Martial Arts, Concsiousness & Modern Life
Arlan Cage, 4th Dan
One of my core assertions is that the martial arts can help you adapt to the rigors and stressors of our curiously complicated modern life. I am claiming that the methods and philosophies from more than one thousand years ago can help solve the problems our society has created with modern technology, modern pollution, modern degraded foods and modern politics, as well as a host of other technologies and situations that have only developed in the last 75 to 100 years or so.
To start to understand why this might be so, I am going to introduce you to your sympathetic nervous system, also known as your body’s inherent Fight or Flight response.
The sympathetic nervous system is one of your body’s core survival mechanism. When you experience a perceived threat, our bodies’ nervous system automatically turns on everything needed to deal with the threat. Our muscles, heart and lungs get more blood flow and oxygen, while every other organ system (except the brain, whose blood flow is always constant) receives less. That means that whether we choose to fight the threat, such as a saber-toothed tiger, or to run away, the organs that let us do that – heart, lungs and muscled – have as much energy as possible.
Other organs, such as the digestive system, the immune system, reproductive system, etc., all receive less blood and in fact, essentially get turned off. The logic is, that we don’t need to be spending any energy trying to digest our lunch, when we are seeking to avoid becoming the tiger’s lunch.
Humans living “out in the wild” typically wouldn’t experience a fight or flight event very often; they were relatively rare. When they did happen, it was typically over quickly, because they were able to kill the tiger or other predator, or to get away. The other option of course, is that they became the tiger’s lunch, in which case the defensive encounter was also over quickly, though not in quite as desirable manner!
For humans living in civilization, however, the fight or flight response has become a very different matter. Here in modern times, the stresses of our modern lifestyle has resulted in the average human experiencing fight or flight events at least several times per day. For some, there isn’t even enough time for their body to recover from the first stress event before the next one happens. The body typically needs 20-30 minute to go through a recovery process, where excess hormones and neurotransmitters are cleared out, and the nervous system and our adrenal glands, the main stress response organ, can reset themselves.
So how exactly does all this happen? We commute to work in stressful traffic with 2-3 close calls with other drivers cutting us off, near accidents, unplanned road construction making us late. Then we arrive at our work place to find deliveries behind schedule, work that was supposed to have been finished by the previous shift wasn’t, other employees calling in sick resulting in missed deadlines, bosses and supervisors yelling at us, etc.
Long term repeated stress means our digestive systems function poorly and we absorb less nutrients our body needs to function and repair itself. Our immune system turned down repeatedly means we are more prone to illness because we are less able to fight off what should be simple, benign micro-organisms such as bacteria and viruses. These two major factors – digestive system and immune system – are in fact interrelated, as the immune system needs a steady influx of nutrients such as vitamins C, A and D, and a variety of trace minerals in order to defend us.
In addition to all these basics of the physical body’s functioning being impaired by constant stress, our mental and emotional function is degraded as well. Our mind’s cognitive functions can be impaired. We don’t think as clearly, our memory suffers. All our activities in the world become substandard. Our relationships with other people begin to suffer.
Furthermore, on top of all this, we are living in a polluted world. Air, water and most food contain toxic chemicals. Electromagnetic radiation from cell phones, cell towers, radio, and television have a very detrimental effect on our health. Dangerous radiation from nuclear accident sites such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima have affected widespread areas on the earth. The most recent of these, Fukushima, showed excess levels of radioactive fallout making it clear across the Pacific Ocean and reaching the continental US. For all these reasons, we really need more nutrients, not less, further compounding our daily lifestyles of a steady diet of stress, combined with a steady diet of nutrient deficient toxic food.
How exactly does taking up a lifestyle practice of the martial arts change all this? Well, when several times per week you spend 1-2 hours practicing having another person punch you in the face or kick you in the gut, and you gradually learn how to evade and counter all these kicks and punches, the day soon comes when commonplace stress events just don’t affect you. Someone cutting you off in the supermarket line and then screaming at you results in a smile rather than you screaming back. You become better able to think under stress because your mind and body have been honed to function properly, no matter what the outer conditions you find yourself in.
Most people beginning and maintaining an exercise program they find meaningful and enjoyable also find they become more interested in nutrition. The begin learning the difference between healthy food and unhealthy industrial waste products masquerading as food. The learn about key nutrients for muscles, tendons, joints, their adrenal glands and their nervous system. It is very common for newcomers to martial arts training to lose body fat and increase muscle mass significantly, especially in the first six months of training.
Many practitioners of the martial arts, after a few months of training, suddenly realize that their interpersonal relationships are better. They find their performance in their work has improved. They may receive unexpected raises or promotions. Parents begin to notice their children doing better in school. Slowly, over time, the increased ability to maintain a high level of functioning while under stress has a noticeable affect on them and those around them.
Just like stock and investment prospectuses state, your results may vary. What I have described here are broad trends I experienced myself, and have observed in countless others. The amount of positive change you see in your life as a result of training in the martial arts is directly related to your effort and consistency. One of my early instructors, Bernie Weiss, once told me “you can miss one day of your training, but don’t miss two days in a row. Two days off makes it too easy to become a habit.” I suggest and invite all of you to take up the study and practice of the martial arts. Your body and your entire life will thank you.