Trust in the Machine


I have been training at the Fight Club for six years or so, maybe seven; I am really not sure. It feels like I started yesterday. What I have learned through Systema probably does not amount to much. So all I can offer in this post, and those posts to come, is a chronicle and thinking-through of my training, how I think it is going, what I would like to improve. Some people would recognize me as a person devoted to this art, but I see many others here at the club and online who truly live the principles of Systema and I know that—due to my own skeptical habits—I will never be one of those people. Nevertheless, I love this thing that we do. I love it because it seems to me a machine that can make people better, improving the health of the body, the mind, and (since I do not know what other word to use) the soul.

Systema Martial Arts is what the famous French cultural analyst Michel Foucault would have called a ‘technology of the self.’ It is a complex machine designed to mold the human mind and body into a particular inner and outer configuration. Master practioners of the art refer to this configuration as ‘natural’ although that assumes many things that I am not willing to assent to. What I can say for myself with some sort of conviction is that Systema, through its regimen of bodily exercises and its exploration of the human respiratory system, aims to create bodies that are healthy, minds that are calm, and souls that are balanced, that is, neither too prideful nor too meek. It is a very Greek conception of what it means to be truly human. Indeed, the central dictum of Systema, ‘know thyself’, hails from a tradition of philosophy begun in ancient Greece. This dictum, as well as the concepts and techniques associated with the process of ‘knowing thyself’, I would argue, tranferred from the so-called late-antique Desert Fathers, such as Evagrius Ponticus (345-399), into Christian Orthodox monasticism at the end of the early middle ages. The knights of Russia (or what would one day become Russia) supposedly would have learned how to ‘know thyself’ in the context of Russian Orthodox monasteries, practicing not only their own martial skills but also engaging in the sort of breath-centred prayer found in the eighth-century writings attributed to Hesychios the Priest.

When I arrive at Fight Club to train I sometimes try to think of myself as an object that has been placed into an ancient machine, designed centuries ago by philosophers and holy men. Working on the mats, breathing, moving, striking, wrestling, gives me an opportunity to transform myself into something better. I do not even need to believe that it will work. All I need to do is show up and commit myself to performing the exercises to the best of my ability. The machine will do the rest.

The problem is that commiting yourself in such a way is very hard. The machinery of Systema works by simulating moments of fear, stress, and pride. It brings these things out of a person, as if exorcising demons. However, it does not do so in the manner of a magic spell, washing away physical and psychic impurities. That would be too easy. Instead, Systema—if practiced with concentration and care—provides an opportunity to face those demons for yourself. As a consequence, everything that happens in training becomes your own. The frustration you feel, that is not the result of others, although someone else may have brought this feeling out from within you during a training exercise. That frustration is yours. Just as fear is yours and pride is yours. The aim is to come to ‘know thyself’ through such encounters with the demons of fear, stress, and pride. Doing so will not dispell those entities permanently—Systema does not create superhumans. But ‘knowing thyself’ will perhaps allow you to better cope with those feelings and their related thoughts when they arise in the future.

It is hard to remember such things in the heat of training. More often than not Systema has placed my demons before me without my having even taken the time to notice. And sometimes I have noticed and given up the struggle. Indeed, most of the time I have noticed and given up.

But it is in those moments—especially lately—that I try to remember where I am. Those demons have not left me; they will return to the surface soon enough for another go around. I am in the belly of Systema afterall, the great machinery. All I need to do is keep coming back over-and-over, day-by-day and year-by-year. I figure that something good will come of it, even if that good is only a well-exercised cardio-vascular system. At best, I will learn some measure of self-control, acquire an awareness of my environment, and gain the ability to survive dangerous situations. At worst I will come away from the whole experience having learned something about the extent of my own moral weakness. Not a bad deal if you are interested in that sort of thing.

James Sommerville

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