What can I learn about relating by punching other people in the head? I could imagine that this might be the instant reaction to reading the title of this article. Combat sports (boxing, Thai boxing, mixed martial arts) are stereotyped by polite society as brutal contests between two meatheads, with the one who has ingested the largest cocktail of protein, testosterone and steroids being the eventual winner. Part of this unfortunate image is the way that big fights are sold these days to the general public by the media; with the advent of YouTube and social media, fighters can get a big payday and high-profile fight by their ability to insult and build up tension through ‘trash talking’. Promoters jump onto this as a means of boosting ratings and selling pay per view tickets and reality shows have even been created with the aim of building up these kind of rivalries artificially. The impression created is of combat sports being an adolescent pastime, full of people who stopped developing psychologically at about 13 years old. To the layman watching the clown show that is much of the promotion and marketing around boxing and MMA, it can seem that combat sports lack anything that could help develop even vaguely positive psychological qualities.
What is veiled by this is the genuinely positive effect that combat sports and martial arts can have on the personality and even, paradoxically, our ability to relate to other people. As a martial artist, former competitive Thai boxer and martial arts coach with over 20 years experience as well as a psychotherapist I would like to use this introductory article to highlight some of the ways in which I have found martial arts and combat sports to be beneficial to my therapeutic practice, and how they can be helpful for both therapy clients and psychotherapists alike.
‘Containment’ is the capacity to manage the difficult feelings, behaviour or thoughts that emerge during stressful situations
As the theme of our current issue is anger, and the scope of how martial arts can help you as a person is quite wide – I would like to narrow the lens down a bit. I want to look in this article at the ‘containing’ factor that martial arts can provide for anger, as well as other difficult emotions such as fear and anxiety. ‘Containment’ is the capacity to manage the difficult feelings, behaviour or thoughts that emerge during stressful situations and (appropriately for this article) this concept was developed by Ruprecht Bion (1963) from his experience of warfare after fighting in World War One. Jungian alchemy also has a concept of ‘containment’ – the image of the ‘alchemical vessel’ is used as the container of the alchemy process, in which the ‘lead’ of our raw life experience is transformed into refined ‘gold’. The containment of an alchemical vessel is needed for alchemy to take place, especially operations like calcinatio – the ‘burning’ – where fiery and potentially destructive energies are released. Jungian alchemy sees all of this imagery as a metaphor for the therapeutic process. I believe that a similar alchemical process can be seen in the psychology of people who dedicate themselves to martial arts and combat sports. They turn the ‘lead’ of their unrefined anger or aggression into the ‘gold’ of martial arts or combat skill and self-development.
The Containing of Difficult Emotions – Violence and Anger
Fighting is an undeniably emotional experience, which is perhaps why it draws us in so magnetically to watch it. The first ever sport recorded was a boxing match in 1894 and the emotional intensity of competition still sells millions of pay-per-view events each year up to the present day. For some people the emotional side of confrontation is overwhelming; even the idea of physical violence (which is distinguished psychoanalytically from aggression by the fact of actual bodily contact (Campbell, 2016))can bring up overwhelming anxiety. This is especially true for those who have been on the receiving end of violence at some point in their lives, sometimes causing them to withdraw and retreat from the world and the threat of other people’s aggression.
people can be driven to acting out violence by their own unbearable, uncontainable emotions
On the other end of the spectrum, people can be driven to acting out violence by their own unbearable, uncontainable emotions. The psychoanalyst Fonagy (in Yakeley, 2010) believed that there was a developmental need for normal aggression to be contained and that aggression was ‘a problem from early childhood, arguably from birth’. This was also the view of Bion (1963) who believed that the difference between people who acted out their violent urges and those who didn’t was a failure in ‘containment’ as an infant. The lack of containment experienced by these children in infancy led to individuals not being able to contain their anger as adults. How could they, with no model of how to do this?
In my view, after teaching for over ten years and seeing many different types of student coming in and beginning their martial arts career this conscious or unconscious search for containment of their anger can often be a motivating factor. Children or teens are often brought into martial arts by their parents explicitly for this reason – they think the child needs ‘an outlet’ for their aggression, or the parents think that ‘the discipline’ of martial arts will be good for them. Maybe the kid has been violent at school or to a brother or sister, and the parent wants to teach them ‘control’.. Although they sometimes do not know it consciously, in essence this is an attempt to find a source of containment for the unruly and aggressive emotions of the child. They look for this containment from the martial art itself, or me; the martial arts teacher. Sometimes in contrast it is the anger of another person that people want to contain when they come into martial arts – often they have been bullied in some way and would like to find a way to defend themselves. To contain the violence of the other.
Containing Through Technique and Form
Fortunately, containment for aggression and violence is provided in many different ways through martial arts and combat sports. Although the emotional energy which often fuels violence is permitted and encouraged in martial arts, it is filtered through technique and form – the bodily expressions and skills of whatever martial art is being learned. The form of a technique acts as a container in itself – it gives the practitioner mastery of their power without suffocating the raw energy behind the movement. Bruce Lee provides an excellent illustration of this in this scene from the classic film Enter the Dragon – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QU9SsTwY5nU
Although the emotional energy which often fuels violence is permitted and encouraged in martial arts, it is filtered through technique and form
His interaction with his student demonstrates the relationship between containment and ’emotional content’. For those who are therapists maybe we could think of emotional content as libido or life essence. At first Bruce’s student demonstrates the kick without emotional content – the containment of the technique is present but the emotion is repressed. This is the student or therapy client who cannot ‘switch on’, whose libido is repressed or whose fire is out and not allowed into their interactions with others, especially in the form of assertiveness or aggression. This could be seen as analogous to a schizoid client (Storr, 1997), who leaves their emotions at the door when coming into relationship.
In the second exchange, the student brings their emotion in, however it is raw uncontained anger. This unrefined and uncontained anger also disrupts things, but in a different way. This time the raw anger breaks the container of the technique, again disrupting the balance however in the opposite direction. He loses his form – too much emotion, and too little containment. This could be seen as analogous to a client who acts out in therapy, or is violent or uncontrolled in relationships.
Thirdly we see the student (client?) gaining the balance between containment and libido, where the ‘kick’ is delivered with emotional content, however this stays within the container of the technique itself. It is not empty or repressed, but nor is it uncontained and wild – there is a quality of mastery. This is how technique functions in martial arts, but I would argue that this is also how good therapy functions – it provides a container which still allows emotional or libidinal ‘flow’. Freud (2005) suggested that this is how we should aim to be in relationship, flowing without spilling everywhere.
Containing Aggression With Boundaries
A second way in which the martial arts, and particularly the combat sports, provide a container for the violent aggression of practitioners is through the actual context of competition. By ‘context’ I mean the boundaries and rules of competition, the place in which is a competition is held, the ritual before a competition and the ritual afterwards.
Even though the violence in the art can be brutal, it is still held in the container of the ring and the rules. Once the fight is over, it is over; I cannot go and hit my opponent at the bar afterwards.
competition in combat sports is usually held in an arena of some kind. In this respect there is a clearly defined place in which violence is allowed and where it is not. Even when in the ring or cage there is a set of rules (even if these are minimal) which need to be followed by the practitioners otherwise they will face disqualification. It is not a free-for-all; when one fighter is knocked out, the referee stops the fight, or the final round comes to a close there is a cessation in the violence. Even though the violence in the art can be brutal, it is still held in the container of the ring and the rules. Once the fight is over, it is over; I cannot go and hit my opponent at the bar afterwards. My destructive emotions have been given a set container, a time and a place in which they are permitted, within contained limits.
as a client within a session you may have screaming, aggressive movements, anger, crying. There is still however a set of containing rules or boundaries which keep the participant and the therapist safe..
This is very similar to therapy sessions – as a client within a session you may have screaming, aggressive movements, anger, crying. There is still however a set of containing rules or boundaries which keep the participant and the therapist safe.. for example, despite how upset you might feel you cannot punch your therapist in the head, however sexually aroused you are you cannot grab your therapist’s arse and even if livid with them, you cannot continue yelling or screaming at your therapist whilst following them down the street once your hour is up.
Both of these situations therefore work in the same way as Bruce’s ‘correct’ kicking technique above; they permit the expression of anger, fear and violence (emotional content) in a boundaried environment. It is not about repression, but about mastery – there is a level of containment around this emotional content which also allows safety, both psychologically and physically. Early when I was competing and was often overwhelmed by the emotions of the experience of fighting, one of my instructors transmitted this teaching to me by using the phrase “serial killer, not axe murderer”. Although it is quite a darkly humorous way of putting it, this short phrase really captured the image: The anger is alchemically refined, mastered and brought under conscious control without being discarded or repressed. If you watch one of the top Thai fighters you can see this in action; the fire and aggression of the competitor is still all there, but controlled and precise.
Playing Chess While Someone Is Trying to Kick You Up the Arse
A final point about fighting and emotional containment: One of my other instructors once described Thai Boxing as ‘trying to play chess while someone is trying to kick you up the arse’. With this masterful analogy he had hit a lesser known aspect of combat sports right on the button – Thai boxing and other combat sports are extremely cognitive and yet also highly emotionally charged. This is perhaps a surprising fact to the casual observer, however It is not just a question of who is angrier or more heavily muscled in competition, sometimes it is not even about who has the best technique – there is an important tactical and (dare I say it) even relational side to combat sports. You need to be fully present to be responsive to what the other person is doing in front of you. Allowing yourself to ‘drown’ in your own emotions in response to the task in front of you, or becoming overwhelmed by the fear or anger evoked by the situation is something that will more often than not cause you to put yourself in a risky position. You may miss cues from your opponent while immersed in your own emotions which could otherwise be used to your advantage.
there is an important tactical and (dare I say it) even relational side to combat sports
I am sure those of you reading this as psychotherapists or counsellors have had a similar experience in your practice of ‘trying to play chess while someone is trying to kick you up the arse’. How many trainee psychotherapists or counsellors haven’t at some point felt overwhelming emotional countertransference which drowns their ability to see what is going on in the moment? Perhaps at some point we have been overwhelmed by sadness about a clients story, frustrated to the point of nearly strangling them, or sleepy with the wave of unconscious material that they have deposited into the room? Our ‘chess’ skills in this context are the ability to maintain some kind of ability to observe what is going on in the relationship between us and the client while they try and ‘kick us up the arse’ with their emotionally loaded material. In Thai boxing the ‘chess’ skills are the ability to not become overwhelmed by the pain, anxiety or anger and to keep good observation of what the other person is doing physically in front of you.
Regular experience of emotionally strenuous situations such as Thai boxing competition or working with clients psychotherapeutically can therefore compliment each other. We can alchemically refine our ‘chess skills’ whenever we have an emotionally tough situation which requires us to have our awareness switched on. Combat sports and psychotherapy are especially transferable in this regard as they are about a relationship between you and another person; you have to respond to the person in the moment – you cannot disappear into fantasy lest you get ‘kicked’, and If you do get ‘kicked’ how do you recover?
Containment By Elders – Rites Of Passage
A different kind of ‘containment’ provided by martial arts and combat sports is the power that they can have as a rite of passage, as well as a way to find older role models to guide young people through adolescence. Author and poet Robert Bly (founder of the Jungian based mythopoetic men’s movement) and Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr (author of Wildman to Wiseman) have both written about the need for young men to have positive ‘elder’ mentor figures in their lives to guide development. Both authors have described what they see as the difficulties that can arise in the male psyche, if these needs are not catered for adequately by society.
Bly refers to a society without elders and without psychologically developed adults – in which we constantly compete with each other in a ‘horizontal’ society of adolescents, with no guidance as to our development
Bly (2001, 1997) has written in detail about the loss of the societal role of the father and the rise of what he calls the ‘sibling society’. By this Bly refers to a society without elders and without psychologically developed adults – in which we constantly compete with each other in a ‘horizontal’ society of adolescents, with no guidance as to our development. Similarly, Rohr steps outside of his Catholic background and draws on the wisdom of indigenous spiritual traditions. He looks at the recognition that these indigenous societies give to the need for rites of passage , symbolically marking the transition between adolescence and manhood. Rohr comments that these rituals often contain an element of pain or discomfort which has to be endured, symbolizing the ability to tolerate the discomforts of life. He also bemoans the lack of elders in Western society.
Rohr provides an interesting tale about elders and their function in containing anger from the animal kingdom. In South Africa a recent spate of young bull elephants running amok and destroying cars and shops was neutralized when researchers realized that all of the culprits were adolescents or young males. There were no older elephants in the herd and therefore there was a form of ‘sibling society’ between these elephants who were acting out. Older elephants were introduced to the herd and surprisingly began to ‘check’ the actions of the younger bulls. If they observed one of the adolescents acting aggressively they would come and nudge the offender, indicating that his actions were not welcome. In this way the elders acted as a ‘container’ for the young bulls aggression.
In martial arts and combat sports both of the need for elders and the need for coming-of-age ritual are catered for. Firstly as a martial artist you are instructed by ‘elders’. These are the people who have done it before, those who have trained you and others and who have the experience necessary to guide you safely into the ritual of competition. This respect moves beyond simple physical ability – your trainer may have passed their physical prime but you retain your respect for their experience. There is a recognition and honor for your guides which form an essential part of the learning process in martial arts and combat sports. Adolescent, disrespectful teachers will produce bad, dependent, students or drive them away. From Rocky to the Karate Kid to Kill Bill we can see how the central role of elders in martial arts has been picked up by popular culture.
There is a recognition and honor for your guides which form an essential part of the learning process in martial arts and combat sports
As well as providing us with elders, the recognition of the ritual aspect of fighting is built into martial arts. As an example we can take another look at the sport of Thai boxing. At the beginning of a Thai boxing match there is usually the performance of two rituals; firstly the ‘Ram Muay’ – a ritual dance sealing the ring from hostile influences from the camp. This dance is specifically given to your camp or lineage. The dance pays homage to where the art has come from and connects you, the fighter, to the others who have trained at your camp. The second is the Wai Kru – meaning ‘respect to teacher’ which is an acknowledgement of the Elders who have guided you to the point of competition. Both of these performances show the recognition of a ritualistic aspect of competition. The rituals connect the boxer to the wider energies of the community (in the dance of the camp, sealing the ring) and recognize their Elders or teachers (in the respect to teacher). We can see similar rituals in other martial arts from around the world.
The act of competing itself is a right of passage. There is danger, emotion, the threat of injury, loss or humiliation. The experience of having passed through this experience and surviving changes you. It provides one of the few ritualized rites of passage which contains a level of unsantized danger (one of the essential elements of a rite of passage according to Rohr) available to our often-coddled Western World.
The rituals connect the boxer to the wider energies of the community (in the dance of the camp, sealing the ring) and recognize their Elders or teachers (in the respect to teacher).
Exit The Dragon
Martial arts and combat sports allow an alchemical container for anger much like therapy: a container which values emotional content and provides the practitioner with a way of gaining mastery over that which could otherwise destroy. In the way it is taught, it can provide us with elders and rituals in a society devoid of these essential elements of life. It also gives us a relatively safe space in which to delve into the most disturbing and difficult emotions we can face – humiliation, anger, rage and fear. I am left at the end of writing this article with the paradoxical realisation that learning how to be really good at violence is one of the most beneficial things that you can learn to do – both for yourself and for others!
For those interested in getting in touch with Nick Opyrchal about psychotherapy or martial arts training please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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