“Don’t let it escalate,” my instructor offered as a final tip for the evening. We were hanging around the dojang practicing some self-defense techniques. I was a little disappointed when he said that. I’ll admit that I’ve daydreamed about snapping the elbow and repeatedly stomping on the face of some nameless gropey man, a drunk at a bar or perhaps a cocky teenager trying to show off for his friends, screaming “Women aren’t squeeze toys! If you do this to me or any woman again I’ll hunt you down and gut you like a f*cking fish!! Now apologize!!!”
Turns out that’s not really what self defense is about. My instructor likened it to how we handle our emotions in an argument, and we don’t want them to escalate out of our control. I was a little envious that this guy, twelve years my junior, already had it figured out when it took me many years of humiliating blow-ups and breakdowns and having to teach this crap at work for it to start to sink in. His practice had obviously given him much more than the ability to do a flying side kick.
I wondered how different I might have been had I stayed with taekwondo as a child–mentally more than physically. It would have given me purpose, focus, discipline, and most importantly, calmed me the hell down. One of the teenage black belts, who knows about my childhood foray into taekwondo, likes to joke that I’m really a fifth dan, and I always say, “No no no!” and waggle my hands at him. I really don’t think I would have stayed with it. The way my self-esteem plummeted–juxtaposed with my impossibly huge entitled ego–and priorities shifted (not necessarily for the better) as a teen and young adult was so powerful that I doubt taekwondo could have survived.
Maybe I had to go through all that unpleasantness to become who I am today. Had I not gotten to the brink of total self-destruction I would not have gained exponential growth through the help of trusted (and very patient) guides and the tools of observation, reflection, and accountability. If I’d started taekwondo even five years ago I still would have been brooding over how fat I thought I was or how much I wanted whatever jerk I was obsessed with for the moment to text me instead of quieting my monkey mind and focusing on my flying side kick.
I came back to taekwondo when my mind and heart were finally tired of fighting, and they were more open than they’d ever been. Oddly enough kicking and screaming on the outside finally stopped the kicking and screaming on the inside. I became more optimistic and laughed a lot more. My life was no longer spinning out of control while I wailed in the corner as the helpless (and blameless) victim. I was finally ready to, as my yoga teacher would say, “receive my practice.”
Besides, if your monkey mind is distracted by anything other than technique during a flying side kick you’ll fall flat on your face.