The Spiritual Life of the Martial Arts

Look, children, Snow flakes! Let’s rush out. — Basho, a Haiku poet

Whether we realize it or not, we are all looking for a spiritual life. What I mean by the spiritual life has nothing to do with established belief systems. Rather, it is the life force — what is commonly known in the Chinese martial arts as “chi.” It is what some people call the soul. As close as I can come to defining spiritual life is to say that it is creative energy that is life itself — the force, the essence of living and being.

The “spiritual life” is what the martial arts were founded on. You may be surprised to learn that it is the whole reason the martial arts were created in the first place. It is the primary “business” of the martial arts, because it gives us the one thing we crave dearly — freedom.

Underneath our day-to-day existence lies a deep desire to be free, to feel the spirit we felt when we were young, living in the moment. Even if we can’t remember, this is how we were. Even if we don’t know it now, this is what we want today. We want freedom from our mundane, humdrum existence, from the rat race of competition. But this want has been overcome by the daily necessity to make a living, or a desire for fame and fortune, believing that money or prestige can buy what we want.

The “spiritual life” cannot be achieved by any desire of ours — no matter how noble or refined. If we try to achieve it, we will be frustrated, caught on the treadmill of desire, trying to attain an elusive ideal.

If we want this reconciliation with the life spirit that we have lost over time, do we know how to bring it about? Is this one of those Zen-like paradoxes that confuses the rational mind, because what we think we want is exactly what we cannot have?

Here’s the rub: The freedom we want has to come from not wanting it! Does this sound impossible? Frustrating? It’s not. On the contrary, it is actually “logical.” To get what you want, you must find out what prevents you from getting it!

By a process of elimination, by putting aside all that prevents freedom, freedom comes without trying to get it. By understanding and being aware of what prevents freedom, the “chi” or spirit lifts us ever so gently out of the mundane into a meaningful life. What prevents freedom is “conditioned thinking.” Conditioned thinking is the accumulation of personal and psychological knowledge that makes up who you think you are; what worries ought to concern you; and what people, places and things you ought to be afraid of. All of this petty conditioned thinking clogs the brain and prevents the life spirit from coming forward.

I am using an explanation here to describe what prevents freedom from unfolding naturally without any effort of will to bring it about. But all the explaining in the world cannot bring about this state of freedom. Only the actual perception of what prevents freedom— as it is happening in the moment— is what can allow it to unfold. When a conditioned, prejudicial thought is seen for what it is as it happens in the moment, then and only then is there an opportunity to go beyond it. In so doing, freedom is there. It has always been there. Only our own self-centered thinking has blinded us to it.

Children are naturally full of life’s spirit. They do not seek it, for it is naturally theirs. At some point in our young lives, most of us become “conditioned” and begin to look for happiness outside ourselves in the approval of others or in material rewards of success. Why did we go astray looking for happiness when we already had it? How can we help children maintain their unconditioned state of innocence? Do you think this has nothing to do with the martial arts? It has everything to do with them, because a child who lives in “spiritual” innocence is a child who can do no harm.