I remember being at a Taijiquan camp on the Kootenay Lake in the mid-90’s and being confronted by a Yogini about our swords. She was obviously put off by the idea of weapons being present at a retreat that had such an otherwise soft hippy vibe. In fact, I believe she was having a bit of trouble with my presence there as a warrior, as I was far more martial than most of the other teachers present. In no way was I the most skilled martial artist there, yet I was the most obviously martial in my focus and study.
One thing I felt from from her was the judgement. I get it, as my own inclinations run easily to judgement and it is one of the demons that requires frequent re-leashing. She saw the violence inherent in the sword-play and the talk of cut and thrust and wondered how we could wield such awful weapons? My own bearing is one that has often throughout my life caused some women to recoil. As an autistic man my emotional volume can convey things that I do not hold inside or intend, as it seems to read as something else when my passion comes out. I have often had women see sexuality within things that are merely fascination and curiosity in me. I know that this has led sometimes to me being perceived as predatory when martial arts and passion come together, and they recoil at what they see as potential sexual violence. More than one adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse has projected their fears onto me and seen in me echoes of their abusers.
Consequently I have spent quite a bit of time contemplating just what is my relationship to violence and what is it that is satisfied when I study it? I have had to ask myself quite soberly “am I a sociopath who has simply channelled his tendencies?” Is the struggle with my own demons been mere training for an outbreak of violence? Am I going to “go postal” one day? I believe that it would be irresponsible of me to not ask these questions, yet having asked them in some way it serves to reduce the potential. I once heard a line in a television show “our minds think these things so our bodies don’t have to act them out.”
As Jiddu Krisnamurti said “We are not trying at present to find out how to dispose of violence, in a violent way or a non-violent way, but what brings about this violence in us. What is violence in us, psychologically (Saanen, Switzerland, August 3, 1969)?” So when I think back on the Yogini and her clear discomfort with the weaponry, the martial arts and with me, I realize that most of what I do in martial arts is not the acquisition of skills or abilities; rather it is the naked baring of my soul to see the violence inherent in myself. Has martial arts made me violent? From my perspective I would say that it is obviously the opposite, I have become far less violent over time. As my potential power to express violence has increased, my actual risk of committing violence has dramatically decreased.
I know that the reason that I began the study of martial arts was the experience of bullying. As an undiagnosed high functioning autistic child in public schools through the seventies I was often the target of bullying, mostly emotional yet some physical as well (both collar bones broken). When I began martial arts training one thought in the back of my mind was “never again!” Over time I have come to see that this is a strong motivator for many of my colleagues on the path. The power to preserve oneself in the face of threats and to fight back, or fight or flight, lays at the heart of this.
The relationship between fear and fight or flight is clear, even more-so when we use the perspective of Chinese medicine. The 志 Zhì or willpower is at the heart of our sense of self preservation. I often say to my students if they really want to grasp 志 then lay down submerged in a tub of water and have a trusted friend hold you under for a count of ten past the time when really need to come up for air. I guarantee that you will feel your will to survive activated. How much of the study of the martial arts is the study of our relationship to fight or flight? Time and again you will hear the lesson “relax,” yet what are we really trying to relax? How can I relax my tissue if I cannot relax my mind? How can I relax my mind if I am still acting out of fear? Fear is when fight or flight tears the 志 willpower from its moorings and seizes the mind like a captive.
This raises, for me at least, an interesting question about the application of power. How can I not take your life if I have to fight for my own? I see this as an issue that we face as martial artists if we are not going to be mere socio-paths wielding force upon the world. If I train violence but don’t want to do violence how much violence do I need to contain? If I try to train to have only the minimal amount of violence and master a way of peace do I not face the possibility that I may encounter force so strong that I cannot be ahead of it at each moment. What if I encounter violence outside my experience because I have shied away from violence? What if that is how my 志 willpower becomes activated and I kill someone out of desperation to survive?
I would argue that if we are going to overcome violence within ourselves and in the world we must face it head-on. Just as I must face my fear to overcome it I must face my violence to overcome it. This is where we come to the issue of training the killing moves and holding killing thoughts in our heads. It is not a glorification of the violence or a kind of catharsis or looking at it so it goes away. It is the embrace of the hunter and killer within my own heart. When we cross hands I am going to kill you, just in case. If I bring life and death to the table each time then I will never have to find myself outside my ability to survive. If I cross hands with a withholding of the violence then I may find myself killed, not my goal, or I may find myself having to grapple with killing or dying unexpectedly, and I may kill another through accident. I start in the killing place so that I can always moderate from there and never be led there through misadventure.
If I am standing facing death each time we meet then I actually have a circumstance were I can truly relax. If you are going to be able to face your own death you must face all death. Going to a killing place is not to say “I will kill you,” it is to say “one of us will die.” If I bring 100% of the potential and you just want to spar at 30% (or 60% when you start to lose) then I will be that far ahead once things begin. It doesn’t mean I WILL kill you, only that I CAN kill you. The thing about killing power is that takes you so far past the place where blows are traded back and forth that often there is no sparring at all. Once we move I get to the life and death place and my opponent is still looking for an opening. Not being prepared to kill and die is all the opening I need. My friend, teacher and number one inspiration to be good at martial arts, Michael Smith DTCM, once said something like, “Sparring is like dogs trying to see who gets to carry their tail the highest; real martial arts is like wolves taking down a prey animal. They are not the same.”
There is a strange and unexpected by-product of being willing to go to the killing and dying place, and that is once you are there you see your own vulnerability as readily as you can see their’s. 以我知彼 yǐ wǒ zhī bǐ translates as “through the self know others.” The study of violence is not the study of its application alone, it is also the understanding that any method that could be applied to another could be applied to you. Any injury another could suffer is an injury that you could suffer. This is the path that connects the continuum between fighting arts and healing arts. Its is the means by which we recognize that they are one thing and share a common root in life and death.
The way in which I tear a joint apart is the same set up and motions that I will take to massage and loosen bound tissue to free that joint, the only difference is the amount of time and intensity of the force applied. Killing is short time and high force, healing is a long time and gentle force. An interesting thing is that for each of these methods to be successful they both require that ability to perceive you and your circumstances. It takes no less compassion to be able to have the sensitivity to kill someone in an instant than it takes to be able to heal someone with therapeutic massage. In a strange way the study and embrace of one’s own potential for violence increases one’s capacity for compassion. If you are really confronting the existential realities of these arts and their potential for damage then you will be changed at your core. Facing death in all its facets plants our feet on the ground and levels each of us. How can one be arrogant in the face of their own death? How can one judge another who faces the same fate?
Do not confuse my love of killing arts for a love of killing. Do not confuse my ferocity for disdain or contempt. Do not confuse my willingness to face death for nihilism. Do not confuse my swords for mere weapons of barbarity and brutality. They are the fierce tools of a loving heart.