Put Off Thy Shoes…

Living Lessons with Duke Tirschel

In the world of Martial Arts I’ve heard a lot of reasons why we remove our shoes before we go “on the mat”. Now, the “mat” might be the old canvas mat, a hard rubber wrestling mat, or a carpet with duct tape separating students from spectators. It may even be a hard wood floor or concrete, whatever the floor is doesn’t matter, shoes are removed before stepping on it. That’s the rule and we follow it whether we know why or not.

But, I’m taken back a bit, at some of the responses I got, when I ask, “Why?”

I’ve heard answers that ranged anywhere from “so the mats will not get damaged” to “the weight of a shoe puts stress on the knee” to “can’t kick the targets with shoes on.”

I don’t think people really know why they’re taking their shoes off, other than they were told to. Most instructors I asked played it safe and said, “It’s the tradition.” It’s easy to see the merit in any of the answers but most answers would have to change, given the smallest change in circumstance, except for maybe, “It’s the tradition”.

Just don’t ask, “What tradition?” Because you’ll be right back where you started.

There comes a time that when a question you have, truly wants an answer, you might do well to go find it on your own. After all, answers aren’t all that illusive and they tend to be somewhat forgiving. So what, if one person can find an answer that works better for them than it does for someone else. Not all answers are absolute. One instructor may want you to remove your shoes for one reason, another instructor for another reason.

But, the answer that’s right for me makes me feel there is no more need to ask the question. That’s a comfortable feeling, because then, I can get into the process of what I’m doing instead of wondering why I’m doing it. When I take my shoes off, when I bow or say ‘yes sir’ or ‘no sir’ when I recite the student creed, when I know (or have) a reason for all those actions that I do, there is a meaning for me in doing it, and I value it.

Exodus 3:5 says Moses is told, “Draw not nigh hither. Put off thy shoes from off thy feet; for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” And herein I began my search. God said, “Draw not nigh hither” or in other words, whoa, don’t come any closer Moses.”

Shoes in the Dojo

God doesn’t refuse to talk to people because they’re wearing shoes. If God didn’t want people wearing shoes, he would have made a bigger issue of it throughout the Bible. Every time he would begin to talk to someone, he would say “Oh yes, and by the way, take off those shoes.”

But at the Burning Bush, Moses was to take off his shoes, and put on God’s shoes. This meant that Moses was to yield his rights to live as he wanted by giving those rights to God. In this case, taking off your shoes is yielding your right to have authority where you are. To “put on” your instructors “shoes” is accepting his authority and denying your own decisions of how things are supposed to be done. Drawing a picture, we see that shoes are made of leather, a material that comes from a dead animal, analogous to the dead ideas we bring into class from the past. We are to empty our mind of the old, dead ideas to make room for the new learning.

When teaching a class of beginners it is NOT unlikely that someone will interrupt the class and say, “But this is the way we did it at my other school” or they may ask, “Ok but, how about doing it this way” and come up with a variation of the technique that they thought would be better.

Why did the captain of the Lord’s army tell Joshua to take of his shoe? The captain of the Lord’s host said unto Joshua, “Loose thy shoe from off thy foot; for the place whereon thou standest is holy. And Joshua did so” (Joshua 5:14-15). This meant that Joshua was to yield his right to lead in the battle. The Angel of God was to be the captain, not Joshua. This is a good lesson for students to learn. They sometimes have to be reminded that when they came to you they had the intention of “yielding their right to you, for you to lead in the battle.” They chose you to be the captain, not them.

There are several other places in the Bible where it was historically shown that taking off one’s shoe was an indication of yielding authority. But I’m satisfied, looking at Moses’ experience with the Burning Bush and Joshua’s encounter with the Lord of Hosts, those did it for me.

And so, whatever the floor is made of, be it cement, carpet or an expensive mat the way I present my answer, when the student asks “Why do we take off our shoes?” is a longer version of, “The student removes his shoes to yield to the instructor’s right to lead, the instructor removes his shoes because he, too, yields to a higher power.”