The Non-Martial Art


Part of my issue with using other training methods is that I cannot relate to their end goals or purposes, despite being drawn to the techniques, skills, exercises and methods that comprise them.  For example I like the fitness aspects and drills from boxing, but am in no way interested in actually hitting, or getting hit by another person.  The attraction to the combat aspect seems at least partially rooted in myth.  Become a martial artist, a fighter, a warrior in order to defeat another through superior physical ability and also cunning.  It’s definitely a male-orientated myth.

So I feel that I must “believe” in something in order to genuinely invest myself in it, which also explains the issue with martial arts, as they are often grounded in metaphysical ideas that I disagree with, but the main issue is with combat itself.  If we ignore any attraction to the warrior myths we are essentially discarding the purpose of the system.  You could argue that there is more to learn than simply physical self-defence skills, and you would be right, but the ultimate reason these things exist is for the purpose of war.  The oldest physical training systems in the world are based on the idea of kill or be killed, which for my own purposes is completely redundant.  If however, you are someone who views life through such a lens, you will not have a problem with learning a martial art for its primary intended utility, regardless of whether you ever have the opportunity to put into practice your training, the ideas and myths alone can be a great enough motivator.

A decade ago I wrote about how the idea of parkour as an escape/rescue method was out of touch with the world we (I) lived in, and now with hindsight it’s clear that I didn’t believe certain fundamental parkour myths.

What parkour and martial arts have in common beyond the obvious philosophy and training overlaps is that their myths are strongly intertwined with conflict and heroism.  In a sense, in order for these myths and systems to survive intact, unchanged, undiluted, there must always exist and external enemy or threat.  In parkour the threat is either to the self (escape), or to an innocent bystander (rescue), and the threat can be human, animal or other, such as fire etc. but in all cases the motivating factors boil down to primal instincts, and the training consists of improving fight or flight capacities.  This is an important point to illuminate because I feel that unless you consciously acknowledge the role of the system, or identify your own specific goals, there can be unresolved psychological dissonance between the two.

Secondly, I think that despite the good points of parkour and martial arts, they are in some ways like religion, in that their core ideas (purposes) are outdated and irrelevant to many people in this day and age.  Now, while many people either accept their religion or martial art unquestioningly, for some years now I have essentially been working on various ideas that amount to creating your own.  What you must bear in mind though is that I am an atheist and experientialist, and the terms “religion” and “martial art” are unlikely to stimulate an accurate picture in the minds of the reader, or adequately encapsulate the breadth and depth of what I am implying here. Both are terms already heavily loaded with connotation that is sure to mislead.

People such as Alain de Botton and Sam Harris have already  spoken about the benefits of certain religious practices that secular society may be missing out on, and there is a lot of evidence to suggest that there are mental health benefits from physical practices and rituals.  Further hints at what a man-made, modern, non-martial art may look like can be found throughout my writing, particularly in relation to experiential art.  Fundamentally I propose that it is the individual’s right and purpose to create personal meaning and practice as they see fit.  How this idea manifests itself for me is in the “ground up” concept as I have chosen to call it.  The term comes from the idea of taking a solid object and grinding it down into small particles, like grains of wheat in a flour mill, or charcoal in a pestle and mortar.  The pieces are then used to create something new, from the ground up.

From a wider perspective, one of my goals at least, is to create a lifestyle and guidelines for living that incorporate physical and mental practices into a unified and fluid whole, with emphases on physical and mental health.  The fluidity of such a concept is imperative, and what separates it from both religion and martial arts, and aligns it with a rationalist and experientialist way of thinking.  Furthermore, core concepts and techniques are grounded in empirical research as opposed to metaphysical beliefs and traditions.  It is this built-in mechanism for updating and essentially adapting, that gives my method a robustness that religions and martial arts cannot have.  Additionally, there is no hierarchical structure in my system that places a god, guru or teacher at the top, as the individual is at the centre of a conceptually infinite practice-space.

This non-pyramidal structure is also mirrored in how I look at learning itself.  Instead of skills being better or more difficult than others, variations are seen as just that – different, requiring different movements, skills or characteristics.  What’s easy for you is not necessarily easy for someone else, and this experiential viewpoint uses different metaphors to describe training/practice in order to direct attention away from external factors, other people and end results, so that the practitioner can become more process-orientated and focused on the present.  The power of language, metaphor in particular, is harnessed to alter the perceptions of the world and the self in order to change the quality of subsequent outcomes.  There is no opponent as there is in sports, no outside threat or extrinsic motivation – there is no competition, only a desire to better one’s self through the creation and acceptance of various challenges.

With non-hierarchy the only constant is the individual, therefore practice doesn’t rely on there being a supreme being or significant elder: these are simply nodes of inspiration, so that if one is destroyed another will be found, yet the individual is never subordinate to any of them.  The structure is web-like: connections are made that span outwards.  With a pyramid the temptation is to climb to the top and to topple the leader, but in an infinite web the desire is to explore and connect, to experience new things and to meet and share with others.

So if the foundation of martial arts is war, my foundation is the innate physical and mental capacities that we have for learning, creation and expression.

When there is no suitable off-the-shelf solution, and customisation proves inadequate, DIY is the logical answer.

It may seem crazy, immoral, or just plain overambitious to attempt to create in one single lifetime something that naturally occurred over many hundreds if not thousands, but any such opinions are irrelevant, as in order to be effective creators we cannot stop to first ask permission, as this is the direct route to external de-motivation.

Ultimately, there are vast differences and consequences between trying to find that which suits you perfectly, and deciding to build it yourself.

In thinking about metaphors and how analogy learning might work it occurred to me how natural, and therefore implicit the use of metaphors is for understanding new information.  We can look at metaphors as shortcuts to comprehending the unfamiliar by relating to known concepts.  For example, my previous sentence contains the metaphor:

“metaphors are shortcuts”

If you don’t know what a shortcut is you will fail to make the connection, and therefore understand the meaning of my phrase.  Metaphors therefore rely on creating links to the familiar knowledge that can vary from person to person and culture to culture.  Assuming shared knowledge or connotations can give rise to misunderstandings – the phrase “he’s god’s gift to women” could have meant something entirely different to the ancient Aztecs.

What this implies, in my eyes (another metaphor), is that for the purposes of motor learning the most powerful, and therefore effective analogies are self-generated.  What this also means is that we may never actually make explicit which metaphors we subconsciously use, which allows the learning process to remain implicit, as opposed to using whatever analogies someone else may explicitly communicate to us.

Metaphors and analogies implicitly constrain expectations, take for example the idea “she had a heart of stone”.  Without ever having to consciously go through a process of recalling what hearts are usually like, remembering typical characteristics of stone, then hypothesising what a stone heart may be like and what effect this may have on its owner, we know instantly what is meant by the expression, barring differences in culture and autism.

Metaphors transfer potentially dense information in split seconds by leaving most to the imagination.  As far as coaching or learning a new movement is concerned an effective analogy tells us what to expect (constrains expectations) without telling us all the specifics of how to achieve it.  Instead, the analogy gets us to imagine movements or even just feelings based on our own personal experiences.

I do not have a strong visual imagination, and experience my imagination not as a place of images as in the case of “the mind’s eye”, but a place of languageless understanding.  If you speak multiple languages it’s possible that you have had a similar experience in which you understand a concept (languageless) but are unable to find the correct, or any word to that concept.  This idea of “wordless understanding” is how I think many of my movement metaphors operate, and also how my imagination works in general.  So when I talk of “visualising” or “imagining” something, I am not strictly speaking of clear (or any) images as the case may be for some people.

The emerging literature on motor learning and skill acquisition appears at odds with the trends in the fitness industry of using overly-technical language, and over-cueing movement.  It is as if we are now working backwards, attempting to re-construct human movement through knowledge of anatomy, consciously telling ourselves and each other “externally rotate this” or “activate your left whatchamacallit”.  Essentially, the two domains of movement and scientific theory of movement have been muddled, as if we needed to understand the latter in order to perform the former.  While certain knowledge can be beneficial, we can’t escape the fact that we are operating with evolved brains that mostly work instinctively and subconsciously, and that attempting to re-route or re-configure certain processes may have the opposite of the desired effect.

The new school of physical education is a re-emphasis on the capacities of the individual, where there is no teacher to play the role of gatekeeper of knowledge, who maintains the student in a state of dependence for the sake of financial gain and ego.  The responsibility of the knowledgeable is to transfer that knowledge to others, and to ultimately aid other people in becoming autonomous, robust and self-actualised.  The realisation of one’s own power is perhaps the ultimate reward of any learning experience, and is something to be valued and celebrated; something which is neglected in a hierarchical system.