Integrating death into life

I have one little problem with my body. It reminds me that I am going to die.

I have no problem accepting the fact that I was born in a particular year- 1984- and that I hadn’t existed before. I do, however, find it very painful to know that in some particular year in the future I will cease to exist. I treasure life. I want to keep on learning. I want to know how humanity will be like in, let’s say, 200 years from now. What new technology will we invent? What kind of new ways of thought, theories, and cultural mediating mechanisms will we develop?

But I will no longer be part of that “we”.

My body constantly reminds me of that painful fact. Of course, my body has limited me from the get go. It has always been vulnerable. I have always known sickness, fragility, scarcity. As time passes, my body gradually loses its capacity to regenerate, to withstand the impact of damage caused by external forces. I see that little sun spot on my skin, and I know- this means that my skin is beginning to wear out. I experience pains and aches of which I was blissfully ignorant in the past. Sometimes I experience heartburn; a phenomenon I had only remotely heard of until about a year ago.

Our bodies are at the core of the basic ambiguity we have to live with, according to existentialist philosophy. We are bodies, but we also want so much more. I am my body, but I also want to transcend this body. My body is the apparatus of my perception, and yet, in almost every waking moment I experience myself at a distance from this body, analyzing it from the outside in.  To be human is, perhaps, to know that we will die. And to come to terms with this fact, we need to integrate death into life.

Since death is in our bodies, it makes sense to use our bodies to come to terms with it. Here are two examples.

A year ago I hurt my ribs and it was painful to breathe through the chest. So I taught myself to breathe through the stomach. My ribs have healed, but I retain the new skill. It relaxes me more than chest breathing. I can use it to calm myself down. The failure of my body pushed me to learn how to use my body in a new way.

Learning how to fall properly is a central element in many martial arts. Training is usually done on mats. It is reasonable to assume that young, healthy people will suffer no special damage from falling on mats in all sorts of ways.

You learn how to fall properly because you want to minimize the impact of the fall on the body. This impulse represents our recognition of deficiency or vulnerability of our body, and the intent to cope with it. To compensate. To delay the moment of inevitable caving in of our flesh. Conscious effort is put into the understanding of movements and their consequences on our ability to use and reuse the body. 

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The radical malleability of human embodiment

Before my first BJJ training session I read about this martial art in Wikipedia. There I discovered that two of the basic positions “Mount” and “Guard” refer to”[I]n the mount position the practitioner sits astride the opponent’s chest, controlling the opponent with their bodyweight and hips…”, and “the practitioner is on their back controlling an opponent with their legs…In closed guard, the bottom grappler has their legs around the opponent’s trunk and has their ankles closed together to provide control and a barrier to escaping the position”.  Just reading this, imagining what it would feel like, made me feel pretty much mortified. These positions seemed awkwardly intimate, charged with sexual connotations.

Indeed, beginning was a bit crazy. In my first training session I was asked to perform a Side mount which means lying across your opponent with weight applied to the opponent’s chest- chest to chest.

To my surprise pretty soon forging close intimate contact with my training partners became a non-issue, losing its previous erotic charge. In fact, it was much easier for me to feel comfortable sitting on a person’s chest than to lose my inhibitions around pain. While it took me approximately few weeks to be completely comfortable rolling on the ground with most training partners, today, almost two years after I have entered the world of martial arts, I still painfully grapple (pun intended) with the mere thought of accidentally inflicting pain on another body.

If you would have told me that I would feel comfortable grappling before I had experienced it, I would call you crazy. It is only the fact that by that time I had already set my mind on researching gender and the body in the martial arts that gave me the courage to try. I thought, “yeah, it’s completely crazy, but it’s for the sake of science”.

I am not arguing that each and every one of us needs to challenge our normative ways of embodiment. Some of us may be absolutely content with ways of embodiment that are already inscribed by mainstream culture. Some radically different modes of embodiment may be unethical. I do, however, believe that my experience demonstrates the radical malleability of human embodiment, with its liberating potential.

Paying the price of learning to use violence

This post is a response to this post.

In the past I was certain that I want to acquire the ability to use violence to defend myself. As a woman, I feel constantly exposed to violence. But the more I experiment with martial arts; the more I realize that there are prices one has to pay in order to acquire the ability to use violence.

One has to be able to practice the ability to use violence on others, e.g. training partners. In the very least one has to be able to exert bodily movements or to move his or her body in ways that simulate violence. Or, he or she may need to induce pain in others, or take the risk of inducing pain in others.

Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to pay these prices. I don’t want to get my hands dirty. I want to be a good person. I feel that perhaps it is better to remain in the position of the defenseless victim than to acquire the ability to use violence.

I want to describe what I feel in my body when I’m asked to perform a movement that simulates violence. Imagine that my body is a car. I’m driving my car on the road, nonchalantly. When I have to perform a movement associated with violence, the road I was driving on a minute before disappears. Now I’m driving a car that’s hanging on a cliff’s end. I can’t drive at all.

On the one level, I know that this part of my gender socialization, and my oppression as a woman.

On the other hand, this is a part of me I don’t know if I can ever change.

Also my gender socialization has positive aspects.  I’m an extremely sensitive person. I experience many things on a very primordial, child-like level, without many filters. I think that I have a strong capacity to connect to others and feel what they feel.  I can’t watch aggressive sports because I can’t take pain or violence as a form of entertainment, even if the participants consented. Trying to watch the UFC in past had actually made me cry. Living in a society whose members exhibit greater degrees of comfort with violence then me, I often wonder what is wrong with me. But what if things are the other way around? Perhaps society would be a better place if more men and women were weak and too sensitive, like me, then if people like me would get tougher?

An update: I think this post is the mirror image of this one

Update #2 this is really appropriate to put here.