“There’s more to fishing than catching fish”
In the documentary A Passion for Angling this sentiment, or philosophy rather, is made eloquently clear through the tales and adventures of two old friends and fishing partners, Bob James and Chris Yates. It’s almost as if the actual act of catching a fish is merely a bi-product of the activities that surround it, with particular emphasis on time spent in peaceful appreciation and contemplation of nature.
To this day it remains an inspirational souvenir from my childhood that captures many different qualities that I still find important, all wrapped up in the myth of the traditional fisherman.
Having been hunter-gatherers in a not-too-distant past, it seems likely that we are all inseparable from the non-obvious rewards that accompany such activities.
Deriving a sense of pleasure from life-saving, life-preserving and life-creating activities can be seen as nature’s way of reinforcing itself through ourselves and through multiple secondary benefits. It also seems likely that we enjoy spending time immersed in the natural world because it was a necessary part of hunting and gathering. Now our search-engines do all the hunting, and consequently all the legwork, and the gathering is carried out by third parties in the third world.
Unless we are to return to such primitive ways of living, there remains this untapped innate connection, and the opportunity to live a more fuller life through exercising neglected aspects of our humanity. But conversely, there are other, non-desirable aspects that we would be better off without, this is why violence and war will continue to linger for the foreseeable future, provided that humans are still around, because these harmful activities fulfil age-old needs, despite huge differences in our environment and social structures. In the same way that we can benefit from making use of our biology in healthy, non-destructive ways, we also remain vulnerable to exploitation in the form of superstimuli, and higher powers who wish to manipulate us for their own purposes. The most obvious example of this in practice is war. Young individuals, mostly male, are shipped off to die heroic deaths, to exercise their fight or flight response in the most realistic scenarios possible, and for those who do make it back they have likely undergone the most powerful of bonding experiences the modern world has yet to replicate elsewhere than the battlefield.
It’s easy to dismiss war as a barbaric tradition, yet its worldwide prevalence is a testament to how much we need it, or at the very least, something that closely resembles it. Computer games don’t create heroes, nor help fulfil such myths as they lack skin in the game, except perhaps that of the thumbs. They are essentially play-play-fights carried out visually and sedentarily. Team sports take things further by allowing the creation of an “other”; an opponent to be “beaten”, which has the advantage of implicating the spectators who can also enjoy a slice of the contrived conflict, albeit from a position in the stands. From this point of view, football hooliganism seems like a natural re-evolution of what the sports and fanaticism all stood (in) for in the first place. It seems that some prosthetics may just never be enough for some people. And while computer games present us with many forms of play-play-fighting, sports such as boxing and cage fighting represent the grown-up and brutally organised end of the spectrum. The blood, sweat and tears are all real, yet the motives are often empty and meaningless. This is how civilised human beings agree to bash each other’s heads in. By these standards wrestling theatrics are merely symbols for the enjoyment of the half-hearted fan who is unwilling to lay anything on the line, who instead of play-fighting, pays to watch others do it for him.
Despite our innumerable successes in manufacturing addictive and harmful superstimulants and in exploiting our primitive brains, we have yet to make progress in turning our weaknesses to our collective advantage. The secret lies in first acknowledging the vulnerability in question, and then testing various potential, healthy replacements and diversions. it may be the case that we cannot eliminate all evil in one fell-swoop, or go cold turkey on war, and that instead we must settle for the current lesser of the evils. All of this remains highly personal though, so one man’s martial art may be another man’s war. The key is to concentrate on searching for and developing alternative outlets.
If war and violence are not simply about defeating the enemy, then understanding those secondary, and non-obvious aspects of physical conflict can help shed light on what kinds of activity may be beneficial in the process of weaning ourselves off of this particular drug. Differentiating between the icing and the cake itself is a useful exercise for a culture that eats too much cake in the relentless pursuit of icing.
I realised some time ago that sports and other physical activities were actually just starting points, or excuses to enjoy and explore the different uses and capabilities of my body. This idea became more solidified as I began to engage in and seek out manual labour “for the sake of it”.
Music is as much of a physical practice as it is an audibly expressive one, and just as different sports require different skills and parts of the body, so too does each instrument. I have progressed from the piano to practising coordination exercises for drumming which makes everything that bit more explicitly percussive, while changing the involvement of the limbs and the complexity of their use – two hands vs ten fingers.
If you limit your physical practice to those things only currently accepted, categorised, reinforced and promoted as being valid options, then you cut yourself off from the vast sphere of all possible options, which includes a huge chunk of (personally) unexplored terrain. The difference between moving thousands of kilos of furniture and an equivalent weight in the gym is not really down to the environment or the shape of the objects, but the context of the intention. Either one could be both a chore or a pleasurable workout or challenge and so on, they key is the mindset which is always separate from the environment and the apparatus. The mindset is mobile, and having a mobile mindset is imperative to adaptation in the long run.
My ongoing interest in the martial arts has not been kept alive by the inextricable kicks and punches, but by the training methods, and the simple idea that if you do something for long enough, you will get good at it: the same concept that gives fingers a mind of their own helps humans gain inhuman strength and capabilities.
I also have a particular fondness for the training regimes of boxers; the hard grind and cardio that leaves people in a heap of limp, sweaty mush by the end of the session is something to be admired. While I had these myths and ideas in mind as I purchased a second-hand punchbag, my intention was never to become a boxer, or martial artist even, but to use the bag as a novel movement stimulus.
Capoeira is sometimes said to have evolved from the need to train a martial art in secret, and so it was disguised as a dance. I like to dance while disguising my movement as something more practical, and more deadly. I call it reverse capoeria.