Why we train

Some of you might be familiar with Freud's theory that humans are subject to the competing instincts of Thanatos (death) and Eros (life). The former makes you want to lie down and do nothing, the latter to get up and achieve something. I have often found this paradigm a useful analysis of the human condition. Rarely a day passes where I don't experience conflict between these instincts.

The relevance of this paradigm to martial arts training is fundamental, since training is the embodiment of the Eros instinct. If you have ever paused to consider why you participate in an activity which is physically and mentally demanding (when you could instead be at home relaxing) you might have come to the conclusion that it is simply because your physical and mental being demands it. Instinct, it seems, is not susceptible to any deeper analysis.

Simultaneously, staying at home and doing nothing is the embodiment of the Thanatos instinct because it is more akin to death. Just like a pulse, you need the down to get an up. You need hardship to feel pleasure. Otherwise you 'flatline'. This is why students invariably say that as reluctant as they might be to go to training on a particular night, they always feel better that they have. You never feel that by staying at home...

That realisation is part of what keeps me training even when I feel the inevitable tug of laziness. My brother is fond of saying: 'If I chained you to a sofa in front of the TV, put a beer in one hand and a tube of condensed milk in the other, you'd soon beg to come back to training...'

Someone once proclaimed to me that he had found 'the meaning of life'. It was, he said, the pursuit of pleasure. I knew immediately that he while he might find occasional pleasure, he would never find happiness. He was, and remains, a hedonist - and hedonism does not appreciate the delicate balance of life: you can't get something for nothing.

But to view your training merely as necessary toil and hardship would be a mistake. Certainly, training should be part of your routine mental and physical exercise plan. You should expect to raise a sweat simply for the sake of raising a sweat, expect to push yourself out of your comfort zone just for the sake of feeling alive. But you shouldn't forget that part of your Eros instinct is about the joy of living. Enjoy your training - find something that stimulates you into creativity and self improvement. Training is a tool for you to use. Don't waste it.

It is part of the Daoist philosophy that no particular moment in time is more important than another, and that it is the journey of life that is important, not any particular goal. This is not to say that goals are not worthwhile: pursue your goals with all the passion that your Eros instinct will allow or even demand. Then, whether you attain a particular goal or not, you will be able to say that every moment spent was spent in the spirit of living.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. Part of the whole American survey on post WWII soldiers concerning what they fought for, further illuminates just what it is about human motivation that actually motivates.

    The number 1 answer for what they fought for was "their companions around them". Not their family or their nation.

    The reason is simple. humans, regardless of how noble their cause, can only find true motivation to defeat death and despair, in the things in front of them. They cannot exert full effort on abstract things like pleasure or nobility or family or nationalism or patriotism, unless it is "right there in front of them".

    And for most soldiers, what's in front of them isn't their nation or their family, but their companions: brothers in arms. That's why the Post WWII survey had that as the Number 1 popular answer.

    The Daoist creed tries to make people focus on the present, rather than lofty and idealistic goals, because a person that focuses too much on "idealism" is going to get burnt out and become a cynic or even anti-idealist (nihilist). Hedonists aren't nihilists, but they're about the same in terms of producing ever lasting human excellence: meaning zip.

    Thus the best mix was to live a life according to noble goals, virtues, principles, and ethics. That is the long term abstract goal. But to then find a personal goal that can be accomplished soon, something more real. Something more Alive.

    When people are afraid of training, and they stay home, they suffer from even more fear and discomfort. Because they can hide from training, but they can't hide from themselves. Their conscience, their awareness, has told them that they are scared of something. And that they now have another reason to be scared of something, cause they ran away. And the more they run away, the more discomfort and fear they will feel. The things they become scared of grow in proportions.

    However, if they face their fears, their inner voice has now told them that they have braved the risk and sought it out, finding that the reality was lesser than their fears.

    The Japanese have a popular saying, which is to "not run away from reality or things in life". Because it's not going to do any good. In terms of societal benefit, hara kiri (cutting of the stomach in ritual suicide) is far more beneficial than suicide bombing a bus full of enemy children. If you need a way to kill yourself, find a way to do it that doesn't involve running away from your fears of pain and death.

  2. The Japanese have another semi popular line which says "if you want to kill yourself, find a way to do it without bothering anyone else".

    Which is probably only found in cultures that never decided suicide was a sin. Christians, due to the whole suicide=sin thing, would never say or even think that.

  3. with regard to Taoism, there is much to be said about focusing on the journey, rather than the destination. However, I'll keep my check-points (goals and objectives), thank you very much!

  4. By all means keep goals and check-points; I wasn’t implying any such radical abandonment. Nor was I implying any narrow reading of Daoism; I've read Daoist literature for 30 years now and I assure you that I know something about it's depth and breadth (eg. see my articles on wu-wei). Thanks for reading and for your input.


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