"If you don't find your Why, you won't ever find your How"
Why do you train? What is it that compels you to spend 10-15 hours a week, at least, waving your hands around, getting all sweaty and performing the same move 10,000 times? I mean, that's a lot of damn work, so do you have a real reason WHY you do it?
Instead of just asking a ton of empty questions and expecting you to answer, let me share my story and how my 'Why' has changed over time. If any of it mirrors your experiences, great! If not, maybe it will help you figure out your own, personal 'Why'.
I started martial arts in 1999 after I got back from the Junior Wrestling Nationals. I trained under some good and some bad teachers until 2007 when I got hurt at work. When I say I got hurt, I mean I REALLY got hurt. I took a fall off a roof and went through some glass patio furniture before going splat on the patio. Long story short, I mangled my body with that one and it took literally years to rehab from all of it. At the end of it, I hadn't started training again but was at the lowest point of my life. I lost my marriage, my kids and wound up couch surfing because my spirit as well as my body was broken. A total and complete mess. The reason why I trained at the time I got hurt wasn't enough to carry me through an injury, a sure sign that I was focused on the wrong things.
I was in constant pain but for some reason, I never thought to push past the pain and start training again until 2009. I had told people for years about the health benefits of the arts but since I was lacking my reason for pushing myself, my Why, I didn't have the guts to start all over again.
One day, I was feeling particularly miserable and was trying to stretch on the floor when I started to remember my old training and how good I felt afterwards. I hopped up and started to just move through full ranges of motion with some Qigong and while it wasn't comfortable at first, afterwards I felt totally loose and slept like a baby. I had found my Why for the time, to stay out of pain.
This works great until you realize that a limited reason like pain relief doesn't give much reason to advance or learn new material, you just repeat what made you feel good over and over.
Over time, I started to miss the strength I had in the past, so I started pushing myself even more. This was about the time I found Gao Bagua and it was a perfect vehicle to build my strength back up. Gao practice, combined with my desire to get stronger, started to change my why of pain relief to a why for strength and control of my life.
Now that why is very powerful. It has an open ended goal of growing in strength, meaning there is no real end in sight. Once you become stronger, you will ALWAYS want to increase that strength even more. It was a perfect way to push past the doldrums of sedentary life and was a thrill to watch my power come back more and more each week.
Let's take a step back here and look at how the reasons changed and this changed how I approached training. First I just started by wanting to be comfortable, so my training was basically stretching and breathing. Like I mentioned earlier though, just wanting to be comfortable is a quick way to become lazy and not progress in training, the goal is attainable even after a few practices. When my why morphed into becoming stronger, it started to get me back on the old path where I was constantly pushing myself to improve, the feeling of becoming stronger is incredibly addictive and a great motivator to get up every day and train.
You will notice that I haven't listed self defense as a reason why, unlike a lot of people that come into martial arts. I didn't think about it much at the time but I am very glad I didn't use that reasoning. Running to a school to learn how to fight an enemy that may or may not show up someday is purely motivated by fear and I have rarely seen people who start with that motivation last, unless their reason why changes. The self defense reasoning is rooted in fear and unless the student grows, that fear either starts to turn into paranoia (there are a few martial arts out there that train to this level, where it starts to affect normal interactions, ie Silat) or the students becomes comfortable with their body, the fear fading over time and the student looses their reason to show up to class.
Back to my story now. Years passed and I became deeply in love with Gao Bagua. When I say deeply in love, I honestly mean obsessed. It's actually a joke for a few of my students, they give me a hard time when I haven't watched a movie in months or have no idea what is going on in the world (I look at them and think they are just as strange for caring about something other than Gong Fu, BTW). Here is an example to illustrate how single minded I have become. Last night at class, a married couple that trains with me were sharing a story about how she was working on solid sticking connection while they were sitting at a stoplight. I gave her a high five for taking every spare minute to train and they both exploded with laughter. Apparently, when he was protesting about her fighting in the car, her response was "Jesse would give me a high five for extra training". Apparently I have become so focused that people can now predict my responses to their stories.
My why started changing again as my passion for my art grew. I still want to get stronger but I started to realize that the path there meant I had to really dive into the mechanics of Bagua and develop traits I hadn't focused on before. Interestingly, at this time, I started to back away from a lot of online martial arts forums on the advice of good friends and teachers because I couldn't see why I was typing online instead of walking in circles. This is a result of my why becoming more focused and I'm started to weed out non essential things that weren't helping me train.
I also felt for a time that my why was learning all the material that my teacher has to share. This is a good goal but can't be singular. It's very easy to get lazy and just try to memorize a bunch of techniques just so you can say you 'Completed' the art. If your motivation is to just gain information and not embody it, it's very easy to go down the road of a form collector or style collector. Just bear that in mind.
Fast forward to now. I've gained a place in my Gao family with a lineage name and my teacher told my training brother and I that he considered us his tudi when we went to China this winter. I have been able to use the dedication and body skills I learned in Gao to re-open my studies of Xingyi as well. I use my arts every weekend as a bouncer at a roadhouse and I have really amazing students that I can share what I learn with. But still, none of these are the reason I still train. If you think about it, none of them are forever reasons to devote my life to something. Each one of those reasons can or will fail someday so I can't base my life around them.
So what's my why? It's hard to put into words now. I've been all over the spectrum, from liking the aggression of the arts to healing myself and becoming stronger. My why was learning the whole art, it was becoming a tudi and even owning a school again. But once I got to those points, I realized that they weren't enough of a reason to give the rest of my life to an art that most of the world will never know about.
My why has changed so much over the years that sometimes, when I'm sitting outside at the end of the day thinking about life, I can't verbalize my why anymore. I've just started to realize that it's who I am now and that is the most powerful 'Why' anyone can ever find and it's a sure sign that when I'm training or teaching, I'm being my most authentic self and no small coincidence, I am also at my happiest. Many people may say that is their Why but they won't admit to having their reasoning change over time. Every teacher has met a ton of people who claim that although they have never trained before, they just KNOW they are going to be black belts in the future. I have never met a person who started like this and actually stuck to it, without changing their why. In other words, unless you have explored every other reason why you train, you can't be sure that it's truly who you are.
Don't take this article as my boasting, I don't mean it that way. This topic is rarely brought up in martial arts and truly explored so I needed to write about it but felt hypocritical for just castigating others so I chose to share part of my story to put some of my own skin in the game.
What is your 'Why'? What has it been in the past? Have you spent time thinking about why you do this? I can promise you that if you don't figure out what your deep motivation is, your journey in martial arts will end faster than you realize.
Here is a great video talking about finding your own why. Simon wrote a book about it and I highly recommend it to others. I would love for anyone who enjoyed this article to share their 'Why' as well. The next article will be a follow up of this and the previous article and be focused on how to create obsession with your art to push you to the highest levels of skill.
Jesse Conley is the owner of Stone Tiger Martial Arts in Vancouver, WA
For more information, questions or to visit the school and take a class, please email