Breathe out. All the way out. Hold it. Fight the urge to breath in. Fight it as long as you can.

This is how you rehearse for death.

Some day that in-breath won’t come. That’s reality for everybody.

As long as you are living, though, that next breath will come. We breathe in, we breathe out. It’s easy to ignore the empty promise that lies at one end of that cycle.

I often see arguments online about the approach to western martial arts. There is a great fear that the art of swordplay will be sportified, that we will once again lose the martial heritage of our ancestors. We want to test ourselves, and we want that test to be as true as it can be. Tournaments seem to be necessary for the growth of our art, but there is an itch at the back of the mind that warns of watering things down, of becoming a sport instead of a martial art.

I don’t see a split between the two. To my thinking, the words are wrong. It sounds to me more like an argument over competition versus building a heritage. Some people want to build a thing that can be pointed to and described. “That,” they want to say “and that alone, is the martial art of Fiore!” Once built, they want be able to claim a kinship of effort with it. To be a part of something better.

That’s a pretty awesome thing. I’ve seen people make enormous steps into rebuilding a dead art into a new and living thing that would not be unrecognizable to the ancient founder. I’ve seen schools grow and form into a society and a style that will live on to become it’s own heritage art.

Competition is people wanting to find their place and standing amongst their peers. You push yourself as hard as you can, test yourself as often as you can against the very best you can find, and you find your place amongst them. It’s an awesome thing as well. People can become a better version of themselves in all ways through this process. They can find a happy place and home in a community, and truly come into their own in a way they could not through other means.

These are both great things. They have nothing to do with martial arts, though.

Well, maybe they do. Both of the above are some people’s definition of martial art.

I was sitting on a couch one day, in the old school.  An older man came in, wearing shorts and hiking boots. He started talking to someone on the training floor, and I glanced up. I first saw his calves…enormous and solid. One of the signs of an experienced martial artist. I started to get up even as I took a closer look at the gentleman. I didn’t know who he was, but I knew right away what he was. Kin. A martial artist.

We had a lovely chat, and he walked away with a smile, putting his stamp of approval on our school. Turned out he was a somewhat-retired regimental sergeant major who also ran a successful martial arts school.

Since that time, I’ve run across others like him. People you not only recognize, but feel a connection to. Not unusual, I suppose, but I’ve often wondered why I felt the urge to get up and talk to this person. Why was it that I knew if he talked to the person on the floor exclusively, his impression of us would be less than favourable? The other person was friendly, informed, and more than competent.

Breathe out.

A martial artist trains to rehearse for death. They don’t care about being a part of things, or finding their place amongst others. They will do those things and enjoy them. But there is always the dark spot. Maybe we’ve touched it ourselves, or watched others find it. Or just became aware of it somehow. Whatever the cause, it colours our training. We don’t train to win…there is no winning in the end. There is no legacy in the black. We train just to prepare, to do our best in that moment.

That’s not a thing that can be taught. But the practice of martial arts is a thing that draws us together. The shape and style of the martial art doesn’t matter as much. Even the people don’t matter, as long as there are one or two others that are the same as us. That dark space is the thing that birthed martial arts, and it’s at the heart of them.

If you want your training to be martial, then focus your attention less on the big mouths. Ignore the ones that strive to be the best. Turn away from the bright lights and shining people, and breath out. Look for the quiet ones, the ones that don’t win but still smile because they know something no one else does.

Make your art, your school, a place of competition with a rich heritage. Lean more towards one or the other if it’s who you are. If you want to be a martial arts school…always be a place for those who hold that breath out. Be a place they can train. Listen, recognize them, pay attention to what they have to offer. Learn from them, and nothing martial ever need be lost.