More than a decade ago I was obsessed with functionality in my martial arts training. Part of this was driven by the real necessity to know how to fight to survive, and part was driven my childhood trauma. I abandoned everything else martial arts had to offer me, in search for the truth in hand to hand combat. Through those years of testing, experimenting and fighting — I believe I succeeded in finding a method that works in almost all interpersonal aggressive encounters. I proved it out on the streets, outside the doors of nightclubs as a bouncer, in the ring, and on my mat in thousands of rounds of all out sparring.
Dark Night of The Soul
But my obsession with reality in the fight took a dark turn. Only seeing the martial, I descended into internal anarchy, a dark night of the soul. It wasn’t immediately obvious that this was happening, it crept up on me slowly, like old age. But by the time I had realised what had happened, I was taken over by depression, and then an all out rejection for years of not only what I had become, but the overall experience itself. I pretty much locked everything I had achieved and learned on the streets away. As a consequence I stopped teaching reality based self defence.
The next decade to follow, became a deep personal search for meaning. A search for an alternative way to experience my martial arts. Sometimes I got it right, at other times I relapsed to my old ways. In the end though, as I had done before, this time I slipped into an opposite paradigm, now having a disdain for fighting, and almost a complete rejection of the years of immersion in the world of reality based self defence. But just like the important lessons I had previously learned about the truth of fighting, these years that followed taught me important lessons of martial ARTistry. It taught me how to be comfortable in my own skin, to find peace through martial arts, to end the violence inside and come to grips (with much, but not all) of the trauma I had carried with me since childhood.
Embracing One’s Primal Nature
In the last three years, I have finally been able to consolidate both the Yang of Fighting, and the Yin of the Art — into what I believe is an over arching approach that honours both the positive parts of these paths — while navigating away from the negative side of both. I am very proud off this accomplishment. It hasn’t been easy. I have lost fans on both sides of the divide through my own personal journey. But, crucially, I have been able to find the middle point, the middle path between the martial on the one hand, and the art on the other. As such, my philosophy, and thoughts of martial arts have matured and I am in a really happy place because of it.
It was actually while doing work on my PhD, and my research into evolutionary psychology, Jung, Joseph Campbell, the science of mindfulness, chaos theory and others, that I had an ‘Aha’ moment. If one starts with the premise that there were two likely primary survival directives since the dawn of mankind, that of procreation and protection, both of ourselves, and others — then our primal nature is inescapable. It is for all intent and purposes hardwired into our DNA (sadly this is why we still fight each other and wage wars). Our prime directive to survive then, predates all civilised human activities, including any and all martial art styles. Martial art systems were really an evolving aspect of our primal protective directive to attempt to protect ourselves better and with more efficiency.
But in realising this, I also realised that while our primal nature of aggression, and by extension violent expression has created wars and strife on this planet, there also needs to be an acknowledgement of codes of Warriorship, that seem to imply positive personal transformation through the experience of primality itself. Now this is not to say that everyone got it or even followed this line of inquiry, but it is clear that both in history, and especially in mythology that Warriors were held to a greater ideal than that of normal men. I also recognise that this is a complex discussion, that I am, for ease of reading over simplifying.
So noting this over simplification then: As a martial artist, one likely trains in martial skill, firstly because we are to a degree hardwired to do so (remembering back to what I wrote just now, that the need to learn how to protect oneself and others, often historically in one’s tribe, is an evolutionary survival imperative). Show me one boy that doesn’t like a martial arts or a war film? I am convinced that the martial is hardwired in all of us.
However, if we then take the honourable road, and train martial arts skills only as a means to protect ourselves if attacked, applying those skills only to the degree to afford a victory so we can continue to live, and further to apply those skills in protecting those weaker than ourselves — we are now not only able to honour our primal nature, but in approaching it in this way, we open the door to greater meaning through Warriorship. If we want to manifest those positive character traits we so often read about in myths, such as honour, integrity, courage, and so forth — we can only do so, if we approach martial arts in the way that I have just described (at least that’s my personal opinion).
If as martial artist we get this, it then makes perfect sense why our warrior energy exists. Not only does it exist to keep us safe, and to act as a motivator to learn how to be better at keeping ourselves safe, but it also acts as fuel to live an exceptional life. It took me a while, and a lot of hard knocks to finally no longer be afraid of my Primal Nature — and instead to understand it, to mould it, and to harness it for success. As a coach, this is all I really care about now. I can’t speak for everyone, but I no longer compete with anyone as an expression of sport. I see this really as a form of slavery. It keeps us in a state of infantile masculinity, and ensures that we see each other as enemies. There are enough wars and violence in the world as it is, for us now as Men to do so as fun.
Rather, there is more serious work to be done.
I get on the mat and spar you, or roll with you, not to beat you, but rather so we can each embrace the totality of our primal nature. In doing so, I help you, and you help me learn to protect myself better, and by default to protect those I love from predators (sadly those who will only ever understand the martial energy). As I spar and roll with you, we both learn to change our relationship with our primal energy in a way that positively influences all aspects of our lives off the mat. Martial arts, and the experience thereof, should be about Brotherhood, and through the challenge, allow each of us to invoke the higher calling of the Warrior ideal. We can never claim that ideal of those virtuous warriors of time gone by in any other way!
“That person, then, whoever it may be, whose mind is quite through consistency and self-control, who finds contentment in himself, and neither breaks down in adversity nor crumbles in fright, nor burns with any thirsty need nor dissolves into wild and futile excitement, that person is the wise one we are seeking, and that person is happy”
Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 4.37 (Graver. trans.)