Depression; walking the hallway

art_depression4Depression and the Martial Arts

Lately my channel-hopping thumb has been leading me to the science station. It’s a mischievous thumb as I’ve often contended. But the science station does contain some items of interest. They are truly trying to catch your attention there. In keeping with this they’ve come up with a gimmick that must have made the nerd-producers ecstatic. They are running Nature exposés. So far I’ve seen stuff on the hippo, the elephant and the prairie dog all entitled: “The Dark Side of ….”. I’m not joking.

There is, of course a dark side to everything but the sun. Martial arts is no different —except that we have multiple craters, caves and shadowfaces: more than you might suspect. But one definite dark side is depression. Think about it. All alone in a dank studio endlessly practicing a series of forms or a fighting technique over and over again until your eyes glaze over and you forget that your saliva isn’t naturally salty. As in any art, performing or constructive, no one gets to a high level without maniacal fixation and repetition. Hemingway wrote the ending to “Farewell to Arms” 37 times and it still never really bid farewell in his head.

I’ve recently been investigating depression (no, not mine) and have found that the concept as a medical diagnosis is laughable. The determinants are non-conclusive, the drugs are a shot in the dark, the entire conceptual framework of the idea is colossally unscientific.

And yet we all know there is a thing, a black growling dog, known as depression. And when it’s not growling, it bites.

The best line in the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”—the only one that rang true for a martial student—came in the early minutes of the film when the lead male played by Chow Yun Fat says he had studied the arts in a monastery but found that he couldn’t advance any further due to a “blackness” encountered in his own heart. Every martial artist worth his salt has met this dog in the hallway. This may be of course that people who are fated to fight depression are also driven to the arts. What could be a better place to search for impossible-to-conquer -requirements indefinitely protracted? But you might also say the same thing for painters, poets and bus drivers. In reality every human occupation has some depressives in it. Careers and avocations are often shelters for certain personality types.

This is the stuff Black Belt magazine never mentions. You’re not likely to find it in those screaming halls of McDojo with the “Hi Kick, Hi Jinx Kids”. Not unless, that is, you happen to glance in the head instructor’s direction.

But don’t get the wrong impression. The fact is that very few martial artists are depressed. Of course, as Chinese medicine would contend, the first line of defense is simple: movement. You can’t move the body without moving the qi, and moving the qi overcomes stagnation. Athletes know this instinctively: move and feel better.

What are the other mechanisms in the art to prevent the deadened feeling of depression? Well, first is evolution. The painter tries to get better at what he does his whole life, so does the martial artist. That’s one reason he gets to be called “artist”. It is a craft that rolls into an art. Next is persistence and habit. There is a wonderful, useful stubbornness to the martial character. And sometimes it just trudges right through the sticky spots. Third, and here’s a big one, there is a shared viewpoint with at least dead legions of fellow travelers all of whom saw things as you did. True, most martial artists can barely speak to one another. But though they disagree politically, religiously and temperamentally with just about everyone, they still share a viewpoint inherently inimicable to depression. They all believe in a world larger than perception. They are engaged in an activity where the mundane aspects of reality are never enough. (Reminds us of Ruth Gordon’s sage advice, “Never face the facts!”) The martial world is about energy. If it were Christian it would be a world permeated by faith. This comes up again and again in depression cases but is almost never mentioned by the psycho-commercial establishment. People who are in depression are never so depressed that they discount their own opinion about the world. Why isn’t this mentioned more? The answer is obvious. Psycho-counseling is non-moral, non-judgmental. There is no correct world view in its pseudo-scientific outlook. The problem and the paradox is obvious, too. This non-stance creates a definite message: all world views are equal and therefore ultimately meaningless. You solution lies only in your delusion. You can go no further than yourself. It’s the Kansas philosophy turned on its head, “Don’t go looking for misery elsewhere when it’s right there in your own back yard.”

Alone the martial artist may be, but never isolated like this. He’s trying too hard, she’s straining too much: all efforts are rallied to the task of breaking through to an assumed world beyond normal perception. Almost by definition, if there might be a world of unseen causes then there might also be a world of unseen solutions. And maybe one’s opinion of depression isn’t as important as an alternative, a new plan, a different tactic.

Lastly the martial artist is a warrior. All that means is the belief that not all pain is necessarily bad, not all loneliness necessarily depressing, not all struggle necessarily wasted.

Martial arts is certainly not the only way to attack depression but I propose that all valid ways share this decidedly un-modern wisdom, this balanced desperation, this projection of anxiety outside the muddle of mundanities and inanities.

The old advice about doing something for its own sake certainly applies to martial practice—in that we have no choice… luckily.

TWM

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