Many years ago one of my best friends took an exclusive bodyguarding course. Very high level, a little hush-hush, real serious stuff. The first class was kind of interesting. At one point the instructor had them sitting around and asked them if they thought they could beat up Mike Tyson. It was a class full of hard-nosed, realistic types, and they all said no. My friend, having the double blessing of being Finnish and of the same rough and tumble martial arts school as me, said yes, he figured he could beat up Mike Tyson.

I suppose the instructor might have smiled at this. Being a crazy whack job like all such instructors, it was probably a knowing smile. I imagine that he could read my friend pretty good, and knew what was coming. The rest of the class, reportedly, smirked at the cocky young fool. The instructor asked my friend to explain how he thought he could beat up Mike Tyson, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world?

Baseball bat, said my friend. Preferably from behind, in a back alley somewhere. No one said anything about a boxing ring, after all. The instructor nodded, and added that his preferred method would be to run him over with a car first.

The mindset of the real martial artist is unique, and foreign to most people who train in martial arts. It’s often most foreign to the renowned and accomplished martial artists, the “name” folk. It’s not, after all, necessary for the practice of martial arts. And there are always the posers, who ape the attitude, usually as an excuse to avoid pushing their personal boundaries. These special folk are the first ones to blast the UFC as fake for not allowing eye gouging. In the WMA world they are the ones who insist swordplay training or tournaments aren’t realistic or even useful unless they allow “grappling,” as if it were some sort of magical charm of true warrior-dom.

I use to run a real special class. I would tell people not to show up. Everyone was discouraged from attending. I promised pain, bloodshed, violence and vomit. And I delivered. Spectators were forbidden, and I went so far as to tape paper over the windows in the doors so no one could see in. Better believe the doors were locked.

I demonstrated the mindset once, in class. We were doing straight-up submission bouts, the only rule was no permanent injury. I’d worked through most of class and was damned near completely spent. My opponent was in his early twenties, massively fit and strong, still full of energy and pumped from a string of victories. He’d armbarred and leglocked and choked out a string of people, and I was next on his list. I was almost too goddamned tired to lift my arms…being forty can suck sometimes.

The minute we tied up, I knew I was in trouble. Every time I tried to take him down, he’d stuff it easily. I manoeuvred for one standing submission after another, but he’d keep taking patient steps back and nullifying every trick I tried. I hit every pressure point I could, but after surviving my pain-tolerance classes, he was just toughing the nerve pressure out. I hit him with everything I could, and I was losing, and losing, and losing. Exactly as I planned.

I made it easy for him to step back, and he did. All the way to the wall. He was fine with that, because I was just getting more and more tired. He could feel my strength waning, and knew that at any moment I would be weak enough for him to try something really special…a show-off technique that would impress the whole class, and me his instructor especially.

He was still confident, expecting his moment to come any second…when he realized he was hanging out the window, three floors up from the concrete sidewalk. I told him to tap, or fly. He tapped. It had been pretty easy for me to let him win enough to get confident. So confident that he didn’t even notice I was walking him back to the windows, butting him up against the open windowsill, and slowly pushing him out… How could he expect that? What kind of a lunatic would do such a thing?!?

Real martial arts transcend style, training, or approach. It’s a free and open mind that thinks only of surviving against all odds. Not winning, surviving. Not killing, not hurting…surviving.

When you hold a sword in your hand, you are probably thinking about using it correctly. Correctly might mean any number of things to you, but you want to do it right. Make your teacher happy, be true to your chosen style. You want to have the right guard, the right footwork, be ready to use the correct techniques. You are okay with getting touches if you do things incorrectly. You think you are doing well if you get to touch your partner, if you “win.” And that’s fine, enjoy that and train hard, you will do nothing but benefit…

But always take a moment, and think about that window at your back.