Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Martial Arts and the Value of Ritualized Violence

The appetite for power is rooted in our capacity for violence. In ancient times, before laws or civilization, our power rested in our ability to fight and kill. Of course, in the modern world, most of us exercise our power in non-violent ways. However, our bodies respond to the stress of perceived attacks (and to stress generally) the same way they did a million years ago: by pumping adrenaline and cortisol into our blood, shutting down our digestion, increasing our heartrate, sending blood to our large muscles so we can fight or flee. In ancient days, running away from that mountain lion or fighting that aggressive neighbor provided the perfect outlet for this kind of stress response, and our bodies quickly regained equilibrium (or died). These days, we accumulate stresses but often don’t have an appropriate outlet for them. So we store the stress in our bodies - in tight neck/shoulders/jaw, or ulcers - or release it as inappropriate aggression towards others.

Martial arts, because they place us in situations of ritualized violence, allow us to exercise our power in a healthy way. Through martial arts training, we gain mastery over our bodies, our minds, and our potential attackers. We take the aggression that is an innate part of our genetic make-up, and rather than deny that it exists or vent it where it’s not welcome, we exercise it.

If you are considering taking up martial arts, shop around. There is a wide variety of styles, from the more grappling-oriented judo, to the kicks and punches of karate or taekwondo, to the music and rhythm of Brazilian capoeira, to the meditative grace of taijiquan. Keep in mind your needs and preferences: do you want a competitive sport, bare-bones self defense, or a form of meditative self-cultivation? Also keep in mind the fact that many martial arts styles are in essence gangs and corporations, with strictly codified rules of behavior, longstanding animosities or alliances with other styles, and the expectation of loyalty and allegiance to the leader. Do your homework first so that you know what you are getting yourself into! The most important thing is to pick a school and instructor that feels right for you.

No comments: