Q&A: Fear is Instinct, Understanding is a Weapon

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

“If you fear your own sword you cannot fight” – this concept sometimes shows up. Is it real? If so, how are students/trainees/apprentices taught to work through it?

This one is actually real. If you’re afraid of your weapon, no matter what that weapon is (including your own body), you cannot wield it effectively. This is true for all weapons, including guns, swords, staves, hand to hand, everything. It doesn’t matter.

The reason why is it’s difficult to fight an opponent, but it’s even more difficult to fight yourself and your opponent at the same time. You split your concentration, you lean back, you break focus, you flinch, your stance is terrible, you’re tentative rather than cautious or you overcompensate. The same is true if you’re afraid of getting hit.

Respect your weapon, but don’t fear it.

If you don’t respect your weapon, the power it holds, and the destruction it can inflict, then you’re likely to misuse it. If you’re frightened of your weapon, it’ll get you killed.

A good way to understand this concept is to start with hand to hand. A lot of beginners are frightened of getting hit. You can probably grasp why without experiencing the actual event. Getting punched or kicked hurts. Punching someone else hurts too. Before we even move to the emotional or spiritual impact, let me make this clear: on a purely physical level, violence hurts you coming and going. If two people fight, no matter their skill level, both are going to get hurt. The question is, how much more will one person be hurt than the other? The one who gets hurt less is the winner.

Fear is a natural response to the expectation of experiencing pain. Fear is your body instinctively trying to defend you from harm. When you flinch, your eyes close, you tuck inward, your muscles (your body’s natural armor) tense up to take the hit. This is all a natural, instinctual attempt to limit the damage. You don’t want to get hurt, getting hurt sucks. It’s dangerous. If you get injured too badly, you could lose substantial elements of your life that you take for granted. Your mind is always making risk based assessments in dangerous situations. It will instruct your body to react in accordance with baseline instinct because that is what it knows how to do.

So, if you are afraid of your weapon, you will respond to that fear while trying to use the weapon.

Let me give you an example with a weapon that’s easier to understand without experience than a sword: the modern handgun.

Handguns are loud. They are noisy. They smell. When they fire, if they’re not properly controlled, they will snap back toward your face on the recoil. So, what does someone who is afraid of a gun do? They do what’s natural. They lean away from it. When you are afraid, you naturally want as much distance from the object causing that fear as you can get. The person holding the gun does so with one hand, their arm extends way out, their upper torso leans back out of balance with their lower body, their eyes narrow. When the gun fires, they flinch. Their eyes close, they lose sight of their target, the uncontrolled muzzle jerks upward and the bullet flies on a different path than the one they intended. The bullet is more likely to miss or, worse, hit a target they didn’t intend. Their fear cost them control and concentration.

The irony is this happens with all weapons when you’re afraid, including hand to hand combat. The physical reaction differs slightly, but the same baseline occurs — leaning back, flinching, squeezing the eyes shut, tensing up. In the worst case scenario, the individual will turn away or roll over in an instinctual attempt to defend the most important part of their body. The reason you get virtually the same reaction regardless of weapon type is because the human fear response is natural instinct.

If you just went, but, wait, Michi, isn’t violence natural instinct too?

No. 

Aggression, yes, that’s natural. Society and media teach us that expressions of violence like punches and kicks are a natural part of the human condition, and that’s fantasy. Being exposed to violence from an early age, a lot of people will try to mimic what they see, but you can’t really fight effectively in accordance with modern understanding until you’re trained. Martial combat is science. Martial combat is unnatural. You’re trained to act in opposition to your natural instincts like your fear response or your response to anger.

You overcome fear with familiarity. You replace the unknown with understanding. You retrain your instincts through conditioning. With practice and repetition, you change everything. The way you think, the way you move, the way you observe your environment, the way you react physically, mentally, and emotionally to stress. A large portion of martial training is about getting you accustomed to physical discomfort. This is where the general misunderstanding about martial training and pain comes from. Learning to differentiate between physical discomfort and real damage is vital. You will be hurt while fighting, but understanding the difference between a bruise and a torn muscle can save your life. In the same way, understanding your body, knowing where to hit, how to hit, and what hurts when hit, allows you to better formulate strategies to defeat your opponent. As you become more effective, streamlining your physical movements and prioritizing targets allows you to conserve more energy meaning you can either fight longer or have enough gas left in the tank to escape.

Martial combat also teaches you to capitalize on and even induce this same fear response in someone else then use that reaction to your advantage. A basic example of that is: I flick my hand at your face to get you to flinch (you see an object flying toward your face, your eyes instinctively close to protect them) and punch you in the stomach instead. That’s not natural, that’s tactical.

The same principle applies to weapons. The difference is there’s more danger associated with weapons because weapons are designed to end lives. This is true even if you’re using your weapon for self-defense. In the process of defending your own life, you may take someone else’s. That’s not a judgement. That’s reality. Weapons are designed to kill people, it is natural to be afraid of them, coming to terms with that reality and respecting the damage your weapon can do (and the damage you can inflict with it) is part of wielding weapons effectively.

Again, you overcome fear through familiarity. This is what training is for. Those long hours practicing your stances and physical movements, learning about your weapon by learning to care for it. Endless repetition until those techniques, those movements from stacking mags to drawing your gun to aiming become a natural part of you. You train until your sword becomes an extension of your arm, so you know intuitively where it is at all times. You repeat the same action over and over and over again until the action is part of you so when the stimulus is applied you react without thinking. 

The motions and training for these weapons, even weapons within an individual family or with some similarity, will be different. You can’t pick up a pistol and expect it to be the same as every other pistol. There are different makes, different models, different types, and the subtle differences between them can be a gamechanger. You can’t pick up a rapier and expect to wield it like a longsword. You can’t pick up a smallsword and expect to wield it exactly like a rapier. The saber and the epee are similar, with some crossover, but different weapons. The military saber used in Britain during the 1800s and 1900s is a different animal from the modern fencing saber. Training in one is not training for all and training in one style is not an automatic counter to every other.

The problem with familiarity, of course, is that the reverse is also true. After all, familiarity breeds contempt and it is just as dangerous to become too comfortable with your weapon. People who are too comfortable lose respect for their weapon’s power, forgetting the ever present danger both to themselves and to the people around them. They treat the weapon like a toy. Screwing around is how people get hurt.

A weapon is always dangerous, no matter who holds it. Weapons are never 100% safe. However, in the hands of someone who respects it and who understands it, the risks are reduced to the people around them.

You overcome fear of a weapon the way you overcome fear of anything else, through knowledge of what it is, how it works, what it can do and what it can’t do, through understanding, through practice, and eventually via familiarity. It is very difficult to be frightened of something you know and understand, especially when an object with no will of its own. At that point, you’re no longer frightened by the gun or sword when it’s in your hand. It could be a different story when it’s in someone else’s.

-Michi

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