap of embracing a culture of violence which, in the long run, did damage to many of my relationships. I found myself over and over in circumstances which hurt me and the people around me.

The martial arts culture I was a part of had no means of addressing this issue. It actually embraced the violence which it was created to protect people against. This is why I had to struggle with it for so long, because while I had direction in my technique and strategy in sparring, I was had no direction at all in how to manage myself as a human being in the world. I constantly felt that I had to demonstrate my toughness wherever I went. I can remember not wanting to drain my ears because I wanted them to get all gnarly, specifically so that others would know me as a guy not to be messed with. And believe me, that was not the limit to what I was willing to do to be the tough guy.

So now, as I look back from a more seasoned, a more mature vantage point, this one of the reasons I’m very adamant about martial artists following Teddy Roosevelt’s dictum: walk softly and carry a big stick. As a student and as a human being, it is a much safer way to move through the experience of learning what it means to be a martial artist.

When I was younger and when people would come up to me and on the street and ask me, “Do you train? Are you a fighter?”, I’d think to myself, “Yeah…I’m the man!” It was the realization of this plan for toughness I had created for myself. It was their validation of me. Now when people come up to me on the street and ask, “are you a fighter? Were you a fighter?”, I literally run away. I say, “No, you got the wrong guy” and I get out of there as fast as I can.

This actually happened to me this morning. Someone came up and asked me this question and I actually – as politely as I could – disengaged and walked away. And when I asked myself, “why is it that I do that?”, I understood something very significant. I realized that it’s because inside I’m a little embarrassed at how I used to be. I have re-prioritzed – there are things more important to me than being tough. And I no longer wish to be associated with what it means to be “the tough guy” – the violence and the aggression and the offensiveness. Furthermore, I understood that I’m also very embarrassed about my peers in the martial arts, what they are actually representing and teaching to their students.

I know that a lot of people are conditioned to want to talk about the fights, and they want to talk about hurting other people, and who can beat up whom and do the most damage to whom – all these kinds of conversations that I don’t want to be a part of anymore. I am sharing this from my own experience, twenty years later, because that is what we as teachers and black belts have signed up to do: to pass on the things we’ve learned so that other people don’t make the same mistakes. In the jiujitsu world, so many brilliant instructors teach so that their students don’t make the same technical mistakes as they did – they genuinely want their students to be better than they were. But it’s troubling to me that they don’t see the importance of correcting their own personal mistakes so that their students can learn from those, too.

I have learned that it is enough to be a nice person, a gentle human being, and know how to protect yourself and your family. That is good enough. And it’s going to take you a lot further than trying to find validation from strangers or peers about how tough you are.

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