The Pursuit

One of the more popular discussions that seems to come up on a pretty constant basis is the debate over the effectiveness of striking, grappling, or throwing, and whether or not those who study mixed martial arts have the right idea in thinking that one would be better prepared for a fight if they blended these different self-defense systems together. Sometimes, these debates are really interesting–I’d recommend looking at this post over at Mokuren Dojo for a good discussion on some of these issues. In fact, in that post was a quote that really got my attention. The author, Patrick Parker, writes:

Grappling instills a willingness to get down and dirty and closely involved with things that inspire primal terror (i.e. being immobilized and choked, being dominated and forced to submit, being in peril of broken joints, the possibility of grappling with a guy who might have a knife, having your every action make your situation worse, impending total anaerobic fatigue, etc…)

It is this willingness to engage the enemy even under conditions of terror that defines courage, and grappling instills this ethic better (in my opinion) than stand-up fighting styles because the student of stand-up fighting is allowed to hold out the illusion that it might just be possible to achieve a nice, clean, hands-down victory.

There is a lot in this statement that I agree with. Certainly when you have someone really coming after you, really getting their hands on you, and forcing you to face that fact that you could be in serious danger–well, you either find your courage or you tap out. I am also just as against the notion that, by studying a specific art, you can delude yourself into thinking that you can win a fight without even getting a scratch. This last mindset is, in my opinion, very risky–even dangerous. It leads you to think that getting hit means you’ve lost.

When I read this quote, the thought that sprung to my mind was not “Aha! Now I understand the attraction to the grappling arts!” Instead, it was: “Yes! This is what we study for in our aikido practice.” Not how to grapple, but how to use the techniques and strategies that define our movements when faced with someone with a real, determined attack. We ask ourselves the question: “How do we find this courage, this recognition that we must stand our ground–how do we find this powerful feeling and put it to use before our opponent has even has even started his or her attack?” It is, I think, quite difficult. We, as a species, simply aren’t used to being active and ready to go before a given threat is imminent. Aikido, then, is in part a study of how to retrain ourselves to be active and ready sooner than we are used to.

One of the challenges inherent in this study is that, unlike a grappling art or a striking art, in which you either find this feeling or get pinned/hit, in Aikido you can easily train your entire life without really experiencing this active state of being. Why? Because its very easy to train without any resistance. Watch the mat during a seminar or large event, and you’ll see that there are two types of people practicing: those who are simply going through the motions, and those who are really trying to test themselves, to see how well they really understand the concept or technique being studied. Some people are quite honest about the fact that they don’t train against real attacks. These are the people who are studying not to understand self-defense, but rather to focus on some other aspect of training, such as calmness or awareness. Other people, however, refuse to test themselves fully, and as a result often have a distorted sense of what they are really capable of doing. Unfortunately, it can be all too easy to find a compliant uke against whom any and all techniques work effortlessly for the simple reason that the uke allows it to be so. This can be a difficult situation: you cannot force people to expend the energy necessary to deal with or execute a determined attack; they have to decide for themselves that they want to pursue their studies at this level.

For those who do attempt to constantly push themselves, to see how well they can respond under even the greatest of pressures, the rewards are tremendous. To stand before someone who you know wants nothing more than to take you down; to stand there calmly, relaxed, and to be able to respond to that person’s attack by timing, rhythm, and correct positioning; to even stand before someone and watch their desire to come after you fade because they have just realized that you are more than ready to deal with them–this is a skill that I find very much worth understanding. Sensei often says: “Find your best feeling, then prove it.” I think this is at least in part what he’s talking about.

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