I am a seasoned instructor of taekwon-do, and love working with all the kids; oftentimes I talk about the important things in life with them: How to handle life and all the odd balls it'll throw at you. I am currently trying to find some insight into how this is addressed in the philosophy of martial arts generally, and taekwon-do specifically. In particular, how are mental illnesses¹ considered in the practicing of martial arts in the philosophical teachings of the old masters. What, if anything, did General Choi and his peers (then and current) have to say on this subject?

¹ Examples include, but are not necessarily limited to:

  • clinical depression, or anxiety
  • PTSD (e.g. from years of being bullied—yes, this diagnosis is also given to non-combatants)
  • eating disorder

To clarify, this question has to be concerned with ITF taekwon-do, though influences from Shotokan karate would also be of interest, considering the background of early taekwon-do practioners in general, and Choi in particular.

  • @mattm I am sorry, but I do not understand where the inclarity is at the moment. Could it be that a rephrasing of the first question could help? I suggest the following: 'In particular, how are mental illnesses considered in the philosophical teachings of the old masters of martial arts?' This, however, loses the dual implication of the question: both theory and actual performance of the practice in the training hall, and therefore the day-to-day work of the instructor.
    – Canned Man
    Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 23:47
  • Off to meta we go… Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 14:04

2 Answers 2


One way to view mental illness is through the mental model of Buddhism and Daoism. This mental model is the basis for meditation in taekwondo (See here and here), as well as karate, Shaolin gongfu, Muay Thai, taiji, bagua, and xingyi.

In the Buddhist and Daoist view, the mind comprises two distinct components:

  1. emotional mind - produces emotions such as anger, sadness, jealousy and associated thoughts
  2. wisdom mind - directs intention

Part of meditation training is to observe the thought process. Experiencing the emotion of anger often leads to thoughts such "He/she is mean", "it's not fair", and "I should get back at them by xyz". This causation is not imperative; using your wisdom mind you can train your emotional mind to experience emotion independent of these thoughts.

One way to start this process is to closed your eyes to reduce distractions and focus your intent (wisdom mind) on abdominal breathing that is quiet, relaxed, continuous, deep, and even. By focusing on breathing, you should notice that other thoughts enter your mind less frequently. Focusing thought on one thing (breathing) to prevent thoughts about many other things is colorfully referred to as "distracting the monkey with a banana". Over sustained practice, you reduce distracted thought and can separate the experience of your emotions from the thoughts they normally trigger.

Young children express their emotions without inhibition. Most adults learn to suppress their responses to emotions ("bottle up their emotions"), but not necessarily to stop the formation of negative thoughts. Meditation training is supposed to train this.

One goal of martial meditation training is to achieve mushin, a state of no-mindedness where thought is stopped.

Mental illness, as described in your question (which does not include things like psychosis), can be viewed as a state where the emotional mind forms chains of uncontrolled, unproductive thoughts. These thoughts and resulting emotions may be debilitating, enervating, and lead to counterproductive behavior. A stimulus that most people consider unremarkable may trigger the memory and mental experience of trauma.

  • I believe elaborating on the third paragraph’s last sentence: ‘… using your wisdom mind …’; I believe I understand what you mean, but it needs further explanation. In your last paragraph, you enter into an explanation of how mental illnesses is viewed in martial arts, i.e. in this context Buddhism and Daoism. With further precision as to which school of thoughts are relevant and how it can help shape the mind’s pattern of thoughts, this could be a great answer, particularly when considering your first paragraph.
    – Canned Man
    Commented Oct 23, 2017 at 22:32
  • @CannedMan I've added an example of how the intent is used. I'm not sure I can be helpful in navigating the schools of thought in Buddhism and Daoism. You have to practice (meditate, whether sitting, moving, forms training, etc.), which is the default martial mindset but not necessarily the cultural Buddhist or Daoist one.
    – mattm
    Commented Oct 24, 2017 at 15:58

As you have indicated an interest in martial arts generally, here is some of what Jigaro Kano, the founder of judo, says in Kodokan Judo (Kodansha International, 1986) on training the mind:

Both kata and randori are forms of mental training, but of the two, randori is the more effective.

In randori, one must search out the opponent's weaknesses and be ready to attack with all the resources at his disposal the moment the opportunity presents itself, without violating the rules of judo. Practicing randori tends to make the student earnest, sincere, thoughtful, cautious and deliberate in action. At the same time, he or she learns to value and make quick decisions and to act promptly, for, whether attacking or defending, there is no place in randori for indecisiveness.

In randori, one can never be sure of what technique the opponent will employ next, so he must be constantly on guard. Being alert becomes second nature. One acquires poise, the self-confidence that comes from knowing that he come cope with any eventuality. The powers of attention and observation, imagination, of reasoning and judgement are naturally heightened, and these are all useful attributes in daily life as well as in the dojo.

From Judo Memoirs of Jigaro Kano by Brian Watson, p. 157

As long as they believe that they have used their mental and physical energy most effectively, humans beings will never lose hope, nor will they suffer undue anxiety. This is because, having used their energy most effectively, they have not room to expend it in any other manner. Feelings of regret and worry occur when you have not done what you should have, or when you cannot make up your mind to do what you should... I would also urge people to practice judo to help overcome mental fatigue that results from regret and anxiety.

For a non-judo audience, I would summarize Kano's thoughts as the importance of collaborative free practice with partners (randori) as a source of organic development. In historical context, judo was a departure from its contemporary jujutsu that was almost exclusively kata-based.

  • This has nothing to do with General Choi and his peers views on mental illness… Or have I missed something? Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 7:59
  • I think the relevant part might be 'As long as they believe that they have used their mental and physical energy most effectively, humans beings will never lose hope, nor will they suffer undue anxiety.' That might be stretching it, though. I suspect neither Gen. Choi nor any of his peers said much about the issue, considering their time, generation, and partially their culture. I would like to see this answer refined; it could very well be that there is something more in what follows.
    – Canned Man
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 11:23
  • @Sardathrion The answer covers "How to handle life and all the odd balls it'll throw at you", "philosophy of martial arts generally", and "how are mental illnesses¹ considered in the practicing of martial arts in the philosophical teachings of the old masters", though not for TKD. It also covers "both theory and actual performance of the practice in the training hall"; Kano's view was that randori was the most important element for mental development.
    – mattm
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 12:09
  • @CannedMan By refined, you mean want more of the quotation of what Kano said, or a better explanation of what he said? If the former, I will not be able to add relevant much more from Kano that is relevant.
    – mattm
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 12:23
  • 1
    @CannedMan Including all other martial arts makes this question massively over broad and without a possible best answer. I would make clear that you do exclude other martial arts. Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 13:16

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.