“When a Body Meets a Body”

I’ll be honest with you. There’s nothing like scoring dead on. Catching your opponent at that sweet point where foot meets flesh and the other guy is sent sprawling for a full dinner table length. Full contact, partial contact, light contact; there’s satisfaction to making contact against an opponent. “Connection” in this case isn’t just the name of a newspaper.

But this often raises another question, hard on the hearts of concerned parents, educators and other moral counselors. Is this the encouragement of violence? Aggression? Anti-social behavior?

We have to think about this. It is a complex question made even harder by our prejudices. We don’t just discuss the issue of violence, we discuss the problem as Christian or Jew, Democrats or Republican, Parents or Singles. We discuss it from a viewpoint behind a thicket of symbols and, often without knowing it, we—intention aside— are creating the problem itself from our prejudices.

In an information society symbols rule. And, hard as it is to believe, violence is a matter of symbols. It grows, just as some of the best of our achievements grow, from our ability to link ideas together— to live in a virtual world of symbolic furniture. Let’s take that much misused term “aggression” as an example because it is inevitably linked in people’s minds with violence.

Let’s imagine a tiger passing into the territory of a band of monkeys. Reacting to this intrusion the monkeys scale the branches and counter-attack by pelting the tiger. When the cat hesitates and turns the monkeys drop and press the point further, taking the initiative and the aggressive role.

Morality aside, this is an example of pure aggression. The tiger’s intrusion was prompted by a need to widen food-gathering areas causing the monkeys, with their territorial protective instinct to react. This is real nature aggression and, as so many have said, it is instinctual, protective, territorial and amoral. Without it there would be no monkeys, just tiger meat.

Aggression, per se, is not an evil. It is Nature’s warning system which keeps us as animals, protective of our essential territory. Without aggression there would be no human race. But when this protective fighting instinct becomes entangled with symbols: when we fight for national boundaries; for God; for “civilization” and other concepts then aggressive behavior shifts to a new level. Then aggression transforms to a concatenation of acts where you don’t just beat the bully, you beat him down then try to beat him helpless and then try to beat him beyond that.

Aggression, linked to our generally wonderful human ability of symbolic thinking, begets and becomes such pleasures as revenge, escalation, indignation, over-reaction and, ultimately, violence. And this violence is aided, paradoxically enough, by aggression at a distance. When you can push a button to blow up a city; have the police enact your political hostilities; and in other words have others do your dirty work for you then it’s just a short step before you are living in gated communities.

No, martial arts sparring is meant to divorce aggressive ( and counter-aggressive) behavior from those misappropriated symbols. At a basic level, when our bodies perform the actions we must somehow must face the responsibility of those actions. The person, student or “master” who tells you that martial arts “is about fighting” is as wrong as it is possible to be. Martial arts is to transform out of fighting—and that longing to preserve Peace not as a symbol but as an experience and a discipline not to mention a harbor.


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