Insights from a weekend of martial arts practice

I'm diverging a bit on politics because I had some really insightful conversations and experiences recently in a place I didn't expect such insight – the Vancouver International Swordplay Symposium. I took the first two intensive classes of Fabris-style rapier and learned some new stabbing techniques, which was great. But the classes that made me a better mental fighter were Mike Panian's sessions on ageing and fear, as well as our lunch-time conversations about the deeper meaning of a martial arts practice.

In a previous self-defense class (an introductory lecture I took at Valkyrie WMAA), the instructor told us that one of the most important things about self-defense is we need to give ourselves permission to do it. We have to let ourselves do harm to others. In our day-to-day lives, this is considered pretty messed up. In a school/drill or friendly sparring setting, we give ourselves permission to harm one another within the acceptable bounds of some agreed-upon rules. At Academie Duello, our tenet of "proper arms" means our weapons, while dull, are treated as though they are deadly sharp. (Or should be, anyway.)

As adults, we understand (or we should, anyway) and accepts these risks while playing the sport, doing our best to not permanently damage one another while knowing accidents happen. We take care in drills, sparring and games to reduce harm.

At some level, and especially in a real fight[1] situation, we need to give ourselves permission to harm others maximally, because others are seeking to do us maximum harm.

Since I'm not really interested in harming others, fun and fitness have been the main reasons for my practice. There's a tiny element of self-defense in there as well, but I doubt I have enough fighting instincts/reflexes to make it actually useful. So when Mike Panian talked about taking my martial practice more seriously (his words were, "act as if you have deadly intent" – you raise your sword against an aggressor and you mean to kill) I knew I had to make sense of this in the context of my life before I can progress in my practice.

His workshop was pushed us physically as well. We were commanded to not drink water for the duration – the average person will not suffer permanent harm if we skipped a water break for a three-hour workshop. We performed a set of 300 sword-strokes, shouting our fiercest shouts, after doing a practice set of about 150? (I lost count). Then we put on our best deadly intent and struck each other. At the beginning and end of the drill, we shake hands with the opponent and see the person as a fellow human. To close off the workshop, the group did a 15-minute horse stance in a circle (one of us did a 15-minute plank, bless their heart (and core strength)). Some time during the horse stance, a few things occurred to me:

  • I wanted to face deadly intent and know how to deal with it
  • I wanted to be able to fight with deadly intent, and also come back and find my own humanity again

One key lesson that bears repeating is that something that tests our physical endurance is often a greater test for our mental endurance. Pushing our physical limits and playing at the edge is great for fun, fitness, but also spirituality. I've never experienced a runner's high because, welp, I don't run, but if there is such a thing as a group-horse-stance-high then I'm pretty sure I experienced that.

[1]: Not to be confused with true fight, a set of "rules" of defensive fighting that is at the core of Duello methodology.

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