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The Berserkergang

Berserker Basics
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Berserker Basics

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The berserkergang has no forms, no "kata". Forms create expectations, but are only really appropriate in a limited number of circumstances. This can lead to counterproductive reflexes and missed opportunities. Instead the berserkergang concentrates on the three basics of all martial art: strength, speed, and right action. And the primary way it does this is through wod.

Wod (pronounced "wode") is a complicated concept for which there is no one exact english word. One one level wod means "fury", and it is an experience of that emotion. Indeed, part of the process of going berserk is by working up this emotion. In part it means "possessed", which of course refers to the experience most berserks have of becoming possessed by some sort of spirit or other. It can refer to a state of being, but it also is form of spiritual energy, analagous to the chinese "chi". Like a fiery chi.

In essence, the act of entering the berserker trance is simply a matter of simultaneously being in a deep meditative state and raising up an enormous amount of wod. Once a certain critical threshold of stress is reached (and it can be any kind of stress: mental, physical, or emotional, though a mixture works best) the berserker enters the berserker trance, which is a type of unitary state.

"Unitary state" is a term from neuroscience that describes an unusual state of physiology. The researchers who studied it described it as a stress response, an evolutionary adaptation that all people have to one degree or another. When stress occurs a person's sympathetic nervous system is aroused. This is the half of the nervous system that is responsible for "fight or flight" matters. When the stress is extreme that half of the nervous system is near overload. Once a certain critical threshold is reached the brain instinctively does some desperate things in an attempt to stop the overload. One is to shut off the forebrain and certain other parts, the only parts of the brain that can be shut off. This not only reduces the overload of the nervous system, but it luckily has some other benefits as well. The forebrain is the part of the brain that describes things, names them, compartmentalizes them, analyzes them. In short, the part of the brain prone to "overthinking". It also shuts off the part that distinguishes what the self is and what the rest of the world is. Once this part of the brain goes offline the person in the unitary state simply perceives everything purely and directly. The person reacts by instinct, which is the fastest sort of reaction and because the "thinking" parts of the brain are shut off, there is less danger of taking the wrong action in response to the outside world, for there is no danger of thinking wrong about something there is no possibility of thinking about at all. The other thing the desperately stressed brain does is awaken the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the other half of the nervous system, the half responsible for healing, resting, relaxing, balancing. Because these things are the opposite of the actions of the sympathetic nervous system (revving up, tensing, focusing, energizing) it is very difficult for the body to do both at once, and so usually when one is active the other is shut down. But in extreme circumstances, such as the stress that triggers the unitary state, the two of them find a way to be active at the same time. This allows the natural healing of the parasympathetic nervous system to have access to the great energy of the sympathetic nervous system. It enables that healing and balancing to permit the stress of an active sympathetic nervous system to be endured for much longer times, and at much greater levels, than normally possible.

This does several things. One is to increase the length of time adrenaline is in the bloodstream, another is to allow a greater than usual level of adrenaline to be tolerated before its debilitating side effects (loss of coordination, shakes, bad judgement) show up. The length of time the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) dulls or eliminates the sensation of pain increases too, as does the level of pain that can be tolerated. This state also synthesizes the functioning of all the different parts of the brain, makes it function as one. Such supreme focus is never possible in a normal state. Because it is the ultimate synthesis of SNS and PSNS (parasympathetic nervous system), of right and left brains, it causes the experience of inspiration. It is the unitary state that gives rise to the eureka moment.

Whatever the emotions are, whatever is in the mind, at the moment that mind and body make the transition into the unitary state sets the tone and nature of the experience of the unitary state. Unitary states created by intensive religious ritual often result in a vision of or the experience of hearing the voice of the practitioner's god. Unitary states created by the stress of a life and death emergency, like a car suddenly swerving into your lane right in front of you tend to give you a burst of the reflexes and skills of a profesional race car driver. And when the ritual is designed to work up furious emotions and is concentrated upon an enemy or some other danger the berserker trance results. With the force of the whole brain behind it the fury becomes a transcendental emotion. (And this is part of why berserkers need a lot of training, to be able to safely handle such things.) Adrenaline levels shoot through the roof, for adrenaline is the body's primary response to either fighting or fleeing. It is a chemical in the blood that temporarily increases strength and reflexes. It is often caused by furious emotions, and it tends to fuel feelings of rage and fear. It is this chemical that most berserks believe is at least partly responsible for the sensation of wod.

Wod amplifies the strength. Development of strength is one of the three pillars of the berserker style of fighting. The boost of raw strength from the heightened levels of adrenaline is one of the berserk's most basic weapons, as a fight can be ended simply by causing enough damage in a short enough period of time, or by grappling with and completely subduing an attacker, or just knocking him out. But reservoirs of wod are not limitless, and expending it in striking or moving drains the berserk, making him or her unable to call upon it again for some variable time. This can leave the berserk vulnerable to a sudden counterattack. One of the most important things for the berserk to learn is wod management. This involves raising the wod to a high enough level that it can amplify strength when used, but so that it is not all spent on the attack. Learning also to increase the maximum amount of wod that can be raised and learning to decrease the time it takes to raise it are critical to the fighting berserk, as is learning to hold high levels of wod in reserve, without using it for physical action.

Wod also amplifies the berserk's speed. This increased speed of movement allows excellent use of stop-attacks, where an opponent's attack, just begun, is countered not with a block or evasion but by making a more rapid strike of the berserk's own. For this reason the berserk must learn to move as efficiently as possible, to make no unnecessary movements of any kind. The fewer the wasted movements, the faster (and stronger) the motion. This increased speed also allows the berserk to make use of various tactics of deception. One such is standing out of distance, or what would be out of distance for a non-berserk fighter. This will in many opponents cause them to lower their guards at least a little to conserve energy, allowing the berserk to suddenly and surprisingly rush in and hit home. Shootfighting berserks would do well to emphasize speed in their approach to training.

The third pillar of the berserker style of fighting is right action. This is attaining the knowledge to take whatever action is most right, most appropriate, for the circumstances of the fight. This is why the berserkergang makes no use of forms, as forms create expectations and assumptions about a fight and your opponent that aren't always right. Berserkers tend to cultivate an open observing state of mind, free, flexible, ready to do anything. It is a concept similar to why professional drivers "float the suspension" by stepping on neither gas nor brakes over rough patches of road. When things are prone to changing rapidly and any action at all might be called for, and if the car (or body) is busy doing the wrong thing, there is that much more energy and momentum to be overcome before the proper remedy can be applied, and this additional delay could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

The berserker gains this knowledge of right action through various means. One way right action is gained is through heightened senses. Possessed by an animal spirit, the berserk has the sharper senses of that animal. (That's me speaking as a spiritual man. Speaking as a scientist I might say that the rapid processing of the sensory data going on in the mind in the unitary state of consciousness produces the appearance of sharper senses by more accurately and rapidly analyzing them and their meanings.) Sharper vision allows for even slight flaws in the stance of an opponent to be noticed, and for the line of the opponent's attack to be predicted from just the slightest initial twitching of his body as the attack just begins. Sharper hearing can allow for increased indications as to the opponent's intentions, by picking up on subtly shifting stances or tensing muscles from the sounds of rustling clothing and shuffling feet. Sharper smell can allow for the opponent's emotional/spiritual state to be determined, as the berserk in the unitary state has the ability to smell subtle hormonal changes like some animals do, enabling the berserk to smell fear, aggression, weakness, etc.

This faster mental processing is at least partially caused by elevated adrenaline levels, increased electrical energy in the nervous system, suppression of activity in the forebrain, and reliance upon the much faster processes of the hindbrain. Mind, body, and spirit functioning as one increases this processing speed by increasing the amount of physical resources being pumped into the processing (more parts of the brain than usual, powered by more parts of the body than usual, work to process each and every thought/reaction). This higher reaction speed makes the berserk more capable of mounting an effective defense to any attack as well as becoming quick enough to take advantage of small weaknesses in an opponent's defense. It also allows for the highly aggressive fighting style of the berserk to be safely performed. While many non-berserk scholars think that berserks just pressed their attacks madly with no thought for defense, in reality they were taking advantage of their extraordinary reflexes to make attack and defense one. By immediately reacting to the flaws and weaknesses in the opponent's defenses (mental, physical, and spiritual) berserks are able to make attacks that because of their lines do not allow the opponent any line of attack himself. Attack and defense in one motion. This creates a highly energetic, furious, aggressive attack, one that is continuous for long stretches of time. This circumvents a weakness many other martial arts are prone to, that of waiting, reacting, and backing up, things encouraged by many styles but vulnerable to manipulation by a knowledgeable opponent.

The effect all this increased rate of neural processing has is called psychetachia. This is the impression the berserk comes to have that time in the outside world suddenly seems to slow down. In its extreme forms falling objects seem to float to the ground, opponents seem to move as if through molasses. It is critical to the development of the gangr as a martial art that the berserk learn to control this sense of psychetachia.

Natural berserks generally can only enter the berserker trance in response to some great external stress, like the danger of a fight, or a mugging, or a car accident. Some few can enter and exit the state at will without any training. But they are very rare. Most berserks need an initation to gain control over entering and exiting the state at will. An initiation is the deliberate creation of a stressful, even dangerous situation, with the intent to go berserk. It is the intent that seems to be the critical feature. When the unitary state is once created with such intent in mind then it seems to learn something important, to pay attention to how things felt, how things happened, to sufficient degree to allow the state to be duplicated in the future.

An initiation is not something to be undertaken lightly. In order to have sufficient stress to really trigger this specific type of unitary state there needs to be some genuine danger. And this is, well, dangerous. (Read the disclaimer on the Home page!) It is very difficult to handle the high levels of stress the entrance into the berserker trance requires. (For while the unitary state is a possible reaction to great stress, a more common one is simply shutting everything down in a panic.) It needs a deep meditative state, or hypnotic trance, and this state needs to be kept even when massive amounts of adrenaline and wild emotions are coursing through you. If you cannot remain in meditation in such circumstances than you cannot deliberately enter this state, and attempting to do so is pointlessly risky.

Once a berserk is settled on performing an initiation ritual he or she enters into a period of contemplation, prayer, and/or meditation. It should, properly speaking, last at least a month. To go berserk in such a contrived and artificial manner is difficult, and every advantage is needed. Such a long period of thinking about the gangr, as the berserker trance is called, and of meditating, and praying for divine aid gets a certain momentum going. The mind becomes very easily moved towards thoughts and feelings about it, and is in a more deeply spiritual state than usual. (This waiting period also tests the berserk's resolve. If the will is insufficient to see the wait through then it is insufficient for the initiation.) A special location is usually selected. I used a ghost town, abandoned centuries ago amid rumors that its inhabitants were werewolves. Others have used places on haunted mountains, or in a place where other berserks have been initiated. The point to pick a place with a good atmosphere, as this makes the shift into the gangr easier to accomplish. Ritual tools are usually created during the wait as well. Their presence in the initiation serves as an immediate reminder to the initiate of all the preparation, and the good meditative, spiritual states that accompanied it. This makes it possible to get into better meditative, spiritual states. Once the initiation starts it is usually a matter of uttering prayers and making offerings, or at least making a formal and elaborate statement of intent to go berserk. The important element is that the initiate swear by whatever he or she holds sacred to endure the coming hardship and not flinch from it until the change comes.

Then it is simply a matter of the danger itself. Some berserkers have held their hands in flames. One I know drank 40 ounces of mead (it's about as strong as brandy), and had never really drunk before in his life, and chased it with 12 ounces of espresso, and then stepped into the ring for a fight with an older, more experienced berserk who was quite capable of easily beating him even without the stomach pain of so much booze and caffeine, or the deranged senses the overload of both brought about. Another fought with a man who'd been beating him in fights for a solid month. Another fasted for days and then went on an extreme hike. As extreme as these practices seem they are actually toned down compromises for safety with the ancient types of initiation, examples of which include going into a bear's cave with only a knife and returning with one of its claws and getting buried up to your waist and having other warriors throw spears at you while your only possible defense is to bat them aside. The extremes of the ancients don't seem to actually be necessary. Our safer modern rituals work. But some minimum level of genuine risk does seem to be needed to get them to work.

A word here needs to be said about initiations. Let me describe to you an example of what they can be like when they go a little wrong. A young natural berserk I knew from the forum wanted to be initiated, to gain control over the gangr. But unlike the others who had had their initiations he had very little training in either meditative arts or martial arts. He was careful to flawlessly perform a very complex and carefully created initiation ritual, taking every advantage he could to make it easier and more likely to occur. Others who had done it the way he wanted to, with a hand in flames, had ended up without burning or with minor burns. (Resistance to being burned is a trademark of the somafera state the world over. A scientific discussion of the mechanism of this resistance exists elsewhere on this site.) He got to the fire part of his ritual. He held his hand in the flames for several seconds. He screamed eventually, and dropped to the ground, writhing in pain. But as the rite had not yet succeeded he placed his hand in the fire again. I was taking part in the ritual, one of the drummers who were also screaming and howling, to help set the mood. I saw his hand literally burst. The flesh, badly burned, split down his whole hand and a bright red burst of blood splashed into the fire. In that moment he finally entered the gangr. When we finally got him down from the gangr enough to get him to medical treatment he was hospitalized for days. He did not regain full use of the hand for a year, until after a second surgery. He is permanently scarred, Freddy Krueger style. Such injury during initiation is rare. But it can happen. The information on this page is provided for serious practitioners who know themselves and know their limits, who desire to take their training in this direction. (The only other kind of person who would mess with something like this is a complete idiot.) We at Rillway Combatives Academy believe that doing so with all the information at your disposal is safer than going into it blind.

Once the berserk has passed through initiation the basic technique must be mastered. This is usually done by recreating the initiation ritual over and over again, each time taking out an element until a simpler ritual is obtained that allows the berserk to successfully enter the gangr with little more than a concentration of will power and some exercises. In my case, I first redid the initiation without the months of preparation. Then I did it without all the elaborate words and invocations. Then I exchanged the fire for a candle. Then I did away with the candle. Eventually I had a core of visualizations, memories, leaping, contorting, and meditating that caused the gangr to occur with sufficient effort of will.

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