When I was in medical school, they exposed us to the anatomy lab in the first week. Our professor prepared us by talking openly about the people the dismembered bodies once were. He told us how the dissected cadavers deserved our respect for their contribution to our education and then, after the ritual of donning a lab coat and gloves, we entered the room. The first time was dramatic. By the 20th time, any feelings of fear or revulsion had faded enough not to interfere with learning our way around a human body.
It is implicit in the training of front-line health/emergency care professionals that the trainee must learn to cope with personal and often overwhelming feelings that may arise when confronted by wounded or diseased bodies and personal danger. Good training usually results in good performance; poor training may lead to poor outcomes. In the professions I’m referring to, poor outcome may mean destruction, disability or death.
Similarly, good martial arts training requires us to cope with the strong emotions that may be provoked by violence and the threat of violence. In this case I define good martial arts training as that which results in skills that can improve performance and survival for someone under immediate threat of or in direct involvement with a physical attack.
Although it is easy to point to exceptions (sadistic drunks, for example), most human beings prefer to avoid rather than engage personally with violence or potentially violent situations. Nevertheless, despite our natural aversion to physical and even emotional conflict, most of us are capable of reacting violently when sufficiently angry or fearful. The problem this poses is that our emotions may paralyze us or send us out of control in perceived or real threatening situations. Such emotional reactions worsen our chances of survival.
What happened to my classmates and me in the anatomy lab is an illustration of what more than 50 years of human and other animal psychological research has taught us. The best way to reduce such emotional reactions is repeated exposure to the thing that provoked those reactions in the first place. Another way to put it is this: if the thought of violence causes you distress then the way to reduce that distress is by repeatedly thinking about it. Avoidance only strengthens the reaction.
In a therapeutic context for example, someone with a phobia (an irrational fear strong enough to limit function) will be trained in relaxation techniques and then be repeatedly exposed to the object of fear while utilizing these techniques. This exposure may at first consist of imagining the object but then involves going on to real life exposure, often a little at a time, until the person can freely interact with the object.
When it comes to dealing with the distress and maladaptive responses provoked by emotional and physical conflict, this is exactly what good martial training does. Jiulong students for example, train in relaxation and imaging techniques. While using these techniques, they are repeatedly exposed to physical attacks and discussions of violence and its consequences. The intensity of the discussions and attacks increases as the student progresses, and this hones the ability to deal with emotional reactions to violence.
This emotional conditioning process can be considered separately from the development of martial skills, fitness or health. Unlike the benefits to body and mind that come from training in sports, fitness and health activities, ranging from soccer to Yoga and weight lifting to dance, good martial training explicitly emphasizes learning to deal with the intense responses caused by immediate threats to one’s person. I call this learning an added value of choosing to train in Jiulong.
I believe improving the ability to remain in control of our thoughts and actions despite rage or fear has benefits that extend far beyond martial skill. We become better able to deal with conflict in general. We learn to act according to circumstances, not just our emotions. A martial art like Jiulong actively teaches these abilities in addition to providing the same mental and physical benefits of any good sport or exercise system. In my mind, it works the same way my medical training did, helping me face the things I’d rather not, over and over, thereby loosening the bonds of my own fear and anger.