Martial Arts and Spirituality 2: To fight with anger or not

One of the reasons that I stopped practicing martial arts in the past was that I was worried that it would turn me into a violent person. I found that because I was learning how to defend myself and hurt people, whenever I was out on the street I had a precautionary mindset. Combat was on my mind too much. That’s why I decided to stop training.

Years later when I took over the karate membership that my wife wasn’t using, I couldn’t deny the passion I have for martial arts, which I have had since a very young age, so I got back into it. This time I was very keen to investigate the connection between martial arts and spirituality so read into the Zen side of things. While I managed to track down some books on the subject, I didn’t find that much and in terms of current martial arts groups, there seems to be nothing around that emphases the spiritual element. This I believe is because the inner aspect of martial arts in the West, even in the traditional styles, is usually ignored if not left out altogether. Because of this, there is often very little said about whether anger is needed in martial arts training and fighting. 

The attitude towards anger in combat is largely dependent on the style of martial arts and the particular teacher. Styles like Tai Chi Chuan may promote a peaceful approach to the martial applications of its gentle exercises while karate can elicit a hard edged and aggressive approach. Professional MMA can be very aggressive and disrespectful of the opponent. On the other hand, MMA gyms can be very friendly places, where sparring is fun and the other person’s safety is respected. BJJ creates an eclectic atmosphere, part reverence, part party where potentially deadly techniques are practiced in good fun. During the short time that I practiced Karate, one teacher had a more balanced approach while the other was a lot more aggressive in tone, telling young kids doing kata practice to “rip off his head!”

So while there is divergence in the approach to anger, is it a necessary emotion when training and fighting?

Clearly, training should not be done with anger. The techniques should be learned with mindful concentration not swayed by heated emotion. Whenever we are learning something new, we need to pay attention to the mechanics of it before getting lost in the emotional application. Also, it seems sensible to train with other people in a non-aggressive way so that no-one gets unnecessarily hurt. Afterall, a large focus of martial arts is to defend ourselves so that we don’t get hurt, so if we end up getting hurt at practice because of our own or someone else’s lack of anger management, then doesn’t that defeat the purpose? Surely, in terms of risk assessment you would be safer not to practice martial arts at all even when factoring in the risk of being randomly attacked on the street.

But what about actual combat? Surely that should be driven by anger. Not necessarily. 

One reason that we often think anger is needed in combat is because it gives us the courage to fight. However, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who lived two thousand years ago, wisely said: “No man becomes braver through anger, except one who without anger would not have been brave at all: anger does not therefore come to assist courage, but to take its place.” This then suggests that courage comes from another place within us, an even deeper sense of strength.

Furthermore, according to Seneca, anger may even disadvantage the person during the fight as it impedes their judgement: “Anger, therefore, is not useful even in wars or battles: for it is prone to rashness, and while trying to bring others into danger, does not guard itself against danger. The most trustworthy virtue is that which long and carefully considers itself, controls itself, and slowly and deliberately brings itself to the front.” 

From what Seneca has said, it seems possible to fight without anger. Not only that, it may be more effective to do so. Anger clouds our vision and makes us act beyond the bounds of wisdom. When we are angry, we do rash and stupid things that we often regret. This means our anger could get the better of us, causing us to fight when it wasn’t even necessary, or even start a fight ourselves. Not only that, during a fight, if we are driven by anger, our aggression might cause us to make silly mistakes that could even cost us our life or someone else's. So, how should we fight?

Bruce Lee tells us in his film, Enter the Dragon: “We need emotional content... not anger!.” From what I understand from this, we should fight with feeling, but not anger. In fact, in the same movie Bruce also pointed out the importance of feeling: “don’t think, FEEL!” When we think, when we calculate and plan our attack, we act predictably and we are unable to respond quickly to our opponents movements. This is why feeling and intuition are so important. But not anger because anger exaggerates our movements, adds too much force at the wrong time and makes us expel more energy than we need to. When we fight with pure intuition, we do so with flow, feeling when to be yin and when to be yang.

Overall, it seems clear to me that anger is not needed in the martial arts. But this doesn’t make it easy to relinquish. Even when I am training alone, I can be overcome with a feeling of anger which still makes me question whether I should stop training or not. Then I remember that the purpose of martial arts is two-fold: to master the art of combat in order to defend ourselves and others AND to master ourselves, our emotions included. This means that just as we train to achieve more control over our outward movements, we also need to train to control our inner emotions. This, I believe, should be a big part of every martial arts class which should be openly and repeatedly spoken about, discussed and shared among practitioners so that it becomes part of a collective path of inner-transformation.

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