Tae kwon do, like many traditional martial arts, has a list of “aims to achieve” which are the attributes we hope to develop through our training to make us better people in mind, body, and spirit. Of our five aims to achieve, indomitable spirit often strikes me as the most important; possibly due to the fact that many of the other aims like courtesy, perseverance, integrity, and self-control are built around this quality.
Indomitable spirit is also unique because it is somewhat difficult to define. It is one of those things that is hard to put into words, but you know it when you see it. It might be considered a culmination of things like intensity, determination, perseverance, and passion. Some might call it a “never-say-die” attitude or maybe an internal energy that drives a person to push themselves to their full potential. Oftentimes in the martial arts, spirit is thought of as a way of showing your respect for your art, your instructor, and your fellow martial artists. For example, exhibiting good sportsmanship and respect for an opponent is often viewed as a strong reflection of a person’s martial spirit.
Recently I watched two separate videos of martial arts events that could not possibly be more divergent in terms of demonstrating the proper spirit of a true martial artist. The first event was a big UFC fight between champion Conor McGregor vs. rival fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov. I stopped following MMA fights several years ago, but I was aware of their rivalry from news items about Conor violently attacking Khabib’s bus months ago and getting into legal trouble as a result. After months of bad blood, personal insults, and verbal sparring between the two fighters, Khabib choked out Conor and then leaped out of the octagon to attack some members of Conor’s team. Both fighters’ camps started brawling and the whole thing resulted in arrests, fines, and bad publicity for the sport.
I didn’t see much of what went on during the actual post-fight brawl, but instead I watched a lot of video commentaries from martial artists and MMA enthusiasts online. What I witnessed time and time again was feelings of sadness and disappointment for what happened and discussions about how this does not reflect the proper spirit of the martial arts. While it can be stated without question that these men are great athletes and skilled fighters, it is hard to call them martial artists when you witness the violent attacks; out-of-control behavior; vicious insults involving religion, country of origin, and family members; and a complete disrespect for one another as opponents. A competition with skilled martial artists should be inspiring and should encourage the people watching to strive for such spirit and discipline for themselves. This event was nothing short of shameful and did nothing but build hype for big profits and help represent mixed martial arts as the “human cockfighting” that the late John McCain labeled it back when it started.
In start contrast to this UFC event, the other video I witnessed was from some sort of karate demonstration. It featured three black belts in an attention stance ready to demonstrate a kata. In the center of these karateka, there was a fourth member of the team positioned down on the floor. Upon closer inspection you quickly realize that the reason this person is on the floor is because he does not have normal arms and legs. Where each of his arms should be he instead has small stubby hands barely extending out from the shoulders. His legs are also short, barely reaching to knee length, and they appear not to work properly since he cannot stand on them. Once the form begins, each person snaps into each stance and strike with focus and precision; including the person on the floor. Despite his shortened limbs and his lack of mobility, he manages to swiftly change position in synch with the other members of the group, and does it with such intensity and devotion to his art that you can see him blocking and kicking in his mind with equal strength and skill as his team members.
This video reminded me of a recent demonstration my instructor did for our black belt event in which he demonstrated a 5th dan form with his arm completely immobilized in a very restrictive shoulder sling. He had spent months recovering from a very involved shoulder surgery from a serious biking accident and was told to avoid moving his arm, since any further damage would potentially ruin this only chance at surgically repairing his shoulder joint. My instructor talked to us about how difficult it was for him to not do any training, and spoke about the revelation he had when he decided to just work through his forms slowly, filling in the movements for his damaged limb only in his mind. He demonstrated what that training looked like for all of us, and despite the inability to move that arm, his spirit and mental focus allowed him to complete the form in a way that showcased the beauty of the form and the true spirit of the art.
In both of these last two cases, despite overwhelming obstacles, these martial artists demonstrated what indomitable spirit truly is. Certainly it takes a lot of courage and spirit to go into the ring or octagon to face an opponent; nobody is debating that. However, it is the proper attitude, discipline, and respect that defines the true spirit of a martial artist. A devotion to training, an unwavering mental focus, a desire to keep pushing the limits no matter how daunting, the perseverance to never give up, and the respect for the art and other martial artists: these are all part of this most important aim to achieve: indomitable spirit.