The Benefits of Regular Beatings: Combative Arts and Devotional Practice

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When I was a child, I was quiet and shy.  I was one of those kids that didn’t like getting into fights and could have done without getting dirty.  Don’t get me wrong, I would roughhouse and play outside, but real aggression and real anger was something that I tried to avoid.  There were a combination of reasons for this, I was raised by kind and loving women, I was lanky and a bit of a geek and my body was growing so rapidly that I was awkward, always trying to adjust to my new height or length of my arms.  When I finished elementary school and went to junior high, I got in a couple of fights and was punished for them by being sent to an all boys boarding school for kids from broken homes.  My new school was one that had an long established tradition of hazing younger students.  I found myself in a world where I was fighting and taking beatings regularly and these beatings were completely ignored by the administration and teachers of the school.  So I learned to fight, poorly at first, but I soon got a little more comfortable with the pain and adrenaline that accompanies it.  I started playing hockey at that point in my life and soon the hazing and beatings tapered off.  Not only was I getting older and no longer one of the young students, but it seems that people are less likely to pick a fight with you after you have hit them with a hockey stick.

I first heard of the Society for Creative Anachronism during a period of my life when I was hitchhiking around the country and volunteering and doing direct actions with a variety of environmental organizations.  At that point in my life my relationship with fighting had completely shifted.  I was seeking out conflict, putting myself at risk for causes that I believed in. When I heard of the SCA it was described as “there are these people who get together and camp, put on armor and beat the shit out of each other with sticks and then all hang out and drink homebrew”.    I was immediately interested although it took another 4 years to be in a place in my life where I was settled and could be a part of it, but I did find a local Barony and started gathering armor and learning to fight.  That was about twenty years ago.

Over the last twenty years my relationship with the Morrigan has gone from knowing generally who She is, to formally dedicating myself to Her, to being Her priest, a very public role that I am still a little uncomfortable with.  The closer that I grew to Her the more, my fighting practice, something that I did out of joy initially, became part of my devotional relationship with Her.  I have found that for a goddess that is associated with battle, armored combat becomes more than a hobby or sport, but becomes a meditation and space of communion, and the benefits of martial practice are vast.

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For Your Health-  The most obvious benefit of having a combative martial practice is for your health.  Fighting encourages good health better than many forms of exercise for a variety of reasons.  In my case of armored combat, the act of spending a day physically exerting yourself with 60 to 80 pounds of metal and leather strapped to you not only builds strength and endurance, it also teaches you the art of energy conservation.  You simply cannot fully exert yourself for long periods of time in those conditions so you quickly learn to conserve energy when you can so that you have it when you need it.  It is an ongoing lesson on conservation of effort, teaching you to make your moves effective and not wasteful.  Fighting also changes your relationship with pain.  This relationship with pain is one of the reasons that I feel that for a martial art to be effective you need to be in a martial art that has regular sparring are part of the practice.  The human body thrives in an environment of conflict and struggle.  Pushing our bodies past our limits is how we improve ourselves and enduring pain and hardship is how we grow stronger physically and mentally.  Most of us spend our lives avoiding pain and therefore fearing it,  but fear of pain will act as an inhibitor on our actions.  One’s first year learning in a combative art is usually spent learning to fight the fear of being hurt more than learning to fight well.  I call it the flinch reflex, that reflex to close your eyes and flinch when a blow is being thrown at you.  The flinch reflex is only cured by being hit, often.  When you get hit often enough, when you go through the cycle of pain and adrenaline enough times, your body changes and instead of acting out of panic and reflex, you start to be able to THINK during times of physical stress.  This ability to be able to remain calm and think when you are in danger can save you and your loved ones lives some day and it starts as a physical change.  It starts with becoming comfortable with the adrenaline and endorphin cycles in our bodies.

For Your Mind- The art of Warriorship is partially the discipline of reconditioning our fight or flight reflex to favor the fight over flight.  Warriorship is an obligation to face danger on behalf of ones community and when that is your role, the flight reflex doesn’t serve you very well.  There are a variety of ways that warrior societies have encouraged this culturally, but just the act of engaging in regular combat is a very effective method of making that shift in yourself.  The only way to train yourself to be calm in the face of danger is to spend time facing danger.  This is the other side of training your body to be comfortable during the adrenaline and endorphin cycles. Just like your body learns to deal with the chemicals and stress, your mind does as well.  Panic and fear get replaced with calm and focus.  Your consciousness becomes a bright flame in the dark and the world of chaos around you seems to move more slowly.  This is the moment of clarity that people who engage in these activities are seeking.  This is the mental space that you start to shift to whenever you are in danger, focused, clear, and present.  This state is an aspect of the Hero’s Light or Bird of Valor, a moment when you step beyond your abilities and become more that your physical limitations and skills.  For me, this is a moment of communion with my goddess.

As Devotion-   This has become the most rewarding aspect of my martial practice.  As a priest dedicated to a goddess that is strongly associated with battle and valor, its only natural that my martial practice would be an important aspect of my devotional commitment to the Morrigan.  This works in a few different ways for me.  The initial aspect of this takes the form of formally devoting my war fighting, tourney fights, practice and training to my goddess.  Before any of these acts, I take a moment to quietly speak to and dedicate my actions to Her.  This act is not only a devotional moment, but it allows me to shift my mind into the predatory and focused state that it needs to be in when entering into a combative space.  As the fighting starts and energy and intensity rises.  I am able to slip into that space between worlds, that place of movement and action, where your thinking rational mind is working faster than your body’s activity.   In this place your mind is able to think a number of actions ahead of yourself, similar to a chess player thinking many moves ahead of his present move.  Here, your training and practice creates a situation where your body doesn’t have to think about the basics, such as blocking and moving, it does these things instinctively, allowing your mind the space to step back from that moment of violence and see the steps to your victory.  It is in these spaces that I feel closest to my goddess. Here is where I feel Her wings around me and here is where I hear Her call, a terrifying scream of glory and joy.  These moments are sustaining and empowering for me, moments of communion with the divine, moments of intimacy with my Queen.   This is one of the cores of my spirituality.

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