If one could go back to the dawn of modern man one would be struck by two perennial truths. In the one sense humans would seek to propagate and continue the species, and secondly there would be a need to survive. Building off that need to survive would be the leveraging of both self, and environment as means to seek personal, and collective (i.e., family, tribe) protection.

It is hard for many of us to imagine this, especially those of us who live in the relative safety and ease of the modern world. But for our ancestors, life was unimaginably harsh, filled with danger, both real and imagined. It’s not surprising then, that earliest man sought to find the best possible ways, including strategies and tactics to defend himself, and those he cared deeply about (or simply other people he needed to help him fight off the dangers he could not survive alone),

Two Paths of The Martial

It is at this point that the martial expression — spurred on by the evolutionary imperative to survive and thrive — that two competing philosophies emerge (I say they are philosophies, as they are a personal choice of expression). It is clear that at some stage, early humans realised that the very same martial skills they developed to survive the dangers of predation from wild animals, could also be deployed to conquer other members of the same species (and of course animals as well). What may have started off as a fight over scarce resources, eventually became full out warfare of dominance, and no longer simply about strict survival, but rather power. Really, at this point one can consider two approached to the martial expression, one that uses its method only in the deployment of survival when real life and death danger to self is present, or the use of that martial knowledge and skill to purposively conquer others for personal/collective gain. It is the later I would argue is the exclusive domain of the martial artist.

As a martial artist, it is obvious that part of my desire to train is built upon the very same evolutionary imperative of survival as my ancestors once observed. Unlike them of course, unless one truly fears for ones safety as I once did growing up in a gang ridden neighbourhood, where it was obvious that learning to fight was needed to survive — most people are steered towards martial arts practice through an unconscious evolutionary desire to do so. Said another way, I believe that even if I had never grown up in such a violent neighbourhood, I would still be interested to some degree, in possessing martial skill, albeit and more than likely not with the kind of fervent immediacy, and intensity that I experienced growing up on the South Side of Johannesburg.

Point in case. My eldest son, even though growing up around martial arts his entire life showed no interest in it, until he was a teenager. Suddenly, now at high school, he became fully conscious of tribes, power, and fear of being pushed around. Like it or not, even in the great school he goes to, he suddenly realised that there are boys who get off on using their physicality to control, and dominate other boys. Still, the difference is, at least for my son, these instances of peacocking are rare. As such, he doesn’t take his training seriously, because, there is no immediate need for him to have those skills to protect himself. My experience growing up was different, I was in a self-defence mode most days. I am certain however, if he had to face what I had as a teenager growing up he would be left with only three choices, to fight back in defence, fight back to dominate and secure power, or refuse to fight at all, and concede to a life of serfdom.

The Righteous Path of the Martial

You see, at least for me, when one chooses the martial path of self-preservation, choosing only to use one’s skill in defence if someone would want to harm you or those you love, you honour the righteous side of instinct, free from guilt. Here the unconscious instinct to survive, becomes fully conscious in the way I choose to deploy that innate drive. To use ones martial ability then in a physical form that does not meet that criteria of righteousness, I feel is not only inhumane to others, but oneself.

Secondly to all of this, there is a natural consequence of developing martial skill, that is illuminated in both physiological, emotional and cognitive changes that need to be dealt with. These inherent aspects of the nature of the martial are present both in the deployment of martial skills in defence, or in martial attack where dominance and power are the end goal. Things like: discipline, grit, tenaciousness, fear, fearlessness, aggression, apprehension, focus, loss of concentration, adrenaline, cortisol, norepinephrine, butterflies, clammy hands, dry mouth and so on and so on — are the collective inner human experiences invoked in moments of interpersonal violence.

A man who fights for sport, a man who fight to survive, a man who fights to dominate others, all men will experience the same biological changes as their body primes for the inevitable interpersonal clash. In the same light all men will have to deal with, to varying degrees, the same emotional and cognitive tensions in the fight. Said another way, we all feel very much the same biological changes take place in a fight, be that a fight on the street or in a ring — the only real difference is the justification we tell our selves and the story we propagate around that event.

I don’t think it is a consequence then that warriors of old, in their writings connected what they experienced in battle and had to overcome to life. I don’t think it’s a coincidence then, that many martial art masters of old, insisted that the practice of martial arts was a way of life. Much of the inner milieu we face in preparation of violence, are the very same ingredients we hope to cultivate in the pursuit of success in life. Discipline, grit, fearlessness etc, are all qualities of the human experience that we collectively admire, and know deep down that their endowment upon us would lead to success.

No wonder then, that as men, we are called to the martial. The domain of this ancient instinct not only encompasses the requirements for surviving, but thriving. There isn’t a single physiological, emotional, or mental obstacle that one experiences in battle (real or symbolically on the mat), that if leveraged correctly could not afford a person a better more productive experience of living in life.

The question really is, where do you start from, do you start from the position of applying that evolutionary martial instinct of survival in defence and or to dominate others? I firmly believe that your starting position will decide what kind of outcome you ultimately experience in the end through your martial experience.

Said another way: Just as any of the inner ingredients that arise in the moments of pugilism can be transformed into positive insight into oneself, and gains in a productive life, so can those very same ingredients be used to dominate, and reign over others. One can be said to lead to a righteous man, the other leads to a tyrant.

Which one do you want to be?

“Fighting isn’t all there is to the Art of War. The men who think that way, and
are satisfied to have food to eat and a place to sleep, are mere vagabonds. A
serious student is much more concerned with training his mind and disciplining
his spirit than with developing martial skills.”
― Eiji Yoshikawa, Musashi