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Why the Dojo is Different


When you walk into a dojo, it’s a truism to say you’ve enter a different world and a special space. But, if it’s a commonplace sentiment, it’s also an important observation. For contemporary Westerners and Americans walking the martial path, our training has implications for our lives. And, from my perspective, the rigorous pursuit of the Martial Way is decidedly contrarian—it bucks many of the trends and expectations of modern consumer culture. Consider:

1. The Dojo is Not Burger King

Modern consumer culture is oriented toward satisfying individual cravings. These desires are often ephemeral and inconsequential, but they are portrayed as urgent and important nonetheless. And, since the customer is always right, you get to choose what you want. Burger King, with its “have it your way” approach was an early pioneer of what is known in the digital age as “unbundling”—providing consumers with the option to mix and match features to suit their whims.

Contrast this with the dojo. Any traditional or modern orthodox system presents students with the opportunity to apprentice themselves to a learning experience that is designed to take them through an experience that stresses conformity in technical elements and a fidelity to a code and method of learning that is imposed on students. There is no opportunity to pick and choose in the dojo. You can’t get it your way. As a matter of fact, it is the Dojo Way or the highway.

2. The Dojo is Not Amazon

In a consumer culture, there is strong emphasis on self-satisfaction and immediate gratification. The end is prized. And the more quickly the end can be achieved, the better. Thinking about point #1, it becomes obvious why Burger King is categorized as “fast” food. The contemporary drive to get things and to get them quick is most breathtakingly illustrated by the remarkable growth of Amazon. It is not simply the presentation of a digital marketplace with an ever-expanding roster of goods that makes Amazon so seductive, it is also the remarkable efficiency with which the company has developed its distribution and fulfillment capabilities. As a result, you can identify something you want and, in many cases, have it delivered to your door within hours or days.

In the dojo, journey and destination are inextricably linked. And too much focus on the desired end-result means that you neglect the absolutely vital experience that is a necessary precondition for any achievement. Time, effort, and consistency are fundamental elements to operating in the dojo. There are no shortcuts. No guarantee of next day delivery. People looking for the shortest route to a dan rank will inevitably fail to persevere in training long enough to get anywhere close to their goal.

3. It’s Not a Safe Space

Although probably exaggerated, a lack of emotional resilience and insistence on a highly subjective worldview that brooks no external challenges appears to be a troublesome feature of modern life. It’s often associated with elite liberal arts institutions of higher learning. But a general cultural drift toward the snowflake end of the spectrum is out there no matter your politics. The right is just as bad. The remarkable dumbing down of discourse in the country is, in many ways, a feature of the right-wing echo chamber. A disdain for inconvenient facts, and even the suggestion that facts and science are suspect constructs, is an insult to us all. If science is fake, how come my car starts every morning?

Once again, I blame consumer culture. If you’re supposed to get what you want all the time, that would seem to imply that the world needs to conform to your desires and preconceived notions. Anything else is not only disturbing, it’s wrong.

Worried about getting your feelings hurt? The dojo is not for you. In fact, while the general public tends to think of martial arts training in physical terms (since they experience it vicariously through consumer entertainment) I think that the most challenging aspects of training are mental ones. These systems have been carefully crafted to stress you out, and once you’ve reached a basic level of physical conditioning the real stress is all mental. The stress of concentration over time as you stay focused on a long-term goal. The stress of being willing to admit imperfection and seek improvement. The stress of not being the consumer queen or king at the center of the equation and instead being willing to adopt the humility needed to take on the yoke of training and obey its dictates despite confusion and discomfort and occasional humiliation. As a result, the dojo is a very important space, but not a safe one.

4. It’s a Structure without Walls

There’s a great deal of talk these days in America that’s couched in terms of us and them, in-groups and out-groups. I think the cause is largely one created by the sheer complexity of modern life. We may not like to admit it, and the American fascination with rugged individualism is seductive, but the reality is that we are all reliant on a complex web of systems, activities, and relationships that provide us with food and shelter, clothing, commodities, public services, education, and healthcare. Not to mention emotional support. And when you compound this complexity with social diversity, the yearning for some simple environment—where everyone looks the same, or speaks the same language, or has the same religious beliefs—is as understandable as it is seductive.

But it’s also a pipedream. The long history of human beings is one of constant change, contact, absorption of ideas and beliefs and populations. The traditional motto of the United States is not exclusionary, but rather e pluribus unum—out of many, one. However imperfectly we’ve lived up to that ideal, it’s a very real reminder that we should not be too afraid of the Other. For most Americans, a hundred years or so ago our ancestors were the Other.

The dojo is a perfect example of how ideas and practices from Other places can be absorbed into our lives. Every time you walk into the dojo, you’re engaging in an experiment in multiculturalism. It’s an acknowledgment that no one group has a monopoly on insight, wisdom and creativity. All of us train because there is something compelling about Martial Ways. These arts are products of a very different culture. There are good things about this culture and bad things. But we don’t reject it out of hand because it’s foreign. Instead we engage in a mature—and nuanced—response to aspects of another culture, recognizing both good and bad and accepting what is positive.

So, when I think about the dojo, I think about a place that fosters highly contrarian ideals. In the face of rampant individualism, it encourages judicious conformity and stresses community. In a time of high consumerism, it advocates delayed gratification. It’s a challenging space that pushes us out of our comfort zone in the effort to confront complex challenges. In a time of growing tribalism, it embodies an openness to other people and other views.

Being fully present in the dojo is not always easy. It’s not even always pleasant. But it’s a reminder of the ways in which pursue our better selves. And that’s what keeps me coming back.

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