Zen?

I hated boxing. At least boxing at West Point. Not because it was difficult, per se, (though I often felt it was) but because I couldn’t identify with the manufactured and temporary anger of my opponent we were taught to engender.

Boxing for me was always early morning, I believe my second class. Wedged between American Politics and Chemistry, I would sprint (along with many other Plebes) from Thayer hall on the outskirts of the inner campus and sprint across Central Area dodging the ever-changing construction routes, upperclassmen yelling at me to cup my hands, to walk, and greet them, and make it just in time to take off my “as for class” uniform and dawn my PTs with boxing attire.

Please don’t hear me say this is somehow unique or awful, this is the life of Plebe, of every plebe. It’s what we signed up for. And boxing was a hallmark of surviving the first year, saying that you did it.

The point of the boxing class was to learn the “warrior ethos” in a non-verbal way. To embody what it meant to be warrior, at least that was according to the pair of former special forces detachment commanders that taught the course. Their role was to drum us up with intensity to take on our classmates as temporary enemies of the state.

From what I could gather, these former operators enjoyed the idea of the class (inculcating the warrior) but laughed at our struggle to impress everyone and score points. In retrospect, it seemed more like a lesson in zen. Like good zen masters, the instructors would build up the meaningfulness of the class and drill us on techniques without giving us much time to learn or actually practice anything we were taught. Then very quickly, it was to the ring to fight with the expectation that we knew how! Of course some of us had before, but there were many like me who just acted like we knew what was going on because to express an actual need for more training seemed unthinkable.

Then, they kept up the charade and told us that the only way to pass was to fight using the techniques they taught us.

Like the zen masters of old who would give their disciples tedious tasks telling them it would lead to enlightenment, then getting in their way and frustrating their ability to complete it.

The real lesson came in what happened when you were frustrated from achieving the task the master had set before you. How did you react.


While the cadets didn’t really seem to care intrinsically about winning (we all just wanted enough points in a fight to get a decent grade), it seemed we unanimously dreaded wearing the awful smelling headgear, a mouthpiece that was invariably too large and took every bit of backdoor, black-market dealing to find, and did our best to fight with very little training.

Toward the end of the class one day, one of the instructors gathered us to let us know this class wasn’t about learning how to fight (which began making sense as I felt no less confident to take someone on in a brawl), bur rather it was about learning how to take a punch.

They were zen teachers after all.

They were banking on us getting hit in the face, feeling all the the often distant emotions of shame, pain, anger, and personal injustice, and then the real lessons would come. What do you do when you’ve just been hit square in the nose and you are ready to maim your opponent, what do you do with that energy? Does that change if your opponent is your friend, your classmate?

Those questions were left open-ended for us to uncover once hit. But all of the lessons we learned oriented less around how to peri and jab and control yourself in times of stress, and more around letting loose, about this being an environment where aggression was prized and how you scored the coveted points you would need to get an A.

I can’t count how many times a class we were instructed to be aggressive, but it seems the instruction was about little else.

Maybe it wasn’t totally zen.

Rather than letting us find out who we were when hit, this class was about training our response to taking a punch so that it would be predictable: aggression, victory, domination. They wanted to put us in a corner, trigger our fight or flight, block off our exit path, and kindle the rage of the soldier hungry for prey, hungry for dominance, hungry for victory.

In short, the class was less a boxing class, and more a pressure cooker to set free our inner aggression.

Only, when I was triggered, when I was asked to drum up the feelings of intensity and rage, when I was hit I found no anger nor rage nor aggression.

No matter how hard tried.

When I was asked to dip into my well, what instead I found was deep feelings of absurdity, almost a sense of comic relief.

When I was hit, when it hurt, what was right behind the surface wasn’t a desire to win the favor of my instructors and their points, it was a combination of deep cynicism — marveling at what felt so juvenile and aimless — and even deeper fatigue — this is exhausting and absurd, how long can I keep this up? Two minutes, two years, two decades?

Let me be clear here, I was by no means a good fighter, it’s not like I was standing back here dodging my opponent’s blows while waxing philosophical. I was hit a lot, and hit hard a lot, especially in my head.

I approached boxing class in the same way I seem to approach all things that make me uncomfortable and I don’t understand — head on.

After the first few times my bell was rung and the instructors yelled to be aggressive, to go for it, I really tried to find it, I really tried to drum it up. Before one fight, I even tried to pace in my corner back and forth, huffing and staring down my enemy with angry eyes after one of the instructors had encouraged me to “fake” my aggression to see if I could find it.

It didn’t work.

I leaned in, took the punches, and tried so hard to find anything other than the desire to laugh at the absurd moment in time in which I found myself and a deep desire to just take ten minutes and reflect on what the hell I was doing with my life.

I kept rushing my opponent, it was all I had. My jabs rarely found their mark, my parrying often opened me up for more attacks, and my spirit found little arousal or interest in these mock-battles.

All I had was my desire to not be afraid, to keep leaning in and trying, trying to find that ancient soldier within me waiting to be unleashed, I just wanted to let this guy have it!

Nothing.

Then, “thud!”

It’s like someone literally stuck my head in the Liberty Bell then rang it until it cracked. The room was spinning and it seemed suddenly there were 3 of everything. All of the voices and noises seemed to drift off far away, time slowed down, and of course, three more jabs to the temple and stomach.

“Ding!”

The fight was over. I was dazed, defeated, and felt aggressively impotent.

And to be clear, it’s not that I’m not a person who isn’t ever triggered, who doesn’t ever get angry and aggressive and even wants to fight in certain situations. I’m not saintly person who is always peaceful and never angry, or who knows I can take you which is why I won’t fight.

No, I had no idea how to fight, had never tried to fight before, and lost much more often than I won.

Later that day — I believe this was my last fight — I went to gymnastics practice. I started warming up and a migraine that had started after the blow to the head earlier that morning finally emerged and reared its ugly head in full. Suddenly the overhead florescent lights and white walls became a torture chamber and I thought my head was going to split open.

I was sent to our trainer, I had a massive concussion.

I leaned in, I tried, but it seemed clear that I wasn’t fitting in here, though I wanted to. It wasn’t that the class was particularly frightening or that I hated boxing, it’s that I was placed in the ring to call out my inner aggression, my inner fighter, and I found only reflections on the absurdity of my environment. I started to feel like I didn’t believe in what we were all doing here, in what this was all about.

I was starting to doubt why I had come in the first place, it seems that I was already in many respects, a new person. And this new, transformed self was losing interest in soldiering, in closing with and destroying the enemy of the United States.

Toward the end of the semester the instructors openly confessed that their grading scale had almost nothing to do with jabs and parries, and everything to do with perceived aggression.

I believe I walked about of there with a solid C. They saw I tried, but ultimately they failed to awaken my inner soldier, at least in this context.

Maybe they were zen teachers after all.

Published by Matt Malcom

Author. Speaker. Activist.

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