Mastering Violence in the Pursuit of Peace
I think it’s important to let the students share their own thoughts first. Not only can you track their understanding of the philosophy, but also the progression of their self-esteem and world view. Often times I’ll hear that “improving themselves and their abilities in the martial arts in order to serve the people” means that they will become competent in combat so that when they or someone nearby is attacked, the student will be able to respond effectively and serve that person by defending them. Some will have progressed far enough to see it as preparing your body and spirit to do good in whatever form the opportunity arises, and preparing your mind to serve.
I’ve thought about this a lot over the years. It seems that if peace is the only goal then the mind, body, and spirit could be prepared in a way that didn’t involve even the mention of violence, much less the acting out of its paces. Certainly dancers, gymnasts, and any number of folks at the gym are physically prepared to help in any number of dangerous or strenuous situations, but there’s something missing from many of these people. Among all the most advanced martial artists I’ve known, there is a consistent capacity and willingness to do good that goes beyond what we witness among elite athletes in general. So the question is whether the familiarity with violence somehow makes us more prepared to serve people.
What I currently believe hangs in the balance between these two opposing forces is the absence of fear and the dissolution of the ego. In many physical disciplines people’s bodies, minds, and spirits are honed to extraordinary lengths. They endure hardship, pain, defeat, recovery, struggle, success, and elation. They reach out to younger athletes and pull them through the same paces, building self-esteem and confidence, all without the suggestion of violence. But built into our core as mammals that have struggled to survive in harsh environments and through bloody competition throughout our time on the earth, is the deep seated need to escape fear. Not only the fear of failure, but of violence, unrest, social isolation, and death.
Each fear that we have is a wall that keeps us from caring for others in our world. Each line that fear draws through our minds creates a barrier that defines “us” as a smaller and smaller group. Someone who is very afraid will only see a very small group of people as worthy of trust and care. On the other hand a person that has no fear draws no lines to confine “us”. They are able to care for all types of people, even people who would seek their destruction or argue against their beliefs. If fear is truly conquered, what need is there for anger? Compassion is all that is left. I have seen this phenomenon in the few truly holy people I have met. They are so transformed by their experience of God that they truly have no fear of any worldly thing and as such, can only respond with love and respect for every living thing. Those around them that have not experienced the same eradication of fear would use the same holy words and actions to draw lines, separate, and demonize people.
As martial artists, we immerse ourselves in the knowledge of violence while also pursuing the dissolution of our egos. It is a rigorous formula to aid in the destruction of fear. The practiced mastery of one’s own body and those of attackers, the repeated response to attack, the development of power and fluidity and the ever increasing success that comes from the application of hard work begins to remove the fear of violence and our own failure from us. The submission to authority, the practiced stillness in the body, mind, and spirit, the response to failure, and the gradual acceptance of responsibility first for the safety of our classmates and then for the growth of our students all work to begin dissolving the ego which is ultimately the fear that others will know our fear.
Research has displayed over and over again how beneficial martial arts training is for physical and psychological development, but studies from Carleton University and the Huston Foundation among others have shown that more modern approaches to martial arts that stress tournaments, quick achievement, and exclusive levels of membership are actually reversing those positive benefits. We see in other sports where the goal of dissolving the ego is replaced with winning accolades that the athletes at the top are ballooning with ego, always terrified of the moment they will be replaced, while the athletes under them are marginalized and disenfranchised unless they show promise of taking the top position. The study of violence without the destruction of the ego does what every parent fears – increases aggressiveness, violence, and injuries.
Whenever we work with partners, I tell my students that this is their chance to begin learning how to be a teacher. The goal is not to beat the partner, but to see how much better you can both become at martial arts. When sparring or doing self-defense, the question of how hard to grab, how tightly to hold on, how fast to go, how hard to hit, is always answered by asking yourself “what will help my partner learn the best.” If the students cultivate each other, they will not only grow stronger as a group, but they will learn to think of others before themselves and truly be unified. As their class continues on its journey, they will not separate the strong from the weak and move on or fear that they are not as good as their classmates. They will see the wide array of gifts and challenges of the students around them as shared gifts and challenges of their class. They will rejoice in each others successes and work together to overcome their challenges.
The key to breaking down each student’s fear and ego is different, but in the myriad tests and challenges of martial arts, from the confidence in the dance of violence to the many trials that break down the ego to the cultivation of leadership and responsibility, there are ample tools to create a powerful, compassionate peacemaker.