The Design Wing of the Corning Museum of Glass.
The Design Wing of the Corning Museum of Glass.

***Today we have a fascinating guest post by Paul Bowman.   It has been reblogged from Martial Arts Studies.  This essay outlines a new research project looking at questions of sanity and insanity within the practice of martial arts.  It is one of the most thought provoking things that I have read in a while.  The questions raised here are deeply connected to the various ways that we read (and misread) the history of the martial arts.  Needless to say, the “real world” consequences of these perceptions can be profound.  Those looking for more background on this discussion are advised to begin by checking out the recent essay by Oleg Benesch titled Reconsidering Zen, Samurai and the Martial Arts.‘***


The Arts of Martial Minds

by Paul Bowman


I have long been interested in the underlying psychological theories or beliefs that inform or even underpin different martial arts. Different styles, systems, regions and periods often manifest different discourses, theories or ideologies of what we might call martial arts psychology. By martial arts psychology, what I am evoking might be referred to as the martial artist’s outlook, mindset, psyche, or subjective stance or attitude. What I am suggesting is that such outlooks or attitudes might be linked to the ethos of the training environment.

Of course, sometimes – as in many discourses around boxing or MMA – the dominant idea has often been that ‘being a fighter’ is something innate – something you are ‘born with’ (Wacquant 2004; Spencer 2011). This seems to be a very common claim among competitive fighters and those involved in some way with what we might call street fighting (i.e., people with some kind of connection to non-rule-bound fighting and violence, such as bouncers, for example).

But my sense is that in most martial arts, being – or, more precisely, becoming – a fighter is conceived of in terms of some kind of notion of ‘fighting spirit’, and that such a ‘spirit’ is something that is cultivated, through what Foucault would term ‘the means of correct training’ (Foucault 1978). My sense is also that different martial arts – or even the ‘same’ martial art at different times – seek to cultivate very different ‘kinds’ of martial arts subject.

In my own life, I have experienced very different kinds of training ethos. Some seemed saturated with a vague sense of the inherent value of ‘toughening up’ (Green 2011; Downey 2007; Spencer 2011). Others focused more on having fun, competition and competitive play. Still others involved put the importance of a certain psychological attitude front and centre – whether that be cultivating the dispassionate calm responsive sensitivity of taijiquan in push-hands, an explicit ‘predator awareness’ self-defence mindset, or an insistence on a kind of all-out aggression, such as that which is termed ‘forward thinking’ in escrima concepts (Bowman 2014; Bowman 2015; Miller 2008; Miller 2015). Some were informed by mysticism, others by hierarchy, authority and deference, and still others by camaraderie and a sense of being involved in a shared research project, and so on.

Informed by this diversity of experience as well as other forms of research, I have argued before that martial arts can very often be regarded as intimately imbricated within different kinds of ideology (Bowman 2016b; Bowman 2016a). However, what I am proposing here is something slightly different. I am now less focused on the matter of the ideologies that ‘go into’ the discourse of a martial art, and now more interested in the question of the types of subjects that ‘come out’ – that are produced in and by martial arts training, the type of subjective attitude, mindset, sense of identity and orientation towards the world.

Obviously, this is a two-way street – or even an incredibly complex junction. But a recent article by Oleg Benesch highlights what I am interested in here, in very stark terms. Benesch begins ‘Reconsidering Zen, Samurai and the Martial Arts‘ (Benesch 2016) with a consideration of the case of Anders Berhing Breivik, who, ‘On July 22, 2011 … committed one of the most devastating acts of mass murder by an individual in history (1). Benesch writes:

Over the course of one day, he killed 77 people in and around Oslo, Norway, through a combination of a car bomb and shootings. The latter took place on the island of Utøya, where 69 people died, most of them teenagers attending an event sponsored by the Workers’ Youth League. During his subsequent trial, Breivik remained outwardly unemotional as he clearly recounted the events of the day, including the dozens of methodical execution-style shootings on the island. His calmness both on the day of the murders and during the trial, shocked many observers. It was also an important factor in an attempt to declare Breivik insane, a move that he successfully resisted. Breivik himself addressed this subject at some length, crediting his supposed ability to suppress anxiety and the fear of death through concentrated practice of what he called “bushido meditation.” He claimed to have begun this practice in 2006 to “de-emotionalize” himself in preparation for a suicide attack. According to Breivik, his meditation was based on a combination of “Christian prayer” and the “bushido warrior codex.” Bushido, or “the way of the warrior,” is often portrayed as an ancient moral code followed by the Japanese samurai, although the historical evidence shows that it is largely a twentieth-century construct. (1)


Javier Pérez (Spanish, b. 1968), Carroña (Carrion), Murano, Italy, 2011. Blown glass chandelier, assembled, broken, taxidermied crows. The Corning Museum of Glass.
Javier Pérez (Spanish, b. 1968), Carroña (Carrion), Murano, Italy, 2011. Blown glass chandelier, assembled, broken, taxidermied crows. The Corning Museum of Glass.



Benesch’s own interests in this matter relate to addressing the matter of many misunderstandings of the history of notions like ‘samurai spirit’, and the supposed connection of this spirit with Zen. As the above passage suggests, he is animated by the fact that what is ‘largely a twentieth-century construct’ has functioned ideologically. Benesch’s project, here and elsewhere, is to set out the ways that such factually incorrect discourses have emerged and to clarify the ways that they have functioned ideologically. However, as noted, my own interests at this point are chiefly related to what we might call the various types of psychology or pseudo-psychologies of violence and training for combat that are attendant to different kinds of martial arts pedagogy and philosophy.

But Benesch’s article is extremely helpful for me here because it sets out clearly the relations between a number of elements that I will argue it is important to realise are interconnected. Specifically, this is the connection between a training ethos and its theory of psychology – or, indeed, its theory of the subject – and the extent to which neither of these are ‘innate’ or ‘necessary’, but rather entirely ‘cultural’. This is not ‘cultural’ in the sense that we often too easily use the term – as when we say ‘Eastern’ or ‘Western’, or ‘American’ or ‘European’, and so on. Rather, this is cultural in the sense of engendered, cultivated, fostered, stimulated, managed, produced, even policed, through techniques of discipline, and always informed by ideology.[1]

Indeed, the implications of Benesch’s opening reflection on the case of Breivik’s ‘psychology’ go further than many studies of the relations between ideology and psychology might otherwise tend to go. For instance, in a very rich and suggestive passage, Benesch notes:

The extent to which the methodical nature of Breivik’s terror attack could be ascribed to his meditation techniques, “bushido” or otherwise, has been called into question by those who see it as another manifestation of serious mental disturbance. On the other hand, Breivik’s statements regarding “bushido meditation” have parallels with the “Warrior Mind Training” program implemented by the US military during the Iraq War. This program claims to have its roots in “the ancient samurai code of self-discipline,” and is described as a meditation method for dealing with a host of mental issues related to combat. Both Anders Breivik and Warrior Mind Training reflect a persistent popular perception of the samurai as fighting machines who were able to suppress any fear of death through the practice of meditation techniques based in Zen Buddhism. Zen has also been linked with the Special Attack Forces (or “Kamikaze”) of the Second World War, who supposedly used meditation methods ascribed to Zen to prepare for their suicide missions.

Here, not only does Benesch reinforce my contentions about the ‘cultural’ dimensions of all of this, but he actually raises the stakes of my own argument by introducing the question not just of mindset but also of sanity and insanity.

Hopefully, none of us are anything like Breivik. But Breivik claims to have believed himself to have trained for his acts of unimaginably callous mass murder by following a self-styled but not entirely alien or unusual type of ‘martial art’ psychological training. Which raises the question: are such martial arts ideologies themselves to be regarded as sane or insane?

Such a question, posed outside of any context or any specific case study, will hardly permit a univocal response. Such a question is based on an unacceptable generalisation at both ends. It is, to borrow a phrase from Freud, an equation between two unknowns. What is a martial arts ideology? What is sanity? Clearly, there is a lot more work to be done here before we can even formulate our question adequately.

Nonetheless, I am reminded of the time a few years ago when a student of mine walked out of a film screening. The film I was showing was Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jarmusch 1999), in which the eponymous Ghost Dog (Forrest Whittaker) is a late twentieth century black urban character who so identifies with the samurai ideology advocated in the putative samurai manual, Hagakure, that he has crafted himself as the retainer of an old mafia gangster who once saved his life. Ghost Dog lives alone, trains martial arts, and undertakes assassinations whenever his ‘master’ requires.

The film has always raised interesting questions for me about identity construction, cross-cultural interests and historical communication, and so on (Bowman 2008). But when I asked the student why she walked out of the screening she replied: because Ghost Dog was insane.

Until then, I had not actually stepped outside of the fictional world of the film properly, to ask myself the question of Ghost Dog’s sanity. The film presents him as an assassin with a fixation on samurai ideology. What does that make him? Mad? Eccentric? Further reflection on the trial of Breivik might cast some interesting conceptual light on these questions.

But, of course, Ghost Dog is a fiction film. Breivik is a mass murderer. You and I are neither of these things. But what is actually taking place when you or I read the Hagakure and find it compelling or ‘inspiring’, or when we identify with an image (any image – think of the images that have animated you) of what ‘being’ a good or proper or the best possible martial artist might mean?

What Ghost Dog, Anders Breivik, and the US military all share in common here seems to boil down to what Benesch calls ‘warrior mind training’. My claim is that ‘warrior mind training’ can be discerned in all manner of martial arts training, from the most mystical to the most military. Benesch has identified one undoubtedly significant (and surprising) linkage in the form of the surely somewhat surprising matter of meditation. But my interest expands to encompass the entire field of possibilities, from the most shocking (Breivik, Ghost Dog) to the most supposedly serene (taijiquan), via the well-worn paths of questions of the production and performance of gender identities, sports subjectivities, and so on. My hypothesis is that, although there may well be infinite and inevitable infinitesimal variation in martial arts training practices, these may distil down to a very finite collection of different types of regularly recurring discourse, and although there may be vast differences in nuances of martial arts ideologies, these too may involve the regular recurrence of different psycho-subjective stances or attitudes.

 My hope is, over the coming weeks and months, to find some time to start exploring some of these matters, via a range of different kinds of cases and studies. If anyone has any suggestions for where to look or what to look at – the more stark the example the better, I think – please do let me know. Email is best. I’m at the end of this one: Thanks.



[1] In a study of language, argumentation, the establishment of truth and ideology, Jean François Lyotard once argued that ‘to link is necessary, but how to link is contingent’ (Lyotard 1988). My contention here is that both training methods and ideological outlooks are contingent, as is the manner of their linkage. The different forms that the various connections, combinations and relations take will always produce very different things.


Corning Museum of Glass Contemporary Art + Design Wing. Source: Architecture Magazine.
Corning Museum of Glass Contemporary Art + Design Wing. Source: Architecture Magazine.




Benesch, Oleg. 2016. ‘Reconsidering Zen, Samurai, and the Martial Arts’. The Asia-Pacific Journal 14 (17): 1–23.

Bowman, Paul. 2008. Deconstructing Popular Culture. Palgrave Macmillan.

———. 2014. ‘Instituting Reality in Martial Arts Practice’. JOMEC Journal, 1–24.

———. 2015. Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

———. 2016a. ‘Making Martial Arts History Matter’. The International Journal of the History of Sport, 1–19. doi:10.1080/09523367.2016.1212842.

———. 2016b. Mythologies of Martial Arts. London: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Downey, Greg. 2007. ‘Producing Pain: Techniques and Technologies in No-Holds-Barred Fighting’. Social Studies of Science 2007 37: 201 37 (2): 201–26.

Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1. London: Penguin.

Green, Kyle. 2011. ‘It Hurts So It Must Be Real: Sensing the Seduction of Mixed Martial Arts’. Social & Cultural Geography 12 (4): 377–96.

Jarmusch, Jim. 1999. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Artisan Entertainment.

Lyotard, Jean-François. 1988. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Miller, Rory. 2008. Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence. Illustrated edition edition. Boston, MA: Ymaa Publication Center.

———. 2015. Conflict Communication (ConCom): A New Paradigm in Conscious Communication. Ymaa Publication Center.

Spencer, Dale. 2011. Ultimate Fighting and Embodiment: Violence, Gender and Mixed Martial Arts. London and New York: Routledge.

Wacquant, Löic J. D. 2004. Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.