An Alternative Perspective: Why Martial Arts May Be So Enticing & Rewarding!
Tomorrow I am sparring twelve or more rounds with four times Lightweight EFC Champ Costa Iaonnou. Costa is a long time student of mine, a trainer in Crazy Monkey Defence, and one of my BJJ Black Belts. This is a ritual we do three times a week. I really look forward to it. It’s loads of fun and personally challenging. I can see every time we spar, that he has thought about the previous session, then purposively changes his game up, adding new strategies to it. I do the same. In a real sense, we help ‘level up’ each others games, by constantly trying to out strategize each other. The rounds are fast paced, but we never go out to hurt each other. Not only does this make the experience more enjoyable, but with the myriad of injuries I now have to contend with in my 40’s, I need to be careful with my body.
More Than Just Learning To Fight (Even If You Don’t See it)
My competition days are behind me. I no longer have to constantly be concerned that my game is always at the ready, as I no longer work the door. And while I live in one of the most dangerous cities in the world, Johannesburg — my level of awareness typically keeps me, and those I love safe. So why spend week after week punching someone else, and in turn allowing another person, like Costa, to punch me back? The truth is, even if I didn’t teach martial arts as a living, I would likely still do it.
It makes absolutely no ‘rational’ sense, unless of course, my reason for still training in martial arts goes beyond just my physical prowess in a fight. Of course on the face of it, it may seem to the average person what I do is only about fighting. Sure, most people do seem to only train martial arts either to fight others as sport, or in hopes it will aid them in self-defense (at least that’s what they say they are doing it for). While it may sound a little presumptuous of me to suggest that deep down, for everyone doing some form of martial arts — that at the heart of it — their preoccupation with fighting has little to do with fighting itself. If you peel back the layers, removing competition against others, or self defense readiness, getting in shape etc, what most people practicing martial arts want is to become a better version of who they were yesterday. If I am totally honest with myself, especially as I now know better — learning how to fight, was really never about knowing how to fight in the first place. If I was ever fighting anyone, the opponent was always myself. As George Patton, cited in James Hillman, A Terrible Love of War , noted:
“Despite the impossibility of physically detecting the soul, its existence is proven by its tangible reflection in acts and thoughts. So with war, beyond its physical aspect of armed hosts there hovers an impalpable something which dominates the material . . . to search for this something, we should seek it in a manner analogous to our search for the soul.”
It is this impalpable something, I believe most of us are searching for in our martial arts journey. It is also what I would like to explore in this article, even if its cursory at best (no single article could give this vast topic real justice). As a side note, prior to the PhD path I decided on, this is what I wanted to research. After submitting my research proposal to a dozen universities around the world, only to be told in no uncertain terms, “no way”, I gave up on the idea. I still think pursuing this at some stage may offer a valuable contribution to understanding martial arts, masculinity, and why it remains so popular — in spite of the fact that most people participating in it — will never compete or use it in self-defense. While of course woman train martial arts, we have to face facts, that it is a 99% male pursuit. This is in itself interesting, and forms the larger part of the following article.
What follows are some cursory thoughts on this topic.
Ten Thousand Years Ago
Ten thousand years ago, human beings were hunter-gatherers and had been for most of human history. The typical conclusion among archeologists is that during that time warfare was rare. Prehistoric people were heralded to be cooperative and peace loving, and as such were elevated to the status of the Peaceful or Noble Savage.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his Discourse on Inequality (1754) noted,
“The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naive enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody. ”
But was Rousseau right? Through the pioneering work of Steven LeBlanc, Lawrence Keeley and others, there has been ample evidence to show that warfare was characteristic of prehistoric people as well. Keeley wrote a book about this, entitled, War before Civilization, to elucidate this point. Research by Keeley and others, point to the uneasy truth that primitive man was a violent creature; not the Rousseauian “noble savage” of popular perception. Therefore the need for self-preservation against other humans is likely as old as humankind itself. One can conclude that, over millions of years, the survival of the human species relied on the actualization of self-preservation strategies that allowed our ancestors to survive. This then, at least from my perspective, represents more than a chance event. Rather these survival behaviors constitute an instinctive, innate, and, typically fixed patterns of human experience, honed over time as a successful response to physical danger.
Along with the innate instinct to survive that emerged at the dawn of mankind: tools, techniques and strategies evolved that enabled one person or tribe to exercise a survival advantage over others and the animal kingdom. Historically this may involved fighting danger first with our bare hands, followed by crude weapons such as stone blades and axes, to the swords of the Bronze Age etc (and as we have seen throughout the passage of time, the continued escalation of sophisticated weaponry. In other words, we are getting better at killing each other).
Each successive stage in human development has seen humans attempt to gain leverage over other humans, the animal kingdom and the planet at large – all inspired by the instinctive and innate survival imperative passed on from the dawn of humankind. The best way to both defend and attack has likely occupied the minds of humans since time began. Sitting at the heart of all of this, is the use of aggression, coupled with martial prowess, to subdue the ‘enemy’. In this sense, aggression itself may have arisen as an innate and biological reaction to the very real need to survive.
Is It Simply About The Fight?
One might then easily conclude that the initiation of historical practices and traditions of combat served only one real reason, the preparation of ‘warriors’ who were proficient in leading defense or conquest. And whilst this may be true, paradoxically there are many examples in mythology, arguably the bedrock from which ancient young men learned what it meant to be a warrior, who spoke of warrior-like behavior as constituting more than the simple act of aggression or one’s fighting ability. In the legendary tale from early Irish literature, Táin Bó Cúailnge, the future warrior, Cúchulainn, when he was a boy, was educated by the Celtic warrior community to be not only a great “chariot-fighter”, but to a similar extent, a “prince, and sage.” In Norse Mythology, Thor, known for his courage and brute strength, was also incapable of using deception, and was unfailingly honest. Hector in Homer’s Iliad, was not only a great warrior, but also possessed good ethics and morals, which inspired others to emulate him.
Clearly, to ancient civilizations, being a warrior involved far more than one’s success on the battlefield. While the above examples are by no means an exhaustive list of character traits prized by ancient cultures in their warriors and heroes, it does speak to a desire, through the experience of warriorship, that one would be able to discover the deepest values and meanings by which exceptional people live. Warriors throughout history were celebrated for their ability to transcend their inner fear in the crucible of potentially losing their life. We admire their bravery, their tenacity, grit, resilience, and to a large extent we all wish that we too possessed those character traits. No wonder then we are still drawn to watching two men in various forms of combat, from the UFC etc. This is also why we are so disappointed when we find out that they are not the heroes we thought they were. There is, although unconsciously, an expectation that those who have the physical prowess to beat other men, that they should too be heroic in their character.
For many men, the ultimate test of finding out what they are made off seems possible on the battlefield, where ultimately it comes down to life or death. As accounted earlier, as George Patton noted: “So with war, beyond its physical aspect of armed hosts there hovers an impalpable something which dominates the material . . . to search for this something, we should seek it in a manner analogous to our search for the soul.” There is, if a person agrees with it or not, no greater way of finding out what you are really made of, than going off to war. For those men unable to do so, the attraction of the war of the physical fight on the mat, in a cage seems a good alternative. As men, we can all feel the inherent truth in this.
While there are clearly people who like to fight simply for the sake of fighting, I still firmly believe that they do so, for what that fighting experience promises to bestow upon them. Sure on a superficial level, and initially it may give them status among other men. It may make them feel more powerful than they were yesterday, and if other men fear them, there is less risk to their safety, both physically and psychologically. Throughout history, we have held our warriors in high esteem, and as noted earlier, we want to be just like them, to fear no man. Any person bullied growing up can attest to this. I was bullied severely, and the day I fought back, and won — was the day my life began to change. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was able to reclaim my personal sovereignty. My Mother constantly told me fighting didn’t solve anything, but from that day forward, every bully in my school, thought twice before picking on me (even those who weren’t bullies). Nothing had really changed, I still had no clue how to fight, I was still that scrawny kid from a day earlier — but by fighting back, I touched, even it was briefly, that “impalpable something” Patton spoke off. Like it or not, their is a hidden meaning that lies beyond physical prowess, that throughout history myths spoke of as a transcendent function. While I may have not been able to easily comprehend it at the time, I would later recognize it as the Warrior-Sage Archetype.
The Warrior as Archetype
Archetypes, such as the warrior (which in mythology is often associated with the Hero) as described by Jung, is a symbol that occupies our collective unconscious, and as he suggests, are potentially accessible to all of us. Although many people (especially in academia) reject the idea of a collective unconscious, the reality of these archetypes is supported as symbols that are common to all cultures throughout history. Jung suggested that there are an infinite number of archetypes that inhabit the collective unconscious. The fact that similar symbols of archetypes show up in different cultures throughout history, demonstrates that these archetypes belong to all of humanity (these include the earth mother, the shadow, the animus, the hero, warrior and so on.) These archetypes are often written into myths. Often times, a hero for example would exhibit several of these archetypes, some even simultaneously. I am of the opinion that “myths” may represent higher truths, if one is able to take a psychological lens to them, instead of a literal one.
Going Beyond Instinct: The Warrior-Sage
Robert Moore has noted that for both Erikson and Jung, “there is no inherent conflict between the instinctual drives in human beings and their psychological and spiritual aspirations.” In this sense, while ancient man may have been hard-wired with the instinct to survive, that very same survival drive is also the dynamic energy that could enable him to find his true center of power (practicing martial arts is one way to achieve this). Ancient people understood that becoming a true warrior involved more than one’s fighting prowess as noted earlier. From their perspective, a true warrior must acquire qualities that allowed for both balance and growth as a human being. It is my view that our survival instinct, and the need by men to express this inner warrior archetype, can serve as a learning model for men to find what we could call their inner sage.
Unfortunately men, especially in the Western world are increasingly told that their instinctual drives equate with being ‘bad’. They are told to be more in touch with their “feminine’ side” and to bury what has been seen as uniquely destructive masculine traits. One of these instinctual drives that men are frequently chastised for is aggression. Aggression in our day-to-day living and in the modern day work environment is shunned (even though ironically we quietly accept it when it is conveniently disguised as sport?) I have seen woman tell men that they are overly aggressive, but then those very same woman go out and support their favorite NFL team…it just doesn’t make any sense, does it?
As Robert Bly has pointed out, as early as the 60’s, men were told that they will find “their golden ball in sensitivity, receptivity, cooperation, and nonagressiveness.” But as Blye further notes, many men relinquished “all their aggressiveness and still did not find the golden ball”. Here Blye is referring to the ‘golden ball’ as wholeness, the radiance that we embodied as children, before we were “split into male and female, rich and poor, bad and good”.
The fact remains, and it is a hard pill for some people to swallow, men are genetically programmed for aggressive activities. If we look back historically it makes sense. If you as a man didn’t have that innate aggressive drive, you wouldn’t get up to go hunt and everyone would starve, or you would have failed to protect the tribe from that Saber Tooth Tiger, which means everyone gets wiped out. Personally I have seen, that you can ask a man to not display aggressive tendencies or to ‘turn it off’, but it will still remain inside him. One cannot simply curtail a survival instinct, evolved during millions of years of evolution. As noted previously, ten thousand years ago, we all would have been hunter-gatherers. One had to hunt and fight to protect one’s tribe. This experience however, would have been tempered to a large degree with tribal myths about being a warrior, similar to those mentioned earlier (Thor, Iliad etc). In addition, initiation rights were established to successfully aid in the development of young boys into mature manhood. In tribal communities, being a warrior did not equate only with how much of a “bad ass” you were, you also had to be a good father figure, an upstanding citizen and provider.
In today’s modern societies, there are few suitable and socially integrated outlets for these aggressive energies to be expressed. In my view, aggressive instincts must be expressed for a man to find his inner balance, or as Blye’s suggests discovering his Golden Ball. This is one of the main reasons I still engage in ritual combat on a weekly basis, even though, I don’t really have to do it. Anthony Storr made an important point in his book, Human Destructiveness, where he writes, “Most of us [men] would like to rid ourselves of the destructive aspects of our aggression; but it is difficult to do so without impairing the necessary and positive aspects of the aggressive drive.”
Clearly, we, as men, not only need a platform to express our innate aggression, but it needs to be a platform that allows for the positive aspects of our aggressive energy as Storr notes to be discovered, nurtured and encouraged. I think most men instinctively are looking for this in their life. They don’t however know where to find it. No wonder that they then take up sports, or experiences that encourage aggressive energy. Sadly though, our elders who would have taught us to find balance in the emotional content that is brought about through participating in these kinds of aggressive experiences, are mostly gone. If Jung is right about the unconscious, then most people who do have the position of coach don’t even know that this path exists, or that it is even important to cultivate. Most martial art instructors (and sport coaches), who should be our modern day equivalent of Tribal Elders — themselves simply fall victim to offering the, “destructive aspects of our aggression.” We see this everyday with the win at all cost mentality, hyper-competitiveness etc.
The opposite end of this debate is to try eradicate these aggressive tendencies all together. But simply ignoring our feelings of aggression for example, or trying to socialize the aggression out of the masculine persona, will not force it out of the masculine composition. Personally, I have seen that the repression of aggression seems to amplify it in men, and it will be displaced, only to rear its ‘ugly’ head somewhere else. I am of the view that aggression is hardwired into us through the mechanisms of evolution. It is then society, parenting, schooling, religion etc, that molds it into it’s future form. Crucially as Storr notes, to the degree that a man is not allowed to affirm himself through legitimate aggressiveness, violence, fueled by narcissistic rage, more often becomes the norm. Resorting to violence, then, is often seen in men who have no ability or opportunity to positively affirm their aggressive instincts in the dominant culture in which they find themselves in. I am not surprised then, that the ‘sport’ aspect of fighting, like MMA is on the rise.
It is then understandable, that modern martial arts today, as throughout history, remains so attractive to most men. It is important to remind ourselves that, as Storr has noted, to the degree to which a man is not allowed to affirm himself through legitimate aggressiveness in his life, he will seek out alternative ways to affirm it. Now that MMA is seen as legitimate, and largely accepted, this naturally fits that void. Competitive extreme martial arts, such as mixed martial arts, now a sport, makes it possible for a man to actively participate in an aggressive pursuit legitimately. Society says, “If it is a sport, then it is okay. But if it is done on the street, then it is simply street fighting.” As one mixed martial artist on The Ultimate Fighter noted, “I get to do in the cage what would have me arrested on the street”.
Why So Many Are Attracted To The Aggressive Nature of Modern Martial Arts
The experience of martial arts speaks to both a man’s instinctive language of survival and his inherent masculine psychology. As we are biologically programmed to survive and many of our masculine behaviors and motivations stem from this biological pre-programming, I am convinced that we need a method of personal mastery that utilizes such a platform for self-development. In my view, martial arts fulfills this role better than any other method, simply because the very nature of martial expression speaks to us as men on a psychological, instinctive (i.e., evolutionary) and archetypal level. Although, and crucially, personal transformation and personal mastery is only possible, if one is able to transcend the violence first towards oneself, and then against others — and this is only possible if the Art is practiced.
What I am most interested in, is how these two seemingly contradictory states, that of survival instinct and personal mastery intersect. I also want to interject here and say, if you only see the one side of aggression for example, as that emotion required to beat another man, then you will never know that this very same aggressive energy can be used for anything other than to hurt people. Jung noted, that most of this would be unconscious anyway. You therefore have to strive to look deep within your mind, especially emotions that arise within you, that can cause both yourself and others harm and work to positively transform them. If you are not training martial arts specifically for this reason, you will invariably only see, and engage in the Martial aspect of the training.
Personal mastery is hard to accomplish if you don’t have the right vehicle to achieve it in. You need a vehicle that doesn’t deny any of your emotions (or any aspect of self, no matter how uncomfortable it may be). Luckily we have such a vehicle, modern martial arts training. The experience of martial arts can teach men how to embrace both their evolutionary heritage and its personal mastery counterpart, thereby allowing a man to embody his psychological potential for personal self transformation. Of course, it must be coached correctly, and sadly this is often not the case. Nevertheless, personal mastery can only be achieved when we as men acknowledge and work creatively with our primal nature, not dismissing it as modern society has tried to define it as trivial, primitive, infantile or simply negative. This creative utilization of aggression combined with tempered martial ART practice — can culminate in personal mastery, and the transforming of oneself into a person that embodies the great, and enduring qualities often spoken of warriors of old. I know it has for me (although I am, and always will be a work in progress).
I believe that man’s primal nature, and it’s personal mastery counterpart, is best expressed through martial arts movement, most crucially as it is a ‘language’ that predates rationality. It is then through primal movement, the primary language of a man’s body, that can awaken within him deep memories and feelings of his ancient inner warrior, symbolized further by the archetypes that are associated with it. When we then make a man’s ancient inner warrior conscious through martial movement, and most importantly tempering it, honoring it (not ignoring it) and rather seeing it as a transcendent function — a new and healthier attitude emerges in a man’s psyche.
I believe Martial arts ultimate training goal should be to allow a man to hold the opposites of his nature, such as aggression and mastery, in swaying tension, thus allowing for a third expression to emerge. This constitutes the transcendent or as Blye noted his Golden Ball. This third element of transcendence is not an amalgamation of aggression and mastery, but rather something qualitatively different. By not denying for example that aggression must be absent in order to achieve self-mastery, the transcendent element that emerges is mindful presence. In this sense, as Erik and Jung propose, ancient emotions such as aggression and a man’s psychological and spiritual aspirations are intimately connected. They are connected for very important reasons: they give use the motivation, the energy, to realize our true potential.
Emotions therefore are not good or bad. However, the manner in which they are expressed is crucial. All emotions serve important roles in our survival. Largely overlooked is the fact that emotional expression culminates in a central role of allowing the experience of self. “The archetype of wholeness of the psyche that transcends the ego,” our search for inner happiness, for our deepest sense of our authentic self, would not be possible without emotions (including one’s such as aggression). Aggression is often seen as a severely inappropriate masculine trait. Moreover, in some views, such as that of the radical feminist movement would see aggression being eliminated on a genetic level if it was at all possible.
However, one must see that aggression is only negative when it is misunderstood and used incorrectly. Unfortunately aggression for most people is often equated with violence of some kind. However I hope this article offers up another view of aggression. As Rycroft, in his Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, writes: the etymology of aggression, often associated with “hate, destructiveness and sadism”, is rather historically understood as meaning “dynamism, self-assertiveness, expansiveness, drive”. Moore and Gillette agree to this in Warrior Within, when they write, “Aggressive behavior is not synonymous with rage or violence. Rage and violence are expression of over-stimulated aggression. Aggressiveness, however, is necessary to the organism’s [man’s] struggle for life and the development of self”.
Clearly there seems to be a lot of over-stimulated violent aggression in our world. Nowhere is this more evident than in the modern word of martial arts. But I still firmly believe that martial arts, if taught correctly, can be the best vehicle for men to rediscover and positively embody what is often seen as the negative, into the positive. A man can only fully integrate his shadows, his archetypal dark side so to speak, by not avoiding it, but by proceeding bravely into it. This must be done with maturity and knowledge of how to successfully undertake this type of journey into finding the heroic warrior within oneself. There needs to be experienced coaches that lead this journey, so that this process doesn’t culminate in the very thing that destroys him.
When your focus is only on ‘fighting’ and being ultimately successful in terms of that aim, the central emotional content you express is overstimulated violent aggression. The more positive side of aggression that of self-assertiveness in the absence of an over inflated Ego — will be lost to you. To be self-assertive is the ability to transform fear or anger into mindful presence. When you get this right, you will find that on the one hand you are able to stand up for what you believe, but, simultaneously, you don’t allow your anger to eat away at you. The transcendent function of standing up for what you believe, yet being mindfully present, is that from which self-assertiveness gains strength. What is then often seen as masculine aggression, is only negative when it is not balanced with mindful presence. This is something martial arts should teach a person. When aggression is expressed in its infantile state, it becomes about ego-achievement, thus endangering the self and others. You are never mindfully present when you are moving from a place of violence to self-gratification through power over others.
“It is better to be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war.”
 Thomas Kinsella, trans., The Tain: From the Irish Epic Táin Bó Cuailnge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969) 25.
 Philip Sheldrake, A Brief History of Spirituality, Wiley-Blackwell 2007 p. 1-2
 Robert Blye Iron John pg 7
 Anthony Storr, Human Destructiveness pg20
 Anthony Store, Human Destructiveness pg 18
 Moore and Gillette Warrior Within pg 51
 Ruth Snowden (2010) Jung – The Key Ideas
 Ruth Snowden (2010) Jung – The Key Ideas
Rycroft, C(1968) A Critical Analysis of Psychoanalysis.London: New York Basic Books pg5
 Moore, R and Gillette, D The Warrior Within pg 51