Choose life. Choose Systema.


As I write, the annual Siberian Cossack System gathering is taking place in St. Petersburg. Once again, the timing didn’t work for me and I couldn’t attend. However, technology has improved in the past year, and a lot of things are being broadcast on Facebook Live – which just reminds me how much I’m missing and how much I would like to be there!

As it happens, I used Facebook Live for the first time, recently. I was walking in Ditan Park – the old Earth Temple of Imperial China – when I came across a group singing an unexpected tune:

They were really friendly, and I stayed and watched for some time. Apart from singing, they also did a lot of European-style folk dance. It reminded me how important this sort of group activity is, not just for community-building, but for health: both physical and mental.

Anyone who’s read this blog over the years will know that I see the Siberian Cossack System as particularly important because of the way it involves everybody – old and young, male and female. That led me to thinking about placing my studies of systema in the context of a Resilient Community Manual. As I’ve written in other posts, it seems to me that the Siberian Cossack system has a clear overlap with the aims and goals of the Transition Movement. Rob Hopkins, the founder of Transition, wrote recently:

I have also come to also have a deep respect for the need to develop a healthy group culture in projects I am part of. Groups that can be effective because they have developed a level of trust and shared culture through good and effective facilitation. I have been deeply fortunate to work in Transition Network, an organisation which has placed such emphasis on building a healthy group culture and on good process. It sustains me on a deep level to work with people with whom I have, over time, developed such a deep sense of trust.

and I agree. We can’t find security on an individual level now, not in the hard times of austerity and the retreat from globalisation. While “finding our tribe” has been an over-used trope of the past decade, it is moving from being a truism of the hyper-individual digital age to once again being a hard fact of survival, and I think too few people have really understood that.

In that same article, Rob also writes:

If we are burnt out, exhausted, stressed, an absent parent, then we are not in service to the work we are doing. Seek, and insist upon, balance.

That hit home. I burned out recently, and had to take time off work. Since I don’t earn if I don’t work, that cost me a lot of money, but what can you do? Your health is more valuable than anything.

It really brought home to me the health problems that are out of control in our Western society. It wasn’t just me who burned out; it’s happening to a lot of people I know. And back home, and across the Western world? Well, a blog comment I read recently said we’re all suffering from ‘Sick Society Syndrome’, and that seems to be the truth of it.

Wharton Business School is emailing articles about chronic stress. Mental health problems are now at epidemic levels (PDF). In the UK, the usage of anti-depressants is at critical levels, and the USA is no better.

Income levels are falling everywhere, while job insecurity is rising. Our consumer economies only survive because people go deeper and deeper into debt, but no-one knows how they’ll pay it back. We’re expected to work longer and longer hours for less and less in return, and even the ‘good jobs’ have huge numbers of desperate applicants ready to replace anyone who quits or is let go. It’s an insane way of living, and it’s getting worse.

Of course, it won’t change because not only does it suit the monied classes to have an insecure workforce, they can profit further from it – from the revenue streams of expensive pharmaceuticals which “control” but never “cure”, to the alcohol and cigarettes which people use to self-medicate. Of course, there are other, illegal, ways that people use, but as more and more prisons are privatised, it’s still money for the rich.

What’s this got to do with systema, though? I’m not actually going too far off-topic, I don’t think. The Siberian Cossack System – though I’ve never actually discussed this with Andrey – seems to me to be at least in part a response to the post-Soviet collapse of the 90s, when huge numbers of Russians lost all their money and all of their hope.

What draws me to the Siberian Cossack System – and other groups like it in the neo-Cossack revival – is that it’s a complete system for survival. It isn’t just about individual survival in a confrontation. It’s about survival through the development of social ties, and of a group that helps keep us sane. It’s about maintaining both physical and mental health. It’s about learning skills which endow pride and personal fulfillment. It’s about getting through hard times by drawing strength from each other. A complete system, preparing us for all threats to our well-being.

As I get older, and as I try to get through the craziness of a consultant’s life, these things are becoming more and more significant for me. I value the combat side of the system: I’ve had several encounters recently which had the potential to turn physical, though fortunately I managed to defuse them. But the truth is, like many men my age, the more dangerous enemies are stress related – heart attack, stroke, that kind of thing.

So, looking at the state of my health, and my assessment of my threat environment, plus the fact that there’s no teacher available (the closest is Janik, in Hong Kong, and even he isn’t easy for me to get to), I’ve been working on a Solo Systema Syllabus. I’m using all of the video material I’ve accumulated over the years in order to draw out the bits that suit my needs. I have a feeling that other people may find it useful, since not everyone in systema is young. It’s very much a work in progress, and I’m just beginning, but the first module is taking shape. I need to fine-tune it a bit, but within a couple of weeks I’ll post an overview and see if anyone likes it.

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