Calm Aggression: A Paradoxical Reality of the Martial Arts

I was working with a young girl who I knew struggled with being aggressive in her sparring.  It was just her and me for that particular class so I could slow things down and explain some concepts that she had not intuited yet in her training.  I mean, she’s pretty young, so this concept wouldn’t have occurred to her anyway.  Whenever she sparred with the other students she would get overwhelmed, particularly if one young boy was her partner and freeze in response. We talked about what it means to be aggressive, she gave me a list of definitions that were most centered on being physically aggressive, I added really going after something and a couple of other ideas to the list.  Then we talked about remaining calm while sparring and what that looked like.  I told her that she could be both calm, and aggressive, at the same time.  She was skeptical of that idea. Through a series of exercises I proved that it was possible, and apparently that was a game changer for her according to her dad.

At this point in my training, certain things have become instinctual so I barely think about them until I’m faced with a higher level of danger or commitment.  Being calm, but aggressive is one of those things. It dawned on me after class that being calm AND aggressive at the same time in the face of danger is a bit of a paradox.  The terms seem mutually exclusive and opposites.  How can one remain calm, yet be also aggressive during a fight, or sparring, or during testing?  

I explained it to the student like this: Calmness happens in the mind.  It comes from what we’re thinking about, and paying attention to during sparring.  If someone is wailing on us with blow after blow, it’s easy to get distracted and worried about what’s happening.  That fear response starts to kick in and panic takes over and the human response to fear is either fight, flight, or freeze.  Learning how to shortcut that system, or work with it, is essential to developing as a fighter or martial artist.  Calmness occurs when we learn to see what’s happening and not give into the urges that comes with the fear response.  Some call this bravery or courage, we’ve heard it quoted several times as “I’ve learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but triumph over it.  The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear” ~ Nelson Mandela.  When faced with someone who intends to mow us down, the trained faces that challenge with bravery and calm.  Calmness feels like peacefulness, relaxation, and steadiness.  A calm person seems very tranquil and at ease.  

Being female, aggression isn’t something that comes naturally.  When I first stepped onto the mats, I was not the teensiest aggressive, or calm for that matter, for quite some time.  A couple of years into it, I learned about aggression during a grappling lesson.  I liked the person I was grappling with so I didn’t really want to hurt him.  I wasn’t angry, or afraid, but was tasked with prevailing, or least not tapping out.  I learned how to think “What a minute!! You can’t do that to ME!!” while I was twisted in a pretzel to find enough verve to fight back.  Mostly that energy resided in my gut, or hara.  As a side note, I’m currently studying kiai and kototama to understand what I missed in my last test (I got dinged a few points for my kiai being messy with the feedback that I need to own my kiai).  According to what I’ve read so far one’s kiai comes from the hara.  Aggression feels like pulsating energy that comes from my center out to my limbs.  My body feels wound up, my limbs tight and ready to explode with power at whatever I’m hitting. Just like kiai is an explosion of sound, aggression is an explosion of power and coming from the same place, they work in tandem.

Given the competing nature of calmness and aggression, how does one take both concepts and apply them simultaneously? I believe, mostly by experience, that calm aggression happens when the mind is clear and free of distraction and fear, but the hara is energized and ready to explode.  In the mind of the trained, the aggression stays where it is until called upon through the transfer of energy from hara to the rest of the body. In other words, the aggression is channeled and targeted.  It is a kind of finesse that one can find in training of this nature.  I find it difficult to kiai properly, and use aggression if my mind is all over the place.  I must trust myself, my training, and my instinct if I am going to be calmly aggressive.

Have you found yourself battling with either concept in training? How have you found a way to remain calm but use aggression?

Let me know in the comments below!

The Greatest Irony of Martial Arts (and Life): Failure, pain and loss as accurate measures of success.

This week in the dojo, both nights were what I call hard training.  I was thrown harder than normal (for me) to the mats, my limbs were twisted into painful pretzels, I acquired a few bruises, bumps, went through a round of sparring with five separate attacks I had to avoid or fend off.  I got hit in the face.  I was put in chokehold.  Another person had my face and body smashed into the mats.  By Thursday morning I was pretty sore and tired (My chiropractor had a field day with all of the loud CRACKS! my body was making).

This is what I call a successful week.  Sound crazy?  Maybe it is a little.  I learned, I grew, and now I’m writing about it.  See? Success!

I believe one of the greatest ironies of in life is how much we have to throw ourselves into something to find success.  Our willingness to fail, fall down, bleed, bruise, and generally feel pain is directly correlated our success in whatever we are called to do with life.

This is especially true in the martial arts.  One cannot learn how to land properly without actually let someone throw you.  Learning to avoid a punch requires someone aiming at a body part and occasionally landing a few hits.  Getting out of chokehold means you have to let someone get painfully close to cutting off your blood supply.  Hitting someone hurts.  If I do it wrong, it hurts like a mother.

Failure fits right into this scenario.  The more I try the more opportunities I have to fail.  The more I fail, the more likely I am to succeed.  Why? Because failure is a hallmark of learning.  If everyone were able to wake up knowing everything ever, we wouldn’t need teachers (or maybe we’d be in the Matrix).  No one ever succeeded in anything standing there and looking pretty.

When learning a martial art loss immediately takes up residence in the process.  In many cases the first thing to go is arrogance.  Arrogance creates an impenetrable wall into an empty brain. A good student knows that they know pretty much nothing and have everything to learn.  Learning to accept failure and pain as a part of training and life humbles the heart and makes the person malleable.

Allowing failure, loss, and pain to be our guide means we are trying.  Never giving up means one day success.

Are you a person with dream? Have you tried and failed a few times?  Did you stay down on the 7th fall?

Get up friend and try again!