The closest I have come to martial arts is a self-defense class taught at a local community college a decade ago. The admiration for the inherent wisdom of its various disciplines, however, has been there from afar.
My husband recently picked up a used copy of a book he once treasured, Zen in the Martial Arts by Joe Hyams (Bantam, 1979). I saw many life lessons in a flash as I thumbed through it.
And so I decided to spend more time thinking upon the simplicity of Zen wisdom as expressed through martial arts teaching, and how it relates to anger.
Awareness of when anger and conflict are imminent, and then using best practices to completely deflect or even transform it is one of many core truths. (The modern Western adage “You don’t have to go to every fight you are invited to” comes close, however less Zen it may sound.)
Zen teaching here is beautiful: Not only is one extricating himself from unnecessary anger, but the “opportunity” for the aggressor to expend that unnecessary energy is checked as well.
In his chapter “Anger without Action” (p. 69), Hyams continues to detail his work with the great Bruce Lee and others. Here he reflects that, during a Wing-chun workout with a partner in California, he felt a surge of anger as “blasts of wind” from “hands and fists whirred dangerously close” to his eyes and face. Teacher Jim Lau, an observer, called to him afterward to remark, “When you get hit you stiffen, and I sense… a desire to strike back.”
Hyams, already long on the path to enlightenment as a fighter, felt and declared what surely the majority of the general population would not. He said he felt ashamed. He knew Lau had read the intense anger that whipped him into an inner frenzy, even if he hadn’t hit back.
Was his stiffening not the reaction to have when he was hit? Would not anyone — whether it be physically, verbally, or emotionally — feel that intense urge to lash out, to strike back?
Lau told him, “It’s not bad to have aggressive or hostile thoughts and feelings toward others. When you acknowledge these feelings you no longer have to pretend to be that which you are not.” He encouraged a keen awareness and acceptance of a feeling, but not for that feeling to dictate the next action (likely just anger begetting anger). Do not let intense negative feelings further “dictate your nature.”
The Zen idea of following a current of energy, a flow not unlike water, is equally simplistically beautiful. It deals with the resiliency with which a skilled fighter, or anyone facing difficult circumstances, can move out of the way. In a sense, it involves yielding to — but at the same time changing the direction and nature of — the oncoming force. The intent and the result is that it cannot fully harm one.
At the same time, this action provides an ability for further transformation, to apply a gentleness of any pressure being exerted. The implications of such lessons ultimately help reach peacefulness in all of life’s challenges.