Defense of the Self!
I wasn’t always the anti-Tough Guy of martial arts . . . in fact, I was that Tough-Guy! But being the Tough Guy was not a choice—it was a necessity. I thought I needed to be the Tough Guy to be taken seriously in the world of modern martial arts.
The truth is I didn’t take up martial arts to become the ‘ultimate fighter’ or to be a tough guy. Throughout my life, I have always been somewhat of a reluctant warrior —I taught myself to put on the tough guise in order to survive.
My earliest and fondest memories of martial arts were watching old Chinese kung-fu movies on the reel at my uncle’s house. Even at age six, I was captivated by how, through rigorous and arduous training in martial arts, the main character was able to transform himself from a weak unassuming man, into the hero—who used kung fu to beat the bad guys tormenting his village, and get the girl of his dreams.
What drew me to martial arts back then (and re-discovered again) was not so much the effectiveness of martial skill, but rather its transformative properties.
But somewhere on my journey, I lost touch with why I loved martial arts to begin with!
My Journey Into Martial Arts
As a child, I was severely bullied at school and by the gangs in my neighborhood. I grew up with an abusive alcoholic mother, who kicked me out of the house at 17, so I never got to finish high school. Confused, scared, and never feeling at home in my own body, I felt that I had to prove myself, as a man, as a fighter, and as someone you didn’t want to mess with. Of course, I was also motivated to survive and succeed in the hyper-competitive world of modern martial arts.
Later on, after military service and with no education, the only job I could find was as a doorman outside some of the roughest nightclubs in Johannesburg, South Africa. I spent several years protecting the door and used fighting as a way to pay my bills. Through sheer necessity to survive, I learned to fight and win in just about any circumstance. I had become the very kind of person I had feared as a young boy: the alpha male, the Tough Guy!
In the early 2000s, I became heavily involved in what was then the emerging sport of mixed martial arts (MMA). I had a very successful competitive team during this period, and many of the MMA champions in South Africa today were schooled in my gym. Sports Illustrated South Africa recently referred to me as the “Father of mixed martial arts in South Africa.”
The Turning Point
Eventually, after years proving myself to be the toughest of the tough, I reached a point where I no longer had to fight to survive. Only then did I find the space (and courage) to reflect on what I had become and where I was going in my martial art career—and in life.
I didn’t like what I found!
As I looked around, I saw a lot of guys, including myself, defining self worth by whom we could or could not beat. Fighting was everything to us, and we normalized our aggressive behavior. Everyone was so consumed by hyper-competitiveness, and hurting someone was the norm. It was ‘cool’ because it was seen as sport, and the MMA environment encouraged such behavior. After years of training, focused on fighting and winning, I realized I had lost myself. I had spent so much time proving what a bad ass I was or needed to be to survive, that I had lost my inner balance and the reason I loved martial arts to begin with.
While I acknowledge that the Warrior archetype is hardwired in masculine psychology, I now realize that when it is not balanced by a healthy attitude (call it ‘peace’ or ‘compassion’ or the Wise Man or Sage archetype ) it becomes destructive. Through experience, I came to learn that I am more effective (both as a fighter and as a human being) when I work to integrate these two complementary aspects of myself—the Warrior and the Sage.
In other words, when you train in martial arts only to be an effective fighter, you get a whole lot of what you don’t really want or need in your life. Your emotions become unbalanced. The more you succeed as a Tough Guy fighter, the more aggressive you become. And with that, you also become more paranoid and, ironically, more fearful. You lose touch with your authentic self—that part of you that embodies wholeness of the psyche and that transcends the selfish, self-centered ego.
After years of fighting, on the streets and in the ring, and after a few years of suffering from a syndrome I call ‘ Tough Guy depression‘—a time where I almost gave up on martial arts altogether—I decided to overhaul my entire approach to martial arts. Not just how I trained, but how I coached, too. In the process, I discovered a hidden world—an ‘inner world’ of balance between yang and yin that few martial artists these days have the courage to acknowledge exists.
This is where ’martial’ meets ’art.’ Being balanced (the ‘art’) doesn’t mean being any less effective as a fighter (a martial artist). In fact working with an uncooperative opponent is the exact challenge one requires for personal transformation and personal mastery.
Today, I coach a modern martial art experience that honors the past, but moves with the present. ‘Honoring the past’ means honoring the memory of the wise warriors who came before us. Martial arts today, as throughout history, has the potential to build or destroy. History is full of examples of the shadow warrior, men who honored only personal gain, and in doing so emasculated themselves with their own impotent rage. The ‘Rage Warrior’ lives with an underdeveloped ego, and projects his own inner demons onto others, especially those he trains with, giving him a free hand to treat them with brutality. Often, this brutality is conveniently disguised as ‘sport,’ or justified as the consequences of training in a functional martial art environment.
The turning point for me was shifting focus from being a ‘Rage Warrior’ to becoming a ‘Sage Warrior.’
From Rage to Sage
Over the years, as I gradually came to realize that rage and brutality are not necessary to succeed in martial art, I arrived at a series of conclusion and insights:
- Unconscious Drive—Most men are drawn to martial arts training by an unconscious drive, which forms parts of their mind and personality they know little about, or even acknowledge exists. They are driven by a deep unconscious urge to express something at the core of being a man.
- Superficial Masculinity—Because they are unaware of this force and don’t know what to do with it, most men enter martial arts training seeking to acquire superficial masculine traits that martial arts has to offer. They see their training as a way to become more confident in their ability to handle themselves physically. They want to develop martial skills that other men will fear, and to develop a physical presence that other men (and women) admire. Many men deny these reasons, claiming they mostly want to get in shape, not just learn to fight. However, if physical fitness was truly their prime motivation, they could have taken up any number of other sports. Men are looking for something else through martial arts . . .
- Evolution’s Inner Warrior—Martial art training is alluring to men (and boys) precisely because it represents a crossroads between tens of thousands of years of survival instinct and unconscious forces that drive men to seek and express their inner warrior energy.
- Balancing Instinct and Archetype—My theory is that martial arts is alluring to men not because it is a sport, or because it can help them become tough and rugged, or help them protect themselves. These are merely beneficial outcomes of martial art training, but not its primary purpose. Driven by ancient evolutionary survival instincts, the purpose of martial art training is to find balance between the instinct to survive and the archetype to serve (an archetype is a universal recognizable image or pattern of thinking that has evolved over time, and represents a typical human experience).
- Finding the ‘Good Man’—In short: Martial arts is so alluring to men because it offers them an opportunity to embrace both their hard and soft character traits. Finding balance between paradoxical states that martial arts brings forth—such as anger and peace—a man is able to find the Good Man he always wanted to become.
- Addicted to Dominance—However, just because someone trains in martial arts does not mean he will embody this balance. Nor does it mean that martial arts training will automatically be a positive force in his life. On the contrary, that is often not so. The reason seems obvious. ‘The dark side of the force,’ as Yoda would say, is not only alluring, it is downright addictive. Once you learn how to fight, the primitive unconscious energy that gets activated becomes intoxicating. A man can easily lose track of why he took up martial arts to begin with. Instead, he becomes consumed and mesmerized by the powerful archetypal energy arising inside him. He literally ‘gets off’ on dominating another man with his physical will. In such an environment, men who do not rise to the challenge of physical dominance over other men begin to feel inadequate as men. They live in hope that more training will allow them a taste of that intoxicating experience—lured by the primitive unconscious urge to dominate their fellow men. They have been sold the false idea that being tough is to be a ‘real’ mature man.
- The Paradox of Martial Arts—It seems as if the real potential, the real message coming from the collective unconscious (the deepest layer of the unconscious, which extends beyond the individual psyche), has been disguised on purpose. I think there is a trick in play here. If every man realized the real reason he is so attracted to martial arts (to cultivate the virtues of the Good Man), there would be little or no work to be done. It would not, therefore, lead to personal discovery and growth. We need this paradox in martial arts training to finally and fully discover our true potential. Without the massive contradiction between learning how to fight, or using violent intent—yet seeking inner peace through that experience—inner peace itself would allude us.
- Conclusion—What is needed is a full understanding of the hidden unconscious forces that drive men to seek out martial art training, how to successfully decode the messages coming from those forces, and how to then use them through martial art training to find their Good Man inside.
For me, the true meaning and purpose of martial art training lies in how you can use this knowledge to awaken what I call your ‘Embodied-Warrior.‘ This is a warrior who has achieved balance between opposing forces, such as anger and peace, but is not a slave to either. A Sage Warrior is both ‘aggressive’ or assertive in life, achieving success, but is tempered by compassion for both himself and others.
A true warrior serves a higher calling beyond the needs of his ego, and in doing so he (or she) makes a positive change in his own life, while doing the same for others.