Zen and Violence
(Or Zen and the Art of Ripping Limbs Off)
These two things are the same.
It’s been pretty interesting trying to square meditation practice with grappling (guess which one I spend more time on).
I suppose balancing time spent doing the two might be an easier way to reconcile the two, but I put navel gazing and thinking about it in the former category which balances it out well enough.
Grappling (as a superset of wrestling, judo & bjj), like meditation, drops you out of the default mode network. Your priority becomes solving the physical puzzle presented in front of you, as well as solving it quickly enough to solve the subsequent ones you’re rewarded with. It’s a spatial, temportal and mental task that you’re solving under constraints you’re not typically exposed to (more on this later).
I think the physicality and danger is what makes it stand out from other focus/flow-inducing tasks. At the same time, being on the total opposite end of the spectrum as meditation is what lumps the both together in my head.
If I had to narrow it down, the magic is in eliciting the state change between thoughtful and instinctual action and then trying to sit in that zone for as long as possible. I spent a while reading about Jhanas earlier this year. A book I picked up on the subject recommended thoughtfully breathing, and then allowing it to dissipate to a “background” action.
This parallels how every fight starts for me - from an initial overly analytic breakdown to instinct as the pace picks up. Both are bad - analysis cripples your decision making ability and instinct gets you choked out. The same is true for meditation - analysis keeps your mental monkey churning through thoughts and instinct (i.e just sitting there) puts you to sleep eventually.
All of this brings to mind the C.S Lewis Meditations in a Tool Shed essay, where he lays down the difference between allowing yourself to experience an event and spending time analyzing it:
“We must, on pain of idiocy, deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is, by its own nature, intrinsically truer or better than looking along. One must look both along and at everything.”
Shunryu Suzuki says something similar in a later chapter of Zen Mind, Beginner Mind:
“We say concentration, but to concentrate your mind on something is not the true purpose of Zen. The true purpose is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes.”
Both are explicity rejections of dualism. I’ll go a step further to say that the art of grappling is a rejection of dualism as well. The violence is so at odds with the practice that picking one or the other (ripping submissions and intentionally hurting people vs. starfishing and allowing yourself to get caught in submissions/throws) is a worse way to practice grappling. This isn’t to say that you can’t do it - it’s just not as fun. Which to me makes it less meaningful.
You’re a controllable system
Finally, the fun isn’t in doing this repeatedly under the same, rote conditions but challenging your models by throwing the system at unknown or novel environments. Quoting Suzuki again:
Suppose you are sitting under some extraordinary circumstances. If you try to calm your mind you will be unable to sit, and if you try not to be disturbed, your effort will not be the right effort. The only effort that will help you is to count your breathing, or to concentrate on your inhaling and exhaling.
In grappling, your opponent presents you with highly variable conditions (height, weight, irritability, etc.) that the model you’ve developed for it needs to parse out. The self is an incredible control system that’s capable of adapting to these variables to get your desired output - so don’t get in the way.
Anyway, check out how sick I look mid-footsweep:
- If you skimmed through this post, definitely read this one which does a much better job at highlighting the points I bring up - http://www.zenki.com/index.php?lang=en&page=Masunaga03 .
- Buddhist warrior monks - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%C5%8Dhei.
- Nujabes + pretty slowmo Judo throws: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHYHeCVPyeU& . I watch this at least once a week, try to hit one of these throws while sparring and just give my back up.
- There’s a deep history of people trying to square violence and Zen - this book documents Buddhist thought in Japan during WW2. It’s a little dense and I haven’t gotten very far - but I’ve heard good things.
- Similarly, this paper tries to untangle the concept of a “just/holy war” in Buddhist Shri-Lanka - https://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/files/2010/04/bartho991.pdf.
- Can’t mention Zen and combat without bringing up Miyamoto Musashi. Recommend checking out either Book of the 5 Rings or Vagabond.