12 Lessons The Martial Arts Teach About Virtues and Ethics

The martial arts are an endless source of character development and ethical training. What it also gives is an unparalleled advantage for those wanting to truly incorporate these traits into their daily lives. It teaches you to become the type person that these qualities come from.

The Martial arts teaches you not only what virtue is, but how to implement it practically into your daily life. Understanding is only part of the journey. It implements a code of ethics and then requires you to become someone that can show these positive character traits in the adrenal state.

What is the adrenal state? Well, read on and you will find out what the martial arts can teach you about virtue through high stress situations where you react using good character because it is the person you have become. It can also teach you a lot about yourself in the process.

#1 Justice

There are three aspects to justice. There is also the societal and individual role to play in making sure that an environment and its members are just.

These are the three aspects:

  • Recompense
  • Deterrent
  • Rehabilitation

Two of these are in the realm of the society and are above what an individual should attempt to take upon themselves. Recompense means making restitution or paying a debt in a punitive manner. This is obviously in the hands of elected governments on the local and larger scale.

Individuals should also not assert themselves in the role of elected governments in the rehabilitation role. This is delegated by societies in judgement and application to professionals in their respective fields.

What individuals and the martial arts student included are asked to do is to take up for the weak when their freedoms are being infringed upon. If someone is being abused and this sometimes is the students themselves, the code of ethics in the martial arts calls them to act.

This doesn’t mean vigilante style justice. Self defense and the defense of others has nothing to do with revenge. It has everything to do with the safety and freedom of the martial arts student and those around them.

When these real life situations come up, this is what is meant by the adrenal state. When the adrenaline is pumping, what will you do? If you are not comfortable in the adrenal state, many times it causes you to freeze.

Martial arts students are taught not to seek this state, but to be comfortable enough in it that if and when it comes, they are ready to make decisions based on moral and ethical codes of conduct.

#2 Fortitude

This is what martial arts at its core is training students to show. Fortitude is the focused intent on doing the right thing, the good thing no matter what obstacles set themselves against you. If you know that it is good, and you are like a wolverine, undeterred then you have found the martial spirit.

In a study by researchers from Loughborough University and Nottingham Trent University published in the Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, data suggests that psychological resilience can be achieved through development of mental fortitude. They also conclude that this can be achieved through a systematic approach.

The martial arts is nothing if it is not a systematic approach both to the mental and physical aspects it pursues.

There are two levels of fortitude. One is suppressing fear in the face of obstacles standing in the way of doing what is right. The other is curbing immature impulses to do the reckless or unthinking things that lead to unhappiness. Both of these are premiere goals in the martial arts.

#3 Sacrifice

Sacrifice at it’s base is considered to be a bad thing to many people. This is due to a general misunderstanding of sacrifice and the role it plays in our lives. Without sacrifice, the greater goods would never be attainable. Pleasure does not equal happiness, no matter what the hedonists try to tell you.

One way to see sacrifice to help make it more easy to understand is in the term, delayed gratification. We do something now that may seem like work or sacrifice to achieve a greater good later. You only have to think about what a Black Belt entails in most any style to see how integral it is in the martial arts.

Without sacrifice there can be no real victory. All the greats knew this… don’t believe me?

“Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”

Pele (Edson Arantes do Nascimento)

I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’

Muhammad Ali

#4 Patience

Patience is so needed in today’s instant gratification, on-demand world. The best things in life usually are the things we must wait on before we can have or achieve them. Babies take nine months, Black Belts take many years, aged beef takes months, etc.

Patience is a virtue many plan to cultivate, but few see it through to their goal. Without patience many things that require it in life would be impossible. We would be much worse off for its absence.

We all know this from the times we had to wait for Christmas or our birthdays to open presents. If we get what we want whenever we want it, it becomes the ‘getting’ we seek to give us endorphins in our brains and not the goal itself. We can train our brain to become calloused to what really matters.

“Patience is a virtue.” We have all heard this before. But do we really believe it?

#5 Compassion

Putting others before yourself is the essence of love and compassion. There is not greater love than to sacrifice yourself for someone else. This is not a feeling, but a reasoned response of the will to what it truly means to be human.

Photo by: Airman 1st Class Cassandra Whitman, Eielson Air Force Base

Human life and freedom is at the top of the pyramid of what is most valuable in life. It is not enough to say that you feel or even to feel these things. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle advocated for a total transformation of being in order to truly embody virtue.

Compassion is saying with your actions that life and those around you are so important that you are willing to put yourself on the line for them. Words are important, but actions are necessary.

The things that we love, tell us what we are.

Thomas Aquinas

#6 Discipline

Discipline is the thing that will create the right vessel to carry all of these good character traits. It molds and shapes the person into the person capable of utilizing them. Without discipline, we are blown around by every passing wind.

Discipline is a tool used by instructors and students alike to shape the character and physical well being of themselves and others they train with. This is also true of many types of activities looking to shape and mold its members. The military is strong in discipline as well as some teams sports.

To achieve high proficiency with inner and outer goals, discipline has to be in the toolbox. It is the mechanism that keep you putting one foot in front of the other. Martial arts trains you to control your desires and put your needs in front of them consistently. That type of discipline is what the martial arts can give you.

#7 Indomitable Spirit

This pertains to focus and a motivation to achieve goals that will not be deterred. Setting a black belt as a goal and then reaching that goal will instill this virtue in you in a way that can not be replicated. It will follow you for the rest of your life.

Through physical and mental healthiness, the martial arts fosters this motivation with greater intensity the healthier you become.

In a study published in The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology, researchers from the University of Rochester found that when people are in their healthiest states, they are intrinsically motivated.

The motivations fostered by the goal setting in the martial arts are only compounded by the natural physical and mental fitness that it promotes. The indomitable spirit is a complete transformation of the will of the individual which causes them to be undeterred in the face of hardship.

#8 Humility

To be humble is very difficult in our society that elevates the self to an unhealthy importance. With us at the center we lose purpose and begin lose our respect for the sanctity of life and the freedoms of those round us. We become the object of our own affections.

In a study published in the journal Human Relations, researchers from the University of Quebec, Western Carolina University, and Catawba College found that the sustained success of corporations depended on a leader possessing humility.

It wasn’t just the strong personal will alone, but the essential existence of humility in the leader that was the determining factor. It is not enough for a leader, a martial arts instructor, or a martial artist taking on leading roles in their community to have superior motivation or skills. It takes humility to be able to recognize and utilize the strengths of others.

#9 Respect

If you have ever met a person you feel you could not learn something from, you have missed a huge opportunity. You do not have their perspective on life and could not know their experiences. Respect is admitting that they have something to contribute no matter how small.

Respect also bows to truth and authority. Though an old martial arts master may not be able to perform as he once did, his age and experience means he can certainly teach you. Respecting knowledge and experience comes naturally for the martial arts student.

Treating people with dignity is a mark of true character. How you talk to the waitress at a restaurant, the clerk at the store, or the driver that cuts you off in traffic will openly display your level of character. The martial arts of all kinds will push you to act responsibly.

You are given tools and knowledge that could be used to hurt others. The responsibility that comes with that knowledge demands respect in and of itself. Respecting the right of others to have differing opinions and even giving them room to make mistakes, is a core principle of respect.

I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university.

Albert Einstein

#10 Integrity

There is a right and a wrong. It is separate from us and cannot be changed by our will. Integrity is our pledge to uphold that truth and not compromise due to forces within us and outside of us that push us away from what’s true.

There are definitely nuances in situations that call for acting with slight variations depending on the circumstances. Yet, the truth of what is right and wrong does not change.

We have to make sure our actions stay true to the good. Integrity is that trait that martial arts fosters in us that drives us to align our actions. You are given skill that can be used for good or misused for hate or revenge. Integrity must be part of every martial artist.

If the martial arts is used in a way that takes from others or hurts them in order to force one will over another, integrity has been jettisoned. Integrity is an integral ingredient to ensure martial skill does not become a weapon against the virtuous, but a shield to protect them from the forces they oppose.

#11 Valor

Courage is at the root of all the other vices. It is the ability to put into action those things that come from the good within us. The martial arts is founded on this principle. Courage is developed in so many ways through the study of many styles. It is only limited by the individual.

How is this virtue at the core of all the others? I can relate it to you this way.

I had many international fights in a very extreme organization. In over 50 national and international bouts, I believe I am telling the truth that in every single one of them, I wished just before the fight began… that I was doing something else. I remember several times thinking, “What am I doing? I could be home watching television right now.” Then it would begin.

What pushed me, made me take the first step toward the man across from me that had trained for months, just like I had for that very moment? I didn’t want to die over and over because of those few seconds.

It is said that a coward dies a thousand deaths. What is meant is that you will not always remember the times you were courageous. This is especially true if you live a life with it at your core.

The saying means that you will relive that time of cowardice over and over in your mind. Those times will come back to you even when you are actively trying not to remember them. They will revisit you a thousand times.

Courage takes usually only a few seconds. A few seconds of courage can make all the difference. Living a life of integrity, compassion, respect, and humility will bring push back from those around you that feel critiqued by your character or utterly reject your sense of right and wrong.

This is where courage lives. In those moments when all eyes seem to be on you, courage stands up. Have you visited this scenario enough to know what you will do? Through the study of the martial arts you will.

#12 Confidence

The very first product of valor is confidence. It is not meant here that confidence is the belief in something despite the odds or the facts. Confidence is the knowledge that eventually you will reach your goal.

This means that you might have to pick yourself back up, wipe off a little blood, and head back into the fray. Confidence is when you know who you are, your character, and that those traits will force you back to your feet and heading toward the threat.

What other gift could you give yourself or your child, but this gift of assurance of who you are and what you are made of. This kind of thing is born in every martial arts student at least in some small degree.

Happiness: The Goal

Happiness is the sum total or the final product of all of these virtues. Happiness is not the state in which you have received all of your desires or even your needs. Happiness is a virtuous life well lived to the end. Without virtue there can be no happiness.

Now, I am not saying that there are not other things that can help you in creating a virtuous life. Absolutely not. There are things that are greater by far than the martial arts, but virtue does not essentially belong to the martial arts. Martial arts is just a tool used by the seeker to find it, at least in part.

In the search for happiness that we all are on, virtues are the pavers on the path. The martial arts is a good guide to help you stay on that path.

Mathew Booe

Mathew Booe is a father of four, husband to Jackie since 1994, retired international competitor with over 50 wins, an international seminar instructor, a master instructor of hundreds of Little Ninjas each week, and the one bringing you the great content like you just read. Sign up for the newsletter to hear about his upcoming books before they are released to the public.

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