By Aris Pitas, AKBAN Itten Dojo, Greece
I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but the world took a sharp turn for the dystopian. Governments declare states of emergency across the globe, people are dying left and right, and the media – true to their prime directive – stoke fear with warlike talk against an enemy we cannot see, but whose power we most definitely feel.
Covid-19 is just a name – a symptom if you will – of a problem much deeper and much more endemic to the lives we’ve chosen. This enemy, measured in micrometers, was foreseen, warned against, and thoroughly ignored until it was too late. There are many “enemies” following it closely (some preceding it too), and they are way nastier. Authoritarian states. Economic recession. Environmental collapse.
And the big question looms: Why the hell do we train amidst all this chaos? Does it even make sense? Isn’t it just …futile?
Yeah, it is. And training is still not an option.
Life has always been about fighting. Not the military kind, the one that’s good, bloody, self-destructive business. The other kind; the one that makes me get out of bed to face a universe that couldn’t give two shits about my troubles, without any meaning aside for the one I create for myself. You might disagree, but it’s all good. All opinions end in silence, but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy a good fight. Bleak, perhaps, but martial arts are not among the fine arts. We study violence and conflict, but trust me – it’s deeply spiritual. Visceral, yes, but spiritual. Life-asserting actually, one punch at a time.
I don’t know why any student of mine trains. Don’t get me wrong; I’m curious, but ultimately, it’s not my burden to know the reason. It took me over a decade to find out why I train (it’s because I define my self-worth by my ability to withstand hardship – and fear). Some train to feel powerful, some to protect themselves, some to pick up girls (or boys) at the beach because, hey, ninjas are cool. “Why” is not important. Training is. You come in, do the work, shed the sweat, get punched, kicked, thrown, choked, share a few laughs, and come back for more – until you don’t. A perfect theater of the human condition, if you ask me.
There lies the “deeper meaning” of martial arts. Not meditating on a mountain until your teeth fall off, not chanting mantras, making mudras, drawing mandalas, but grappling with Death, in a macabre simulation, three times a week, every week. What did you think it means when you tap? You’re dead. Or you would be if you weren’t just playing with your training buddies. Sometimes you have their life in your hands, sometimes they have yours. Full circle. There is a simple beauty to this, different from that of a painting, but no less true. We are all in this together, and our lives depend on one another.
Tell me of one other human enterprise where you get to learn that so clearly. The lessons of the body cannot be denied.
That’s what martial arts are all about. To play with mortality, grapple with fragility, mock death, and have a good time. To possess that fabled, sparkling jewel of being human – the fighting spirit. Same as our ancestors when they scratched their way across frozen tundras, stalked by beasts, and lashed by the elements. If you think we’re past that as a species, I’d say you’re about to get a crash course on the symbolic structure of reality. Our tundras are concrete, the beasts wear suits, and the elements (*cough* climate change *cough*) are about to get a whole lot angrier with the tricks we’ve been pulling post-industrialization.
Martial arts are futile, and so is everything else. That’s the nature of our being; fragile, ephemeral, mortal. We cannot win, and it doesn’t matter. But we can fight. It’s great fun. To be human is to fight. You make great friends and great enemies too. In the end, we’re all invited for dinner. What else are you going to do? Go train.