Meditatio et Contemplatio

The Role of Personal Self-Reflection in the Study of Renaissance Martial Arts

By John Clements

...Man muss fleissig nachdencken

The above words ("You must study this diligently") appear in several 15th century Germanic martial arts treatises. They express how the student of the art of fighting must dwell upon the meaning and principles of the passage in question. Beyond an invocation to deeply ponder and analyze the technical aspect of each instructed concept or action, another meaning can be proposed: The student is to internalize the larger personal value of the self-defense teachings though self-reflection, introspection, and solitary consideration. In other words, to utilize the familiar Medieval tradition of quiet contemplation through meditation.

I have been employing this practice in my own study of Renaissance martial arts for well over a decade now. I can attest to its value in improving my prowess and my understanding of the source material of the martial arts of Renaissance Europe ("Mare"). In this regard, I have been following a course of action that the idea of deeply pondering the meaning of passages from the source teachings as suggested can mean to contemplate them through meditation, a practice that was itself a part of the culture in which the schools and masters of defense existed.

As soon as meditation is mentioned there is the almost immediate association of it with having to do with Eastern transcendentalism or Asian religious beliefs. If meditation is cited in reference to Medieval civilization, by contrast, then it also associated entirely and exclusively with the early church. However, virtually every high-performing athlete and serious fighter conducts some form of this activity whether or not they identify it as such. From the sports competitor clearing his head before an event to the boxer looking himself in the mirror to psych himself up before training or afterwords come to terms with his progress, these are all forms of mediation.

To be practical and effective, any course of introspection and self-examination has to be in a context of concrete martial reality, free from self-delusion or new age wishful thinking.

No one today can seriously doubt the mind/body connection in which our attitudes and emotions affect our physical performance and health. To be practical and effective, any course of introspection and self-examination has to be in a context of concrete martial reality, free from self-delusion or new age wishful thinking. The question before us then becomes: is it viable and authentic to read into the source teachings a meaning to privately deliberate internally upon matters? This question may be unanswerable. But for myself, I am convinced doing so has had significant impact on my skill development.

To understand this, the reader must first break free of any preconceived notion of "meditation" as associated with Eastern religion and Asiatic conceptions of the word so closely connected to oriental culture and presupposed to be inseparable from the pursuit of various traditional martial disciplines. To study the martial arts of the "West" it is first necessary, after all, to know what "Western civilization" is and why it came to be.

Meditatio?

The word meditation itself is said to come from the Latin word meditārī, which can mean to reflect on, to study, and to practice. To meditate is itself from the Latin, meditatio, originally meaning every kind of physical or intellectual exercise, but later coming to mean directed contemplation (contemplationem). That is, attentive consideration as a mental exercise, as disciplined concentration and observation, as well as inner visualization of a matter. For example, medieval Christian tradition might cite scriptural examples such as, "Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it, then you will be prosperous and successful" (Joshua 1:8). Even then, the term was not used to describe a strictly prayerful or specifically monastic activity.

Note I am neither advocating nor address any spiritual matters here, only those of the psyche as related to development of personal prowess in combat arts.

Note I am neither advocating nor address any spiritual matters here, only those of the psyche as related to development of personal prowess in combat arts. It is not my point here at all to reference the activity of meditation upon Biblical scripture as part of medieval monastic practices or Christian devotional doctrines. Neither have I found evidence this directly influenced the teachings of the masters of defense, but it cannot be denied that the historical masters we study existed within and were products of the civilization and culture of Western Christendom, and that careful, measured, thought upon ideas were a historical part of this.

To meditate upon something is to think something over and, by extension, to find intention and preparation. This idea of personal reflection and interpretation as understood by Medieval European civilization is largely traceable to 3rd century Christianity, coming to later be formalized in such disciplines as the 12th Benedictine monastic concept of Lectio Divina. It ultimately is an effort at self-knowledge. Biblical references to meditate and meditation abound, and essentially refer to giving careful consideration to matters of import and value, not for theological reflection, but personal identification --in other words, processing and internalizing them through contemplative thought. It is reasonable to suppose this concept was understood by other disciplines in the Medieval and Renaissance eras, including knights and men-at-arms (who often retired to monasteries, and in at least one late 13th century case, even produced a Fechtbuch).

There is a longstanding monastic tradition in Christendom of meditation on the Divine as distinct from the role of meditation in Eastern religions or Asian martial arts practices, and the two should neither be equated nor confused. Nonetheless, the neurological and psychological basis of the human psyche is the same everywhere, and we should not be surprised that professional warriors and fighting men in different cultures throughout history have found similar needs to mentally recharge, emotionally detox, and spiritually or morally fortify themselves through similar efforts.

Whether by communion with a higher power or through pure introspection independent of metaphysical assumption, warriors throughout history have invoked forms of internal dialogue or external group ritual to process their sense of self and their identity or role as fighting men.

Whether by communion with a higher power or through pure introspection independent of metaphysical assumption, warriors throughout history have invoked forms of internal dialogue or external group ritual to process their sense of self and their identity or role as fighting men. The scene of a knightly candidate on vigil... awake, stationary, silent, peaceful, mentally and emotionally focused upon the beliefs that sustain him in his upcoming ordeal... is a familiar concept within chivalric literature. It was a feature directly borrowed from monastic culture.

The largely ceremonial meditation of the knightly vigil was essentially for purposes of piety and contemplation of one's sins, having little to directly do with the physical or mental preparation needed for either immediate or long term martial prowess. And yet, it is reflective of more than just theological devotion or cultural ritual. It might be easy for many moderns to dismiss the idea of a man-at-arms training for a judicial duel attending daily mass before beginning each day's martial practice, or that his fight master would take the fighter to church to pray for victory just before the event (such as advocated in the 15th century combat works of Hans Talhoffer). However, for the fighting men of Medieval and Renaissance society, such piety (and ritual) served a practical function of helping provide a sense of righteous tranquility and consolation. It achieved this partly through its role of enabling a more focused emotional and mental state. In the same way, the solitary moments of a lone combatant spent in devotion or prayer in the hours before a judicial duel, the group mass held for troops before a battle, or the man-at-arms seeking confession prior to fighting, may all be seen as examples of this. Knightly orders such as the Templars famously united their martial and religious training, tying each discipline together through their common practices, which presumably meant some effort spent at contemplation.

What this is about is simple mindfulness...that quality or state of being conscious and aware of some matter. Such a mental state is about focusing awareness in the moment yet calmly acknowledging and accepting one's thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations.  Recorded as early as 1530 by the English court scholar & priest, John Palsgrave, myndfulness was a translation of the French pensee ("thought" or "careful consideration").

What this is about is simple mindfulness... that quality or state of being conscious and aware of some matter. Such a mental state is about focusing awareness in the moment yet calmly acknowledging and accepting one's thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. The value of this for progress in a fighting discipline should be obvious. It can also make use of the non-cognitive and subconscious aspects of our psyche, yet it contrasts with the Eastern approach of seeking clarity through non-conscious non-self-awareness.

The teachings of the martial arts of Renaissance Europe essentially present a coherent view of the physical aspects of self-defense disentangled from metaphysics or theology, but they are not lacking in addressing the emotional, ethical, and spiritual concerns of the fighting man.

The teachings of the martial arts of Renaissance Europe essentially present a coherent view of the physical aspects of self-defense disentangled from metaphysics or theology, but they are not lacking in addressing the emotional, ethical, and spiritual concerns of the fighting man. The possibility that the practice and study of combat teachings may go beyond a purely intellectual or analytical reading of self-defense instructions, toward reaching an inner meaning for the practitioner is arguably intrinsic to all high-level martial disciplines, for these skills do not function on a purely physical level alone, but involve the totality of the self. This then, is the occidental concept of meditation under examination here.

Contrasts Between West and East

On occasion, I still encounter followers of traditional Asian fighting disciplines who will assert the narrow-mindedness that the historical European combatives we follow are somehow not "true" martial arts because they "lack the element of meditation." Aside from the ethnocentrism of this view, it's profoundly ignorant to assume that for it to be legitimate, meditation must be a requirement of any systematic self-defense method. My response to such opinions has been to ask the questioner what they mean by the word "meditation," then following their reply to next ask if they are in fact referring to the Western idea of meditatio as in Medieval monastic practice? The reaction is to typically leave them dumbfounded. It is their prejudice that causes them to assume our craft doesn't have meditation and their prejudice that assumes all personal contemplation must all equate to their conceptualizations.

The possibility that the practice and study of combat teachings may go beyond a purely intellectual or analytical reading of self-defense instructions, toward reaching an inner meaning for the practitioner is arguably intrinsic to all high-level martial disciplines, for these skills do not function on a purely physical level alone, but involve the totality of the self.

Meditation is an issue frequently mentioned in reference to spirituality or transcendence within the martial arts. In East Asian traditions, meditation is linked to the ideal that "normal consciousness" obscures the "sacred" and that rational patterns of thought must be extinguished in order to achieve a supposedly "higher" or "altered" state of consciousness "necessary" to find "enlightenment" in Buddhist belief. These traditions typically emphasize meditation with associated breathing exercises. Today, this is regularly presented in some form or another to Asian martial arts students in the West, often as little more than a means of lending an air of "oriental mystique" to self-defense practices.

meditatio contemplatioAs martial arts anthropologist, Professor Tom Green, has described: "Meditation is the general term for various techniques and practices designed to induce an altered state of consciousness, develop concentration and wisdom, and relieve stress and induce relaxation. On the simplest levels it is utilized to calm, cleanse, and relax the mind and body and to increase concentration and mental focus. On higher levels, it is practiced to produce a radical transformation of the character. Meditation is really mind/body training that is learned through discipline and practice." (Green, p. 335) Of course, recourse to mystical concepts such as cultivation of chi or ki is a core aspect of many Asian meditative systems and has been famously influential in the development of their traditional fighting systems. As Professor Green notes: "Today in the United States, the majority of books, articles, and advertisements dealing with the martial arts at least pay lip service to the idea that some kind of 'self control' or 'mental discipline' is a byproduct of the training... In many classes, meditation is defined as a few short seconds at the beginning of a class... or perhaps for marketing purposes, to lend a vague flavor of Eastern culture and mystery." (Green, p. 337) We might add that this phenomenon is hardly exclusive to the pursuit of traditional Asian martial arts within the USA alone, but is found worldwide. Green describes meditation within Asian fighting disciplines as having to do with "psychophysical self-cultivation," noting: "The Asian martial arts grew up intertwined with Daoism (Taoism), Shintô, Buddhism, and other magico-religious traditions that emphasize meditation as a means of gaining some form of enlightenment. It is no surprise that the traditional martial arts include meditation as either an integral part of or an adjunct to training. The classic martial arts have a long history in Japan, China, and elsewhere of using meditative practices as instruments of 'spiritual forging.'" (Green, p. 335)

In the Medieval European traditions, meditatio was a general term for contemplative theological or philosophical discourse or devotional exercises which lead to intuitive insight and rational wisdom.

In the Medieval European traditions, meditatio was a general term for contemplative theological or philosophical discourse or devotional exercises which lead to intuitive insight and rational wisdom. Medieval theologians were well aware of Biblical instructions to "meditate" upon the gospels, and many monastic orders practiced some form of meditative activity. Besides prayer, the Christian was also instructed by his scripture to engage in mental reflection and practice contemplative thought (for example: "brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things" Philippians 4:8). The major distinction to contrast Western from Eastern conceptions perhaps lies in Western culture's emphasis on empirical rationalism through deliberative thought and conscious introspection, as opposed to intuitive non-cognitive metaphysical insight.

In each civilization however, East or West, the mental discipline of such "psychophysical self-cultivation" results in improved relaxation, self-control, and concentration, all of which promote health and thus can lead to better a physical disposition which then inspires martial skill.

Premeditatio and Gymnasia

The idea of premeditatio, meaning both preparation and meditation, refers to the consideration and deliberation on tasks or events that lie ahead. Premeditation was a hallmark of the Greek Stoics and has its origins among, not surprisingly, the Pythagoreans, who influence is found in the works of 16th century fencing masters. The morning exercise of preparing yourself by mentally rehearsing what the day ahead held in order to face it calmly and without distress, was then followed by gymnasia, or practical training. The idea of premeditatio is found prominently in the writings of Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, Cicero, and Seneca, among other noted Romans (reintroduced to the church by Petrarch in the 15th century). For the Stoics, the exercise was said to be the idea of employing one's intellect to rationally meditate upon affirmations and maxims in anticipation of a future event, considering especially the worst case scenario (premeditatio mallorum). This philosophical practice of mental preparation for adversity would in modern psychology be viewed as simple mental tools that function to reduce fear and anxiety.  We can now more easily understand how, through the influence of classical sources on Christendom, Medieval and Renaissance fighting men would have been able to adapt some of these ideas as their own. That chivalric literature was greatly concerned with matters of how a knight dealt with how his personal failings affected hi ability to maintain his oaths and uphold his virtues as well as achieve prowess and renown, is well known matter.

Forging a Personal Relationship to the Modern Practice of the Source Teachings

In my own personal pursuit and practice of Mare (the martial arts of Renaissance Europe), over the years I have consciously endeavored to avoid at every possible opportunity any potential element of cross-pollination or contamination with material outside of the authentic source teachings of our craft. Only when I have found aspects that are credibly identifiable as indigenous to our source teachings have I then allowed myself to look at similar elements in other world martial culture for clues to those universal commonalities. In doing this, one area that has slowly coalesced for me was discovering the value of quiet, directed contemplation and self-reflection. Because of the personal nature of such exercise, its esoteric component and close connection to ethical values and individual convictions, it's a difficult subject to breach to even the closest students or colleagues.

Yet, I have come to find that as my prowess in these skills matured, as my interest in understanding the nature of these violent historical practices evolved, I came to find myself more and more discovering peace of mind in meditatio --exactly that moment of quiet contemplation and self-reflection upon the motives, objectives, goals, and reasons for pursuing my interest in the craft --physical, emotional, philosophical, and cultural. I have no doubts that this has aided my discoveries and insights as well as helped me find direction or solace.

I do not pretend to be a knight or warrior out of history, nor do I imagine myself their equal. I am a person born and raised within our modern world, an adherent of a rational scientific world-view as well as admirer of the Renaissance spirit. Yet, as a student of history, as a committed martial artist and teacher, I have come to find it curious that without giving it any attention or effort, the same kind of needs manifested to slowly direct me toward the same kind of process.

Warrior... Know Thyself

Martial spirit, the sense of being a warrior, exists only by acceptance of a code that recognizes when and where and what it is right to fight. This is no mere willingness to fight, nor just ability to fight, but something more. It requires deep reflective thought. It requires self-assessment. To discover and commit to reaching such values, I believe history reveals that it comes into being only through some personal process of meditatio et contemplatio. Silent, solitary, guided self-reflection.

Martial spirit, the sense of being a warrior, exists only by acceptance of a code that recognizes when and where and what it is right to fight. This is no mere willingness to fight, nor just ability to fight, but something more.

Self knowledge, to "know thyself", has been a touchstone of Western philosophy since the Greeks. The self, not the anti-self or non-self, is sought in relation to the individual's accepted values and beliefs. To the martial artist this means acknowledging and appraising their own state of being as a fighting man. Just as Augustine of Hippo wrote, "if thou shouldst think thou hast reached perfection, all is lost; for it is the nature of perfection to teach one's imperfections," the 14th century priest turned master-at-arms Hanko Doebringer taught: "it is a wise man who fights his own weakness." (This was echoed much later by Monsieur L'Abbat, in his 1734, Art of Fencing, when he expressed: "Practice is either good or an evil; all consist in the choice of it. When you think yourself skillful and dexterous, 'tis then you are not.")

According to Doebringer, no combatant should fight in anger nor fight from fear. How else does one consider such matters without contemplatio? When the early 15th century master Fiore Dei Liberi declares that audacity is what the art is based upon, how does an individual come to summon and channel such fortitude without effort in meditatio? Indeed, the wisdom and prudence Fiore wrote were necessary to a good fighter are qualities that must be discovered in the self by the self. Paulus Kal's treatise of 1470 reveals that the fighter should have a clear head and strong heart in order to perceive his adversary's intentions. How does one learn to practice this without some means of processing it with that most mysterious part of our neurological makeup we call the brain?

In the West, the mind and self are not disengaged from contemplation. Indeed, reason is a virtue, and conscious appreciation of one's own full identity is something to be sought rather than denied. As the fencing maestro Vincentio Saviolo wrote in his rapier treatise of 1594, "...the more skill a man hath of his weapon the more gentle and courteous should he show himself, for in truth this is rightly the honor of a brave Gentleman, and so much the more is he to be esteemed: neither must he be a bragger, or liar, and without truth in his word, because there is nothing more to be required of a man then to know himself."

Time spent processing and dealing with what has been accomplished or not accomplished, considering what has been learned or not learned, is a phenomenon familiar to high-level athletes and others working in stressful and physically competitive fields. In such times, the individual may seek to find understanding and meaning within their present state or degree of progress. When guided, directed, and focused, this process is essentially what may be called meditatio.

I have avoided here discussion of both the metaphysical and theological as well as not delving into the existential. I have tried instead to emphasize the emotional or psychological as it is tied to the practitioner's values and character. In this modern world that is neither chivalric nor honorable, in our modern society that downplays personal virtue and the more ennobling aspects of Western heritage in favor of lesser agendas, sincere contemplation is needed more than ever in my opinion.

We humans are not perfect. And while every martial artist may strive to perfect their skills and techniques, dealing with each session of practice, its highs and lows, failures and successes, our frustrations and weaknesses, requires honest self-inspection and sincere personal evaluation. Every student of the art at some time asks themselves the same questions of why they practice, what are they seeking with it, what do they get from it? To progress and grow as a practitioner these must be addressed by the individual at some point. This is where in my view the exercise of contemplatio comes into the craft.

The mental and emotional control necessary for a warrior is a common theme throughout military history and is evidenced in writings from the ancient Greeks to the Renaissance Masters of Defence.

The mental and emotional control necessary for a warrior is a common theme throughout military history and is evidenced in writings from the ancient Greeks to the Renaissance Masters of Defence. It would not be unreasonable to imagine that familiar aspects of Christian prayer and contemplation may at times have fulfilled a similar role for the Medieval and Renaissance fighting man. However, no Fechtbuch includes direct instructions for anything equivalent to the modern practices of meditation as presented in various manners among popular Asian martial art styles (of which some is itself an artificial modern invention painted onto contemporary practice for the interests of wide-eyed Westerners who expect some esoteric content).

It would be foolish to imagine that fighting men brought up in a world where the power and influence of faith surrounded them in every aspect of their culture and civilization would not seek council and solace through either inner dialogue or directed prayer as a means of finding peace of mind or clarity of thought and feelings in order to deal with the mental and emotional stress that goes hand-in-hand with being a warrior, let alone finding some philosophical accommodation with their role as fighting men in a manner that was not self-destructive. Even today, those in similar positions in the military and paramilitary and other careers involving conflict resolution can neither suppress nor deny the need for counsel and clarity. Those who don't, inevitably suffer consequences of self-destructive behavior, substance abuse, and unhealthy relationship habits, and failure to deal with their aggressions or find peace of mind.

The need to guide and direct novices in this is yet one more reason why fraternity, camaraderie, and mentoring are elements of all high level martial arts study, and we can readily envision this being recognized to some degree or another within Renaissance fighting guilds and schools of defense. The frequent appearance in the Fechtbuchs of combatants kneeling in prayer can itself be seen as not just an acknowledgment of the religiosity of fighting men at the time, but arguably, of the necessity to address the non-physical elements of martial arts training. That this aspect notably declined as European martial arts teachings themselves deteriorated and simplified down to far more limited and narrowly specialized fencing styles during the Enlightenment is surely no coincidence.

Contemplatio?

For what purpose would today's student of Renaissance martial arts engage in this as part of their routine?

In 1389, Hanko Doebringer expressed that one “should know that one cannot speak or write about fighting as clearly as one can show and demonstrate with the hand; therefore use your common sense and reflect on things further.”  (Anglo, Martial Arts, p. 33). In considering this line as part of the factor of reasoning inherent in Renaissance martial arts doctrines, it common sense. But an alternate reading of it equally embraces the idea of contemplatio.

To what purpose would today's student of Renaissance martial arts engage in this as part of their routine? The answer to me is obvious: to attain a clear-headed self-awareness, to calm anxiety, to control anger and depression, to better acknowledge hopes, fears, desires, aspirations, for easing of physical tension, and to quiet distractions and distracting thoughts that all impede growth and improvement. The value of introspection lies in communing with one's self or an external focus to clarify your values, virtues, and beliefs. The physical performance of martial exercises and drills is directly related to sharpening mental discipline, improving insight, increasing creative action, and encouraging intuitive thought over purely cognitive processing. It is arguably the sole means to reduce the stress and anxiety associated with impairing athletic performance, as well as the ability to emotionally endure physical violence. A calm, relaxed, clear mind as preparation or mental rehearsal before or following physical routines is well known to improve physical competence.

Continued, intent, focused thought engages the mind, fuels the imagination, and clarifies emotion, reason, and desire. A state of quiet, contentless awareness to reach greater self-awareness, creativity, and a higher level performance through achieving a relaxed frame of mind is undeniably a beneficial tool to the serious pursuit of any combative discipline. No martial artist can ignore this element and expect to fully understand their craft. This process demands neither ritual nor metaphysical assumption. It simply requires the individual make the effort of knowing themselves. The lack of such activity is in my opinion why so few attain satisfaction in their art.

A modern practitioner may like to think it is all just about techniques and learning movements, but in the long run they discover what the historical warriors did (and modern ones often do): we don't practice in an ethical/moral vacuum. We are thinking, feeling beings, and the act of combat, of dealing or resisting personal violence, of even just training for its possibility, affects the individual. It alters one's psyche. True arts of fighting, to one degree or another, deal with this, not just with mere collections of physical actions and tactical actions.

Every time you practice, you do some form of self-evaluation in which you ask yourself, "How did I do?" Whether you conclude you did well or need to improve, you eventually must ask yourself how and by what means? Whether you feel confident or disappointed, angry or depressed, invigorated or drained by your performance, some form of subjective consideration is necessary. What caused you to feel as you do over your practice and how you deal with it is part of the very process of learning the application of the craft. We process these things (either consciously or not), and the best way to do so is to proceed intentionally with sincerity; guiding yourself through it by making contemplation a rational part of your study.

When you take moments to meditate and contemplate, what you are then effectively doing is tying the physical practice you just did -- an in-arguably violent activity -- to not just your biomechanical performance of it but to your mental and emotional performance. You are connecting not only to the mere technical execution of motor skills, but to a larger personal context: "Who am I that I am doing this?... When and where and why would I need these skills such that I pursuing them?... How does it affect me?" In psychological terms, you are linking the physical, the mental, the emotional, the ethical, and the spiritual, if you prefer, all together. It is this that allows you to not fight out of fear or anger, or make pridefulness your motive. It is by this that you relate to fortitudo, sapientia, prudentia, and audacia through preudhome (prowess). It is this that defines martial spirit -- kampfgeist -- as more than just ability, but as the totality of who you are. And it is this which I believe is reflected in the chivalric values we infer from the source teachings, even though never presented as doctrine. More profoundly, it is through this that the martial artist finds greater meaning and becomes a better fighter. But, if the only meaning to you consists of "I just like to practice fighting" then you are profoundly ignorant and have no clue what martial arts are ultimately about, for they go beyond self-defense. The naïve student who says, "I just want to learn how to fight," will never achieve a full appreciation of their craft nor realize their full potential. And they will continue to struggle against their baser natures.

Insight from Reflection - Thinking it Through

When frequent reference is made in our historical source teachings to the fighter acting with good "spirit" or "heart," one must ask oneself what does it mean in the study of this discipline? How will you consider it yourself? In what way will you address it in the context of your own practice? By what means will you reach your conclusions? By what other means do we learn to channel our tendency to violence and direct aggressive impulses? These things cannot be attained through informal social contact, nor in committee meetings, group panels or online forums, and certainly not by email, texting, or casual conversation. These things must spring from somewhere for the modern student. To the young fighter or martial arts novice simply wanting to get good, win some bouts, or feel powerful in his techniques, these are admirable goals, but they are only one part of the path, the first part of the journey toward whatever kind of martial artist they are going to eventually be. Because the simple truth is, the thing that the beginner as well as the intermediate student does not usually comprehend is that the study of martial discipline is far more than just techniques and principles, it is attitude, and that attitude is developed from within. Thus, to look within requires you meditate and contemplate upon who you are and what you want to be ...and how you will try to get there. This is not Eastern, this is not Western, this is not anywhere in between, this is simply human.

Because the simple truth is, the thing that the beginner as well as the intermediate student does not usually comprehend is that the study of martial discipline is far more than just techniques and principles, it is attitude, and that attitude is developed from within.

More than once the last ten years I have seen a top student of mine eventually deteriorate in his ability or plateau in his skills such that they came to frustration and disappointment. The went from rapid rise to rapid collapse and disillusionment in their craft, and struggled with issues in their private and professional lives all because they could not find their center, their core, their values and their moral compass. I watched as they slowly abandoned the values and dismissed the spirit of Renaissance martial arts practice and in each of these cases I knew the cause was their own lack of introspection and inability to find solace within themselves. When one cannot be true to themselves or their fellows it's impossible be true to the practice of a craft that demands sincerity of effort and self-honesty in one's progress. Again, it's not all just about techniques and fighting moves. I have also witnessed first-hand one close former student engage for years in cynical self-denying and self-negating behavior as a way of dealing with personal stress made worse by the philosophical vacuum of his own total lack of introspection.* 

My advice to every young student is that if you proceed under the illusion that becoming adept is solely a matter of physical prowess in techniques and principles, you will never master the Art. I have often spoken at length on the ethical and spiritual component intrinsic to the source teachings of Renaissance martial arts (and will soon be publishing on this), so we come to the question: how do you imagine our forebears strived for such knowledge and sought personal insight? They didn't do it through committees and conferences. They meditated upon it. Internalization of training, of proper attitude, of discipline, of purpose and meaning do not come about through physical exercise alone, nor even when combined with intellectualizing of combat methods. Rather, there is another aspect long recognized: solitary internal reflection. In his great martial treatise of 1570, the master Joachim Meyer stated that in practicing the art of combat "the student is very masterfully stimulated to greater reflection to use every kind of advantage, along with many more other uses that this practice brings with it." Greater reflection indeed...

Thus, just as early Christians would meditate upon the meaning of scripture and contemplate their personal relation to it, so too may a modern student approach the meaning of Renaissance martial teachings and its value to their life and character as the sources themselves would seem to imply. As we are told by the Fechtbuchs... "You must study this diligently." I leave it to the reader to explore this on their own as they see fit.

"...a despondent heart will always be defeated, regardless of all skill.”
- Fechtmeister Sigmund Ringeck, 1440

“... it is requisite that [swordsmen] carry the principles of this Art,
surely fixed in their minds and memories, by means whereof they may become bold and resolute…”
- Mastro Giacomo Di Grassi, 1570


End note: For me personally, this is the hardest piece I have ever written. Because it does not deal directly with fighting doctrine or historical methods, nor arms and armor, but with martial culture --and in a manner that I cannot directly provide evidence for. Yet, it concerns a matter which is a part of my own practice. To me, most Westerners' superficial obsessions with meditation in the pursuit of traditional Asian martial arts study has always come across as less than sincere. It seemed more a transcendental longing for something, at least since the Enlightenment, absent in Western Civilization, mixed with more than a little pretentious role-playing. So, to eventually find support for a similar yet distinctly different element within our craft was at first a surprise. But as with so many aspects of Renaissance martial culture, on closer inspection its distinctions stand out.

*As of Jan 2013, it is not surprise to now see even the US Marine Corps is now exploring the need for it's fitting men to acquire some semblance of self-awareness through focused thought on themselves and their immediate environment as a means to address both post-combat stress and to enhance combat readiness and post-combat stress: http://tinyurl.com/USMC-Mindfullness. The personal and cultural values, and the connection to heritage, previously present within Marine recruits of earlier generations of Marine recruits have no doubt been found insufficient in providing the mental-emotional foundation that permits any fighting man to function at their best. Go figure.


Bibliography:
Green, Thomas A. Editor, Martial Arts of the World, an Encyclopedia" Volume One A-Q. ABC-CLIO, Inc. 2001.

 
 

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