Outside the dojang I do whatever I want, but during a workout, I set all that aside and follow the rules. It’s nice to have one place in life where I can choose to do what I’m told without questioning everything.
Because we are tremendous nerds, my wife and I have been watching a lot of Star Trek lately. I’m frequently struck by the extreme devotion the crews demonstrate for the captain of the Enterprise, whether Kirk or Picard. The adventures are so fantastic, and the scenarios are often so harrowing, that the efficiency of naval discipline is essential—if organized any other way, these groups of shipmates simply wouldn’t survive.1 The trust and respect they show translates into immediate and decisive action, which saves their bacon again and again. It occurs to me that this is, essentially, a manifestation of “Respect the Elder” as described in an earlier post on the subject.
I started training in college, a time in my life when I was driven by anger and rebellion as much as anything else. Sometimes this took a constructive form—reading challenging literature, writing gritty fiction, studying the world’s great spiritual traditions—but at other times, it manifested in more anarchic forms, which I’ll lead to each reader’s imagination.
When I see these fictional crews’ respect for their captains, I’m reminded of how I viewed Daniel Hays, my first Taekwondo teacher when I took up the practice of Jidokwan in 1989. Daniel led a free and exciting existence, full of adventure and the search for truth, not unlike the life I aspired to when I was nineteen:
a certified ship’s captain, he had sailed all over the world in all manner of vessels
- he lived in the only house on a tiny island in a tidal river that he and his dad built in a style he called “Japanese Victorian”
- as students, we might reasonably expect him to attack without warning as we walked across campus 2
- I heard from a reliable source that he was spotted doing a flying side kick over the hood of his car—a Suzuki Samurai (of course) 3
Because he was such a cool guy, he’d earned my respect, and I was willing to listen to things from him that I wouldn’t have accepted from many others. A pivotal moment came early in my training, which would shape my whole life inside and outside the training hall, when he told us a version of “Respect the Elder.” When a guy with this life story told our class, “Outside the dojang I do whatever I want, but during a workout, I set all that aside and follow the rules. It’s nice to have one place in life where I can choose to do what I’m told without questioning everything.” He said that once you decide to follow a martial arts instructor, part of the pact is to suspend your preconceptions about certain things when in the dojang and just see where their teaching leads. I resolved to give it a try and see what it was like.
As Daniel described it, following the rules (and the instructor’s interpretation of the rules) meant that a student should unhesitatingly do whatever the teacher said. 4 This might mean trying my best when learning a new technique, or trying to move my hips or legs in a way that “didn’t feel right” based on my intuition and previous athletic training, or working to become more flexible, which I wasn’t in my late teens and early twenties. It might mean interacting in a certain structured but friendly way with other students, who I might not have liked or chosen to socialize with in other circumstances. It required trust in his judgment and methods, and the promise was: this might not make sense now, but it will later, once you’ve gotten to a new place in my journey along the Way.
To clarify: Taekwondo is not a cult, and it’s not asked or expected that students entirely subordinate their reason and freedom to a martial arts instructor. It’s typical for students to have questions and doubts, and they should certainly ponder these issues outside of class. If anything seems confusing, incorrect, or not to square with other things that a student knows (or thinks they know), they should always feel free to bring these questions up with the head instructor (or another senior student or instructor). Seeking these answers is an important part of training, and most good teachers would want their students to do so. The key ideas are:
- save questions that will take more than a few seconds to answer until after class. if it’s a really complex issue, make an appointment to talk with the instructor at a mutually convenient time. this lets students use their time in class to focus on training, and let thinking/processing happen at its own pace. it also helps prevent one student from consuming too much of an instructor’s time at the expense of others who are training that day.
- if the answer to the question still doesn’t sound right or make sense, trust the instructor’s experience and follow their advice anyway. maybe keep a journal to record your observations and share your thoughts every few months. they may change with time, or as you gain more knowledge, your instructor may have new ideas for you, which may make things suddenly snap into focus.
While training with Daniel, I can’t say that I remember any soul-searching from tensions between my natural inclinations and what Daniel asked me to do in class. I remember a number of things that respect and trust helped me overcome:
- differences between how I was used to using my body/weight as a competitive tennis player and what my comrades in training were asked to do as martial arts students. many things didn’t make sense until explained outside of class, or until I had insights on my own—sometimes months or years later.
- fear of diving headfirst into a forward roll when learning how to fall/roll in the woods near our dojang. I’m especially protective of my head and neck, so even on a base of soft soil, only blind trust in Daniel’s judgment helped me dive over a kneeling classmate into a forward roll.
- when he moved to Idaho after I’d been training with him for three semester and a summer, he asked me to continue with his appointed successor at the college, trusting that all would work out. I continued my training in a different Taekwondo style, and eventually my good fortune was to have another respected Jidokwan teacher reenter my life in the year before I graduated from college. I was able to work with Jeff Waller during my last semester at school, then follow him to Vermont, where I progressed through the brown belt ranks and trained for my Il Dan test in 1994.
More than any of those small- and big-picture events, though, Daniel gave me an authority figure I could count on and traditions I could respect at a time in my life when I was extremely skeptical of either. Those first few years of training gave me an unshakable respect for the customs and philosophical framework of martial arts training in general, and specifically in the particular methods we have in our Jidokwan school. This sense of total trust, stemming from Respect the Elder, would help me at two other memorable times in my later study of Jidokwan.
When I moved to Vermont to train for my Il Dan test, Jeff took me through a grueling four-month long physically intensive period of training. We’d go to the gym together six days a week and lift weights, then run, usually for 2-3 hours each day. Partially because I was living in an apartment above his chiropractic clinic, which he rented me for the princely sum of $100/month, but mainly out of respect for a Taekwondo teacher who was giving me so much of his time, I helped with chores around his house—cooking dinner, doing yard work, helping him move furniture as he opened a new office—all these obligations on top of three weekly Taekwondo classes and at least a couple of additional one-on-one sessions. Never before or since have I been so relentlessly physically exhausted. It was classic overtraining: I woke up exhausted each morning, only to do it all again. . . and again. . . and again. I injured my knee the first day I was there, and the continuous training made it get steadily worse, adding more stress and anxiety to the proceedings. I’d like to say that I accepted this all stoically, but the truth is that there was a lot of muttering to myself about gratuitous sadism over those months. In the end, after much sweat and pain, I had a satisfying test for Il Dan, but the lesson I learned from Jeff’s firm and ambitious training regimen was life-changing. Forever after that, I understood that my strength, aerobic capacity, and all other aspects of my physical conditioning were much more malleable and under my direct control than I’d previously imagined. He gave me a road map to controlling all aspects of my physical condition, which has helped me immeasurably with goals and experiences I’ve had in the subsequent 23 years.
There have been many occasions when trust and respect for my current teacher, Mr. Sean Owen, have helped shape my understanding of Taekwondo—and thus for our entire school. Most of these concern leadership of the dojang and other matters that I’ll hold in confidence. One, though, is a dramatic and unforgettable experience that I can share. For my Sam Dan (third degree black belt) test, Mr. Owen asked me to break a stack of eight concrete blocks with my head. As I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, I’m very protective of my head, and this task is close to the bottom of the list of things I’d voluntarily do in Taekwondo. That said, I understood that breaks with the head have long been a signature move of Mr. Owen’s, so his asking me to perform this feat carried an additional and special layer of meaning. Even if I’d been inclined to try to maneuver my way into a different break, knowing that he was asking me to do something special made it unthinkable for me to even consider it. Old-timers in my school may remember that break, which I’m especially proud of attempting precisely because I was afraid and reluctant to do it. . . but that I accepted for no other reason than my senior asked me to.
These are just a few examples, from everyday to life-changing, of the kinds of personal transformations that become possible with absolute trust in one’s martial arts teachers. This trust stems from Respect the Elder, which is why the concept is important enough to be included in a very short list, just five items long, of the foundational Tenets of our Jidokwan style.
1 Although the stated purpose of their voyages is peace and exploration, it’s always clear that these are military ships, organized around military protocols, so this makes sense. Following orders isn’t optional in any martial context, it’s absolutely required at all times. Soldiers and sailors tend to have great respect for authority and hierarchical roles, possibly by nature and definitely by necessity. In the show, as in martial arts practice, the tension between peaceful goals and physical force—between is one of the fundamental thematic drivers. It’s fascinating to see how differently this tension plays out in the two different shows, depending on the times they were created: the fears and concerns of an audience at the height of the cold war, against a background of radical social change in the late 1960s, compared to a differently progressive social era dawning at the end of the cold war in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
2 This actually happened now and then. You’re walking past a bush on the way to the dining hall when suddenly. . . HEADLOCK!
3 For a glimpse into what Daniel’s like, read his account of sailing around Cape Horn with his dad, a best-selling book they co-wrote as a joint memoir, My Old Man and the Sea. It’s not only a fascinating and exciting adventure, it reveals the character of the Jidokwan instructor who set the template for my life as a martial artist. If you like that book, you might also like On Whale Island: Notes from a Place I Never Meant to Leave, about Daniel’s year on a remote island in Nova Scotia.
4 I remember hearing more than one of my Jidokwan teachers using the phrase, for one reason or another, “Taekwondo is not a democracy!” I’d love to know where this came from, since at least three of my seniors have said those exact words. Bet there’s an entertaining story behind where they all got it.