Reptile Brain and Animal Play

Again, this is another topic that really cannot be separated from the others in the sense that accessing this mind state is one of the "engines" that make self-defence workable from a combative point of view. Erle Montaigue calls the most primitive part of the brain stem "the reptile mind," to differentiate it from the more complex parts of the brain that grew out of it. This is the home of the primitive reflexes that served us so well for millions of years when our ancestors were simpler beings with only a few concerns to worry about—to put it simply, "Do I eat it, fear it, fight it, or mate with it?"

Martial sports-oriented arts can give you a fighting edge against someone who is interested in humiliating and dominating you, as in most fights between young men, but is not as useful against someone with a great deal of practical fighting experience and the real desire to harm you. Assuming that you also have effective martial skill, the so-called reptile mind can make your training more liable to succeed in a life and death situation.

Such training is much harder to control than to access in some ways. Some students find it difficult to do, but most who have any aptitude for the combative arts can learn to apply this mind set (it is not the same thing as just using rage as an emotional fuel for your tactics) and, I am sure, most of you have trained with students who were always needlessly "reptilian" when sparring or training martial techniques.

Perhaps, it is similar to the infamous junk yard dog—some animals are born mean, some are beaten and abused until they become mean, and some can turn it on and off as necessary. Oh, and it is rarely necessary in modern life. Speaking of dogs, Erle Montaigue said it well when he compared using reptile brain in martial training to being like the family pet. You trust Rover, he is lovable and won't hurt the kids or bite the postman, but if a member of the family is attacked, your 45 pound dog suddenly seems twice his size and will take on a much larger opponent without hesitation. Oh yes, and when the fight is over, Rover almost instantly goes back to being a pet—it doesn't remain in killer mode.

Nobody normal wants to live with a guard dog that is always ready to bite, and your training shouldn't turn you into the equivalent, or you may find yourself constantly in trouble with the law, or alone in your personal relationships.

Leaving aside the issue of reptile mind, we see the same idea expressed in the concept of using animals as models for your martial movement in most styles of hsing-i and bagua, not to mention many of the Chinese hard styles. In fact, one of the central concepts of the traditional Chinese martial disciplines is learning by observing and imitating animals.

This takes two basic approaches. The literalists try to imitate an animal as closely as possible. For example, a monkey stylist will make facial expressions, hooting sounds and flea-scratching movements while doing the forms and applications, imitating how that animal moves and fights. By contrast, the abstractionists try to copy the spirit of the movement of a particular animal, without trying to become the animal or imitate all of its mannerisms.

The internal approach can run the gamut of these two extremes. As far as I am concerned, the self-defence aspect of animal play means that either you choose the animal that suits your physique and concentrate on it for the training you mean to use in life and death situations, or the animal chooses you.

There are normally eight animals in the majority of bagua styles. In other internal and external systems there can be five, ten, or twelve animals. I favour the bear (or does the bear favour me?) and have related most easily to the movements of that animal, as I have experienced over the years in hsing-i and liu he ba fa as well.

I will describe him in some detail, as it will give you an idea of how the animals, both real and mythical, are portrayed. The bear is a symbol of strength, power, and healing wisdom. He is heavy and strong, and the practice of his methods stimulates and warms the kidneys and body in winter. In ancient time, the Chinese shamans wore bear masks or heads and imitated the stepping of the bear on its hind feet in ritual dances. This animal has several sides to his nature in the Chinese martial arts. Being well balanced and stable in his postures while slow and lumbering, he is capable of sudden bursts of speed. He is also playful and renowned for his bravery, and is traditionally used in some regions of China as a charm against thieves and burglars. Again, in parts of old China, the peasants believed that humans were descended from bears. (The Ainu in Japan still revere the bear as an ancestor.) I have to admit, I would rather be the descendant of a grizzly than an ape!

If it is true that Taoism is a shamanic religion, then the use of totem animals is not an alien concept to it, or to those aboriginal or European cultures which revered nature and sought to transcend the boundaries between the spiritual and earthly dimensions. Without getting too carried away by the links between Taoism and shamanism, I think becoming a bear or a wolf in certain circumstances is not outside the realm of possibility—it shows up too frequently, both in history and mythology (i.e., Viking berserkers and werewolves).

However, for all of our flaws, humans have something that animals do not have—compassion. If a zebra gets sick, the herd moves on leaving the ailing animal to the waiting lions —not from cruelty or self-interest but simply from obeying their own natures. Most humans wouldn't, and that is one of the important issues that separates us, for good and bad, from the natural world.

In any case, becoming like an animal is really only suitable in life and death situations, not for dealing with annoying bullies or with your training partners. I only want to acknowledge the possibility of becoming a bear if I have to fight a gang of bikers—rather than being one permanently, living alone except for mating season, and killing and eating my own cubs if I get the chance!

I tell my senior students that reptile mind, eagle vision, and "C" back are the flip side of the peace that comes through qigong. You have to be able to become (not imitate) an animal for life and death struggles, but you wouldn't want to be an animal for daily life. Compassion and the ability to choose how we act are what really separates us, for good and bad, from the Garden of Eden.

Erle's stuff is so effective, and more than a little scary, because he has mated natural movement and effective subconscious fighting skills to the reptile/berserker mind. As to how we trigger these attributes, a variety of hand postures, as well as different ways of holding the spine and the body, can bring about the requisite physiological response—but as to whether or not this is an example of auto-suggestion, or accessing some primeval survival mechanism, is up for discussion____

I think there is a lot to be said for understanding your favourite animal(s) in whatever art you train in, as long as you don't confuse understanding the spirit and the movement with becoming that animal for training or fighting purposes. The latter might give you added ferocity or make your opponent think that you are crazy, but wouldn't be much help against a skilful opponent who was able to remain calm, or also uses this kind of mental state.

It is also important to remember that no kind of mental conditioning can guarantee that you will prevail against all opponents—even if you are well-conditioned and well-trained. Even though I am not a fan of hunting for sport, I do like the spirit of that old hunter's adage: "When hunting bears, some days you get the bear, some day the bear will get you!"

I'd like to finish with a cautionary note sounded long ago and in another context by the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (c.1844—1900). His words are certainly relevant to the subject of animal energies and self-defence.

"He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And, if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."

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