Life is a real pain in the ass. It will kick you between the legs the second you lose your focus. In fact lets be honest, it will kick you in the teeth, even when you are wide awake, watching, and ready. Finding the still point in all of life’s chaos is difficult. Paradoxically the place that I train for stillness, is in the most un-still, chaotic, unpredictable experience in my life — by sparring. You see, each week, I get together with my students, training partners and allow them, voluntarily I might add, to hit me. I am allowed to hit him back too, which makes it all the more fun.
Sparring For Me Used To Be About The External Fight
For a long time, sparring for me, was a way to sharpen and hone my real fighting skills. I used that sharpness on the mean unforgiving streets of Johannesburg, and outside some of cities roughest nightclubs as the head doorman for several years in the 90’s. I used that sharpness too in over two decades of sparring competitive fighters, all over the world. To be honest I was a bad ass physically back then — but mentally, emotionally and spiritually — I was a desert.
Martial Arts for a very long time, seemed like something I did as part of my ‘other personality’. Once I got out of the ring, non of what I did there seemed to help me in my everyday life. It wasn’t until I realized that I had never been fighting anyone except myself that things began to change.
I decided several years ago, to change my relationship intentionally with my sparring experience. Rather than it being a way of defeating others — it became a way of defeating my own inner demons. Inner perfection, if it was at all possible, was my mission. I have realized over the years, that as Antoine de Saint-Exuper has suggested, inner perfection, is only possible to achieve “not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” To be honest, I am still working on that.
Confronting My Inner Opponent
Slowly over time, I have begun to confront my inner opponent more and more. In doing so, I have asked it some really hard questions: what drives it, what is it afraid of? Chipping away at this gigantic megalith, has slowly allowed a light to appear.
As time has gone on, my mind and body, have become a lot more still. I have learned has Kristin Armstrong, professional road bicycle racer and three-time Olympic gold medalist has suggested,
When everything is moving and shifting, the only way to counteract chaos is stillness. When things feel extraordinary, strive for ordinary. When the surface is wavy, dive deeper for quieter waters.
I have further come to realize through sparring that when internal stillness isn’t present, what blossoms is fire. The kind of fire that has the tendency to burn you up and spit you out. It does seem at odds that choosing something like sparring, which at its core seemingly holds the seeds of aggression, that fire — could be the very thing that dowses the flames of that aggression. But it has for me!
My realisation is this, through sparring, it is not so much what happens to us on the outside that causes our suffering, but rather how we attach to it. The Buddha said this too, he learned it by contemplating this existential truth under the Bodhi tree. Now, I am not claiming to be a Buddha by any stretch of the imagination, but I have gleaned some of what he taught through getting punched in the face.
When I get on the mat now, sparring is really therapy. It allows all that stuff I don’t like about myself to come up, but now instead of expressing it, I am able to be with it, with no judgement for 12-rounds. It’s what I call mindfulness-in-action. The practice of mindfulness itself, has shown to create many types of attitudes that contribute to a satisfied life. Mindfulness enables you a greater capacity to deal with adverse events in your life. It has been noted to help a person be less concerned about success and self-esteem. It helps with stress, depression and anxiety. I get all of this out of sparring, which for me has become a form of moving meditation.
Each time I am on the mat sparring now, I seek to be fully present, to both what is happening inside and out, without judgement. This is my number one goal, and as such it’s about finding stillness in a moment that is anything but still. Sure I don’t always get it right, but I work hard too.
The outcome, for the first time in my career as a martial artist, the experience on the mat, has supercharged my life off it. In fact, approaching martial arts in this way, has allowed me to achieve success in my life, and in my career. Achievements I previously could have only ever dreamed off. The truth is, if I had carried on simply to win the external fights, and never confronted my inner battles, non of this would have ever been possible. I am reminded here of the words of T.S. Eliot,
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“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”