Cult of Personality

"Look in my eyes, what do you see? 
The cult of personality 
I know your anger, I know your dreams 
I've been everything you want to be 
I'm the cult of personality....
I sell the things you need to be 
I'm the smiling face on your tv 
I'm the cult of personality 
I exploit you, still you love me 
I tell you one and one makes three 
I'm the cult of personality ...." Living Colour

It is an interesting time to be a martial artist, particularly a jiujitsuka. As members of Team Lloyd Irvin's infamous Medal Chasers run for the hills, and more and more stories surface about inappropriate business practices, and even worse, inappropriate sexual behavior (to catch up, go here: http://georgetteoden.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-revelations-on-mma-underground-and.html), it is a good time to question how in the hell people get caught up in these kind of situations. Why would you sign on with a devious, narcissistic, cult-like BJJ instructor? Why would you give him thousands of dollars to be a part of his magical money making scheme? Why would you ignore obvious moral deficiencies in order to become a champion?

Martial arts teachers are always leaders. The inherent structure of most traditional martial arts easily lends itself to a kind of hero worship;  with a clear ranking system, an environment of bowing and revering higher belts and a syllabus where knowledge is doled out slowly, one grain at a time. All of this is fine, in fact, it adds depth to training, makes it more than just a sport. But it is easy, far too easy, for all of this tradition to cross over into something more akin to religion than martial arts. And, as became painfully clear with Lloyd Irvin, you don't need the old Chinese warrior to create a cult. In non traditional environments it just becomes about the winning. The coach who produces winners can do no wrong.

When I was coming up through the ranks in karate, we tested for black belt at the main headquarters of our style, a two floored monstrosity on 23rd street in Manhattan. Not only did we travel to the "Honbu", but we had to stand in front of my teacher's teacher, the legendary Kaicho Tadashi Nakumura, founder of Seido Karate. I had only met him a few times, at other organization events, but I had read his books (he had two at the time, now there are probably more) and heard many incredible stories from my teacher.

Picture a "Kaicho Nakumura" in your head. Got it? Yup, what you are picturing is exactly what he was like. Japanese. Average sized in stature but huge in presence. Mostly soft spoken, except when angry. Occasionally grunts in Japanese. Has a bunch of black belts who follow him around doing his bidding. Gives speeches after class about the way you should live your life, how you should treat your family, and so on, while wide-eyed white belts look on in awe.

The thing is, Kaicho Nakumura was a nice guy. He had a good heart, a kind spirit, and the genuine belief that karate could change people's lives for the better.  He was about discipline. And respect. And honor. And he was a no-joke karateka. The real deal. 

He was no Lloyd Irvin, that's for sure.

Yet still, people would whisper his name in reverence  Students would practically trip over themselves in order to pass privileged information to him, to gain his favor. If you were in his inner circle, you were worthy. If you were lucky enough to be in his class, you were hoping that some of the magic dust would fall on you, thereby transferring all the secrets of the ages into your soul. Students carried his bags. They brought him water. They didn't eat until he took his first bite. And some of them would sell their first born child if Kaicho Nakamura told them too.

Did this man actually have the balls to stand up there and demand that everyone worship him? No. He never even talked about himself. He was just being a karate teacher. He didn't ask for any of this? He didn't! It just happened! It just happened purely because he was the head of this karate organization and people were looking for a guru to follow. Can you imagine what would happen if the person in charge was actually trying to be God?

You get...well, you get Lloyd Irvin.

I have not been involved in Seido Karate for over 11 years so I honestly have no idea what it is like there nowadays. But I have had hundreds of conversations with other martial artists over the years. I have heard people seriously question their teacher's motives behind their backs, but show up every day for class anyway, for years. I have seen people blindly nodding their heads to explanations about magical "death touch" techniques, as if the existence of a magic punch that instantly stops the heart is perfectly reasonable. I have seen people on the top of the medal podium, look into their teacher's proud eyes and known that in that moment they would do anything, absolutely anything for him. I have even seen students look at my husband that way, with awe, with that hunger to consume the mystery. I have seen the way parents look at me when I tie on their four year old's blue belt.

It has been 24 years.  I have seen some other things too. Hell, I have seen it all.

It is SO easy to cross that line. As a teacher, you actually have to work at not creating a cult. If you care to, that is.

There is no magic in the martial arts. There is mystery. There is tradition. There are amazing physical feats. There are techniques and katas that go back thousands of years. There are techniques so intricate that it takes eons to master them. There is knowledge that only comes from hard time put in. I would even venture to say that there are some things here beyond our understanding, things that have to do with energy and focus. If you have chosen a good teacher, they will show you how to do things with your body that you never thought you could do. They may even change the way you see yourself, and the way you see the world. These are all good things. Usually.

Training in the martial arts can be the most powerful, life- altering experience. It can be the thing that defines you. It was, and still is, for me.

It can also be something else entirely.

Instructors, you know who you are.  You can ignite people's spirits, lift them up, make them feel alive. Or you can break them.
You know the power you have. Don't abuse it.
Ever.

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