Lately, I have been reflecting on "new ways of being." As some of you may know, I am an instructor in Tae Kwon Do. My husband and I have a Tae Kwon Do Club at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. We teach our students many different kicking, punching, jumping, and blocking techniques.
However, being able to master these techniques is only one aspect of being a martial artist. Equally important is the student’s self-reflection, attitude towards self and others, and personal growth. Through high energy, physically demanding classes, I strive to create a challenging environment that motivates and inspires students. Testing one’s endurance and pushing beyond one’s limits together with others is a great experience. Physical exhaustion is readily replaced by a great sense of empowerment, satisfaction, and belonging. In an atmosphere of ‘unconditional acceptance’, students learn to try without fear of judgment. Beginner students often feel pressured to “perform” in Tae Kwon Do because they assume that performing a perfect technique is the yardstick by which they are judged by the Sah-Bum-Nim (teacher) and fellow students. However, they gradually become to realize that the Toe-Chang (practice room) is a caring environment where relationships are build on acceptance and respect for the uniqueness of each person, not judgment, expectations or demands.
As instructors, we respect that each student walks in the Toe-Chang with a unique life story that has been influenced by a matrix of past events and interactions with self and others. Some students have been scarred by rejection or trauma, or struggle with low self-esteem and poor self-image; others present as overly confident yet struggle with many ‘hidden’ insecurities. People’s life stories are ever evolving yet sometimes get stuck in certain plots. New contexts, new encounters offer opportunities for revising one’s narrative. Tae Kwon Do certainly presents such opportunities. As a group we create energy and strength. As stated before, through an intensive work-out in synchronized movement and non-abating perseverance, we experience communal strength, indomitable spirit (a major aim to achieve in Tae Kwon Do) and empowerment. As a music therapist, I am acutely aware of the power of rhythm as I lead the class through repetitive movements accentuated by kiaps (Spirit Breath) in unison.
In this atmosphere of communal strength, the individual student is challenged to be with self and others in new ways. For example, a student may need to practice a certain kick hundreds of times before it becomes accurate and effective. This requires a great amount of patience with oneself and a trust that others will respect you for trying rather than judge you. As we spar (fight) with each other, perform mental discipline exercises, practice blind-folded techniques, students are asked to trust other people’s integrity and control. Whereas for outsiders, a sparring match may appear as an act of aggression, for martial artists it is an interactive dance of movement of two people acting and reacting to each other in mutual respect. But a sparring match can only become this dance once both parties trust. These new ways of relating to others and one’s self in this very physical environment often brings about important mental and spiritual growth in students.
As my husband and I reflect on our students and our Toe-Chang, I recently found myself bringing in examples of music therapy. We were discussing students’ growth in Tae Kwon Do and how to address students’ emotional/mental issues in Tae Kwon Do. I shared my belief that many of these issues may resolve as students experience these new ways of being as described above. I shared how this is a crucial part of the work I do in music therapy. Being in music with others provides new ways of experiences oneself in relationship to others as well as new ways of relating to self.
The narrative perspective has been important in my work with people with chronic illness and chronic pain. Socially constructed stigmas and stereotypes contribute to negative illness narratives full of judgmental stances towards self and others (e.g. "I am a bad mother, I can’t even take care of my own children"; "doctors can’t find anything wrong with my body so maybe this is indeed all in my head"; "my family and friends tell me I should try to be stronger but I can’t do anything with this darn body"). All too often, the body is viewed as the enemy, as something they need to escape from. As a result, clients experience a fragmented self.
Through music experiences, especially the use of voice, they gradually learn new ways of relating to their bodies. As they learn to ‘enter’ their bodies through supportive, aesthetic experiences, they begin to dialogue with their bodies in new ways. They are able to listen to their entire body - not just the pain messages - , and discover strengths rather than just limitations. This, in turn, brings new meaning, purpose and hope. As they sing/vocalize in harmony with others, they experience the intense beauty of being together. In vocal harmony, they experience communal strength. Often patients comment on how important this aspect of music therapy is for them: being together in beauty, without being judged. Just like my Tae Kwon Do students focus initially on “performing well” so are my clients concerned about “singing well.” But here too, the fear of being judged yet again soon makes place for just ‘being’ together in music, in total acceptance. Through these experiences, my clients’ illness narratives are gradually altered. This is noticeable in their vocal improvisations, in the songs they write, but most importantly, in the new energy and strength they radiate.
And so I am reminded of the meaning of my highest Tae Kwon Do form "Juche":
Juche is the philosophical idea that man is master of everything, the world and his own destiny. It is said, this idea is rooted in the Baekdu Mountain and symbolizes the spirit of the Korean people.
Whether we fully agree with this philosophical idea is food for another column but it certainly represents the idea of perseverance and indomitable spirit and of being active participants in the stories we write.
Bradt, Joke (2011). A New Place, a New Way. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved June 11, 2013, from http://testvoices.uib.no/?q=fortnightly-columns/2011-new-place-new-way