When I first got interested in martial arts, I had no idea where to start. All I knew is that I wanted to learn how to fight—not because I had a chip on my shoulder, but because I always admired the discipline, self-possession, and overall spirit I’d seen in great fighters and martial artists. I had played football in high school, which taught me a lot, but left a big blind spot, not only in terms of the quiet, calm strength I saw reflected in martial arts, but also in terms of practical self-defense. I knew I didn’t know how to fight, and my body knew, too, so it would send me anxiety signals any time it seemed like maybe, possibly, a situation could come to blows.
And so it was that I found myself a freshman at the University of Oregon, looking through the course listings under physical education for martial arts—a list of thirty or forty classes with names like Aikido, Karate, Jeet Kune Do, Jiu Jitsu—with absolutely no idea what each of them had to offer.
So I started out with a class simply called Self Defense, which I immediately dropped after realizing it was purely of the women’s, walk-home-safely-at-night variety. An important class to teach, just not at all what I was looking for. From there, I went to Karate, which was fun and educational, but lacked the element of practicality I was after. We learned a lot of forms, but it seemed those forms were only effective against other people doing Karate. What about a crazy drunk guy in a bar who decides he wants to start something? He’s not going to be so predictable. So I kept looking.
Eventually a friend of mine turned me on to Judo, which was more hard hitting as a sport, and definitely got me in far better shape than I had been in months. I learned to fall properly, how to throw, and how to pin. There was some hugely useful stuff there, but still, the whole thing was sport-based; it was limited to its rules, and it could only be guaranteed to work in a context where everyone was doing Judo. What about in life, when there are no rules?
Eventually, I made my big breakthrough by discovering Jeet Kune Do. If you’re not familiar, it’s the martial art created by Bruce Lee which essentially combines all the most effective aspects of all other systems. It was sort of a precursor to mixed martial arts in that respect.
Apparently, Bruce Lee had a similar experience to mine (though of course he was far more talented). He experimented with many traditional systems, but found them all limited. So, being the innovator he was, he simply took what worked and left behind what didn’t. No rules, no limitations. In fact, that was the motto of Jeet Kune Do according to my teacher: No way as way; no limitation as limitation.
It was a martial art born of critical thinking: not just taking information blindly, on authority, but seeking and investigating for yourself, not stopping until your intuition is satisfied, and your intellect has had a chance to examine what you’ve been shown. After all, what if your teacher is wrong? What if the system you’re working with has hidden weaknesses? At the end of the day, you’re the one who’s going to take the hit, so you’re the one who has to take responsibility for evaluating the information you’re given.
My situation as a naïve freshman is one we find ourselves a lot in these days: overwhelmed by information and possibilities, and not knowing where to start, or how to process and evaluate the flood of information once we have started. Every day we’re bombarded by countless information sources, all of them vying for attention, and not all of them having our best interests in mind. Even if they do, they might not have the right answers. More than ever, we need to learn to think critically just to sanely navigate the high seas of an average google search on a new subject.
True martial arts make critical thinking easy, in a way, because if your technique is wrong, you’ll find out, and it will hurt. But in other aspects of life, it’s easy to go for years with wrong assumptions or approaches to problems and not even know it. For me, learning about martial arts was a baptism by fire into the essentials of critical thinking, and it’s given me more respect than ever for martial artists of all stripes, because the virtues learned in the fight expand into all aspects of your life.