Containing Overwhelm

Containing Overwhelm

Category : FC Connect

As martial artists, we would be remiss not to consider some of the broader considerations around “self defence”. Often unspoken, the fear and pain many of us feel have little to do with physical confrontation and harm, but a disorganization of the self. A fraction of these potential dangers include:

  • losing friends and family to age, sickness or seemingly irreparable disagreements;
  • financial stress;
  • being rejected or judged by peers (particularly when it is for choices close to our heart that we believe in, but others cannot support, or a sense of personal failure); and
  • the merciless march of time which eats away our opportunity to pursue our dreams.

The hours I have spent training far exceeds the moments of real physical danger in my life; most of the physical harm I have experienced have been accidents and miscalculations in training itself. The dangers above however, are more frequent and familiar to almost all of us, or we are well aware they will be coming… eventually. They also hit much deeper. How odd would it be to study martial arts without thoroughly considering these penetrating strikes into our identity – delivered not through fists or feet, but by words or by circumstance? An insightful student can intuit and draw parallels between a physical strike and a verbal one, but the visceral collapse of being betrayed by someone you love can be more devastating and long lasting than broken bones.

“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.”
C.G. Jung

My recent explorations on this topic lead me to believe that there are two primary mechanisms of training on this topic. A metaphor may be useful.

Imagine your nervous system is a cup of water in a hot day. The cup itself can grow in size, or shrink; it is your capacity. The circumstances of life are like periodic rainstorms, that fill the cup. The rains come, your cup fills, the rain passes, the water evaporates and you have more room for the next storm. The rains can be heavy or light. The longer the water stays, the more sludgy and hard it becomes, and more difficult to remove. The more full your cup, the more likely it will crack; the rebuilding process will be long and often imperfect.

It is a rare person that has a completely empty cup. As a result, when the rains come, we already have a diminished capacity to hold an additional amount.

The metaphor has a number limitations, but it provides a starting point for discussion. We have two potential responses:

  1. Do our best to completely empty the cup to maximize our capacity for the next storm (remove held stresses/tensions).
  2. Grow the cup into a bucket (expand our capacity). This one is debatable – it may only appear to be true because emptying the cup gives an illusion of this (to be discussed another day).

The Systema approach is fundamentally a familiarization with our experience of ourselves in a variety of exercises and conditions. Wrestling, stretching, breathing, striking – these all provide a mechanism to jostle the cup, and get a sense of what is inside. Done improperly, you end up either damaging the cup, or mimicking a storm that leaves you with more water than when you started. Done properly, some of the water splashes out and you feel the space of being cleaned. Sludgy residue acts unpredictably – it can be difficult to dislodge, and once loose, has a tendency to do more damage to the cup than when it was stuck to the sides/bottom.

While watching myself and other students, my sense is that we have a tendency to frequently overlook the meaningful signs and signals from within ourselves in the course of our training. The cup is jostling, but we have a poor sense of which side of the cup the water is tending towards. We do have some slower exercises (e.g., slow push-ups make it possible to seek out sticking points, drawing out and extending some of the issues which require attention); which are more akin to gently tipping the cup rather than jostling it. Yet even in these slow calisthenics, the nervous system is under stress and somewhat defensive.

The slow tipping of the cup is a special approach. When it is being done, the work happens inside each person, and is difficult to accurately intuit except for the keenest of training partners. When our drills require rapid changes in direction, speed or a focus on biomechanical results rather than self observation, our habitual responses draw our attention elsewhere, making the water difficult to sense.

As the quote from Jung suggests, we need to devote some special training and attention to the darkness within. The movements of the water and its older sludgy companions are often very personal and difficult to approach largely because we have been ignoring them for as long as we have had them; that is why they are still there.

Critically, if you fail to address your own darkness, you will not have enough capacity to share the load of the water in your partner’s cup. Their residue will resonate with yours, and you will blame each other, instead of recognizing what you have hidden from yourself. However, when you pair your cup with your partner’s and you both have the capacity to gently jostle/tip the cups, more water will leave your cups than if you were to attempt to do so alone. In this way, our training partners are our greatest allies, but only if we have the intelligence, trust and understanding to offer this service to each other.

By healing each other, we will win learn more about self defence than we could by any other way.  We will empty our cups, and our capacity to contain the sometimes shocking and difficult realities of this world will be enhanced.

See you on the mat.

– Mark



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