For the past two decades, I have been punching people in the face, and those people have been punching me back. When I wasn’t doing that, I found myself rolling around on the floor with sweaty people, where we tried to take each other’s limbs off (metaphorically speaking, of course). As if that wasn’t crazy enough, people paid me to do this to them. If you don’t know much about me, I am a full-time martial arts coach. I have taught special-forces military units, world-champion fighters, and everyone in-between.
In all the years that I have been fighting, my final realisation has been this: I never fought anyone. The only person I ever fought against was myself. Friedrich Nietzsche, the famous German philosopher, wrote “In times of peace, the warlike man attacks himself.” I would say, that a warlike man uses violence against others, precisely because he is too afraid to know himself (I guess we are alluding to the same thing). Because he fears his inner demons, he chases darkness on the outside to avoid facing (and bringing light to) the darkness within. If martial arts has taught me anything, it has taught me who I really am, and that who I thought I was, was never who I really was to begin with (how’s that for a bit of Zen?). The experience of martial (meaning “warlike”) performance, on the mat against another person, brings to life the truth of who you really are in that moment, or at least that’s what I have been telling myself. It’s true though, if you are afraid, you know it. If you feel anxious, you know it. If you doubt yourself, you know it. But you don’t show any of this to the person in front of you, because staying stoic when you are shitting yourself is a good strategy when someone wants to beat the crap out of you.
In those moments of truth, you can use that insecurity, that fear, that anxiety, as fuel to beat the person in front of you with martial skill, or you can chose to use that fuel to face down your inner opponents with art and turn them into character strengths. This is what I now continue to seek in my martial arts journey.
I have come to realise that my martial arts journey has been about what the Japanese term shugyo. This word translates in different ways, and is used differently depending on the circumstance, but for my purpose in training martial arts it is meant to imply ‘determined training that fosters enlightenment’. For the past several years, I have gone from focusing purely on the effectiveness of martial technique in a fight, to seriously becoming a student of the art. I have been criticised for it, too. Pundits of the hard-core reality-based martial arts world have characterised my approach as “new age-y.” This attitude alone points to a kind of institutional cancer within the modern martial arts world. More often than not, the focus seems to be exclusively on the fight, to the exclusion of anything that aims at personal mastery. In other words, using martial arts to do less violence, not just against other people, but especially against oneself seems to be frowned upon. In contrast, I have chosen to find (and then create) a positive expression of modern martial arts — not only for my own sanity, but to help my clients steer clear of the negative side-effects of modern martial art training. Unfortunately, the media celebrate the hype of the fight and ignore the dark underbelly of modern martial arts. Hardly anyone talks about the potential negative psychological and emotional side-effects of training for a career (or even a “hobby”) where, trapped in a cage, your sole goal is to beat the crap out of your opponent.
Over the past few years, martial arts has become, at least for me, about transcending the need to fight, both myself and others. From this perspective, we are moving from simply the martial to a more balanced approach in which art plays an equal role. My practice of shugyo fitness has become a way to tighten the slack of my inner game, through tough martial art training where using my body is the only tool, thus allowing me to polish my spirit (or at least get a slight shine on it). My dojo, the experiential ground for this personal test and transformation, has been a simple padded floor, or what I call “the mat”. The mat has been my teacher, my opponent, and my protagonist. I have both loved the mat and hated it (at times, I could swear it had some kind of Voodoo curse on it — especially on days when everything went wrong — it happens!).
Along with the mat, my other important teachers have been my training partners. Volunteers in this odd ritual we allow each other, often with smiles on our faces, to punch, crank, and throw each other around. Without these insane mad men and women, I never would have been able to achieve success in training to become a balanced warrior. This is what it has been for all of us on the mat: a quest; as shugyosha (questers), each of us seeks our own way to inner enlightenment through training in the warrior arts.