Emotional Content In Martial Arts And An Interesting Experiment

This clip above is now an iconic scene from the Bruce Lee movie, Enter The Dragon, where Bruce Lee is teaching a student.

Bruce Lee:  “Kick me”.
Student looks surprised.
Bruce Lee:  “Kick me”.

The student kicks

Bruce Lee:  “What was that?  An exhibition?  We need (pointing to his temple) emotional content.  Try again”.

The student kicks again.

Bruce Lee:  “I said emotional content, not anger.  Now try again, with me”.

The student kicks again, but more sharply.

Bruce Lee (with a smile):  “That’s it”.

There is more to the scene, but this is the part that I want to cover in this post.

What emotion do we need to feel when training or even defending ourselves and/or loved ones for real?  As Bruce says above, not anger.  But what?  I’ll come back to that later.

Emotions do effect our whole body.  Those who are into spiritualism will often say that we vibrate at a higher frequency when we are in more positive emotional states (love, happy, excited) then when we are in more negative states (fear, anger, frustration).

For those that are more science based in their thinking, we have a small part of the brain known as the hypothalamus, which creates chemicals known as peptides.  Every emotional state that we experience has a separate peptide to go with it.  When we go into any given emotional state the hypothalamus will produce the corresponding peptides which circulate the body via the blood stream.  Each cell of our body has many tiny receptors on them which are designed to receive these peptides.  When these peptides enter a receptor, they actually send a signal into the cell.

I personally believe in both, but the bottom line is we are affected on an cellular level when we change our emotional state.  So which is the best emotional state to be in when we need to defend ourselves and/or our loved ones?

I decided to conduct an experiment with some of my adult students.  But first the disclaimers:

  • This experiment was only conducted with 4 students (not exactly large scale).
  • This has not been pressure tested (see, I said it first).

So I am not suggesting that the results are hard evidence, just an indicator.

I asked my students (2 men and 2 ladies) to select the kata (pattern/form) which they felt that they could perform most competently.  I told them that we were going to conduct an experiment, that some of what I was about to ask them to do might seem strange and contrary to my normal teachings, but to just go with the flow and give it a go.  And they would have to use their imaginations.

The experiment was in 2 parts.  Firstly I told them to close their eyes.  Then to imagine that somebody had hurt somebody that they loved or had wronged them in some way.  That they hated and loathed this person who was truly a nasty bit of work and who deserved no sympathy.  As they performed their kata, they were going to visualise destroying this person who completely deserved it and with no mercy at all.  There was a bit more embellishment, but you get the drift.

One of the ladies was struggling to contain a small smile.  Was she not taking the experiment seriously I wondered?

I told them to open their eyes, and “go”.

Their kata’s did not really look much different to any other time to be honest.  Towards the end, one of the men turned and bumped into the other one, and the 2 ladies had giggles.  I must admit I was a bit disappointed, as they didn’t seem to be taking it seriously.

But never mind, on with the second half.  I told them to close their eyes again.  This time, I told them to think of somebody that they loved.  It could be a boyfriend/girlfriend (non of them married), a family member, a child, maybe niece or nephew (none have their own children), or it could be a close friend that they cared about very much.  Somebody was going to hurt their loved one and they were the only one who stood between their loved one and the aggressor.  They were going to have to fight to protect their loved one from harm.  They were to focus their mind on how much they loved the person they were going to protect, how they would do anything, risk anything for their loved one.  Rather than thinking of anger and hate, they were to focus on love.

There were no smiles this time.  I had them open their eyes, and “go”.

One of the men was of like a battle tank on steroids, I’d never seen him move quite like it before.  The others did not look greatly different from before, but completed their katas with more focus, without bumping into each other and without any giggles.

I asked them afterwards, with which emotional state did they feel that their techniques were better?

Well Mr Battle-Tank-On-Steroids definitely felt better when in the love/protecting emotions than in the hate/anger emotions.  The others were a bit more hesitant and unsure at first, then one of the ladies offered that when doing the hate/anger emotion, she felt a strange tingling which didn’t feel right.  The other lady agreed that she felt the same.

Basically, they rejected these feelings because being full of hate and anger was an alien feeling for them.  We all get angry at times, but most well balanced people find it difficult to sustain a state where we have absolutely no compunction about hurting and destroying another human being.  Yes I know there are exceptions, but I’m talking about the majority of well adjusted civilised people.  I guess this explains the giggling and smiles as they could not relate to this state!

I then asked them about mental clarity.  Did it feel any different between the 2 emotional states.  They all agreed that focus and sense of purpose was much better during the love/protection emotional state.

I had to comment afterwards that isn’t it ironic that they performed better at a fighting art when in a state of “love” rather than “hate”!

OK, I know there are many limitations in this experiment and it hasn’t been pressure tested.  Arguably, none of them even really achieved the state of anger/hate, so it could be argued that the experiment was void!  It would be much easier to hate when hurt for real.

But how does this relate to defending yourself rather than others?

Well to my mind (and this could lead to an interesting debate) is that you should love yourself.  Not in an arrogant and conceited way, but by being at peace with who you are and what you stand for and live by.  Martial arts literature is full of talk about self development and being a better person.  Being able to defend yourself obviously gives you more confidence so you can stand up for what is right and for what you believe in.

But does standing up for what is right and what you believe in make you more able to actually defend yourself?

One of my former Sensei’s has admitted that he used to get into a number of fights when he was younger.  He says that when he felt he was in the right, he always won.  When he got into fights that he didn’t necessarily believe in, or perhaps others around him persuaded him to fight, he didn’t do so well.

Obviously somebody who is much bigger, stronger and better trained will nearly always beat somebody who is small, weak and untrained.  I’m not suggesting that if you just lead a good honourable life, you’ll be able to defeat anybody, you do the physical training too.  What I am suggesting however, is that with 2 people who are closely matched, the one who feels that he is fighting a just cause and who is in alignment with his/her own personal integrity will fight harder than somebody who is just out to bully!  The old masters always taught that we should live with integrity and humility.  If we live that way, then should we be forced to fight we shall do so with a clear conscience.  We can “love” (or at least feel good about) ourselves.

As I’ve said above, this little experiment is far from conclusive.  However, I’d like to invite you (especially instructors) to carry out similar experiments yourself and report the results in the comments below.  It would be nice to get a little data base of similar experiments here for others to share.

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