"Maiden in Distress and Superman"
Grandmaster Taejoon Lee
I have discussed in previous articles that the ultimate lesson in martial arts training as it pertains to Hwa Rang Do® is “Humility.” This is due to the fact that by training in the martial arts one gains strength and confidence and if left unchecked often leads to inflated egos, arrogance, and self-aggrandizement that creates false delusions of the ‘self’. In Hwa Rang Do it is the pursuit of Truth, which is primary, therefore without humility we can never acquire neither the truth of ourselves nor the Ultimate Truth. In this article I will address another type of student, the one who is stricken with fear, self-doubt, and lacking any belief in the ‘self’ as well as the teachers, instructors, and/or masters who believe that they can somehow change, better, and save that student.
Recently in the preparation for our Digital Championships, one of the female students was so stricken with fear that she could not do a simple aerial fall, which almost cost the team the championship and her quitting Hwa Rang Do. The Digital Championships is something that I started in 2020 when we were under Covid-19 Lockdown. It has been our tradition to meet once a year for the World Hwa Rang Do® Association Annual Events which included the Championships, Summer Seminars, Black Sash Conference, Black Sash Examination and Ceremony, and the Annual Awards Banquet. It is an entire week of full emersion in all that is Hwa Rang Do, a unique global Hwa Rang Do family gathering. Since the beginning of the Pandemic in 2020, we could not gather for our annual event, therefore, I decided that we will compete digitally and gather by ZOOM so that we can maintain our valued connection with everyone as well as to boost morale and sprit amongst our students and instructors.
The first Digital Championships in 2021 was a great success so we decided to do it once more in 2022. We had an overwhelming participation with over 500 video submissions from across the globe. The competition was in four categories: Open Hand Forms, Weapon Forms, Self-Defense, and Demonstration. The judging and grading of the submissions were all done by me with also added critique and recommendations for future improvements for each student who submitted a video. The sorting, categorizing, reviewing, and critiquing each video took an entire month working daily. It was immensely tedious and tiresome work, but it was also a tremendous opportunity for me to learn and see firsthand all the students and their performances. It gave me great new insight into what areas we need improvements and what I needed to do in order to better all of our practitioners. I can expound on this in some future article, but for now back to the story.
I share this story so that you may relate to her trials and come to understand that Hwa Rang Do is not only for the young macho man who seeks to learn how to fight, but for anyone who desires to live a life without fear, always striving for betterment and to improve to fully live and experience this precious gift of life. And, also to the teachers and instructors so that they may become better guides for their students on their path of personal development and excellence.
For brevity, anonymity, and convenience, we will call this student ‘Maiden’. To be fair, we need to establish some back story to better understand her psyche. She is a middle-aged woman who never participated in athletics in her youth but remains in good health and in good shape. She was persuaded by a persistent colleague at work to take a trial lesson. In the beginning of course, she was more than reluctant never being interested in sports of any type and surely not in martial arts. However, the colleague was relentless to the point of being an annoyance. So, finally she decided to oblige and try a class if nothing else than to shut him up. She was reassured that there is no real commitment and that it was just for one class as a trial. She attended the trial class and found it to be interesting and that it was a good workout. Thinking that some exercise would do her some good, she decided to join. She had absolutely no idea what she was getting into.
Of course, both her colleague who was by the way the head instructor of the Hwa Rang Do Club here in Luxembourg until I arrived and myself know that this would be of great benefit to her. It is because he cared for her and saw that she could most benefit from the empowerment which Hwa Rang Do can provide that he was persistent. This is also why I refrained from pushing her too hard, but rather gently pulled her along, realizing how cautious, uncertain, and fragile she was venturing into something she never imagined that she would ever do in a million years. When she first began, she said that she would do all the kicking and stuff but cannot do any of the stuff that required physical contact like sparring, and definitely not grappling and weapon fighting, siting that she has injuries to the neck and back which prevents her from excessive physical activity.
First of all, no one ever tells a high-ranking martial art master that they will do this and not that, outlining their own curriculum. My typical reply in my youth would have been to tell her that if you take out the fighting in martial arts, then it is not martial, and suggest that she do some cardio-kickboxing or taebo, directing her to the door. However, I refrained and in my older hopefully wiser disposition I told her that she needed to do at least sparring, reassuring her that she is well protected from head to toe preventing any possible injury. I further explained that this was not a business, and she was not a customer, where the customer is king; that this was a school and she was a student where the student is not the king, but the teacher and the student must obey. She then agreed to the sparring but not the other stuff. I nodded and told her, “We shall see.”
After observing her in class for several months, I saw that her presumed ailments of the neck and back did not limit her, allowing her to participate in all the exercises in the class. If nothing else the neck and back pains are caused by tension from stress and anxiety and I have also noticed that with many people the first thing they tense is the neck and shoulders when they are afraid, and anxious, when performing a new uncertain physical movement. And yes, her body is very tense and stiff, and it is very hard for her to relax. I motivated her by complimenting her on her progress and that as her body gets stronger that her neck and back pains will dissipate. Furthermore, the real underlying issue is her emotional state and when she becomes more confident, she can begin to relax more. She was not competitive at all and had no real desire to push herself any more than she needed to. Her aim was to just finish the class in one piece. There are many other events which took place, but I will focus on some of the major points that lead up to core of our story.
As she was improving, I encouraged her to grapple by working on the positioning without submissions which we do with all beginners, but always from the top offensive position. Little by little she gained enough confidence to fully grapple and began to show improvement in her attitude, never missing a class and always on time, participating in all our events. She was also very cordial and got along with everyone. She seemed dedicated to the club and committed to her self-improvement. So, I invited her to be a TGT (Teuk Gong Team) member, an elite group of assistant instructors who manage, administrate, and lead the club. I didn’t invite her because she had exceptional physical and leadership skills; I invited her because I knew that by gaining greater ownership, responsibility, and accountability that it would help her the most in her self-empowerment. This was a huge step for her as she will now be assisting in the classes, spend more time training in the special classes with me, and most importantly she will have to be a role model to the rest of the students.
She somehow managed and persevered for three years and was now preparing for her Tae Soo Do Black Belt examination. Tae Soo Do® is the prerequisite undergraduate program which must be completed in order to learn Hwa Rang Do. This did not come easy, and neither will the Black Belt Exams. The Tae Soo Do Black Belt Examination has three monthly Pre-Tests, with the fourth final exam and graduation. There are specific requirements for each exam and if you fail even one, then they fail the entire exam and must wait to test again the following year.
There was one other event that took place before the black belt test which made a big impact in her transformation. We had a national Martial Arts Demonstration where all the martial arts clubs in Luxembourg were represented with the best of each club to showcase their art. I told Maiden that she will be performing a sword form in this demonstration. It definitely surprised her and although she was reluctant, she could not refuse; all she could do was to do it. She practiced daily and began to improve. She had never performed live in front of so many people and she was terrified of public speaking, talking, or performing in front of large crowds. She successfully performed the demonstration in front of thousands of people, which bolstered her confidence, but the evil of doubt and fear would consume her soon after.
I did not have her perform in the demonstration because she was exceptional at the sword form, quite the contrary. I had her do it because she had much difficulty in handling the sword, which was almost as tall as her and with her feeble arms she had trouble in controlling it. Furthermore, she had no concept at all of how the sword can be used as a weapon as she was incapable to ever fathom herself as a sword wielding warrioress in battle. It was just another challenge that she struggled to overcome, with the ever-lurking question of ‘why’ always lingering in the back of her mind. I have slowly and methodically eliminated her excuses, the reasons for not being able to do something and now she had no choice but to step up and perform.
I did not minimize the task that she was given by telling her not to worry and just try her best. I told her the truth, that first of all it was a privilege to be selected to represent our art to the Luxembourgish public and more importantly to all the other top martial artists in the country and because of it she could not fail or else she would bring shame to our club, to me, and all of Hwa Rang Do. Furthermore, that the sword was the most iconic and traditional weapon and anyone who has any experience in the martial arts can identify someone who has no idea what they are doing. She knew exactly what was expected and what was hanging in the balance. Now she had to confront her demons head on; she must overcome her weakest aspect in order to face one of her greatest fears, to slay the dragon with the sword that she cannot wield. This was a great triumph for her, but the evil of fear is extremely strong and relentless.
Now onto the Black Belt Examination. The Maiden did surprisingly well through most of the exams except for two minor yet gargantuan hurdles for her, the one-hand cartwheel and the aerial nakbop (falling technique). She managed to perform both, not great but barely qualifying to pass the test. The Black Belt Examination is a long, arduous, and grueling process of at least six months and much took place. At one point during the final exam, she broke down in tears and said, “I don’t believe in myself; I don’t think I can continue.” So, I told her to leave, to quit! At which point she was hesitant, and I continued to push her to leave by saying that if she has given up on herself then there is no hope, no future, it’s over! She was indecisive and continued to linger about and after some prying she changed her mind and this went on several times, back and forth like a ping pong game her mind volleyed in uncertainty; fear of losing the fraternal relationships, fear of disappointing, doubting her ability to continue, questioning why, why, why? Finally, accepting to commit herself to always strive to better herself, she finished the test and earned her Tae Soo Do Black Belt. However, I knew she was not convicted to the idea as she lacked any strong foundation, not sure she even understands what a conviction is or have ever convicted herself to anything.
Two years later, bringing us to the present Maiden who is now a Hwa Rang Do student for almost two years was participating in the demonstration category of the Digital Championships with the Luxembourg Team. During a practice session she was required to do an aerial falling technique, which she should already have known since it was a Tae Soo Do Black Belt Test requirement. However, she was having problems, so she was directed to practice on the crash mat, which she did with no issues. Then, the head instructor, whom we will call ‘Superman’ was told by me to throw Maiden on the regular mat. For clarification, I had passed on the responsibility of teaching and heading the club to Superman for the last two years. I have been focused on teaching the instructors and they in return teach and the manage the club and its members. Hence, Superman was in charge of the demo team and was responsible in teaching Maiden as well as the rest of the team. I was only there to assist and check on their techniques to make sure all was correct. Being present as an observer, I saw Superman holding her wrist and saying, “Ok you got this. You can do it. It’s the same thing as you did on the crash mat.” I also supported her. Then Superman said, “Are you ready?” She nodded and then he said, “One, two, three!” Bam, slam! She smashed her shoulder right onto the mat, but was very lucky she didn’t injure herself
This is how powerful the evil of fear is as it destroys by causing an irrational, unreasonable, insane state of mind. When you are in fear, it is impossible to think clearly! Maiden knew how to do it, but she was so crippled by fear, she could not make herself take the little jump required to clear so that she can land on her side, breaking the fall with her arm and legs with absolutely no harm to her which has been tested and practiced for thousands of years by millions of people billions of times. She literally could not take the leap because truly it was a leap of faith, she had to believe that she could do it, but that old doubting-self overtook her, driving her to sabotage and self-destruct. How insane is it that all she needed to do was to take a slight leap which she has done many times, but instead she would rather blank-out and black-out and fall to her doom, potentially breaking her neck. All the years of hard work, the countless hours of training, the many successes and triumphs, all the physical and emotional obstacles and barriers beaten for the last five years all thrown away in one split second so that the evil of fear can live even if it means death to the self.
You see, after that one fall she needed to do to pass her Black Belt exam she really never revisited the aerial nakbop again. Even though all the techniques in Hwa Rang Do end with some type of throw or takedown then finishing on the ground, she somehow avoided doing this one particular aerial fall as she needed to jump and flip herself by just gently rolling on the ground instead. All the other members on the team were also complicit in aiding her in the hiding of this weakness, this deep fear by giving her leniency and sympathy as a small feeble middle-aged woman, which Maiden should have taken offense to but her self-image is not of a courageous battle ready warrioress but exactly what others saw her as, weak and feeble, unable to even believe herself that she is doing martial arts as all. Also, one factor that differentiates this particular fall to all the others is the fact that in most other falls she is thrown such as a hip throw, shoulder throw, she is grabbed by some body part and then thrown to the ground. This particular technique requires her to flip herself or else risk injury to her wrist. It is this proactive nature which inhibits her as she must be pushed, motivated, guided by others, and by extreme external factors for her to take action in matters which she finds uncomfortable or unpleasant.
She is constantly questioning why she is doing this, what are the benefits, the pros and cons, as her primary goal is just to rest, to be safe, to just relax. It is the first time in her life that she was confronted with so many challenges mentally, physically, emotionally, and even spiritually, that although she knows how it has benefited her and want to commit to pursuing and living life with courage, she could never have possibly imagined how much work and effort it will take her.
After this incident I decided to leave it to Superman and his team to resolve the situation. The Digital Championship was drawing near with only couple of weeks left to prepare. Instead of committing more time and dedicating herself to practicing to overcome this issue, Maiden became more withdrawn, quiet, and distant. The team members all tried to help with no avail as Maiden rejected their help with callous indifference, she became cold and at times agitated to a point of even rejecting the help of Superman. Much effort was made by everyone, and much unnecessary drama ensued as the trials, negativity, and/or struggles of one member in a family or a tight group affects all its members.
It was the day before the filming of the demo. The entire group was present with me in our weekly class. I had a few words with the group and then instructed Maiden to practice on the crash mat. The entire time I was speaking to the group I can see that she was not present. A few days prior Superman paid a visit at her home to speak with her and she mentioned that this has kept her up at nights and all she has been doing even in her waking hours at work is thinking about this flip fall. Knowing all this, I realized once again she was contemplating giving up, quitting, weighing the benefits, thinking what the hell am I doing here! The thing that she was suppressing consciously or unconsciously has returned with fury. This is the real problem, her self-image, she can’t ever imagine herself as a martial artist but a Maiden in distress, which then consciously or unconsciously gravitates her to constantly find an excuse to quit. Knowing this, I stopped her grudgingly walk toward the crash mat and asked, “Are you done?” She stopped, paused, her face went pale then said something under her breath and then I asked her again louder.
She said, “I can’t do this anymore.”
To which I replied, “Get out!” She dashed out of the gym in tears…
In that moment, she was overwhelmed and that evil of fear consumed her to the point of throwing away all her friends and the people who have supported her who have shared many moments of trials and tribulations, forming a family unit that is unmatched; throwing away all the hard work and progress she has made to experience and witness things, emotions, and accomplishments she would never had the opportunity otherwise; to dishonor and disrespect all the countless hours of talking, teaching, guiding, lecturing, by Superman and myself by throwing it into the wind, it was truly heartbreaking. All because she refused do a simple fall which is designed to prevent injury by just following the directions and the only way to really get hurt is to disregard all that was learned and force yourself to land on your head. This is the power, the evil that is fear. Although, it was painful for all of us, it was something that needed to happen. She had to find her way and no other reason than for herself only.
We continued on with the class which lasted another three to four hours. It was not pleasant for any of us, but we must always press on and never can we force, coerce, or even entice and motivate anyone to remain when their heart is not in the right place. We ended class and went upstairs to exit the gymnasium and there we found Maiden sitting on the bench waiting for me. I asked her, “What are you doing here?” She apologized for leaving, for quitting and realized that she had made a big mistake and even though she knows that I do not accept people back once they quit, could I give her a second chance. Of course, I was glad to see her, but also concerned that she would do this again. I told her that she must show through her actions that she has changed and never regress.
We can end here, and it would be a happy ending however the story continues….
The summer came around and the school shuts down for the month of August and we have our last Belt Testing at the end of July before we go on break. Superman was also going away on vacation in July and asked me by email if Maiden can test for her next sash at the July Belt Testing as she knows her curriculum material and should not wait until September to test and although she still cannot perform the aerial nakbop, that he will make sure that she can do it after she tests. I didn’t reply to the email and wanted to see him face to face after he had returned from his vacation to discuss it, however some events took place which would expedite the discussion.
One of the other TGT Members decided to help Maiden in her preparation for the upcoming exam. The Member went out of her way to assist Maiden, but Maiden only did the basic things necessary and still could not do what has now become the notorious aerial nakbop. When she was pushed to try harder as the date of the exam was only days away, Maiden kept deferring to Superman who was on vacation, saying that he only told her to do certain things and that’s all she’s going to do and that he had a plan to help her when he returns. Of course, when I heard of this I was not pleased as Maiden had not changed at all. She is doing the same things as before, procrastinating, hesitating, and not being proactive to resolve the issue herself, but to continue to depend on others. Since the last incident, I had no communication with her other than in class. She had often mentioned as a way of showing her gratitude that she would never have come this far in Hwa Rang Do if wasn’t for me, however, I never took that as gratitude but only a way to defer her ownership and set me up as a scapegoat when she decides to quit, blaming me as the cause. She knew I was not there to help her, to push her, to save her, so now she was leaning on Superman and indubitably he rushed in to save the day.
This is a repeating pattern that needed to change. When Maiden could not do the one-hand cartwheel, I told her that she needed to fix it as quickly as possible and that I was going to leave it up to her to let me know when she is ready to show me. I did this to see what she would do and undoubtedly, she did exactly as expected. What should have been resolved in a few days, surely no more than a week, stretched into months and she never said a word as though somehow time would just fade it away and that maybe I would forget, never having to confront it. Here she is once again faced with a dilemma and rather than choosing to work harder with determination and conviction to fight her way through it no matter what, without leaning on others she chose to be the damsel in distress, like a helpless little child that needs to be saved. Certainly, that was not her intention and, in her mind, she’s doing the best she can, but that was not reality; she has not yet taken ownership of herself and still does not believe that she can do it even when every time she thought she couldn’t do something she was proven wrong. Indeed, something that has taken root for over 50 years cannot be changed overnight, but that in itself is an excuse as although it had taken much time to build, it only takes a moment to takedown, one time is all it takes for the change to take place, but fear strikes once again.
After hearing about this, I decided that I needed to speak with Superman. I spoke to him over a video call while he was on vacation as it was a time sensitive matter. The testing was in two days, and we had to decide whether she could test or not. I told Superman that in the first place, there is no negotiation for a belt exam; either they are ready or not. This would be same in any examination for any school and for a parent to try to negotiate terms of the exam with the teacher, the examiner, would be inappropriate, unethical, and just plain wrong. I asked him, “Who are you doing this for; for yourself or for her?” He began to utter an explanation which I immediately interrupted. I further explained that obviously he is doing this because he cares for her and that he wants her to do well, but I said, “What is it that you’re teaching her? What is the lesson that she is learning from this?”
Superman paused for a moment to reflect then replied, “Nothing… That she doesn’t need to be held responsible for her own failures and limitations as well as being held accountable for the promises she had made.”
“Yes, absolutely!” I replied. I went on to explain, “You are being task oriented much like in your corporate job. You want to find a way to fulfill the task, meet deadlines, accomplish goals. However, you are not an employee, you are a teacher, and you must always be aware of what lessons you are teaching. What she needs to learn is to be independent and resolve her own problems, and if she fails the more important lesson is to confront and face the consequences of her failure, all on her own with no one to hold her hand. The right thing for you to have done is to tell her that unless she can perform the aerial nakbop, testing for her next sash is out of the question.” Then I pushed further and told him that he was thinking too highly of himself. I asked him, “Were you able to fix the aerial cartwheel or any other problems she had in the past?” to which he replied in the negative. Then I asked, “What makes you think you can help her now?
“Superman saves a Maiden in Distress!”
Obviously, I have chosen the names of our characters as such to be a little lighthearted but also to illustrate a point. Both were doing what they were designed or made to do. The Maiden, helpless in some kind of peril and Superman to come to the rescue and save the Maiden. The reality is that we must learn to be independent and self-reliant, surely as martial artists, as warriors, and most definitely as a Hwarang. As Instructors, Masters, Teachers, and even Parents we fall often into this trap of trying to rescue and save our students, children, people, most often ending in disappointment or failure as we either cannot save them, or we find out that they don’t want to be saved. As teachers or parents, it feels good to be needed and being needed gives us value. Our job is not to save people, nor can we be delusional to think that we can save anyone; our job is to teach them how to save themselves.
I compare it to swimming. Swimming is not a hobby or sport; it is survival skill which everyone must learn, and every parent must teach their children. I know adults who do not know how to swim so rather then learning how, they spend their entire lives avoiding any water sports or any bodies of water. You can try to avoid it but when a flood occurs, a bridge collapses, you drive offroad avoiding a crash into a lake, you fall through the ice on an icy lake, or whatever the circumstance which is out your control, then what will you do? No one drowns because they planned to drown, no one gets flooded because they were waiting for it, life, tragedy, facing what you’re most afraid of will happen sooner or later. You can never run from yourself. Living in fear alters your well-being and your mind-set can never be optimal or clear. Therefore, the simple act of teaching someone how to swim, you have helped them to save themselves. That is our goal, our job as teachers and parents, we are not lifeguards.
The most important lesson is to teach our students and children is how to save themselves, how to fix their own problems, how to clean up their own mess, how to fight their own fights. We must teach them how to solve problems on their own, which means they must be taught how to think, and just because we all have a brain doesn’t mean we can all use it well just as we have legs but that doesn’t mean we can all run like Usain Bolt. This is the harder path, it’s much easier to solve the problems, help finish their tasks, but terribly difficult to watch them struggle as they fight their own battles, yet it is the struggles, the hardships, failures, that they learn courage, gain strength, and if they do not give up, become convicted.
In essence it is hope that we must instill, and hope comes from belief, and it is hope that can destroy the evil of fear. Fear kills hope, fuels doubt, and fear thrives in hopelessness.
It was the day before the exam and once again we were gathered in my weekly class for the HWARANGDO Online Global University (H.O.G.U.) which we spend almost 5 hrs. of training and discussion. During the class, I told Maiden that she had not changed at all and what’s even worse is that she thought it would be ok to test without resolving her current problem. Once again, the issue is that she does not have clarity and without solid foundation and strong convictions, which requires belief, she cannot be decisive. After the classes were over Maiden came up and told me that she was really trying and that she really wants to be stronger and overcome her fears. So, I challenged her, “Really?! Then show me.”
I told her if you can do the aerial nakbop right now, then I will let you test. I threw her a few times on the crash mat, and she did fine. I then took her to the regular mat and told her she had one try, of course in a very firm tone. I grabbed her hand, and I can feel her trembling with her heart racing a thousand beats a second, then before she can think too long, I yelled, “Go!” I pulled her and she flipped. She finally did it. No injuries, no broken neck or shoulder, just a little slap on the ground. I can see in her face light up and that she was extremely relieved. I then gave her a big hug, “See it was nothing.” With that she broke into tears.
Maiden is still struggling with her issues, but where most women would have given up, she had persevered, and she is tenacious. As long as she stays on the path and begin to believe in herself more, she may have a fighting chance of becoming a Hwarang, a truly empowered woman. However, no matter how much an individual believes in the “I can do it” motto, there are things in life which it cannot resolve. The one true path to letting go of all of one’s fears and become truly free is through the ultimate faith in God.
We are not Superman and Superman is a fictional character that does not exist and will never exist. And even if Superman were true, it is horrible what Superman can do to our society as we will become completely dependent on him to save us. Then, God forbid, one day he dies or disappears, then we are left without a savior, and we are helpless to save ourselves from harm. Our Superman has come to realize this and strives to teach more and save less.
Why, why do Hwa Rang Do?
For our TGT Leadership Camp, we go snowboarding each year. Maiden never having skied before in her entire life learned how to snowboard in her 50s and all her friends and family think she’s crazy. This year she did well enough that we took her to the very top of one of the largest ski resorts in Austria if not all of Europe, Sölden. When we were at the top looking over the beautiful, majestic landscape in the fresh cold air, she said, “This is amazing! I don’t know why I didn’t do this before.”
Which I replied, “Really? You would have never done if it weren’t for Hwa Rang Do.”
This is why we do Hwa Rang Do, to live life fully and in so doing honoring our Creator!