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.