Everyone from Bruce Lee to Yoda has espoused the virtues of maintaining an open mind. There are many anecdotes and quotations that justify the need to “empty your cup,” “unlearn what you have learned,” or otherwise let go of preconceived notions in order to be prepared to receive the lessons of your instructor.
That’s all well and good, but the problem is that an “open mind” can also lead individuals to accept wildly unrealistic strategies and techniques, become subject to cult-like behaviours and attitudes, or be misled to assume that every instructor in every martial art is equally competent.
Even less extreme examples illustrate potential misunderstandings on this topic. I once attended a seminar with my Sensei, who is a celebrated historian and renowned expert in putting kata into realistic self-defense contexts. At a dinner after a hard day of training, one of the black belts at the table mentioned a technique that relied on channeling Chi.
One of my fellow Koryu Uchinadi instructors, after giving me a look to let me know how hard he’d been biting his tongue, finally stated, “I call bullshit.”
This story reinforces a conundrum that I have always had difficulty reconciling: why do some who recognize the value of practical martial arts also fail to recognize the lack of value in approaches that rely on mythical forces to succeed?
So what is the difference between having an open mind and just being gullible? Where should you draw the line between being flexible in ideology and being willing to accept anything?
Many seem to equate having an open mind as merely an absence of critical thinking. This is a dangerous false equivalency—turning off the critical thinking part of your brain makes you likely to be the butt of the joke in the story above.
Being closed-minded means dismissing suggestions or ideas out of hand, without sufficient empirical evidence or experience to make an educated judgement on whether they are valid or not. Critical thinking means just the opposite: accept the proposal as a valid hypothesis, then test it to see whether it proves correct or not before coming to a conclusion.
The testing process can’t be on a strictly individual basis either. We all have strengths and weaknesses to our technical prowess, and so to remove individual biases, we need a large enough sample size. There are techniques that may be high percentage for some practitioners that are relatively low percentage for others, based on stature, flexibility, age, individual style or preference, and of course, level of skill.
However, if a technique consistently fails to work against any level of resistance for every practitioner, then you can safely conclude that it doesn’t work. That is not failing to have an open mind; that is merely doing your due diligence before accepting reality.
Some optimistic and enthusiastic martial artists seem to subscribe to the Lego philosophy: “Everything is awesome!” However, for awesome things to be awesome, they need to be contrasted against things that suck. Critical thinking is what, ultimately, allows you to tell the difference.
I would assert that part of open-mindedness is also attempting to avoid dogmatic thinking and adhering to a single martial art, style, or instructor as the ultimate answer.
Everyone would argue that their own martial art and style is “best” for the outcome they hope to achieve—if it wasn’t, they would switch to another. We are all influenced by our personal narratives and subject to confirmation bias. We generalize based on personal experiences and stereotypes.
To avoid falling into the trap of dogmatic thinking, it is necessary to be aware of these tendencies and make an effort to overcome them. This is the only way to avoid being blinded by rhetoric that promotes a single method as the solution to everything. Developing a healthy respect for other disciplines is definitely a sign of an open mind.
In today’s market, the truth is that in every martial art, you can probably find people who are doing practical, efficient, and innovative things. You can probably also find people doing unrealistic, hopeless, and inane things within the same martial art. By indulging in dogmatic thinking—assuming that any one or two data points on this wide spectrum represents the full distribution—we run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Principles Dictate Creativity:
Many also see individual creativity as a virtue unto itself, a means of self-expression, a way of liberating oneself from the restraints of the dogmatic thinking discussed above. For those people, I would suggest art or poetry.
Is creativity possible in martial arts? Absolutely. Is it inherently good to be creative in martial arts? Not necessarily.
Creating something new from scratch—a kata, a two-person drill, a heavy bag combination, an application for a traditional form, whatever—can be an enlightening process, making you question your assumptions and face challenges you wouldn’t normally face when just regurgitating information from your instructor or sticking to the prescribed template. However, for this to be beneficial, it also must conform to the principles of martial arts. Otherwise, you will create something brand new and ultimately not of any use.
These principles we need to adhere to, regardless of style, include:
Understanding how the human body functions allows you to put yourself in advantageous positions and your opponent in dangerous ones, as well as execute techniques with ideal power, stability, and leverage.
- Fighting Tactics
Selecting techniques and methods that will be effective under the appropriate circumstances is paramount to success. Beginners often get this wrong when they learn a technique then try to apply it everywhere, including situations where it won’t work. A common example is when someone holds a headlock even when they are stuck on their back; it is annoying for the person on top, but poses no real threat.
- Overcoming Resistance
Realistically, your opponent is not a punching bag; they will react to what you do and the openings that you leave them. If you have not accounted for this in your design, then you are simply creating impractical choreography that will not develop functional spontaneity.
Every style might do this differently, whether by controlling distance using footwork, clinching or seizing, or pinning the opponent on the ground. However, the ultimate goal of every martial art is to control another person’s violence. If you have not included a mechanism to establish and maintain control of your partner, then you have not met the primary criteria of usefulness.
In martial arts, creativity should always be a means to an end. If you can’t articulate what that end is, and you’re just developing new drills for the sake of developing them, it would be best to take a step back and see whether your creativity is leading you astray.
While we all recognize the value of an open mind—and are frustrated by those who stubbornly refuse to consider anyone else’s input or experience—few take the time to define what an open mind is. For me, open mindedness means applying critical thinking to determine the validity of a hypothesis, avoiding dogmatic propaganda, and using creativity as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. That way, while there is room for growth and personal improvement, this progress is guided by sound principles rather than merely accepting everything that an instructor or style says.
While it is certainly important to maintain Shoshin (初心 – literally “beginner’s mind”) as you progress in martial arts, it is equally important to learn from your experience and separate what works from what doesn’t. Otherwise, you run the risk of simply continuing to chase your own tail, rather than advancing along the path.