Warriorship: the Gift of Peace

In early October, I came to my first “fighter birthday” – the date I started armored fighting one year ago. Here are a few observations from my first year as a fighter.

Are you threatening me?

When I talk about warriorship, people often ask me, “Why would you want to be a warrior? Aren’t you worried that it’ll make you combative?” There’s a suspicion of warriorship in the Pagan subculture. A perception that to a warrior, every problem will come to look like one to be solved by conflict. That the combative paradigm will seep into your personality and turn all your interactions into battles.

My experience so far is actually the opposite. I’m less combative personally than I was before I became a fighter. Because you see, I’m not afraid any more. I am less easily threatened, and less reactive, to most things: from personal criticism to intellectual challenge to physical danger. I’m stronger. I’m clearer about my capacities and my limits, and I no longer think of myself as fragile, physically or psychologically. I’m less defensive than I ever realized I had been. I don’t need to fight everything, because I’m not afraid any more.

What has come instead is a heightened awareness of social conflict framing. That is to say, I’m noticing the extent to which other people often perceive situations in terms of conflict because they feel psychologically or intellectually threatened. This happens when I’m not registering it as a threat situation for myself at all, and therefore not looking at it combatively. To put this another way, I have a heightened awareness of what an opponent is, and I’m much clearer now as to when I’m not facing one.

I think maybe there are two different modes of combative response. One is defensive, arising from fear. It’s the “Are you threatening me?!” stance. Practicing warriorship has shifted me out of that mode and into one where combat arises from either joy (e.g. martial practice) or necessity (response to real danger). And because practicing combat for joy has made me stronger, I have a clearer sense of what real danger is and is not, and I don’t readily go defensive. I don’t escalate non-conflict situations into conflict as often; I think it’s because I know what conflict is for now. There’s a conservation of energy that becomes instinctive to a fighter. An awareness of what it costs to fight, and a strong instinct to reserve it for when it matters and is useful.

This is a profound shift, and its effects are subtle and pervasive. It’s why I recommend at least some martial arts practice to any woman as an antidote to the internalized effects of living in rape culture. I think many of us don’t realize how deeply and quietly defensive our orientation to the world is. We don’t necessarily know that we are living and responding from fear. I had no idea just how much I was on the defensive until I wasn’t any more. I can’t tell you how liberating this is, and how beneficial it has been for me on every level – intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. And this just year one.

The joy will come.

Something seems to happen at the one-year point; at least, it did for me. I underwent a shift and I’m not really sure what triggered it. Suddenly I’m lighter in the fight. It seemed as though I broke through the prison of my own mind and instead of thinking about the fight I’m in, worrying about it, I’m just fighting. This felt huge because the mind is never quick enough to figure out what move to make by thinking. Action has to come from the body. When it does, it feels like joy. Like the clouds break above you and the battle-light shines on you and it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s glorious. The battle ecstasy. I knew it was there, but it took me a whole year of fighting before I got to experience it.

Fighting is an art, of course. You have to become conversant in the language before you can channel poetry in it.

So my observation for people at the beginning of fighting practice is patience and good humor. The first months of fighting can just suck. You might feel like an idiot a lot of the time (I did). I’m here to tell you, it gets better. Any learned physical skill is largely about continually showing up. Combat sports involve a lot of retraining of instinctual reactions. For example, it takes longer than you might think to get over the flinch reaction. I’ve been fighting for a year, and I still sometimes catch myself closing my eyes when someone is coming at my face. That irritates me to no end when it happens, because I’m not actually mentally scared of getting hit. But I’m an animal and there is no quick fix. Retraining biological patterns is hard. So keep showing up, and forgive yourself for being an animal and requiring time and practice.

Stop fighting yourself.

You can’t really start fighting for real until you stop fighting yourself. Partly, this is physical: the first several months is a constant struggle with adjusting, trading out, refitting the armor. Being comfortable in your armor is more important than you might think. It isn’t just the distraction of things biting or chafing – it’s a matter of fundamentally being able to trust your armor, and therefore able to be fully present in the fight.

And this is a mental martial art, too – and this is where I think this point applies to any martial art, or to life in general. In a fight, you have only so many points of attention available to you – and they need to all be on fighting. If you have to spend attention on internal battles, on self-doubt, fear, concern for how others are perceiving you, worrying about winning, or anything else, you have less to give to the fight. This also tracks back to my earlier observation about wasting energy fighting things that aren’t actually opponents.

The victory condition.

The nature of being a beginner fighter is that you are going to lose a lot of fights, for a long, long time. You can not attach your ego, identity, or self-image to winning, or you will burn out and get discouraged. One of the best training concepts I’ve heard is the personal victory condition. You set your own victory condition: Today, my victory condition is to successfully employ that one shot I’ve been practicing. Or: Today, my victory condition is to not get killed because of that one particular mistake I keep making. Or: Today, my victory condition is to do my footwork correctly. Because as a beginner, success doesn’t mean being able to beat everyone you fight; as a beginner, success is moving forward in your training. I cannot convey how helpful this concept has been for me.

You’re not as fragile as you might think.

Women get taught to think of ourselves as delicate (or at least that we’re supposed to be). The female skeleton, on average, is a bit physically lighter. But we aren’t more fragile. Our systems are just as resilient, our bodies just as adaptable. If our nutrition is good, our bones are just as strong. Before I started fighting, I was one of those people who bruised at the slightest nudge – I’d always be finding little bruises that I couldn’t even remember getting from accidental bumps. I thought that once I started fighting I’d be black and blue all over, constantly. But something else happened – my body has hardened itself from the inside. Now I’m often surprised when I take my armor off how few bruises I have. So I have this beautiful new trust in my body. You might not be strong when you begin, but fighting will make you strong.

When I started getting my armor together, the men around me told me I needed to put metal all over my body. They looked at my slender arms and light body frame and told me that I would literally get broken if I didn’t heavily armor every place I could. Again, we were so sure I was fragile and needed protecting. So I have all this metal in my kit, and it becomes hard to move like I should. Because when a 125-pound woman puts on 60 pounds of armor, she’s adding nearly half her body weight. When a 200-pound man puts on the same armor, he’s adding less than a third to his body weight. The proportional difference in what you are carrying matters.

So this is another philosophical point, too. Protection costs freedom of movement; be aware of the balance you’re striking. Again, defensiveness is costly. It wasn’t until I got accustomed to fighting that I learned where and to what extend I actually need to protect myself. Fear will cause us to spend way more energy than we need to fighting shadows and building armor around ourselves.

Lessons from the battlefield.

Extracting the spiritual learning from these experiences, this is the core of what I’ve learned:

Warriorship is the way of strength which brings liberation from the way of fear. Paradoxically, its gift is peace.

17 replies
  1. Daydreamer
    Daydreamer says:

    This is a wonderfully written post. As a woman who joined the marines almost 25 years ago, and has also studied a few martial arts, I am really happy to see someone deliver such a well thought out and clear worded essay discussing the importance of a woman understanding the mechanics of her body. The confidence and centering that comes with a little training. And the myth of training turning a warrior combative. For on the contrary, the relishment of life is at its fullest. There’s an awareness, yeas. But there’s a jovial comradere and a deeper understanding to social issues. I would say that it drives the need to help others as well.

    I smiled when you wrote of your stature and the difference in your wearing armorial and a 200 man doing so. I’m a short, little thing myself. I remember the first time I did a forced march in full gear. We stopped after a few miles for a bite. When we went to put the packs back on, a couple of gals tipped right over because of the packs weight, but they got up and continued on. You can bet it was a lot rougher on 5 foot body trying to carry it and keep up with the 5’11” girls in the front leading the stride than it’d been on the 6 ft guys. But you didn’t complain and you felt a sense of accomplishment when finished.

    I hope that other women read your essay and choose to experience the joy and confidence that is gifted when learning to defend themselves. With there being martial arts that are purely defensive, but quite deadly, a woman could learn to defend without attacking if for whatever reason she might choose not to be in the offensive. To be able to better manage fear is a precious and life changing thing.

    Congratulations on the continual payoff of your efforts. I look forward to reading more of your posts. (I just have to figure out how to get this tablet to display them! Haha)

    Reply
  2. Alison Leigh Lilly
    Alison Leigh Lilly says:

    I really appreciated this post as a pacifist, especially your insight into the relationship between defensiveness, fear and inner strength. So many of the experiences and lessons you describe were things that I learned while playing sports in high school — gaining an appreciation for the strength of my body, learning how to balance protection and mobility, working with my physical reflexes to find that place of instinctual movement that feels like joyful dancing. To me, these are things that almost any kind of sport (especially team and contact sports) can teach you. I wonder if you’ve played other sports, and if you’re experience of martial arts has been similar or different in significant ways?

    One reason I ask is because you wrote, “There’s a suspicion of warriorship in the Pagan subculture.” My experience of Pagan culture has been just the opposite: I’ve seen a lot of glorification of war and warriorship, the increasing popularity of war gods and goddesses, and a deep anger and defensiveness towards anyone who holds a pacifist/nonviolent philosophy, including the accusation that we’re just “squeamish.” (I think that Pagan culture in this way just echoes larger culture, which in America especially can be very militaristic and nationalistic.) I’ve had conversations with people who lauded martial arts even when they didn’t practice any themselves but were downright disdainful of the idea that other kinds of sports might yield similar benefits. For them, the entire benefit of martial arts rests in its potential use for actual violence. The Pagans I’ve heard making the loudest claims that “most Pagans are uncomfortable with war” tend to be the same folks who seem like they have a certain amount of ego invested in thinking of themselves as warriors, being edgier and darker and stronger than “most Pagans.”

    So it’s really refreshing to see someone who is embodying their warriorship through actual martial arts training and isn’t glorifying violence, and I’m grateful to you for sharing your insights and experiences! But I wonder if you have any thoughts on the relationship between these lessons and the implicit/metaphorical violence of the sport? Do you think it’s the potential threat of actual violence that taught you these lessons? Could someone who plays soccer, or does ballet, or goes rock-climbing have similar experiences of empowerment and inner strength even though those sports do not mimic literal violence and combat? And if they can, what are the effects of modeling sports after literal violence? Even if the individual participants benefit, do you think there can be social or cultural influences that these sports have on non-participating observers and fans? (I’m thinking here not just of martial arts, but of sports like wrestling, boxing and football, especially in light of recent news coming out of the U.S. about “locker room culture” and its ties to physical and psychological abuse among professional players.) I’m wondering if there’s more to “combative” sports than just the individual benefits for the participants, and what your thoughts are on that?

    Reply
    • Morpheus
      Morpheus says:

      Hi Alison, thanks for the comments. I apologize for taking so long to respond – just got very behind for a couple of weeks. :)

      Answering your questions –
      “I wonder if you’ve played other sports, and if you’re experience of martial arts has been similar or different in significant ways?”

      I haven’t done much contact sports, so I’m not in a great position to compare. I will say that a lot of contact sports, such as football, rugby, hurley, etc. historically were developed out of practice exercises for combat, and so have a natural relationship there. Hurley is the oldest team sport known in European tradition at least, and rugby is derived from it, which in turn gave rise to football, etc. I know less about wrestling, but I’m pretty sure it had a similar historical relationship to fighting arts. So the distinctions between sports and combat arts are… blurry.

      What I can say is that all those things you mentioned learning from sports – strength, balance, mobility, and joy in the skill of the body – are only a part of what comes from fighting experience. There’s a further thing that, in my experience, only comes from being in a combat situation, and that is the inner shift toward warriorship, the knowledge of one’s ability to survive and defend oneself from violence. For me at least, this has been the novel aspect of fighting. This is what I don’t think we get from ballet, rock-climbing, or other non-combative sports.

      “My experience of Pagan culture has been just the opposite: I’ve seen a lot of glorification of war and warriorship, the increasing popularity of war gods and goddesses, and a deep anger and defensiveness towards anyone who holds a pacifist/nonviolent philosophy, including the accusation that we’re just “squeamish.”

      Well, it sounds like we have some different experiences with Pagan folks. For me, as I was making the shift from being more of a pacifist when I was younger toward embracing warriorship, I experienced a lot of responses from folks who knew me and found that shift disturbing. And as a semi-public figure in relation to warrior spirituality and the Morrigan, I also get a lot of communications from people coming from all over the map with regard to feelings about warriorship. It’s been my observation that the Pagan movement having been profoundly shaped by the 60’s counterculture movement, has a huge amount of unexamined ideology carried over from that influence.

      I don’t think I’ve ever said that pacifists are “squeamish”. And some of the people I know who are strong proponents of Nonviolent Communication practice are also warriors and also advocate people having warriorship and self-defense skills. I actually don’t think that these things are necessarily in opposition. I think that any genuine warrior is not going to be someone who glorifies or seeks actual violence. Thus, the people I have met who carry warriorship qualities in the truest sense, have also tended to be people who value peace very highly.

      But I think we need to look at how we are defining peace. For me, and I think this is part of the warrior perspective, peace does not equal the absence of warfare. Sometimes order can exist that is so rigid it is in violation of the human spirit, and sometimes the only way for people to liberate themselves from such order is through conflict. For example, in Afghanistan after the failed Soviet invasion, there was a long period of tribal warfare and violence. In that chaos the Taliban arose and one of the reasons they were able to dominate the country so quickly was because they brought and enforced social order that put an end to the wars between tribal warlords. In Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, at least in the uncontested areas in the south, for a time there was not war, and there was less violence than there had been. But can you call what they brought peace? When the only way to move toward the liberation of the human spirit is through resistance that brings you into conflict with an existing order, is that pacifism, warriorship, or perhaps both? For example, in this period, for Afghan girls to have access to education, they had to attend illegal underground schools which inherently put them in conflict with the existing order and under threat of physical attack and violence. Going to school becomes an act of warriorship and resistance.

      That’s just one example, but what I’m trying to illustrate here is that I think things are much more nuanced than many people allow for. Peace is not the absence of warfare. Warriorship is not always enacted through violence. Warriorship is not the glorification of violence. It is the pursuit of a higher value, without shrinking from personal cost, and via conflict if necessary.

      “Even if the individual participants benefit, do you think there can be social or cultural influences that these sports have on non-participating observers and fans? (I’m thinking here not just of martial arts, but of sports like wrestling, boxing and football, especially in light of recent news coming out of the U.S. about “locker room culture” and its ties to physical and psychological abuse among professional players.)”

      Personally, I think violent/combative sports can actually be very helpful culturally as well. I think that having a controlled outlet for human aggression (especially that of testosterone-pumped adolescent males) which channels it into competitive athleticism instead of gang warfare and other forms of violent tribalism, can be incredibly useful. I don’t think the problem with U.S. “locker room culture” is the sports – the problem is our culture. Because if you look at the culture inside some places where combat sports are practiced (e.g. martial arts dojos, medieval combat societies, etc.) in many cases there is a strong culture of honor and ethical values that guide the participation in the combat. I can personally attest to this – I run with a society of medieval fighters who will rise from a fierce battle beaming with love for their opponent, hug each other, and then go celebrate the day’s glories together. Blaming locker room culture and its abuses on the fact that a sport is violent is putting the cart before the horse. The ugliness we are seeing in our sports societies is a result of our culture’s warped relationship to violence and misogyny as expressive of masculinity and power. A culture of real warriorship would do wonders to straighten that out, in my opinion.

      Thanks for this dialogue – I appreciate it!
      Morpheus

      Reply
  3. James
    James says:

    Imagine how you’ll feel after five years, or a decade. The Martial Arts has this wonderful way of reminding you that what you thought was understanding at one point, was just a fleeting illusion. It’s a wonderful practice, I hope to read an article from you after you’ve put in some more time, and see what you’ve gained from that perspective.

    Reply
  4. Besa
    Besa says:

    I really appreciate your testimony, in particular about fear. The gaulish goddess Cathubodua is recently entered in my life. I think she is here because of my relation to fear.

    Great read. Thanks,
    Besa from France

    Reply
  5. Dietrich
    Dietrich says:

    The “one year shift” is the transition from thought to instinct. It may not always happen at one year but it is the point, as you suggested, that your body acts without (apparent) thought.

    Where you block in the exactly the right place with exactly right commitment and speed with no earthly idea how you understood exactly where your shield needed to be at the right moment. Or, when you throw a shot that clears defense and hits them in a place you cannot even see at that moment with. all with out thought.

    Miyamoto Musashi called it “The Void”, or in the Bradford Brown translation the opposite referred to as “mind-stopping”. While maybe you have not attained the void fully in this context, I’d say for you certain you are gazing into it.

    Great read. Thanks,

    Dietrich

    Reply
    • Morpheus
      Morpheus says:

      Thanks for this, Dietrich. I love that language from Musashi – “the Void”. That’s a great way of thinking about it. His work has been recommended to me often and is on my list to sink into soon. Thanks for your comments!

      Reply
  6. Sir Bjorn Jorsalfar
    Sir Bjorn Jorsalfar says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. Your eloquence makes my heart happy, and your insights I intend to pass on to as many students of mine as will listen. Much gratitude and deep salutes to you, dear shield-maiden.

    –Sir Bjorn Jorsalfar
    West Kingdom, SCA

    Reply
  7. Sverre
    Sverre says:

    I had the honor of fighting with you at Great western war and at Sport of kings. both times, you exhibited the characteristics of a warrior and what really stuck with me was the amount of happiness you had within you and the amount that you projected outwards. I look forward to crossing weapons once again!

    Reply
  8. John Schmidt
    John Schmidt says:

    Well said. Your ability to clearly explain these concepts is wonderful. I have found that there are deeper levels of release from the fears of the mundane world as one continues to perfect one’s art.

    As for weapons/weaponless, the training in how to fight and the experience in fighting–especially the SCA experience of being hit–is of more value than the tools one fights with. Any thrust has an analog punch, any swing an analog swing (often a kick). So weapons aren’t neccesary, especially as one understands more of the body movement parts of the art.

    Thanks for the post–good luck in le Crapaud, should you attend, and I will cross weapons with you in joy in the next year!

    John Schmidt/John Theophilous

    Reply
    • Morpheus
      Morpheus says:

      Thanks, John! I agree. One of the most profound effects I’ve found of fighting is the ability to think and to not panic while being attacked. That alone is worth it as a self-defense benefit.
      And we actually have met a couple times – once at Crapaud, and once at a Coronet event just recently. Great getting to meet you, and I look forward to taking the field together some time.

      Reply
      • John Schmidt
        John Schmidt says:

        Yes, we have met–and will merry meet again, on the field. Your writing makes me excited to get back into this art! Thanks for that, JT

        Reply
  9. Dane
    Dane says:

    Good post! I experienced a similar thing as a result of martial arts practice, when I was younger.

    I have a question:
    Since part of feeling safe and not being afraid should involve the self-assurance of being able to defend one’s self, how does that translate to the use of melee weapons and armor? In particular, if one’s fighting practice is weapons-centric, does one carry weapons in public? What are likely to be thought of as “acceptable” ones, if so? Naturally, if one is 100% confident at being able to take down an armed opponent without a weapon, this is a moot point.

    Personally, owing to my own practice, and a recent violent crime spree in my area, I’ve taken to carrying a battle-ready gladius on my belt–but this has gotten me a lot of odd looks, and I do get concerned that I’m making OTHERS afraid; so, the social responsibility aspect of this is a two-edged…well, you know.

    (Note: I’ve looked up the relevant laws, and keep a copy of them with me, just to help put people at ease, if asked.)

    Thoughts?

    (In case you’re interested: http://www.coldsteel.com/Product/97GMS/GLADIUS_MACHETE_W_SHEATH.aspx)

    Reply
    • Morpheus
      Morpheus says:

      I don’t go about carrying weapons on a daily basis. Occasionally a small knife in my bag, but that’s it. I don’t recommend going around with a sword strapped on you visibly. That’s just asking for a lot of attention. Personally, I wouldn’t find that attention useful. Maybe you do.

      My fighting practice is weapons-centric, but a lot of it translates to basic self defense even without a weapon. You gain a better understanding of body mechanics, the movement and use of force, balance points and how to get a person’s feet out from under them, etc. Also, weapons practice prepares you to be able to grab whatever is at hand and use it the same way.

      The most important aspect of it though, is psycho-spiritual. It’s the mental readiness, the ability to think under physical stress and threat, the lack of fear, that really makes this practice the most helpful. Because if a trained person is attacked, they only have to fight their attacker – they don’t have to struggle with themselves, or with the sudden reality of being in a fight.

      Reply

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