There Are No Secrets

Are there secrets in the martial arts? I often read of well-meaning martial instructors using this phrase, inferring that hard work is the guarantee to progress, and that long-held and closely-kept secrets are the stuff of legend. Whenever I hear this statement applied to martial arts or, for that matter, any other pursuit, I try to avert my gaze so my eye-rolling will only be apparent on the inside; in other words, a secret.

Secrecy is a volatile topic, in or out of martial training. I know the subject is way too big for a simple article like this but it might at least stir up some thoughts.

First, I believe that secrets are everywhere. They are natural to our species; they come with the territory of being human and expand with our envy. Anyone with sisters knows that they keep secrets (thank God!) Parents, teachers, bosses…even that supposed universal public activity– science–is a long chain of one secret after another, from A-bombs to bickering mathematicians to infectious disease research held close until notoriety comes knocking. Our world–from the billions spent each year on industrial espionage to the billions supporting finance–could not even exist without secrets.

In the world of martial arts, secrets often start with teachers. Some teachers will give you nothing, letting you make every mistake on the way to skill, blanketing the very information you are practicing right in front of them. Other instructors watch you practice forms and techniques and explain only the obvious. “See these two moves, they are a kick followed by a punch.” Right, that’s why we call this a kick-punch. Some secrets have little value but they “keep everyone guessing,” and one has to wonder if they have any purpose other than shoring up the rather tenuous power relationship of master and student.

On the other side, secrets exist as a necessary part of the learning process. As with most informWhat are some secrets in the martial arts?ation-rich activities, a teacher is often obligated to keep his mouth shut about someone’s guard stance and its big hole, or exactly how to turn that wimpy kick into a winner, or even how to walk into a competition ring with the right attitude; all are secrets until the moment they can (and should) be revealed. Cases like this show that the teacher has learned his lesson. Tell the student a shortcut or a powerful improvement and, if it is too early, you have smothered a glorious revelation.

In rare unfortunate circumstances the teacher cannot find much raw talent, determination or patience and ends up keeping a technical point to himself for so long it turns into a secret. I had a teacher, Mr. Won Baines Hong, whose own teacher cried on his deathbed for the ten per cent of his martial knowledge he had held back. The situation was even sadder because Hong had been bought as an adopted son at an auction to carry on the family Kung Fu tradition. Past a certain point there is no way to turn enough time back and rescue some secrets.

Like a government report, some knowledge can end up secret just because there’s so much of it. Yang Chen Fu, originator of the most popular Tai Chi set in the world, often told his students, “If I did not tell yoAre there secrets in the martial arts?u this, you could study for three generations and never find it,” implying that this particular haystack would forever hide that needle.

There are secrets bearing information you would not want even if it were free and easy. And there are those petty souls who stifle information and make it secret simply for mean and self-serving reasons.

As you improve you may find yourself a source of secrecy. But some information–especially internal findings ranging from a hot hunch to bright revelation, wedding reality and meditative serenity–are just not for public scrutiny unless and until you feel sure of their validity. This takes time and attention. Remember, even Darwin reviewed his samples for twenty years AFTER his Beagle voyages, before releasing his findings.

artofsecrets4Say you’ve discovered a new way to align your punch, and it works every time! You know that inside 3000+ years of layered invention there must exist a treasure trove of gold, but how to confirm you have some of this right now? You may have the corner of a treasure map in your hands. Even if you keep your “secret” to yourself and just go ahead with your practice others can see the change in you. They may go so far as to comment.

Even as I write this, I feel a backward pressure against possibly co-opting your experience. Have it and hold it until you find a reason to tell someone. But be aware, it might be worthwhile to keep a few secrets in reserve: a certain move you’ve discovered, a new way to generate speed, a trick of perception. You earned them, and all of them really just add up to one lesson–that martial arts contain more than what meets the eye.

For teachers, especially, there is a secret to secrets themselves, and that is timing. A secret, in one sense, Are there secrets in the martial arts?is just held information; its revelation gives it particular value. Students beg, bargain and trade for secrets, but if they are not ready to receive them, they expire worthless. This is partly due to the fact that our brains process, relatively quickly, what we hear and see. But hearing your teacher tell you a ‘secret’–“Your punch is like a needle in cotton”–is not the same as you punching that way.  If told too soon, it is merely information to file and, possibly, distract. If told too late, it is ‘wisdom’ that is appreciated, but difficult to incorporate. The teacher’s job is to detect the moment when the secret can be absorbed and kept alive, feeding the student for practice sessions innumerable.

Secrets can be intentional or not, destructive or helpful, and sometimes just plain unavoidable. Secrets can be very real and very specific; like a key that pops open the lock. A secret can also be very simple, just something you were not aware of yet. Read this definition below, and unravel its plain-view “secret”…

A newspaper is better than a magazine. A seashore is a better place than the street. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Once successful, complications are minimal. Birds seldom get too close. Rain, however, soaks in very fast. Too many people doing the same thing can also cause problems. One needs lots of room. If there are no complications, it can be very peaceful. A rock will serve as an anchor. If things break loose from it, however, you will not get a second chance. *

Before you read further, examine your state. Everything is both hazy and yet somehow specific. It all just lies there. But once you see it, you can fly it like a kite*.

*from “On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not”
Robert Burton, 2009
St. Martin’s Griffin; Reprint edition (March 17, 2009)

5 Responses to “There Are No Secrets”

  1. Yaphett says:

    thanks for this, I feel enlightened in my confusion and confused in my enlightenment. Another great article, shi-fu Ted.

  2. Angelika says:

    I think it is not too bad to say something “too early” to a student. Myself I found out during the last years that I only hear and remember what is relevant to me. Anything that is not directly on my path is forgotten.

  3. Willis says:

    Interesting perspective.

  4. James Huston Johnson says:

    Secrets? No thanks.

    Just correct my basics again.

  5. Dai Yoshida says:

    Unfortunately, teaching in the US or other western countries secrets become more prevalent. Like mathematics, martial arts training is a progressive process. You must first teach them that multiplying two numbers makes the number bigger. If you also tell them that it will get smaller if you multiply negative and positive numbers together you are only going to confuse them.

    The students, regrettably will not see this as “doing them a favor”. “I paid for it. I deserve to know” is often their attitude.

    You first teach them that a fast straight punch from a safe distance will reach the opponent quicker. Most students will not stick around long enough to learn that a sure curved punch from a closed flank will prevent the opponent from counter-attacking and can be followed up with a lock and take-down. Most impatient students will leave your school bouncing around like any substandard kick boxer never knowing any better.

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