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Efrem Zimbalist III Andrew W. Clurman Brian J. Sellstrom Patricia B. Fox


Controlling Aggression

Efrem Zimbalist III Andrew W. Clurman Brian J. Sellstrom Patricia B. Fox


With the great amounts of violence we're exposed to these days, I wondered if people can still learn to control their aggression through the martial arts. To answer the question, I decided to explore the development of aggression and the implications that development has on the teaching of the arts.

The roots of aggression begin with the earliest movements of life. Witness how babies kick and flail their arms when they get excited. Such movements are intended only to discharge energy and express life; the infant certainly isn't trying to harm his or her mother. Physical movement always has some aggressive energy embedded in it. The energy moves from potential to actual when it meets an external object.

With the infant, however, action still doesn't express intent. In the expression of free movement, the infant makes contact with the outside world and in doing so discovers what lies beyond his or her body. Through the maternal response of gentle touching, caressing and feeding, aggression interacts with a world of nurturing. In such an environment, aggression becomes tempered by loving feelings. Such interaction shapes later intent so that it becomes a sense of caring for the world.

To state the obvious, no childhood is perfect. Demands aren't always anticipated, and needs sometimes get neglected. In the face of everyday frustration, aggressive potential reacts in the form of anger. Such reactions are intended to achieve satisfaction, not necessarily destruction.

There are extremes. When the parental response to an immature self centers on neglect, or inordinate anger and anxiety, the evolving person takes a different path. Aggressive potential is transformed into rage at the world. Such rage cannot be buffered with loving feelings. Aggression takes on a life of its own with a concomitant loss of the sense that the world is safe and bountiful.

In my psychotherapy practice, I've worked with many martial artists. Most say they took up the arts for exercise or self-defense. However, some point to another factor that gives the arts a deeper meaning: They can serve as a means and a method to help people deal with their aggression.

Many types of people come to martial arts schools, but for simplicity, I'll focus on the proper way to handle two types: those who are uncomfortable with their aggression and tend to over-control it, and those who feed on aggression and tend to act it out.

People in the first group can often merge loving feelings with aggressive potential, but an inordinate amount of aggressive energy is invested in their conscience. They keep a tight reign on all free aggression. They'll respond well in a martial arts school led by an overtly benevolent and nurturing instructor, one who earnestly expresses those traits. Such a leader establishes a norm with which the students can identify. Within the social safety of the school, a lesson is taught not just in martial techniques, but also in caring for people within aggressive play. A positive outcome is a freeing of inhibited aggression for constructive use in life and in survival situations.

For people who tend to act out their aggression, the aforementioned teaching style is even more crucial—especially if they're young, when cues for behavioral control tend to be external. It's manifested in the young student who constantly needs to be reminded of the appropriate behavior. If the limit is expressed with anger, the example is one of aggression unbuffered by concern. This stern approach might work in the dojo but can promote outbursts in other environments. If a firm but caring approach is maintained even in the face of belligerence, the instructor will have a better chance of instilling thoughtfulness where action used to reign.

I was driven to write this essay by curiosity about the often-stated martial arts paradox that people learn to master their aggression by mastering a system of fighting techniques. I've concluded that it's not the system that builds self-control; it's the institution. It's the learning environment, including the instructor and his support group, that instills values. A school can either support human destructiveness or temper aggression with respect and caring. To borrow a bit of wisdom from Gichin Funakoshi, the martial arts must begin and end with courtesy. >•<

About the author: Dr. Leslie Spivak is a Long Island, New York-based martial artist and psychotherapist.

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