Martial Tai Chi™

Martial Training Association

De-mystifying the Mysterious

Aggression and the Animal Mindset


The received wisdom in a great many martial arts is that aggression is a good thing. Sometimes it is re-named "spirit" or "intention", perhaps to make it more seem more palatable, but in the end it often boils down to which fighter has the least regard for his or her opponent's life. This is true in street fights as well - the person who shows the least regard for the other person's life (and possibly their own) will often emerge victorious. It worked for the berserkers and it has worked for me too, in real-life fights and during early sparring matches, but such a triumph is not really a triumph of skill, but of brutality, whether that is a result of extreme anger or emotional detachment. I do not think that this is what martial training should really be about.

Before I move on to discuss what I do think martial training should be about, I will just add another consideration from my own experience. Within the culture of street gang violence, the thing that is even more effective than brutality is a reputation for violence, coupled with a chillingly cool, calm air when violence is being threatened. Of course this only works within the boundaries of your reputation, though perhaps this could also become a factor for a legendary boxer. Of course the downside of having such a reputation is that you may well get any number of challengers wishing to promote their own reputations by knocking you off the top spot, however, on the street at least, if your reputation is sufficiently dangerous (perhaps because you have GBH or murder on your criminal record) it might be fair to say that few will risk it. Of course, they may have a personal axe to grind with you, which could drive them to violence regardless, but it probably won't be over something as petty as seeing who can be at the top of the drunken pub-brawl championships.

Some martial arts teachers try to get you to utilise your adrenaline - they try to get you to unleash what they call your "inner animal" or perhaps your "reptile brain", but I strongly suspect that such tactics only lead you away from the path of martial mastery. In the Tai Chi classic typically accredited to Wang Zhongyue there is a passage that reads something like:

"There are many other styles of martial arts. Although their forms are distinct from one another, more or less they are the same nature. The strong beats the weak, the slow yields to the fast. Those who are stronger and faster prevail. But all this is natural born ability and not related to the study of martial arts. Studying the saying "Four ounces repel one thousand pounds", it is apparent that this cannot be accomplished by strength. From observing the elder fighting multiple opponents, it cannot be a matter of natural speed."

So I find it especially ironic when people who pride themselves on being "internal" martial artists are so often enamoured of mystical ideas about meditative states of consciousness yet fall prey to the rudimentary mistake of thinking that skillful fighting is all about visible aggression and overt force. My own experience has been that a seasoned fighter can be very relaxed in conflict situations and their relaxed confidence has come from a certain knowledge in their own fighting skills. Indeed remaining in control is absolutely necessary if you are to be able to remain strategically intelligent and adaptable in the heat of battle. The right amount of adrenaline, when a fighter has enough control over it for the fight experience to be one of content exhilaration, can greatly sharpen the mind in this respect.

The Tai Chi fighter needs to avoid simply relying on their innate, untrained or brute attributes and develop refined skill. That is what I consider to be the whole point of martial arts.

So when training for combat, I think it is unnecessary to batter your training partners senseless and work on cultivating aggression, bitterness and competitiveness. Rather, it is quite acceptable and extremely helpful to engage in the mutual benefits of martial training at whatever level of intensity is right for the specific skills you are training. Yes, they are martial arts, but no, training doesn't all have to be blood and injuries in order to count. It can be and often is fun, providing you like that sort of thing. Some people have too many hang ups to find it enjoyable - they might have psychological issues that have resulted in their having an axe to grind, which is likely to not be conducive to mutually beneficial martial training. That said, I think it is fair to say that while for the martial artist whose life has been marred by years of unwanted violence, real fighting may never really be something they would choose to happen (or even though they might enjoy it at the time, it may have negative emotional consequences afterwards), martial training can be, and it will probably feel most comfortable for that person to keep the two things clearly demarcated, much of the time. We might do well to remember that the purpose of practicing martial arts is to be able to prevent and finish fights, rather than to instigate and inflame them.

In conclusion then, I'd say that it is good to "pressure test" your arts, keeping it real, striking each other with force, perhaps with the protection of body armour so that participants can let themselves go without fear of causing excessive injury, but please bear in mind that those with little experience of real life violence may always be unsure of whether they could get their fighting skills to work in a real tooth and claw battle, however much they keep upping their training intensity. Those with less real life experience might do well to know when to bow to greater knowledge and exercise a little trust in spite of their preconceptions about what real fighting or real combat training should be. It certainly isn't advisable to simply jump on the latest popular bandwagon - different martial arts go in and out of fashion at a silly rate in consumer-driven culture. Computer games, popular films and even gladiatorial sports are all very, very different from a genuine attempted murder, violent mugging, drug-fuelled rage or rape attempt.

On the other hand, some martial artists will have had plenty of experience of "pressure testing" their fighting skills outside of the training hall. Their lives may have been, or may continue to be characterised by regular violent encounters. Such people may be a little more relaxed about their martial training and rather than seeking to access some primeval animal instincts hidden deep within the dark corners of their psyche, might well know only too well what they are capable of and strive, by the grace of G_d, to maintain their humanity within the human jungle.


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