Thursday, January 30, 2003

I don't exactly think of myself as a martial artist, even though I've been practicing Kenpo for a year and a half now. Mostly that's because I don't really talk about martial arts that much with my non-practicing friends, and among my practicing friends I'm the one with the least experience and passion for it. Don't get me wrong; I love the way Kenpo has redefined my relationship with my own body, the vocabularly of motion, and the emotional tools that it's given me. But my best friend is a fifth degree black belt who teaches for a living, owns his own studio, and has been studying martial arts of one kind or another for about half his life. That kind of blows the curve. And as much as I do love having kenpo as a part of my life, I don't think it'll ever be much more than a hobby to me. The passion just isn't there.

But I picked up a copy of The Bourne Identity last week, and finally found time to watch it Sunday night. I found myself watching the fights, in particular, with a critical eye, looking for bad cuts, continuity errors, and "Yeah, right!" moments. There just weren't any. Well, okay, until the stairwell thing at the end. There was a little bit of "yeah, right", but not nearly what you get with most flicks. Once the movie was over, I went into scene selections and watched the fights in slow motion. Then I turned on the director's commentary and watched the fights again. When I looked at the clock and realized that I'd just spent two hours watching nothing but fight scenes, I started to feel like a pretty serious martial arts geek.

I started thinking, again, about why I study Kenpo. I look around our studio and I can almost see little signs over some of the students' heads. "Picked on in school", "Craves discipline", "Lost a fight", and most commonly, "Doesn't want to be afraid anymore." That's a particularly interesting one, because sometimes karate helps, and the fear goes away, and sometimes the fear is rooted deep down in their psyche, and just learning to handle yourself can't really help. There are a few folks who come in wanting to get in shape, but if that's their only goal, they usually don't stay too long. And then there are the long-haul students who don't have little signs over their heads, or if they do, it just says, "Loves martial arts."

I've gotta admit, though I'm not as passionate as some of them, that's part of it for me. Yeah, I do yoga, and I climb, when the weather's good and I've got somebody to go with. I've thought about Tai Chi, cuz, well, I'm a hippie at heart, and Tai Chi seems a little more peaceful, more tranquil. A better place to meet cute hippie chicks. But there's something missing: Brutality.

I was reviewing a technique last week, and my instructor pointed out something about it I'd never really seen before, that if you stepped just right, you were actually hitting your opponent with your knees at the same time you were hitting them with your elbows and hands. By the final kick, you'd pretty much hit 'em with every part of the body you can hit with except the head. And I loved it. I love knowing how to break somebody's arm if they grab me in a bar or shatter their nose if they attack me from behind. I never want to have to use it, and I can't imagine ever wanting to, but I love having that knowledge.

It's a bizarre contradiction, and I embrace it enthusiastically. Yes, there is a part of me that craves violence, relishes conflict, and revels in what Theron calls "the art of the advantage" (I'm aware he's probably quoting). Martial arts turns it all into play, which I also relish.

There's another side to it. As I've mentioned elsewhere, I used to fight a lot. When I used to fight, the seed of the fight was always fear, whether it was fear of getting hurt or fear of losing face. The water that nourished that seed was anger. Now, anger is a fact of life. It's a normal human emotion, and the natural result of living life in the world. I tried living life without anger, and the only way I could do it was by not letting myself care about the people and events around me, or if I did invest myself in something, then I had to bury my anger down deep, let it boil itself off inside of me, never let it out, or else, I feared, I would hurt someone.

But if there's no seed of fear, then I can let anger pass through me without it blossoming into rage. By turning combat into play, it removes the fear. If someone throws a punch, I step out of the way. I may throw down, I may not, but I know to get out of the way. I don't have to cut loose the animal inside, because the human knows how to deal with being attacked. It's the same with a verbal attack. If someone verbally attacks me, I just step to the side and let the words go by. Now, occasionally, somebody lands a blow. I've got my blind spots and sensitive areas. But they're areas where fear is still rooted. In the words of one of my teachers, "That's why it's a path, not a place."

I read something years ago about Zen Buddhism, and the strangeness of it being so popular among the warrior class in Japan. The author might have even used the word "hypocritical", but he was wrong. Paradoxical, yes, but the ways of war and peace are not as exclusionary as we normally think of them.

Jung could probably explain it better, talk about embracing the shadow and all that. I just think of one of the students at the Kenpo studio. He'd only been taking classes for a month or so and didn't know much, but he was at a frat party when some asshole threw a punch at him. Like he'd been taught, he stepped back and brought in a hard, fast inward block, which caught the punch-thrower right on the radial nerve. "Ow!" he yelled, and walked away, cradling his right arm. Instead of two guys maybe going to the hospital, or at the very least one guy, the innocent, going home with a black eye, the aggressor walked off with a sore arm, and at most a bruise.

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