Do martial arts have anything to do with personal growth, whether you aim for Jungian individuation (a process of psychological integration of all aspects of the mind - conscious, suppressed, unconscious, …) or eastern enlightenment? (Though they are perhaps both one and the same?)
Many martial arts are associated with spiritual growth, internal peace and harmony. Tai Chi Chuan is often advertised as “meditation in motion,” Aikido is often translated as “the way of unifying (with) life energy.” Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery is a (fascinating!) classic. SYSTEMA is supposed to develop “high spiritual and moral qualities”. Yet many martial arts have no spiritual dimension whatsoever, such as western boxing, MMA, or Muay Thai (as far as they are commonly presented).
Martial arts require some desirable characteristics, such as discipline and self-control. They can thus be a suitable tool for personal growth - but so can gardening and, in the case of Milarepa, building houses. So the question is, do martial arts have any inherent quality that makes them contribute to one’s growth and potentially enlightenment? And, whether the answer is yes or no, how to make the most out of it? How to make it the most effective as a tool of growth?
One well-known teacher of Tai Chi Chuan, with a unique depth and breadth of understanding and experience and over 30 years of practice, commented that he has not realized any of the presumed spiritual benefits of TCC, such as inner peace or harmony. (Perhaps being fully grounded in the fighting aspect of TCC has something to do with it. It is surely different when you perform your hand form as a moving meditation and mindfulness exercises, feeling harmony with the world, and when your focus and intent are on the technique and its martial application to breaking necks etc.) On the other hand, Peter Ralston of Cheng Hsin started on the path of contemplation to improve his martial arts - and soon reversed the roles, using martial arts to further his contemplation, understanding, and inner growth. (I am looking forward to reading his other books to find out more about this.)
So martial arts can be used as a tool of inner growth. But it clearly depends a lot on one’s attitude, what the practitioner brings to the table. How to make the most of it as a tool of growth? I hope to find out… .
Update: A friend has mentioned that skills learned in a dojo do sometimes transfer to the outside. For instance, the Aikido approach of not going force against force and using the right time and “angle” when handling a conflict.