This is the conclusion of the fourth chapter of an ongoing series entitled Know Thyself. You can find the first chapter collected here. The second chapter is collected here. The third chapter is collected here:

Working with pain and fear develops a student’s psychological courage, their capacity to deal with the threat of losing their mind. The martial arts aspect of such training develops a student’s physical courage, their familiarity with and capacity to overcome the threat of physical injury. These are excellent qualities, but they are not in and of themselves enough. Gaining expertise, the final prerequisite for courage training, involves developing foundational skills and attitudes, such as grit and mental toughness, and then placing experiences on top of those foundations, strengthening the whole as you proceed. This means practice. This means simulation. True, we can never imitate an unknown future reality. That time, when and if it will arrive, is a perpetual and unsolvable mystery. But we can make an educated guess, looking at the past and drawing out repeating patterns, devising situations in which we are likely to fail so that we can learn in a safe environment how to maybe prevail. For instance, on the US Navy’s central training grounds they have constructed a life-sized model of a submarine, capable of mimicking the dangers and threats which sailors would likely or even possibly encounter at sea.[1] Training in a virtual reality serves to expand the range of a student’s experience, helping him or her to translate theory into reality. Systema, if everything I have written has any truth, is a good training in the virtue of courage. But if there is one realm in which it falters, it is in the realm of simulation. This, however, is in no way a reason to reject the approach. Indeed, it may be as virtuous an approach as we could want. But we shall get to that soon enough.

Training at Fight Club is not as formal as Komarov’s presentation leads one to suspect. No Systema club that I know of (mind you, I have only ever been to three different clubs) follows Komarov’s stages, moving from breathing to sitting to standing to multiple attackers. That programme is meant to serve, one assumes, as an ideal introduction to Systema from the perspective of a behavioural psychologist, or for someone lacking a situated club and a seasoned instructor. At Fight Club, Emmanuel avoids the sort of massed practice that Komarov appears to recommend. Society generally assumes and fervently believes that constant repetition of a skill in large quantities produces the best learning. This is not so. I strongly suspect, given his background in psychology and as a military instructor, that Komarov knows this as well. Learning occurs best when practice is varied, spaced out, experiential, and simulated.

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 This is the fifth part in the fourth chapter of an ongoing series entitled Know Thyself. You can find the first chapter collected here. The second chapter is collected here. The third chapter is collected here:

Pain is not a thing. We talk about pain as if it were a thing, but it is not. Pain is the name we give to the various ways that we experience injury, loss, and exclusion, but there is no one thing called pain which we can point to and say ‘there it is’. Think about the pain of stubbing your toe and the pain of a paper cut, the pain of embarrassment and the pain of a broken heart. Are these the same thing?  Some pains are sharp, some dull, some shooting, others ache. When we name our pains in these ways we participate in a social exercise, becoming and making ourselves into persons-in-pain. We are active in the construction of this way of experiencing the world, being-in-pain. For instance, prior to the invention of electricity, there is no record of “shooting” pains. Instead people would describe crawling, moving, or relocating pains. They would say strange things like “I have a tooth ache in my back.”[1] A difference in metaphor can have a profound consequence for your experience of pain. That is why Joanna Bourke, in her exploration of the history of pain in the Anglophone West, exhorts us to think of pain as an event.[2] Pain researchers, cognizant of the multiple dimensions of pain, refer to it as biopsychosocial, that is, mediated by the body, the mind, and society.[3] The form and effect of pain is highly malleable.

What leads researchers to this conclusion? Let us return to the subjects of confidence and optimism. Researchers have found that pain management programs that seek to instill in patients a belief that they can deal with their pain successfully will ‘catastrophize’ less, that is, will panic less about pain. Such a change in attitude is “associated with decreases in pain severity ratings, functional disability, and physiological activity.”[4] People who believe that they can control their pain experience the event with less severity and are less disabled by it; their bodies remain more normal.  In addition, teaching people, through gradual exposure, to not fear pain has been shown to reduce “avoidance behaviour,” that is, limping or other compensating acts, allowing the body to return more easily to its previous normal functioning.[5] Examples like these reveal clearly the psychological component of pain as well as its biological component.  To catch sight of the sociological component we must remind ourselves of the power of naming and also look to some revealing experiments. For example, individuals touched with an uncomfortably cold compress will report higher levels of pain if told ahead of time that the compress is hot. What is more, the same result emerges when the cold compress is introduced along with the colour red, which is culturally associated with heat and fire.[6] When we injure ourselves or are threatened with injury, we place the event, its nature and origin and accompanying sensations, into a psychological and social context. We construct our pain as we experience it.

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Fear II

This is the fourth part in the fourth chapter of an ongoing series entitled Know Thyself. You can find the first chapter collected here. The second chapter is collected here. The third chapter is collected here:

Komarov’s Systema Manual has much to say about training to deal with fear. According to the author, Systema aims to return bodies to a “natural” and “healthy” state, that is, to a state in which movement is conducted with the optimal degree of tension and the various systems of the body (pulmonary, respiratory, skeletal, limbic, etc.) work in harmony with one another. Fear, a by-product of individual experience and social placement, impedes movement and health, “clogging” the body. Inside society’s “bans and limitations, enforced by fear of punishment,” our bodies stiffen with tension. Without going too deeply into Komarov’s rich instruction, we can say that he identifies two methods of reducing the amount of fear clogging the body’s movement and organic function. The first way is through the body itself and the second is through the psyche.[1] In the first way, the practitioner seeks to reject “the majority of old movements and thought patterns,” rebuilding the body literally from the ground up.[2] It is a process of unlearning and restructuring. In the second way, the practitioner works explicitly with pain- and fear-inducing situations in order to ‘tense’ and ‘relax’ the nervous system, strengthening its capacity for coping with sudden stressors.[3] The first and the second way work similarly, but at different registers.

Komarov’s manual leads us through this process, step by step, offering specific exercises and general routines, presenting them in thematic blocks. Breath work is the first step in the journey. Since this is a major subject in the next chapter, we shall limit ourselves to reporting that, according to Komarov, the goal of breath training is to learn “how to inhale completely without tensing the body.” Breathing should be “continuous, complete and meet the body’s oxygen demands.”[4] These two goals are the sine qua non of Systema—without relaxed, full, and continuous breathing, there is no Systema.


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This is the third part in the fourth chapter of an ongoing series entitled Know Thyself. You can find the first chapter collected here. The second chapter is collected here. The third chapter is collected here:

Some philosophers argue that practitioners of the martial arts are morally suspect. Consider this: what would you say to someone who practiced three times a week to kidnap people? Or practiced getting past security check points with bulky packages under their clothes? You might think that these people were up to no good. After all, what would be the benefit of learning how to kidnap or smuggle unless one planned to perform such actions?[1] Even if the practice is harmless, and no one intends to put their skills into use, training to perform an action has a disinhibiting effect. Those who acquire socially taboo skills, who find such things normal, are more likely to put those skills into action. Similarly, so the argument goes, learning how to hurt or incapacitate other people will increase the likelihood of committing violent acts, or at least open a door better kept closed.[2]

I am not sympathetic to this argument, but I do think that it is an interesting criticism. Lots of martial arts instructors and students will fall upon a common counter assertion. They will say that training in the martial arts ‘builds character.’ What they often mean is that learning how to defend oneself and to discipline the body in a manner appropriate to self-defense grants practitioners the qualities of self-confidence and positive affect. However it is not clear that these qualities are in themselves unqualified goods. For instance, individuals suffering from narcissistic personality disorders are confident and feel good about themselves but no one would call such individuals good necessarily.[3] So why are we practicing martial arts in the way that we do at Fight Club? What is the overall purpose of ‘building character’? Why do we need grit and mental toughness?

Like self-confidence and positive affect, it is not clear that grit is an inherent good. Lots of people stubbornly continue overcoming pain in pursuit of their goals even when that pain has long-term negative consequences. And, to quote from W.B. Yeats’ Second Coming, there are many instances in life when “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The qualities of grit, mental toughness, confidence, and positive affect are only good in so far as they contribute to acts of courage, overcoming fear of physical, social, and psychic injury for the sake of some net good.  Martial arts training may open the door to potential error, but it also provides a necessary condition for what we shall call bravery. But only if the training is done correctly. One of the reasons that I practice Systema is because it seems to me a correct training for bravery, even if I myself lack the steely resolve of a soldier or police officer in my day-to-day life. Training at Fight Club, to a large (albeit imperfect) extent, meets the criteria for training to overcome fear.


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This is the second part in the fourth chapter of an ongoing series entitled Know Thyself. You can find the first chapter collected here. The second chapter is collected here. The third chapter is collected here:

Another good thing about viewing Systema as not only a habitus but an immune system is that it helps me to overcome an obvious tension in my argument thus far. I insist that Systema has its historical roots in nineteenth-century European physical culture, and that its primary impetus comes from that era. Systema is not, at its core, a martial art. At the same time, consider the following DVD titles out from Systema HQ: Russian Stick Combat, Fighting in the Water, Street Crime and Knife in a Fight, The Combative Body, and (a personal favourite) Dynamic Joint Breaks. Clearly, if Systema is a physical culture like Yoga, it is one deeply concerned with a specific domain of injury, that of human conflict. Employing the notion of an immune system allows me to massage this tension between physical culture and martial art, bringing all of Systema’s attitudes, practices, and ideas into focus. As a physical culture, Systema seeks to ward off the threats of physical and psychological disease and decline; as a martial art, it seeks to ward off the threat of outside invaders. Both of these aspects, the internal and external, make up a total system of immunization.

We see the intertwining of these two aspects most clearly in the ways that Systema trainers seek to imbue practitioners with the virtue of courage. It takes courage to step up on to the tightrope, to practice at something you feel that you will never master, to not quit. It takes courage also to face an enemy in life or a disaster. Let us call the first sort of courage ‘grit’ or mental toughness and the second sort bravery. The first is internal–moral and psychological; the second is also internal, but outwardly directed–physical.


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