I think there are three basic orientations in living daily life.
One is being past-oriented, where you constantly think about things gone by, how you could have done things differently, or reliving experiences that you've enjoyed.
Another is being now-oriented, where you don't dwell on yesterday, and you don't really think about tomorrow, but deal only what is in front of you today.
And then there is future-oriented, where you are thinking about and anticipating what will come next.
I think people can and do change from one orientation to another, and have a bit of all three at times. I also think that most people have a "default" position in one of these three orientations for much of their lives.
For me, my "default" is future-oriented. This means that I'm thinking about what's going to happen most of the time. I like plans, goals, and deadlines. I like to achieve things and move to the next achievement. My mind is usually buzzing about what comes next and anticipating the future.
An unfortunate side effect of this future-orientation is that I have suffered from insomnia for most of my life. I have a very, very difficult time "shutting down my head". Additionally, when I awake in the middle of the night, it's not unusual for the brain to fire up to moving at a 100 miles an hour, so it's hard to go back to sleep.
Prior to training in the martial arts, I used two primary methods of coping. One would be taking drugs to help me sleep, but the other - and more common - method I used was to basically create a mental environment (telling myself a story, basically) unrelated to anything going on in my real life, so I could "reset" my head and shut it down for the night.
Both methods have their drawbacks and limited effectiveness. So, it's always an been an issue.
Then, when I was a few months shy of 40 years old, I stepped on a martial arts mat for the first time on a Tuesday night in April, 2008. Later that night, I needed no coping strategy to sleep. And, over the years, on the evenings I train, more often than not I have zero trouble going to sleep at the end of the day.
It took me a while to notice, and then to figure out why I have no trouble sleeping after an evening martial arts class (it doesn't work for me when I have a class early in the day - it only works in the evenings, for the most part). It wasn't the physical activity - I'd never experienced the same thing from working out or running or playing sports as a teenager, so it has to be something else.
And here's why training works to help cure insomnia:
When you do the martial arts, you generally spend all of your mental time in the NOW. You can't think about what happened yesterday too much, and you can't worry too much about tomorrow - either way of thinking will get you or your partner hurt. I can't imagine that now-oriented people have any trouble sleeping at night (if you're now-oriented by nature, I'd love to know if I'm right).
Believe me, when Kevin Bradbury swings at my head with a strike, I'm not worrying about how to organize that report I'm writing for next week, or what food I have on hand for the next three nights of dinner, or how I'm going to get the kids to that event they are attending on the weekend.
In class, my brain must be in the now, and only the now. Martial arts class is like a big record scratch on the constant internal planning narrative.
For me, that is the biggest benefit of studying the martial arts. It was completely unexpected, this interruption in the constant process of forecasting and considering what if my plans don't come out the way I envision. But it's certainly one of the major reasons I never want to give it up.
How about you - what was your unexpected benefit of the martial arts? Let us know in the comments!