Do we even need that “harmony” stuff?

With personal development being advertised as a training goal in Aikido and other martial arts, the question of its usefulness does come up. If our primary training goal is self-defence, do we still need personal development and philosophy? Are they useful towards that goal, or a secondary consideration at best? The answer as usual is the entirely unsatisfying “it depends”.

Personally I think they are useful, even necessary to some degree for one simple reason: While some people show up to class and only really need martial skills and knowledge to defend themselves, this is not the case for everyone. Many people who starts a martial arts class do not already possesses the mental and emotional skills that are essential to self-defence. To a large degree, self-defence is a mental skill. It requires us to have the emotional capacity to take the necessary actions, whether that is to not get sucked into a conflict, de-escalate an argument, or put hands on another human being and use force to stop them. Therefore, if we want to teach self-defence, we need to be able to help people develop those skills as well as tactics and physical techniques.

Let me first explain what I mean by self-defence being a mental skill. In order to protect ourselves, it is likely that we will have to take action in a stressful situation. We need to be able to be under stress and still make good decisions. We can have the best technique in the world, but if for example someone screaming insults in our face throws us completely off our game, it’s not going to help much. We might know what to look out for, but without the ability to control our attention and maintain focus, we might not notice a potential danger. We might have good situational awareness, but if we do not possess the ability to resist peer pressure, we might not act on that awareness when we’re about to be pressured into something unsafe. Without the assertiveness to set good boundaries, we might end up being manipulated into a situation of such disadvantage that no degree of physical skill will save us. There are some people for whom even the fundamental thought “I am worth defending” is a goal to reach, rather than a reality. This is not even taking into account creeps and other low-level predators that are most effectively dealt with by using soft skills, and who prey primarily on people without the emotional capacity to deal with them decisively.

Additionally, a lot of the skills we are taught in self-defence run counter to our social conditioning. Many of us have been taught all our lives not to be rude to strangers, not to hurt people etc. While in normal circumstances, these may be appropriate, there is no magic button that makes all of this conditioning disappear in a self-defence situation where we need to be rude to the predator circumventing our boundaries, or to hurt the person attacking us. One of the great things about martial arts in general and Aikido in particular is that they provide a fun and comfortable environment to practice dangerous physical skills with friends. It is a very different thing to use the same skills outside the dojo, and the emotional difference needs to be addressed in training.

Lastly, the flipside of the above is that some people, young men in particular, might have trouble walking away from a confrontation. We’re naturally inclined to fight other young men for social status, a tendency that can be reinforced with social conditioning. Things as utterly trivial as an insult to our favourite sports team can suck us in and escalate into physical confrontations. For many of us, even if we avoid the fight, unless we can blame it on external circumstance – friends holding us back being the most common – we feel the pull of an unfinished script from the fight that didn’t happen, and it bothers us. A natural consequence of good training should be the disappearance of the insecurity that drives this, and the ability to walk away unbothered.

These are just the martial considerations, of course good personal development through training should also make our lives better in general. Better mental health and happiness, plus the ability to deal with difficult situations that fall outside of self-defence are very real benefits. For most of us in fact they are far more valuable than self-defence skills as such. But even from a purely martial perspective, unless a school has serious preselection of students – which almost always excludes those people who actually need the skills – these aspects of training are really important.

4 thoughts on “Do we even need that “harmony” stuff?”

  1. I believe there is a certain amount of misunderstanding in both martial arts and self-defence communities over these issues. Firstly, they are marketing differentiators to attract (new) students and most martial arts and a lot that passes itself off as self-defence training are not necessarily coherent programs of either.

    It cannot be overstated enough that self-defence is an affirmative legal defence to provide a rational legal excuse as to why you used force. If your self-defence students cannot competently articulate and apply the law, as it stands in your specific region, you are not teaching them self-defence but use of force.

    The application of force is easier to teach and it’s by far the sexy part of self-defence but its is the very small tip of an iceberg. Where the very much larger submerged part of it is often ignored. If your martial art can trace it’s roots back to feudal times, I would suggest it may be a little behind, terms of it’s morality, justification, and application of reasonable force.

    The morality of many traditional arts to lend themselves well to self-development but are not necessarily good for it. In the 15 years I studied Aikido, I derived a great deal of personal development. It would not be untrue to suggest that it changed my life profoundly. As for self-defence I overtly learnt nothing, although I was able to exercise rationality and remain calmer in stressful situations this was a by product and not from any coherent and thought out training plan. There were and are a great many who I met on the journey for whom it was no more than good exercise, that left little to no impression on them.

    A martial art can offer a degree of personal development in terms of respect to their declared values of discipline, honour, integrity, etc. However, I again question if they offer anything useful in terms of genuine self development. Perhaps, I am unkind but I cannot remember the last time I was in a martial arts class where the selection and rationalisation of goal setting, or an understanding of consequences of negative self talk and or beliefs was discussed.

    This neither validates or invalidates there may be some learning of both skills. In the end unless backed up by a decent pedagogy, strategies and learning outcomes, it’s really more about marketing some enjoyable exercise.


    1. Agreed that training should be backed by pedagogy, strategy and learning outcomes to be properly useful. I also agree that personal development is often taken to happen automatically, rather than addressed in a focused manner, and the legal aspects are often ignored. I think many people will have had a similar experience as you with traditional arts, and to doubt their usefulness for either SD or personal development is not uncommon.
      I personally think they offer a lot, based on my own, different, experience of 15 years of Aikido. Virtually all the profound impacts on people’s lives I’ve seen martial arts have have been from personal development that was a direct result of training. I do think I was lucky with the instructors I had, and there may be some bias on my part, as it is also hard to separate out what came from other training.
      Final though: there is nothing wrong with purely enjoyable exercise, as long as it’s marketed as such. I think using especially self-defence as a mere marketing tool without making sure it’s adequately addressed is… problematic.


  2. I like it. One of the most effective self defence applications of personal development is the sense of comfort and confidence that makes you a less desirable target. But therein lies something that has made me uncomfortable for years and is also present in walking away: isn’t it morally ambiguous to walk away or be a less desirable/likely target when the corollary is that someone else potentially less able it going to become the target. We’re not vigilantes, we don’t want to, or realistically aren’t able to, defend or “save” everyone, but aren’t we putting people in real danger ?

    I don’t know how to argue with myself on that one enough to be comfortable.


    1. The way I see it is that if the blame is purely on the attacker (as it should be), they are the ones responsibly for picking a victim. My part is making the only potential target I have control over, myself, less appealing. I have little moral issue with it on a personal level.
      Where it is an issue is if personal defence is sold as the only measure society wide (it’s rarely the only measure, but some acts as if it is or should be…). I personally can have an impact by improving my own safety, but wider approaches need to include more as well.


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