When I went shopping for martial arts, I did what I always did: I researched what I was trying to learn, and then I ignored all of it and went and asked people I knew to be familiar with them, both locally and in general, to get their opinion on what they had enjoyed, what their experiences of different practices were, and what I might enjoy. I wanted something meditative, something that would impart a sense of history and give me the chance to practice mental and spiritual discipline along with the physical.
For the most part what I got was, "Not this one: too violent. Or this one: too much kicking. Or this one: too competitive." (You would almost think that martial arts are... well, martial.)
But seriously, in the end the gestalt I got was that I should try aikido, and so off I went to find an aikido master to study under.
...and that... didn't work. Worse, it didn't work in a very disappointing, un-dramatic way. If it had exploded in my face, then at least I could have said, definitively, "Wow, that is not for me." But instead, it just... fizzled in a sort of restless personality conflict-in-an-oblique-way way. I liked the actual art, but I never felt like I was connecting with the students, the place, the teacher or the actual movements. From the beginning I was thrown into the middle of a group of far more advanced students who were expected to show me what they were doing, and it was just so far outside my experience that I couldn't make any of the necessary leaps. I longed for one-on-one instruction, but felt like I should do what everyone else had done and accept the casual instruction of senior students who were, for the most part, not there to teach.
In the end, I stopped going. Because I hadn't had that definite and dramatic problem, I could never feel good about stopping, which made me irritated with myself. I had chosen, supposedly, the most meditative and non-violent and non-contact martial art available to me outside of resorting to tai chi and qi gong and yoga, and somehow I hadn't found what I was looking for.
I am not entirely sure why I decided to walk into the tae kwon do place on the corner. Particularly since all I'd heard about tae kwon do made it sound exactly like the sort of thing I wouldn't enjoy: what do I know about kicking or punching? Stabbing things with swords is far more civilized. But I did walk in, and found the place full of kids, and into the middle of them walked a man—well no, into the middle of them walked this great aura of serenity, and there happened to be a man in the center of it. And I thought, "Wow. I want that for myself!"
...and as it turned out, this far more violent, kick-and-punch-focused practice is more spiritual and meditative than any of the aikido I did, and it's all because of the teacher, who will tell me equally, "You must put your hands in this position because, you see, if you do a punch will go outside it and fall down," and, "stop that with your shoulders, you are too tight! You are blocking the energy, the energy must flow out through your center down your foot. You block the energy, you stop breathing, you are not doing it right." Here was the sense of history I was looking for. Here was the sense of spiritual discipline to go with the physical. Here was a teacher who did not just tell me, "Jump into this group session and you'll get it," but spent three hours with me personally, teaching me some fundamentals and encouraging me, while kneeling for the requisite meditation before starting, "to enjoy."
And yet, standing face to face to me and putting my hands (again) in the proper blocking position, he tells me, "Don't move, I won't connect," and demonstrates the point of a roundhouse kick, and the wind of it is so fierce it ruffles the sweaty hair around my temples, and all my hair stands on end. There is nothing soft about the martial arts part of it. Like life, it is a little bit of everything, even humor, as when the teacher insisted on helping me do the first handstand I've ever done in my life, just so I could get "a new perspective."
I can only go to these sessions maybe once a week, for various reasons. One of them is that they empty me out so completely that I need time to build back up again so I can come back. This is exactly what I needed. It's a little scary, even, like everything important that you're not sure will stay in your life.
So here is the first lesson I took away from tae kwon do: it's not just what you do. It's the spirit that you do it in, and the spirit in which you share it with others. Avoidance and non-violence taught carelessly and without caring is more emotionally violent than a snap-kick taught with compassion.