The Three Reasons Why Martial Arts Are Always Spiritual (and WOOTW #67)

I’ve had many conversations with my son, my friends and my workout partners trying to get to the bottom of this question:

Why do martial arts have a profound spiritual effect on people?

In 9 out of 10 folks there seems to be a correlation between practicing martial arts and feelings of spiritual improvement — even when the specific martial art an individual is studying has no obvious spiritual components.  In addition to the aforementioned conversations I’ve done some research and some reading on the subject.  But what I’ve done mostly is a ton of soul searching and meditation.

My conclusion is that there are three primary reasons for this.

Exercise is spiritual medicine.  Exercise creates the ideal brain chemistry for spiritual experience by stimulating the production and release of endocannabinoids (the primary chemical responsible for runner’s high) and endorphins (natural pain killers).  This sets the stage for the next two reasons why martial arts correlate with spiritual experience.  The second one is…

Fraternity is a shared spiritual experience.    Working out with other people, in fact just being with other people, stimulates the production and release of vasopressin and oxytocin, the so-called “bonding molecules” which are linked with feelings of attachment, friendship and love.  Physical touching seems to be extra good and stimulating this release, and there’s a lot of touching other people in the martial arts.

That’s two reasons.  Now for the final one, the big one, the monster reason why martial arts and spiritual development go hand-in-hand.

Martial arts are about being a hero — doing battle with the Chaos Dragon — and that’s about as spiritual as it gets.  Sure, there’s some more brain chemistry involved here, but it’s more than that.  Setting goals and achieving them releases dopamine into your brain and overcoming challenges releases serotonin.  Dopamine is creates the sensation of pleasure and positive rewards, while serotonin, body’s natural anti-depressant, is tied to feelings of self worth, belonging and most of all confidence.  Fighting releases adrenaline, and that’s kind of fun and energizing too.  But the thing to focus on is that martial arts are another version of the hero myth.  As Joseph Campbell described it, the myth goes like this:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

When you’re doing martial arts you’re venturing into the unknown, facing down God-knows-what potential challenges, and practicing how to protect yourself and the people you care about from harm.  That’s the essential, central story of human civilization, starting with Marduk fighting Tiamat — the world’s oldest known story! — up through Hercules vs. the Hydra, Beowulf vs Grendel, St. George, and so on.

When you’re doing martial arts you’re acting out a story so ancient, powerful and important — how could it not be spiritual?  That’s why in Cabal Fang we fly a flag with a black dragon on it.

Here’s a great article that sums up, and backs up, the assertions about brain chemistry I just made.

And now for the workout of the week.

Cabal Fang Workout of the Week #67

  • 250 kicks as fast as you can.  If you want to kick as fast as a snake and as hard as a mule, you need to do more than 10 or 15 kicks a day.  My prescription is a minimum of two kicking sessions per week, one light (say a hundred kicks) and one heavy (approx 250 kicks) to a max of 1,000 per week.  More than that you’ll be wasting time and putting unnecessary wear and tear on your body.  Split your kicking time between heavy bag, shadowboxing, and focus mitts/pads.  Advanced folks should be able to get these done in under 12 minutes, but if you’re just starting out it’ll probably run more like 20.  If you’re not sore the next day you’re not working hard enough.
  • 10-Count Bodybuilders.  Beginner and intermediate players, do 50.  That should take you 7 to 12 minutes.  Advanced folks do 100.  See if you can beat my record of 16:54 or my son’s record of 16:11.
  • Confront the dragon and make a Hero’s List.  Restriction and adversity breed creativity, not freedom!  This is why your teachers gave you assignments like, “paint me a picture using just these three colors” and “make something functional from this pile of wood parts.”  Set a countdown timer for 5 minutes.  Before the timer beeps, list of 10 things you could do in your life that would exemplify the hero myth.  You might not make it to 10 but you’ll definitely have a list of things that you know you need to do but have been putting off.  Start being a hero today.
Did you like this article?  Then my book will blow your mind.  Buy a paper copy on Amazon or from Createspace or download the ebook here.

At the Crossroads of Arete and WOOTW #66

I just finished re-reading Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the third time.  It gets better every time I read it.  Haven’t read it?  You should fix that.

Anyway, one of the ideas central to the book is the Ancient Greek concept of arete or excellence.  Pirsig’s point (as I see it anyway) is that you as soon as you pluck a flower it starts to die, as soon as you mount a butterfly under glass you’ve destroyed it’s ethereal beauty, and as soon as you define excellence you’ve killed it’s dynamic, transformational potential.  Excellence (Pirsig uses the word quality) has to be ever-receding.  With excellence you never arrive.  Arete is a carrot hanging on a pole in front of a mule.  It should never get caught and eaten.  

As Lao Tzu said in Tao Te Ching,

“The tao which can be described is not the tao.”

The other day I stumbled on to an unusual coincidence concerning arete.


My mother had some challenges in her life that made it hard for her to be positive.  She always struggled focus on the future and on moving forward.  But she had a Bible passage that she clung to as an inspiration to be positive, and she passed on the wisdom of that passage to me when she gave me my bible about 40 years ago.

A couple of weeks ago something pretty awful happened, something really shocking and scary that put me on my heels.  So I reached out to that passage for some much-needed comfort.  The passage is Philippians 4:4-9, and it goes like this:

“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say Rejoice.  Let all men know your forbearance.  The Lord is at hand.  Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God.  And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  And finally my brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence (arete), if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.”

There are two things I want to point out in that passage.  The first is that Paul says “the peace of God, which passes all understanding,” which sounds a lot like the tao, or like ever-receding goodness.  The second is that, in the original Greek, the word Paul used for “excellence” is arete.

Yep, arete.

There was a Greek goddess named Arete who personified the idea.  According to Wikipedia,

“The only story involving Arete was originally told in the 5th century BC by the sophist Prodicus, and concerns the early life of the hero Heracles. At a crossroads, Arete appeared to Heracles as a young maiden, and offered him glory and a life of struggle against evil; her counterpart Kakia (κακία, “badness”), offered him wealth and pleasure. Heracles chose to follow the path of Arete.”

The concept of arete is an example of universal wisdom, and it’s embedded in all the world’s great philosophies and religions.  The quest for arete is personified in the tale of every hero, and I think also in the idea of Logos.

Which is why arete inheres in the Cabal Fang concept of mettlecraft.  Want to know more?  Get a copy of the book and read about it.  Ebook here, hardcopy here.

And now for the workout of the week.

Cabal Fang Workout of the Week #66

Part One — High Intensity Circuit Training.  Set up four stations — a hitting station, a lifting station, a swinging station and a squatting station.  Set a timer for rounds of 2:00 minutes, no breaks, and complete 8 rounds — that’s 16:00 minutes. For the hitting station, hit a stump with an ax, punch a heavy bag with your fists, or beat on a tire with a sledge.  For the lifting station, flip a tire, squat press a barbell, lift a sandbag, etc.  You get the idea.   Improvise!  You must go as hard as you can — hit, lift, swing and squat with the maximum intensity you can muster.  Take as few 12-count breaks as you must in order to finish standing up.  Video below.

Part Two — Meditation on arete.  What the hell is excellence anyway?  Well, if you don’t have any idea what it is, you probably aren’t going to have any luck in your pursuit of it!  So set a timer for 8 minutes.  Assume your usual meditative posture and meditate on arete.  When you’re done, get out your training log or journal and write at least 100 words on what arete means to you.



TRUTH! (and Workout of the Week #65)

“Truth?” you ask.  “What about it?”  Well, truth is a big deal.  So much so that you can, as a thought experiment, divide the world into two camps: (A) those who believe in rigid, timeless, objective truths and (B) those who believe that truth varies from person to person and objective truth is a fantasy.  And it sometimes seems as though the evening news is just a blow-by-blow retelling of the unceasing conflict between the two.

In this video, philosopher Michael Patrick Lynch walks you through how to start getting at the truth through the idea of shared, common reality.  He says,

“Protagoras said that objective truth was an illusion because “man is the measure of all things.” That can seem…liberating, because it allows each of us to discover or make our own truth.  But actually, I think it’s a bit of self-serving rationalization disguised as philosophy. It confuses the difficulty of being certain with the impossibility of truth. “

One of the best TED talks I’ve listened to in recent memory.

And now for the Cabal Fang Workout of the Week.  Sorry, by the way, for missing last week.  Stuff happened.

Cabal Fang Workout of the Week #65

  • Heavy Bar training drill.  Get yourself a heavy bar — a digging bar, barbell bar, etc. — and pick it up.   Small folks use a #20, big folks use a something heavier.  Beginners work for 6 minutes, intermediate 12, advanced 18 — do not put down the bar for the duration of the drill.  Move that bar around like you would a staff if you were fighting — spearing movements, jabs, pokes, blocks, bracing maneuvers (striking with the portion between the hands), and so on.  In addition, practice your Figure-4 locks.  If your arms completely gas, put the bar behind your neck and do 10 to 20 Squats, then start again.  Wear gloves if you’re a tenderfoot.
  • 24-Hour commitment to truth.  Make a commitment to speak the truth for the next 24 hours.  The point isn’t to be blunt, rude or hurtful.  To avoid that you’re going to need to slow down, choose your words carefully, and express what you’re feeling.  Note: this isn’t the first time I’ve talked about truth.  If you like this one, you might appreciate the previous one.


Alchemical Transformation and WOOTW #64

This week’s workout is in video format.  Enjoy!

The View from up Here

I have friends, employees and acquaintances who suffer from depression, struggle with their weight, and have issues with career.  I try to give them advice as gently as I can, reminding them that I used to be unhappy, 80 pounds overweight, and working for just over minimum wage. 

But while hiking and fishing with my son this weekend (pictures below) it occurred to me that it’s very hard to describe to someone what the world can be like for them if they embrace changes in how they think, act, feel and believe.  You can describe the view till you’re blue in the face.  But until you get up here and look down yourself, it all seems so impossible. 

People think you’re crazy, lying or exaggerating. But I’m really not. 

The world isn’t perfect. Tragedies, evils and problems big and small will always intrude. But the world is amazing and beautiful. And if you can take charge of your direction you can find a place where the view is better than you can possibly imagine.

My America and WOOTW #63

Here in the good ol’ USA we just celebrated July 4th, Independence Day.

Despite all the nastiness and acrimony of the recent presidential election, despite all the political rhetoric and the vitriolic spew surrounding Trump, I find myself feeling more and more patriotic these days.

The reason I feel more patriotic and optimistic about America than ever starts with the knowledge that Donald Trump is not us and Hillary Clinton is not us.  Neither was Obama, Bush or Clinton before that.  Trump, who campaigned and won as an outsider, has filled his cabinet with old guard Republicans, senators and rich elites.  Obama won on a platform or change, but largely did the same thing — he appointed the same old neoliberals and bankers.  Bush lied to us and go us into perpetual war.  Bill Clinton?  As Jordan Chariton said, he talked like a populist too.  But when it came down to it,

Clinton, NOT Reagan, deregulated the Telecom Industry. Clinton, NOT Reagan, repealed Glass-Steagall, the cornerstone of banking regulation for 60 years. Clinton, NOT Reagan, deregulated credit-default swamps [sic]—which was the gasoline that lit the financial crash fire. Clinton, NOT Reagan, loosened banking rules that forced them to make loans to low income neighborhoods.  And it was Clinton, NOT Reagan, who signed NAFTA, which was the largest nail in the American middle class’ coffin, with the TPP potentially being the final one.

These presidents we elect are all out for #1.  Their loyalty to big business and big banking is baked in from the start because it takes half a billion dollars to get elected.

“But Mitch,” you may ask, “that’s pretty cynical.  How could that possibly make you even more patriotic than ever?!?!”

Isn’t it clear?  Look –even Mike Rowe, that bastion of the right-wing middle-America, gets it.  As he said on his blog,

These two candidates were the choices we gave ourselves, and each came with a heaping helping of vulgarity and impropriety. Yeah, it was dirty job for sure, but the winner was NOT decided by a racist and craven nation – it was decided by millions of disgusted Americans desperate for real change.

I’m more patriotic than ever because I know that we are better than these candidates or any of the candidates who came before them.

Americans are just trying to make sense of a changing world, trying not to fall to their doom in the ever-widening culture gap.  As we fight for our lives and livelihoods, we do what people always do.  We grasp at straws (like nostalgic slogans, antiquated economic ideas, fantasy jobs, and unsustainable minimum wage proposals) and play the blame game, putting everyone but ourselves in the cross hairs (like Mexicans, cops, politicians, scientists, evangelicals, you name it).

Sooner or later we’re going to realize that we are the solution.

George Washington didn’t free us from English tyranny.  American citizens made their own uniforms and did it with their own guns. Abe Lincoln made some amazing speeches.  But when slaves needed emancipating, we rolled up our sleeves, created an underground railroad, and started saving people one at a time while the government dragged its feet and got us involved in a bloody war.  FDR didn’t defeat Hitler and empty the concentration camps, our soldiers did.  Obama didn’t nail Bin Laden, our Navy Seals did.  LBJ didn’t prevent unfair voting practices by passing the Civil Rights Act, American activists and the cops who backed them up did.

Americans did all those things.

Governments and their presidents almost always come last, long after ordinary people have blazed a trail.  Americans are strong.  They are kind.  And they are the most giving people in the world.  So yeah, I’m pretty darned patriotic this year.

And now for the workout of the Week.

Cabal Fang Workout of the Week #63

  1. STRIKING FROM UNCONVENTIONAL POSITIONS.  Set timer for 2:00 minute intervals.  Strike heavy bag as you drop to one knee, then two knees.  Put one foot on the floor, and then stand up.  Keep striking the entire time.  As the Little Dragon said, “Hit while you move, move while you hit.”  When the timer beeps, get on the floor and practice kicking the bag from every angle, with your weight on left hip, on right hip, on your back, on your butt with hands on the floor, back kick on hands and knees, etc.  Next interval, lie down next to a floor bag — don’t mount it, you’ve practiced that plenty! —  and hit it with hammer fists, palm heels, punches, etc.  Hop to the other side and keep going.  When the timer beeps, stand up and run through it twice more.  That’s a total of 18 minutes — 9 intervals of 2:00 minutes each.  Take as few 12-count (or 7-breath) breaks as you need to finish.  If that’s confusing, there’s a video below.
  2. EXERCISING GUMPTION. After you’ve cooled down, set a timer for 10 minutes and assume your meditative position of choice.  Regulate your breathing and think back to the last time you waited for someone else to solve a problem that you could’ve addressed yourself.  This could be something as simple as not picking up some litter sitting next to your car in the parking lot or cleaning up the messy break room at your job.  Or it could be something as big as letting a teacher or principal deal with your kid’s decaying attitude or not voting in the last election.  Explore that failure and ask yourself some questions, like ‘How would things be different if you had taken responsibility?’  Record your thoughts and insights in your training log or journal.


My New Every Day Carry (“EDC”) and WOOTW #62

Marble’s safety pliers. This was your granddad’s multi-tool.

Recently I’ve had several meaningful conversations with friends and acquaintances inside and outside the martial arts regarding the subject of “EDC” or “every day carry” — referring to pocket knives, pistols or what-have-you.  I used to carry a tactical folder with assisted open by S.O.G.

But I read a couple of articles about how carrying a weapon increases stress hormone production and I watched the episode of Through the Wormhole called “Is Gun Crime a Virus?” and I started wondering.  If I didn’t have a weapon on me, might I be more relaxed and more likely to use my head and avoid trouble?  I started thinking.

And then I listened to an episode of the AOM podcast with Lenore Skenazy, the author of Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) She talked about how the world is lots safer than we all think it is, which made me go looking for data.  And I found said data on  which is the coolest website ever.  Did you know that minimum wage in the U.S. puts you in the top 10% of wage earners worldwide, and a salary of $50,000 puts you in the top 1%?

Anyway, what I found out was, that the homicide rate in the U.S. is about what it was in 1965 and that, generally speaking, the world is safer than it’s ever been.  I kind of already knew this.  But apparently you have realize things over and over again in order to permanently realize them. 

In the end I decided that what was good enough for Grandpa is good enough for me. He didn’t need to carry a pistol or a folding pocket sword and neither do I.

So here’s my new “EDC.”

Marble’s safety pliers, unfolded this time. Pliers, Phillips head screwdriver, knife blade, file/screwdriver combo

If you want one you can get it from Old ’97 Knives in Danville, VA.  The owner’s name is coincidentally Ronald Mitchell (no direct relation I’m aware of).   When I ordered mine I had ’em in two days.

Moving on…

If I’m going to make Cabal Fang the best martial art it can be, then I need to become the best Robert Mitchell I can be.  So, in addition to being enrolled in online seminary to improve my spiritual education, I’m also pursuing my continuing martial education by becoming an Apprentice Coach under Mark Hatmaker — gentleman, scholar, martial artist, coach, and mud runner extraordinaire.  The Cabal Fang Workout of the Week is one of Mark’s.

Cabal Fang Workout of the Week #62


• Push-Ups 30

• Squats 75

• 3-minutes of hard shots on the heavy bag as if your life depends on it

• Sit-Ups 30

Beginners do 1 set, intermediates 2 sets, advanced players do 3 sets, and complete nutcases do 4 sets.  I finished 4 sets in 39:01.