Friday, October 8, 2010

The Student's Creed - "The Unfortunate Power of Myth"

One of my favorite sites is - a site dedicated to debunking (or, more rarely, verifying) urban legends and myths. On television, I've enjoyed watching the Mythbusters similarly challenge "common sense" and "common knowledge" to disprove things that many people just took on faith as being true. I believe we all should be mythbusters in our daily lives, especially if we're in a position to inadvertently spread misinformation if we don't take efforts to stay informed.

As an Information Technology executive, I was constantly faced with computer-users who held misconceptions and flawed beliefs about how the technology they were using really worked. I did my best to set them straight, because I was an "expert" in my field. I felt I had a duty to clarify that defragging their hard drive was not going to keep the computer from crashing, nor were they automatically going to "catch" a virus just by connecting to the wi-fi at Panera Bread.

There are myths in the martial arts, as well. Some of them have been taught to me by my teachers, and I believed them because they were the experts. They're not entirely to blame - they learned those same myths from THEIR teachers, who were also supposed to be experts. The difference is that I dig and I question (though not during class) and I probe and I read, because by the time I'm a high-dan practitioner, many years from now, and people are looking to me as an "expert," I want to be sure I'm able to earn the faith and trust they put in me. Let's examine some of the myths I've been told or read about, and what I've since learned about them.

Myth #1 - Kobudo/Weaponry as farming implements

Until recently, pretty much everything I'd been told about Japanese karate weaponry - the nunchuku, the tonfa, the sai, and the kama - was that they were simple farming implements that had been taken up by the poor Okinawan farmers and used to fight off the evil Japanese Samurai warriors. Instead of debunking this myself, I'll refer you to the excellent blog Karate by Jesse, specifically this article where he provides ample physical and logical evidence that this wasn't - couldn't be - true. Jessie writes:

"where does the nunchaku come from then? Did it just pop up somewhere in Okinawa? Or was it, like the popular myth tells us
(repeated in book after book!), that the nunchaku was originally a rice flail which was converted by Japanese peasants into a “deadly battle field weapon” to fight against the feared samurai? Sorry, that’s wrong not only in one way, but four ways."

To paraphrase those four ways: the farmers were too busy farming to train in using weapons; the men who DID train are known by name (the kata are named after them) and they were all aristocrats; plus, actual rice-flails were long-handled tools, not like nunchaku at all; and, lastly, Okinawan is not the same as Japanese, at least if you're from Okinawa, so that part's wrong, too. I think Jesse's argument on this topic is pretty persuasive, and while his article was focused on nunchaku, the logic applies to the other weapons as well. It makes much more sense that the Pechin, or nobility, were the ones training in the martial arts, because they had the free time, the money, and the connections to do so. As a secondary source, the wikipedia article on Okinawan weaponry offers the same conclusion.

Myth #2 - Black belts are just white belts that got dirty

I was taught this myth almost twenty-five years ago, when I started as a Tae Kwon Do student at a local fitness club. I heard it repeated by the senior sensei at the dojo my kids trained at last year. The idea is that in the "old days" (always an unspecified time-period), Japanese karate students always wore the same belt, and over time it would turn black from sweat and blood. By the time they had mastered their style, their belt was always black. And it's a great myth, because it embodies so much that people associate with the martial arts - the dedication, the years of practice, the reverence for the belt and the training, and the attitude of "boy, those ancient Asians sure had some funky customs" that is so common to the martial arts (largely because westerners - and probably some modern Asians - too often don't take the time to dig into those customs to understand them or, as in this case, disprove them).

What it omits, sadly, is the reality that the Japanese have been, by custom, a fastidiously neat and clean people. They would NEVER allow their clothing to become so soiled that it would turn from white to black! If you use Occam's Razor on this myth (the notion that when comparing hypothesis, the simplest answer is most often true), it certainly makes more sense that students are told not to wash their belts because the different layers and types of material would shrink at different rates and cause the belt to fall apart - than that it's traditional in Japan not to wash your clothes when they're dirty. That's just wrong. Similarly, it makes more sense to conclude that when "belts" were introduced as rank designations into Japanese martial arts (beginning with Judo, if I understand correctly), the teacher took a differently-colored, black belt, to set him apart from the students. I'd reference the wiki article for this myth, however it has no citations so it's not really worth much.

Myth #3 - Black belts are automatically experts

Since we're on the subject of black belts, already, let's tackle this one. I think this myth is more common to people outside the martial arts community than inside it, though certainly some disreputable schools foster this misconception as well. The myth is that earning a "black belt" or a shodan, is the epitome of martial-arts training, and signifies mastery of the discipline. I won't belabor this one - we all know here that being a black belt simply means you've mastered the basics and are finally ready to really begin to learn, but it's certainly a myth that's prevalent outside the dojo. Earning a black belt in one or more styles is a significant achievement, and it's one I look forward to accomplishing myself one day, but overstating its grandeur can lead people to misplace their goals, focusing more on the belt rank than on their overall development as a martial artist. Johnathan Maberry talks about this and other myths in his Black Belt Magazine article "Myths and Misconceptions, part 1". It's a great article, by the way, touching on quite a number of other martial-arts myths beyond what I cover here.

Myth #4 - The power of positive thinking

This one's tough and I have to be careful what parts of it I debunk. Positive thinking is terrific, and is a great way for people to motivate themselves or just live happier, more fulfilling lives. I believe in positive thinking and I rely on it heavily to get me through tough times. Don't stop thinking positively!!

The part I want to debunk, however, relates to the running of the four-minute mile, because it's just such a great example of taking this concept to extremes. Conventional wisdom says that prior to 1954 when Englishman Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile, doctors and scientists and old grandmothers around the world were absolutely convinced that the human body simply couldn't run that fast. Everybody was so convinced that it was impossible that nobody even tried to break it (except that several other people were actively trying to break it at the time Bannister succeeded, but we'll get to that in a sec). So the whole world was overwhelmed with "negative thinking" where the four-minute mile was concerned, but little ol' Roger Bannister was too ignorant to know that or he was just possessed of a unique mental attitude that let him succeed against all evidence that said his heart and organs would explode, his skin would slough off, and a black hole would open at the finish line and suck him inside. His positive thinking let him overcome all the nay-sayers.

Certainly, Bannister was a pretty positive, goal-oriented, results-driven guy, but he wasn't a superhero. He's said to have debunked this myth himself in his memoir, "The Four Minute Mile," though I haven't read it so I can't confirm that. But just look at all of the other evidence beside what the man himself may have to say. The blog Beyond Growth breaks down all the facts and figures in the article "The 4-Minute Mile and the Myths of Positive Thinking" by Eric Normond.

Positive thinking is an awesome motivator, to be sure. It's vital to happiness and success in everyday life, and allows people to achieve the seemingly impossible. But there's a key differentiation there. Positive thinking won't make you fly, it won't make you breathe underwater, and if it were truly physiologically impossible to break the 4-minute mile, Bannister's happy thoughts would have amounted to zilch. Why is this important, and possibly the most insidious myth of all? Because if people are told they can do anything they believe, and they believe really, really hard, and then they still fail, where's that leave them? Positive thinking is an enabler, not a guarantee, and that's important. What's also important it to use good judgment and good research to decide what's really true, what's really possible.

Because that's the danger of myth, too - that we fall into the trap of just believing what everybody says is true. That can cause us to miss opportunities to learn, to achieve, and to succeed in new ways or at new levels.

Do you think I got it wrong, here? Do you have favorite myths you like to debunk when you encounter them? Share your thoughts in the comments!
The Student's Creed is a series of blog articles I'm posting at the ChampionsWay martial arts community. Since most of my Virtual Vellum readers probably don't visit that site, I'm posting them here as well.

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