Is The Term ‘Martial Arts’ to Constricting?

I have been having loads of discussions with my students lately before class. One topic that has come up repeatedly, is the question,

“How do I define what I do?”

For a long time, I would simply reply, “I am a martial arts coach.” But increasingly I feel this term doesn’t fully encapsulate what I am about (now), and where I intend to go in the future, or even for that matter what I really feel is the ultimate utility of the expression to begin with.

When I think of martial arts, in a literal sense, it can be defined as the art of war. There is no argument that martial skills throughout the ages have been used to wage wars. But as a modern exponent, I am not at war in a literal sense — at least, not a sustained conflict defined as a ‘war’ on a battlefield. This is not to say that there are no real dangers out there that I need to prepare myself for, because there are. Living in one of the most violent countries in the world, South Africa, it is clear that preparation to deal with violence is not only imperative, but a necessity. But to suggest, that this is all ‘martial arts’ should be about for me, is exactly my current issue with the terms. In the same light, while many people are enthralled by competing in martial combat against other men and woman — that path is not a journey that speaks to me personally. Again, to suggest this should be the only reason to train martial arts (albeit martial athletics) doesn’t seem to me, to be a complete picture.

Increasingly I am more in favour of referring to myself as a Primal Artist (and in turn a Primal-Artistry Coach). To understand why I feel this is a more appropriate term to describe my current thoughts on what I do, one has to go back to the beginning of human existence itself. In addition, by thinking seriously about how one defines oneself can also impact ones intentions, and in my case, even shape the way I coach others. For example, if I only think that the sole purpose of martial arts training is to prepare oneself to fight, then that’s all I will ever know, or see. In doing so, I may invariably miss important distinctions, and messages within my training that could if made conscious allow me to thrive beyond simply preparing for conflict.

When The Clock Strikes One

For 90% of human history we banded together, hunted, protected, and forged the warrior spirit. And suddenly with the advent of modernity that all changed (except of course for those few of us who have continued to serve in the role of the warrior). But, what hasn’t changed, at least in my view, is the ancestral call encoded deep in our DNA – to embrace our primal nature — crying out to once again invoke the warrior spirit hidden deep within all of us.

Here I take possibly a divergent perspective to that of my contemporaries in the field of ‘modern martial arts’. I want to make the argument, that beyond the obvious reason to have martial skills for Protection, two other important functions co-exist, to Survive, and Thrive.

Survive and Thrive are further aspects of contemplation (and in turn action), that go beyond, what may seem immediately obvious about the utility of martial skills (i.e., to Protect). In truth, I don’t think these three paths have ever been separate, but have always co-existed since the dawn of human existence (even in the universe itself). Through learning to protect oneself, you learn to protect others. Through learning to protect yourself, you learn to survive the harsh realities of the world. You do this by surviving the world on your own terms, with clarity, mindful awareness, and equanimity, which ultimately leads you to thrive (and so does everyone else around you). Yet it is clear to me, that it is quit easy to over develop one of these paths, in favour of another (which seems a particularly human trait); or to simply neglect some of these paths all together (in my experience this is not done maliciously, but simply because others do not know they exist).

Let me give a more contemporary example. It is clear as best as I know that I am a living human being (but yet again, I may just be a Zombie). For argument sake, lets assume I am living, conscious, and a ‘self’ among other selves. In that sense, at least as far as I can see, like my fellow humans on this planet, I wake daily, I do, I eat, I sleep, I dream and the cycle repeats. As is probably your experience, how long this repeats is largely out of your control. Life is chaotic, unpredictable, and as the saying goes, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

But what I do know, is I have the power to allow my day to day experience to manifest in accordance to how I respond to what ever arises (chaotic or otherwise). Many things may be out of my control, but my attitude about an event, how I respond to it, does seem up to me (and even if this sense of free will is an illusion, I like the illusion). While there are some that will likely not agree that free will exists, I steal the words here of Viktor Frankl when he notes, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

So here I am in Johannesburg, going about my day to day existence. I have a set of protective skills that should a situation arise — I can bring to bear to respond to the threat — and with a level of force that is appropriate to neutralising it. But here is the thing, even though I live in a really violent city, because I am awake, present, aware, and walk with confidence, I don’t have to bring my protective skills to bear very often. But what is more real to me, is that each and every day, I am trying like everyone else to survive, and ultimately thrive (hey we all want to be happy right)?


What If Martial Arts Became More Than Preparation for The Physical Fight?

So the question I posed myself a little while back was this, “What if I use the embedded embodied structures that give my protective skills life, as a way to give my survival and thriving skills life? In other words, what happens if I use the same primal energy to drive, what is arguably always been seen as the softer (often inconsequential) aspects of martial training?” Yup, that weird word ‘Art’ that seems out of place in war training (i.e., the martial).

It then dawned on me (excuse the pun). But since the dawn of mankind, we haven’t simply been fighting with each other all of the time (although yes there has been a lot of that for sure), but we have also been surviving, and thriving as a species. In my view our primal nature, that part of us that spurs us on to protect, is qualitatively similar to the energy that steers us to survive, and thrive. The underlying psychic structure of these three paths, are in a sense ‘primordial first movers’ in allowing for our ultimate success to emerge. Aggressive energy then in ancient people, was not only brought to bear in a fight for protection, but needed to remain motivated for a week on the hunt to secure one’s survival, yet equally needed to set and achieve personal goals. In this sense then, aggressive energy is neutral until a person decides on its utility. In other words, until a person decides to act upon it. One can either use that emerging energy in a way that is either helpful or unhelpful to the situation at hand.

Making this distinction of course, isn’t always easy. This is why, I am an advocate of not being afraid of one’s Primal Nature, but instead to explore and experience it. Now, this doesn’t mean with a view and sole purpose to achieve violent ends. Rather, by recognising our primal nature, not as something to disdain, but rather brought forth by the very nature of existence itself, we can then decide how not only to respond to it, but how to mould and utilise it.


The Exploration of Primal Nature

The universe for instance is far from a civilised, orderly place. Stars die, asteroids crash into other planets, gravitational forces between clashing galaxies, rogue black holes, etc. In other words, the universe is a violent place. But it is also a place of birth. We are proof of that. In a way, and I may be totally wrong, but I see my primal nature as a mirror to the nature of the universe. In the same way, the very energy within in me that has the potential to destroy (both myself and others), also has the potential to give birth to a new liberated self.

One way of exploring this, is through our primality. If one looks at it this way, then martial arts, is far more than simply the training and deployment of protective skills. Just like the universe that has ‘violent action’ built into its very nature, so that new life and new experiences can emerge, so do we have this primordial energy built within us all to do the same. Maybe the difference is as a human being, I get to decide how to harness, shape, and mould this energy (but there are those who argue that the universe is conscious too…is it then consciously choosing its destiny)? There’s a lot to read into this of course.

For example: Mistakes then, are only mistakes when they arise, but also have the capacity to generate new meaning that ultimately becomes a success ( getting a martial technique wrong in training for instance, isn’t wrong, but merely an adjustment needed to eventually become a success). Or in the words of Joseph Campbell, “Blunders are not the merest chance. They are the result of suppressed desires and conflicts. They are ripples on the surface of life, produced by unsuspected springs. And these may be very deep — as deep as the soul itself. The blunder may amount to the opening of a destiny.” Being tenacious in the face of overwhelming odds, is a form of aggressive energy that has been moulded into an unstoppable asset. Fear is not something to run from, but rather a primer for our best work — because fear turned into action, allows us to do our best work with a sense of urgency that makes us invincible.

But the opposite is also true: Each one of these expressions of energy could be put to work to undermine our liberty and destroy us. Mistakes seen as failure, may ensure that we never try again, and hence we never realise our full potential. Anger in the face of overwhelming odds, makes us play the victim game, which then ensures we never succeed. Fear seen as inadequacy, may halt us from ever achieving our goals.

From this view then, protection or the need to protect is one aspect of the martial arts path. The other is to survive, which in this day and age is more about getting through a day with one’s sanity intact. And finally to thrive, which is born out of taking the primal lessons learned through the experience of martial arts about oneself and applying those lessons in a way that allows you to flourish, without causing anyone else harm in the process. To live a good life then, is the ability to do so on one’s own terms, steered by your own volition, without it causing harm to others.


Going Beyond The External Battle

This doesn’t mean that a warrior should not fight. On the contrary, the drive of protection is strong within all warriors, especially in defence off those weaker than themselves (I like the analogy of referring to this as the Sheep Dog). But a warrior that has befriended his primal nature, is able to temper his response to a potential threat, with not only maturity, but the appropriate level of force required to subdue his opponent. In other words, he or she is not reckless with their protective skills either, rather they are able to engage them only in times where no other choice but to us them is available, and only to the degree that sees the victory. I believe this is what was meant by this often quoted saying by Eduardo García:

“Only a warrior chooses pacifism; others are condemned to it.”

At its heart though, a warrior who lives at the intersection of protection, survival, and thriving understands as has been noted in this Tien T’ai philosophical quote, ”Given enough time, any man may master the physical. With enough knowledge, any man may become wise. It is the true warrior who can master both….and surpass the result.” When I reflect on it in this way, to say that I am a martial artist, skilled only in the art of war (be that in protection or sport), is far to simplistic. It also undermines what I really stand for, what I believe in, and what my personal philosophy is truly about.

As I have noted elsewhere, martial arts without a philosophy is simply violence. A primal artist drawing on the very fabric of both creation and annihilation of the universe, knows that, as Castaneda puts it, “The art of being a warrior is to balance the wonder and the terror of being alive.” In this way, as Yagyu Munenori points out, “It is easy to kill someone with a slash of a sword. It is hard to be impossible for others to cut down.” When you get these three paths to meld together harmoniously, you may still be beaten physical, but your spirit remains in tact. An opponent can no longer cut you down!

In becoming the hero in one’s own life, by embracing the fullness of ones experiences, the good the bad and the ugly, we do as Joseph Campbell notes, “We should experience a marvellous expansion of our powers, a vivid renewal of life. We should tower in stature. Moreover, if we could dredge up something forgotten not only by ourselves but by our whole generation or our entire civilisation, we should indeed become the boon-bringer, the culture hero of the day—a personage of not only local but world historical moment.” I think this starts from first accepting one’s primal nature, and then find the most inspiring ways to live from it.

Bu as Campbell notes, this requires that we “retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case (i.e., give battle to the nursery demons of his local culture) and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation.” In that sense, the truest path of a warrior, a martial artist, one skilled in primal artistry, is to first stop fighting with himself, to transcend the inner fight, and in doing to transcend the outer fight. This doesn’t mean he or she should never fight, but when they do, they do so without ego, and in doing so is able to pass “back and forth across the horizons of the world, in and out of the dragon, as readily as a king through all the rooms of his house. And therein lies his power to save; for his passing and returning demonstrate that through all the contraries of phenomenality the Un-create-Imperishable remains, and there is nothing to fear”


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