Imagine a fight. You are being attacked, but you don’t know how. You feel pain, you lose your balance, your opponent is moving quickly, and your mind is struggling to keep up with what’s going on. Your reactions are instinctive, but since you have no understanding of the situation, all you can do is protect yourself. Maybe you cover your head. Maybe you curl into the fetal position. Maybe you run. When you remember what happened, you can’t make sense of it. You can’t even remember the proper sequence of events. This is an example of chaos in martial arts. But is the fight itself fundamentally chaotic?

If you asked your attacker, they would say no. They would likely be able to recount the fight quite easily. For them, everything went according to plan. Cause and effect were linked together neatly. To them, the fight was an orderly event, while you perceived it as chaotic.

Like most human endeavor, all martial arts attempt to turn chaos into order. There are few situations which seem as chaotic as combat, especially to a layman or outside observer. But we can impose order onto chaos by identifying patterns and relationships. This kind of order exists purely in the mind. It is not reality itself, but rather a model of reality, in the same sense that a geometrical object is a model of a real object. Therefore we should not say that the fight is orderly or chaotic, but rather that our perception of the fight is orderly or chaotic.

Order is an abstract idea, but it has tangible consequences when it comes to control. Martial arts are all about control. Whether offensive or defensive, lethal or nonlethal, every one of them presents a method for controlling the fight. If you perceive the fight as chaotic, then that means that you do not have control. In other words, control cannot exist without first imposing order upon the situation. In order to impose order, a martial artist must examine the chaos and organize it.

Order must first exist in yourself, both mentally and physically. To have mental order means that we have some reliable way to collect and use information. For example, you could employ a systematic approach to problem solving. Or, mental order can be based on intuition, i.e. subconscious pattern recognition and pattern response. Without mental order, you have no method by which to organize the chaos in your perceptions. This is why the panic reflex must be suppressed, and why adrenaline can be so dangerous. Once you have a way of collecting and using information, you must be able to act on that information. That means you must have physical control of your own body. Without control of your body, you have no means to take control of anything else. It does no good to organize the outside world if you cannot act upon it.

Next, we can organize the chaos which exists outside of our own bodies. The first step is to ask questions. There are a countless questions we could ask, but here are a few major topics:

  1. Time: Is there a pattern in tempo? Do the motions follow a discernable rhythm?
  2. Space: What areas are being threatened? It may help to divide the visual field into sections, such as quadrants: high/low, left/right(or inside/outside).
  3. Correlations: Does one action seem to result in another? Are there patterns in sequence, or common responses to certain stimuli? Can you direct your opponent by causing him to react in a certain way?

Similar to the third category, your own actions can force the opponent into an orderly response. Any genuine threat is likely to elicit a predictable response from your opponent, so long as that opponent has some sense of self-preservation. This is one reason why an opponent with no sense of self-preservation can be very dangerous. However, a normal opponent who values his life can be forced into orderliness. The Dutch rapier master Girard Thibault developed some interesting methods to impose order on and control his opponent. For example, he kept his sword extended at shoulder level, directed at the opponent. If the opponent attacked, they would have to deal with his sword first. When the opponent made contact with his blade, Thibault then had a reference point. He could feel the opponent’s attack and respond accordingly. If the opponent did not attack, Thibault would simply take the initiative himself and force the opponent to respond or be killed. Whether attacking or defending, the opponent had no choice but to conform to Thibault’s sense of order.

I should note that my perspective is Western. Not only am I an American, but I also have experience practicing European martial arts of the Renaissance era. Renaissance philosophers and martial artists were very fond of the idea of order, and of achieving goals through reason. The Renaissance masters would say that the faculty of reason is your greatest tool for controlling a fight. Christianity, mathematics, and the natural sciences taught them to believe that the universal was neat and orderly. Those who better understood this order could use it to their advantage.

But Western philosophy is not dominant in martial arts. I am not as familiar with the Eastern perspective. There are a variety of philosophical traditions in East Asia, but most do not stress reason as heavily as the Renaissance philosophers did. Chinese martial arts come from a philosophy heavily influenced by the Yijing(the Book of Changes), which states that everything in the universe is constantly in flux. In order to perceive this change as non-chaotic, you must have some static reference point, like the origin in a set of coordinates. Although I don’t know for certain, I imagine that this philosophy of change must have spawned many debates about the perception of chaos. From a Daoist perspective, a martial artist would be best served by allowing change to run its course. In order to follow the path of least resistance(and therefore act efficiently), you must act in accordance with nature. This runs counter to the idea of imposing your will upon nature to create order. For a Daoist, you are better served by conforming to the order that naturally exists. Naturally, Daoism is not the only branch of Chinese religious/philosophical thought which exists in China, and should not be taken as representative of the philosophical context of all Chinese martial arts.

Man-made order is an approximation of reality, not reality itself. We should not be surprised when there are inconsistencies with our sense of order and reality. But that does not mean that reality is not itself ordered. Many of us would like to think that it is, at least for sanity’s sake. The problem is one of perceptions. If the world seems chaotic, then that means we don’t understand enough of the patterns and relationships that lie within. When it comes to practical problems, like the ones that martial artists face, it doesn’t really matter whether reality is actually chaotic. What matters is your ability to create order, take control, and impose your will on the situation.