Author Archives: James

Ethical Practice

Systema, when taken seriously, becomes an ethical practice. Ethical because it relates to one’s ethos, that is, to the elements of your character which determine action; and a practice because it is something that you work at, like a skill.

In a strange way it is an ethical practice similar to, even if outwardly very different from, that of René Descartes. Descartes, as you may recall, is famous in the history of philosophy and ideas for his cogito, ‘I think therefore I am.’ Back in the day, prior to the time when mathematics was considered a respectable art, Descartes and some of his contemporaries argued for its value as a means of training the mind’s attention on objects of the intellect. Mathematics, particularly geometry, taught one how to form ‘clear and distinct’ ideas that would lead one to truth and thus goodness.

The problem with mathematics in Descartes’ era, in his opinion, was that its insights had either been acquired by chance or according to the whims of genius. University students looked to past techniques, believing them to be the essence of mathematics rather than mere instantiations of past achievements. These students and their teachers, argued Descartes, learned nothing of their own and thus knew little of value.

Something similar exists in the world of martial arts. Students and their teachers practice techniques born of chance and genius, mistaking these admittedly powerful and effective tools as the essence of martial arts. Systema, although I would never consider it to be as significant or revolutionary as the philosophy of Descartes, views the techniques of traditional martial arts as epiphenomena of the practice of martial arts, as things that can be found at the surface of a deeper practice.

Descartes held that only a systematic approach to mathematics, in which one learned how to recognize the interdependence of steps in a formal mathematical proof, could give a practitioner an intuition about mathematics generally. Geometry offered a powerful training in the development of this intuition, providing geometrical acts that would teach one how to act geometrically, so to speak.

Systema likewise treats the acts of martial arts not as an end but as a means of learning to act like a martial artist. We learn to focus our mind’s attention on the objects of the body, particularly our emotional states and tensions. Only through the ethical practices of breathing, relaxation, movement, and conflict can we come to understand the interdependence of our actions and behaviours, developing within us an intuition towards bodies generally.

One virtue that Descartes believed would be acquired through acting geometrically would be ‘generosity.’ Having learned to perceive ‘clear and distinct’ ideas, one would—through his Meditations—be led to see the truth of the self and of God’s necessary existence. As such, like the Jesuits among whom Descartes lived and practiced, the mathematically-trained philosopher would see that nothing belonged to man beyond his or her own will. Such a philosopher would be inclined to use their will only to pursue the best, most worthy goals. This in turn would lead to generosity, the act of treating others well.

The practice of Systema-acts, in their own way, like Descartes’ geometry, seeks to produce in us the virtue of generosity. I cannot say that I have learned it. I probably never will. But I do see generosity in some of my fellow students and in my teacher. Unlike me, they appear to be willing to allow the formation of ‘clear and distinct’ ideas regarding the body to lead them toward a belief in either the existence and providence of God or at least toward a belief in the necessity of treating others well. You can only practice healing yourself and others for so long before it starts to soften you.

I do not write this either to disparage my fellow travelers or to demean myself. I commend their attitudes and skills, which are greater than my own, even as I—for my own reasons—refuse to join them. My metaphysical commitments are incompatible with those of my beloved art. This is neither good nor bad. There are lots of different ways to come to virtue in this world, lots of ethical practices. Systema’s are not unique, but they are powerful and worth having in your life.



Few statements are more insulting to a serious Systema practitioner than ‘you have too much ego.’ Recently, in class, someone lobbed this statement in my direction. And while I’d prefer to simply ignore it and move on with my life (or better yet convince myself that it isn’t true), I think that it’s important for each individual to take into consideration anything said to them and about them, whether they agree with the thing or not. The words were said and so they deserve some thought.

What is ‘ego’? Why might it be bad to possess too much of it? And why, with Systema in particular, is it such an insult to be accused of possessing too much of it?

When we use the phrase ‘too much ego’ we mean to say that someone is, as we say, egotistical, that they are overly concerned with themselves, that they are closed to experience, that they are overconfident, that they are vain. In the modern vernacular, ego equates to a damaging overestimating of one’s capacities and social status and an underestimation of others. But why then do we name these qualities with a first-person, singular, Latin pronoun, ‘ego’? Why do we say, essentially, that someone has too much ‘I’? What larger ideas are at work here?

To speak of ego is to activate a whole swath of ideas that stretch back to Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am.” Such an individualist notion of the self permeates Western intellectual history. But it is only with psychology that the concept of ego diffuses into the mists of popular consciousness. When we speak of the ego today it is as a confused reference to the thought of Freud.

Freudian structural psychology posits the existence of the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. These terms translate roughly with ‘The Thing,’ ‘The I,’ and ‘The Over-I’. The Id refers to our conflicting instincts, to our libidos, our hungers, our desires, our wants, and our impulses. Within the Id these instincts compete with each other without cancelling each other out. They represent in some sense the chaos within us. The Superego, meanwhile, seeks to harness and suppress the Id, bringing order. It refers to those elements of society and family which set rules for us to follow, burdening us with guilt, anxiety, and feelings of inferiority. Between the Id and the Superego is the Ego, which names their point of mediation. The Ego draws upon the psychic resources of the Superego in order to ward off and take temporary control over the Id, allowing us to delay the gratification of our impulses in a rational manner.

According to Freud, the conflict between Id and Superego within the Ego was sometimes too damaging or intense for us to face directly. As a consequence, the Ego often manifested something like defense mechanisms. Unable to face the truth of our being and our place in society, we are sometimes overtaken with guilt and anxiety. In those moments, we teach ourselves how to close our eyes or to focus on the trivial; to lose ourselves in our imaginations or to strive to return to the ignorance of youth.

As you can see, Ego is not the source of our destructive, needy, and otherwise self-involved selves, but rather the part of us which overcomes those aspects of ourselves. Ironically, if we want to call someone egotistical in the contemporary sense, we should rather say that they do not have enough Ego. They have not taken enough of the Superego upon themselves and the Id has run roughshod over their being.

Such popular misunderstandings are quite common. Just look to any person who has tattooed ‘To thine own self be true’ onto their body, believing it to be a positive spiritual maxim rather that an exhortation toward pure self-interest. Everyone remembers that the ‘Ego’ refers to ‘I’ but forgets the rest of the story.

So if this notion of ‘too much ego’ does not come from Freud, then where does it come from? What ideas have been dressed up in Freudian clothes for us to think we understand? In the context of Systema, an answer to this question can be found in Komarov’s Systema Manual and in many of Vasiliev’s interviews. These sources refer to the need for a Systema practitioner to eliminate something called pride.[1] It is from this notion of pride, which has its origin in the sphere of religion rather than psychology, that the idea of ‘too much ego’ takes its meaning.

Although I haven’t the space to demonstrate it (I’ve done that elsewhere), Systema derives in part from the Orthodox Christian monastic tradition. This tradition has deep roots, stretching back to the stories of the Apostles, but takes its paradigmatic form after the displacement of the Roman Empire. Late ancient Christians, fleeing into the desert, wished to emulate the lives of Moses and Christ, their forty days in the wilderness. In these environments they engaged in spiritual warfare with the demons who sought to foster their sins. First among such sins was pride, a self-centeredness with respect to God.

The words of John Climacus, taken from his Ladder of Divine Ascent, can offer us a taste of the monastic attitude towards pride.

“While it is disgraceful to be puffed up over the adornments of others, it is sheer lunacy to imagine that one has deserved the gifts of God. You may be proud only of the achievements you had before the time of your birth. But anything after that, indeed the birth itself, is a gift from God. You may claim only those virtues in you that are there independently of your mind, for your mind was bestowed on you by God. And you may claim only those victories you achieved independently of the body, for the body too is not yours but a work of God.”

Climacus, in a manner common to monastic ideology, seeks to deny the efficacy of the human being, attributing all actions and achievements to the grace of God. The central idea here is that the self and self-esteem are hindrances to spiritual development. To have ‘too much ego’ is, in its extreme forms, a denial of God. Vasiliev and Ryabko ostensibly embrace this attitude towards the self, and—at any rate—propagate it to their students in a veiled manner.

As a consequence, the phrase ‘too much ego’ describes not only one’s social character but alludes more deeply to one’s spiritual character.

While I do see the value in considering myself as something small and dependent on my world, I am definitely not a monk. Nor am I interested in pretending to become one. The universe is large beyond comprehension and I do not even know how to make bread. Those truths are profound enough for me.

Freud, in many respects, was right about humans. Our guilt and our anxiety and our inability to face ourselves often result in denial, displacement, fantasy, and regression.  I believe that Systema and my own studies have given me a degree of insight into myself and along with that a small degree of psychic health. Others may disagree that that opinion. It’s a free country. What is most important is that I, that we all, continue to question ourselves, even when we are certain. But that we do not let that necessary self-reflection prevent us from standing up for ourselves or others, that we do not let ourselves be bullied or pushed around, and that we continue to have opinions or take forceful actions when necessary. Just so long as we are willing to admit at any moment that we could be wrong about everything, even about who we are and what we’ve accomplished.

[1] A common statement is something like: “Training sessions should be used to overcome pride and fear, and to gain humility and benevolence.”


“Don’t see dead people; we’re not fighting terrorists today guys”

Category : FC Connect

Emmanuel is fond of the above quote, which he picked up from a fellow instructor at a seminar devoted to knife work. The instructor in question went on to distinguish between practicing knife work and practicing martial arts with a knife. ‘Real’ knife work is dirty work. It involves learning how to kill and maim or otherwise incapacitate your attacker. That sort of training has its place, but you don’t want to be doing it all the time in the gym. That’s how you start to ‘imagine dead people’ while you work, giving in to fear and pride; that’s how things get too serious in martial arts, how people get into absurd, unending arguments over the ‘best’ techniques. YouTube and Black Belt Magazine are replete with such conversations. Systema works instead to normalize the knife, treating it as just another tool, something like a fork, a hammer, or a shovel. We are practicing martial arts and we just happen to be holding a knife while we do so.

Fight Club, despite its name, tries to keep things light. Professionals, Emmanuel often remarks, are playful on the outside but serious on the inside were it counts. He encourages us to play with the knife—the sharp and flat edges, the butt, the hilt, everything. We move it around and over bodies, tracing the space around us, or trace the bodies of others. We move and roll with the knife; throw it away from us and leap to grab it before someone else does; drop it on the ground and pick it up without looking down. We practice being attacked from all angles and on numerous surfaces. Generally, we do not over-worry about being ‘cut’. Our training knives are, in the end, just toys. Human creativity is closely associated with the spirit of play.

This is Emmanuel’s perspective anyway. I happen to share it with him. Having in the past both worked with a real knife and spoken to numerous victims of stabbings, I have come to believe that a real knife requires a steady mind and great mobility to survive. That cold steel is unforgiving. I know that, if faced with a real knife, I would want to do nothing more than get away as fast as I could. Otherwise, I would reasonably have to expect to get cut. Probably very badly. A knife is unpredictable, especially if wielded by a very tense, very nervous individual. Assuming that you even detect it before the attack begins! I’ve heard consistent testimony from and seen video evidence of people who were stabbed multiple times before they even realized that a knife was in play.

If you really want to be safe from a knife, learn how to detect who has one and to keep your distance from such people. Or carry a gun. Otherwise, just practice keeping mobile and calm so that you can increase the probability of your survival in a worst-case scenario.



Category : FC Connect

When I began Systema, I wore wrestling shoes. I used to wear them during my brief stint on a high school wrestling team so I thought that I should also wear them at Fight Club. I enjoyed the extra grip that the shoes provided. I wasn’t the only one. Lots of us more shoes at that time. Unfortunately, the extra grip put too much strain on the mats so Emmanuel put an informal ban on the practice when we moved to the current club from Coxwell.

It was easier to hold a push up while wearing shoes with grips. Wearing socks, I found that my feet slipped, putting more strain on my abdominals. Sparring drills became more difficult as well. I couldn’t keep my ground. Socks, at that time, put me at a tremendous disadvantage. It wasn’t long before I took the socks off and went bare feet. Skin on the mat gripped enough to prevent slipping. I trained that way for years.

Four months ago, however, I badly injured one of my toes. Wrestling and working bare footed led to aggravations of that injury. My toe kept catching on the mat or on someone’s body, leaving me in a great deal of pain. Socks, ironically, suddenly became a solution to my problem.

What I was surprised to discover is that training with socks on did not pose the same difficulty for me that it had before. For instance, I can hold a push up now wearing socks without any extra effort and perform all of the other drills without impediment.  Somewhere along the way I must have learned to distribute and apply my weight to stabilize my position!

I’m not sure what the lesson of all this is. One lesson might be that hard work sometimes produces invisible, unexpected benefits. I spent a long time working on distributing my weight evenly and on keeping good form in the push up position. Another lesson is that small changes reveal big truths. Shoes and bare feet were for me not so much a crutch as they were training wheels. When I gave myself a more slippery surface to work on, the subtlety of my skills (meager as they are) became apparent. So perhaps every once and a while we need to tweak things just a tiny little bit. Doing so (I cannot resist the pun) keeps us on our toes.


Fun and Not Fun

Category : FC Connect

I do not often dislike my time on the mats. Even when I am frustrated or overwhelmed or pushed to the point of tears, I still like being in class. Systema is almost always an activity that maintains my interest and feels like it does me good.

Almost always.

Very occasionally, however, it feels like a waste of my time.

Having somewhat recently experienced this sensation, I have been left to wonder just what it is that made me feel so down on my beloved hobby. What is it that can make Systema so boring that I would want to reject it? When do I become bored? What does a boring Systema class look like?

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