I have a few friends and relatives enrolled in undergraduate/graduate programs and it really got me thinking about the unique self defense environment college offers. I spent four years in a university, living both on and off campus, so I’ve had time to reflect on this. The mixture of predictable patterns, money, close quarters, and questionable decision making makes for a volatile stew for individuals who aren’t properly prepared.
This guide is designed to point out ways in which college students can assess their own risks and adopt responsible behavioral patterns to minimize threats. This is not a prescriptive technique guide, but more of a thought exercise with technique ideas intermingled.
Please keep in mind that while I am qualified to provide ideas on this subject, I am not liable for injuries incurred by the reader nor am I the only resource available on this topic. I’ll be citing multiple subject matter experts who warrant further reading and discussion.
Grab a piece of paper and pencil, then read on!
Your Self Defense Profile
The first thing we need to do is get a real assessment of your tools, skills, environment, and disposition. Once we understand that we can explore how predators may interact with you. So let’s build your profile.
Asses Your Physical Tools
This seems so obvious that you are probably tempted to skip it and go on to the next point. Wait!
Being honest with ourselves regarding our strengths and weaknesses is trickier than it seems. Also, the way we assess ourselves reveals something about our preparedness and self confidence levels.
First, conduct a physical checklist for your assets and liabilities. For example, I’m 5’10” and about 140lbs. I’m a pretty standard white male with a fairly young appearance (verified by getting carded all the time). I have better fast twitch muscles than slow twitch. I can be picked up and overpowered. I have no particular injuries or disabilities. I wear clothing that leans toward professional or nerdy. My fitness level is above average.
What about you?
After you are done with your checklist, ask yourself this – how easy was it to be honest about yourself? Did you mentally avoid some of your weaknesses, or come to them begrudgingly? Conversely, did your list consist of almost entirely positive traits? These factors can weigh in on your day-to-day level of self confidence, which can trigger different kinds of predators (as we will discuss shortly).
Assess Your Surroundings
This one also seems obvious, but let’s not overlook it. Surroundings don’t just mean the hypothetical dark alley we all talk about in self defense classes. Consider the following:
* Do you live on or off campus?
* Is your dorm co-ed?
* How many roommates do you have and how often are they home?
* How far must you walk or drive to class? What kind of areas do you travel through?
* How’s the neighborhood surrounding your campus?
* Are recreational activities/bars/arenas on campus or off campus? How would you get there?
* Where do you go for fun?
* Do you have a daily or weekly routine that takes you to the same places?
* Do you know anyone who also follows that routine and travels with you?
Jot down your most common locations and how often you are alone. Take note of the people you travel with also.
Assess Your Demeanor
Question: would you sooner inconvenience yourself than seem rude to somebody else? I would most of the time. I’ve grown up inside the same Western social contracts as most of you. I’ve been taught to be polite, kind, and giving, just like most of you. The catch is, most predators have a deep understanding of our social tendencies and can use them against us at will.
Here’s something interesting – most people imagine themselves as something of a Bruce Banner (aka the Hulk). They function in their day-to-day life as the affable (or at last tolerant) scientist Bruce…but should they be put in a corner they would release their inner demons, a Hulk that would make their aggressor pay for their transgressions.
When teaching self defense I have noticed this reliance on “hulk mode” frequently. There’s truth to it. When faced with danger the human body undergoes extreme adrenalization, increasing physical strength and tenacity. The problem with relying on hulk mode is threefold:
1. Most people have very little experience getting into that mental and physical frame, making them extremely ineffective while there
2. Experienced predators know how to keep you in a social loop while conducting their crime, circumventing your hulk powers
3. Utilizing the hulk assumes you had a chance to see the attacker coming
Adrenaline can be very useful in a tight spot, but not if it is allowed to go unchecked. As Marc MacYoung explains, there is a critical difference between fear and panic. Fear is an aid to alertness and provides a chemical boost to the body. Fear keeps us in a mindset of options (run, fight, yell, etc). Panic, on the other hand, is a mental state that disables options. It is also referred to as an Amygdala Hijack – when the hindbrain has such a fierce flood of chemicals that the body can no longer perform simple tasks. Unfortunately, untrained individuals can think they have “hulk mode” available to them when they are really setting themselves up for panic-induced failure.
Of course, a criminal needn’t worry about you approaching an adrenalized fight level if they control where you mind goes. Rory Miller explains this phenomena in “Logic of Violence“.
A predator looking to acquire something from you is known as a “resource predator”. The resource predator will often use one of two approaches to get what they want. First, they will utilize a common social script to begin a conversation (“do you have the time?”). When they are close enough they will brandish a weapon or go hands on, providing you with instructions for how to escape the situation (“give me your wallet and I won’t have to kill you”). At this time your mind enters a state of negotiation, trying to avoid giving up your possessions or at least minimizing the chance of getting hurt. While you think you are getting your way, the predator is comfortable in continuing to rob you because he knows you are operating under a negotiation social script. He will quickly get some/all of your belongings and escape.
The other alternative is that the resource predator uses shock and speed to avoid any discussion at all. They may attack you from behind or jump you as part of a group. In this case, the damage occurs faster than you can respond to, making your adrenalized state irrelevant.
To assess your demeanor, you have to take an honest look at how you follow social scripts and how able you are to make decisions that might seem “rude” to others. You also have to determine if you give off an air of awareness and physical capability.
Your Predator Profile
As important as understanding yourself is understanding who might be aiming for you. Common belief holds that we are all potential victims of violence at any time, which is true but not to the extent we think. Random acts of violence like the Boston Marathon Bombing puts everyone equally at risk. However, outside of mass attacks or the rare psychotic predator with no touchstone on reality we can inform ourselves to the kinds of violence we are most at risk for.
First, let’s utilize a predator list as developed by Rory Miller:
It’s critical to note the left hand column labelled “Asocial” and “Social”. Asocial predators are not trying to prove anything with their crime (for the most part). Instead they are looking “for the things you could put in a wheelbarrow”, as described by Marc MacYoung. That means your money, phone, clothing, watch…even your body. Resource predators are your muggers and thieves, while survival predators are those that believe their life depends on getting something from you. Process predators are rapists and serial killers that are after your body or the thrill of injuring you.
On the other hand, social predators seek status or influence by conducting violence. They wish to prove their dominance or establish a position in a certain group. Social violence can also be used to enforce perceived rules or territory.
That being understood, let’s look at the most common predatory risks for men and women in a college atmosphere.
Predator Considerations for Women
I have no idea which specific stories you will see, but I guarantee that if you browse you will see two primary events:
1. A female student being followed and then sexually assaulted, or assaulted by a “friend” in her dorm room
2. A male student being assaulted after an altercation at a bar or between two groups of men
It’s like clockwork and we can use this information to understand and avoid common gender violence. Let’s look at the female perspective first.
A college setting puts young men and women in close proximity to one another. Men of that age (late teens – early twenties) are high testosterone individuals with limited social IQ. In addition, they are often in group male settings which lead to enabling and peer pressure. Women of that age find themselves in similar social situations with high amounts of peer pressure and a desire to fit in. Furthermore, they often express their new found freedom via suggestive clothing choices and partying habits.
These are generalizations, but true enough for us to work with.
Anyone who has heard about sorority behavior realizes that women solve their social issues with violence less frequently than men. They tend to prefer mental and social pressure. Furthermore, men rarely pick fights with women in a crowded environment as there is little reputation to be gained by physically beating a woman (in fact, the opposite is likely to happen). As such, we find that women are at lower risk for social violence than men.
Conversely, the naturally smaller frames of women make them much better prospects for mugging and theft. A modern addition is the likelihood of absorption in phone calls or texting, removing awareness of surroundings (note – sociological studies suggest smart phone distraction is not a solo problem for women, but is applicable to both genders. Read more here and here). Individuals looking to commit resource crimes will assess women based on the following factors:
* Awareness of their surroundings (ease of surprise)
* Physicality (lack of perceived strength or technique)
* Clothing (awkward shoes, spaghetti strap purse, etc)
* Likelihood of social conditioning (not wanting to make a fuss)
Socially women are often conditioned to be polite, elegant, and understanding. These are considered desirable “feminine qualities”. Good attackers will work off of those tendencies to get in and out before the female has a chance to switch out of her socially conditioned behavior.
The Threat of Routine
While women have the potential to be attacked anywhere if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, a university atmosphere adds the danger of routine. A predator who is either a student on campus or a nearby local resident can easily memorize the most common times of day to find women walking alone (or inebriated). They also have the ability of hanging around campus unnoticed and monitoring the class routines of specifically interesting targets. From there it’s a simple matter of waiting for the right time to make a move.
This routine threat is most potent in terms of sexual assault. The predator may scope out the location and time for easy prey with minimal witnesses and struggle.
Rory Miller points out something interesting. The two most common questions asked in social college situations are “what’s your major?” and “what hall do you live in?”. These are standard and seemingly innocent questions, but if the individual asking has dangerous intent it’s more than enough info to plan an attack. Even worse, if the predator is a campus student he will know the ins-and-outs of how campus security works, making it much less effective at protecting you.
If you have a routine around campus, remember the following action steps to reduce your vulnerability:
* Travel with a group, especially during night time
* Keep a close eye on campus news and avoid common crime areas
* Avoid traveling home from parties alone
* Switch up travel routes from time to time
* Don’t be afraid to lie about your major, living location, etc.
The Trusted Threat
Sadly a large percentage of sexual violence against women occur via men they already know. It’s a matter of trust and proximity. A group of friends can develop quickly in college without any of the members truly knowing each other. Group hangouts occur all the time, which can casually turn into solo encounters. Often, sexual predation of this manner is patient and opportunistic.
The difficult thing about this threat is that we all know it’s unhealthy to be suspicious of everything and everybody all the time. Imagine if a friendly guy is hanging out with you and suddenly you become paranoid and start pepper spraying him. What if he is getting ready to ask you out and you Taze him and run away?
This is a subtle problem; one that is very important to be aware of. The key to managing trusted threats is monitoring behavior patterns. Human intuition is a powerful tool and many women have a highly developed “gut feeling”. You’ll get a sense for the common body language, humor, and demeanor of the people around you. If you sense a change in that do not be afraid to make an excuse to be somewhere else. In fact if you have a paper and pencil in front of you right now come up with two excuses you could use at will. Write them down so your brain is reinforced with how important they are. Once you are done, write them down again. You don’t want to forget them when you get nervous.
You’ll also want to have a few self defense tools handy in your dorm room, but we will discuss that later.
Predator Considerations for Men
We talked a lot about how resource predators might focus on women as mugging targets, but men certainly aren’t immune. If a predator notices distraction, self doubt, or weakness he’ll just as soon take down a man as a woman. Also, keep this in mind. A resource predator can be turned into a survival predator under the right circumstances, and a survival predator losses almost all sense of barrier between themselves and their target.
Consider a drug addict who is coming down off of a high. That drug addict quite literally feels like he is dying, and the only way to save his own life is to get a few hundred dollars fast for the next fix. If you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time your confident stride won’t save you. He is attacking.
Most men think of muggings as one-on-one showdowns. The attacker walks up, shows you the gun or knife, and demands your stuff. You give it to him, but if he looks away for a second…wam! Chuck Norris kick to the hand or head and it’s on. Realistically, when a mugger wants to attack anyone (especially a man) they want as little fight as possible. That means the attack is coming as a suckerpunch or quick stick in the ribs. No muss, no fuss. Your stuff is theirs and they are on their way down the road.
Alternatively, criminals who hang out in a pack will overwhelm you with sheer numbers. This is useful for two reasons:
1. They get your stuff
2. They get to enforce territory and prove to each other how “bad” they are
A robbery like this is both asocial (for monetary gain) and social (prestige gain). We’ll discuss some tools men can use to avoid resource predation later on.
The Social Paradigm For Men
We mentioned earlier that women tend to solve social problems via mental and emotional means moreso than violence (although violence can happen). Men tend toward the reverse. While mental and emotional manipulation does happen, the likelihood of violence to put things in order is much higher.
If you refer back to the predator chart shown above, you’ll notice the terms “monkey dance”, “group monkey dance”, “educational beatdown”, and “status seeking shill”. These are predominantly the domains of men. Monkey dancing is something we have all seen and felt. When one male feels threatened by another they begin a display of chest puffing, finger pointing, loud noises, etc. This dance can be activated over territory dispute, rule infraction (educational beatdown), or some other perceived slight. In fact, it can start with no provocation at all if the monkey in question wants to prove a point to everyone around them or to their particular group (status seeking shill).
The interesting thing about social violence for men is that it isn’t just the little guys who are susceptible. True, smaller men can be pushed around and beaten for fun, which is essentially grown up bullying, but large men can prove more valuable prey. When a large man is beaten a real point is proved and the individual/group doing the beating gains even more prestige.
Avoiding social violence is more feasible than most men think. Rory Miller points it out aptly: “if you are given instructions on how not to get beaten, take those instructions.” For example, if someone tells you to shut your mouth or you’ll be eating a fist, you could try shutting your mouth. Doesn’t sound very cool does it? It’s not, but it works unless the predator is already so deep in monkey dancing that they HAVE to prove their status to those around them. Your other option is an apology for offending, followed by leaving the scene. Again, not a sexy solution. But it is a solution.
Always remember Michael J. Fox in “Back to the Future”. Nobody calls him chicken…and he repeatedly gets into bad situations because of it.
Self Defense Tools
We’ve done a lot of work establishing what kinds of predators may be on the look out for you. We’ve also considered what kind of person you are and what tools you have at your disposal. Now I’d like to give some hard advice on how to lower your chances of getting involved with a predator and improving your odds of survival if you do.
First and foremost, Marc MacYoung talks about a key idea he calls The Paradox of Willingness. Quite simply it states that if you have tools to defend yourself and are willing to use them you stand a much better chance of never having to do so.
We humans are sensitive creatures, especially to the subtle cues given off by one another. A criminal’s job is to find viable prey in the right place at the right time. If you have the tools to raise their level of risk or doubt then they will likely pass you up for a better victim. It’s not guaranteed, but it ups your chances. That being the case, you want as many tools as you can fit into your toolbox.
Tool #1: Training
This is going to seem obvious, especially to the martial artists reading this. Martial arts training can provide you with physical assets to defend yourself. Even more than that, they can give you a sense of confidence that exudes from your posture, eyes, mindset, and walk.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m not an intimidating person in size or appearance. Nevertheless, through martial arts I have developed a gaze and motion that has helped me dissuade trouble on more than one occasion. Like I said, it’s not bulletproof, but it helps.
In terms of choosing a particular martial art to aid in your self defense skills, I’m not going to recommend one over another. This article can help if you need a starting point. In truth, it’s going to be the quality of the teacher moreso than the art that helps you develop a potent skillset. Some arts like Krav Maga tend to get right to the point in terms of rape prevention, mugging assault, etc. Arts like Aikido take a more long-term path, but offer higher levels of personal serenity (useful for social encounters, right?). You need to take stock of yourself and your potential predators in order to find the art that will help you most. If all else fails, enroll in a self defense course locally and start building from there.
Tool #2: Habit Changing
While reading this article I hope you’ve come up with a few ways in which you are vulnerable. Perhaps you park in a bad neighborhood. Maybe you’ve walked home alone at night a few times. Whatever it is, you need to have the courage and willpower to make improvements.
Walking alone from Class A to Class B may be convenient for you, but is it so unthinkable to inconvenience a friend to go with you? Are there no arrangements that can be worked out? This isn’t just for women. A lone male that looks like he has money and isn’t paying attention is just as vulnerable.
Tool #3: Personal Presence
Fake confidence is useless. Any decent criminal will see through it. Conversely, excessive bravado may instigate a social situation where you get an ego-deflating beatdown. What you really need to develop is personal presence.
Personal presence is a smoothness and seriousness that indicates you’re not looking for trouble but are willing to participate if it finds you. Presence requires acute awareness. It isn’t jumpy, lazy, or angry. A smooth glance and a wry smile with serious eyes. These are presence.
Prolonged training helps develop presence but you should work on it whether you have training or not. Start with the honest thought that if a person attacks you, you will fight back until you are dead. If you can genuinely adapt that mindset presence will come eventually.
Tool #4: Implements
Self defense needn’t be empty handed all the time. Any woman would be remiss if she didn’t travel with a convenient tool such as a Tazor, pepper spray, Kubotan, or even a gun if they are allowed on campus. The key here is learning how to use them in a pinch.
As we mentioned earlier, assaults and muggings can occur quickly. In addition, most people aren’t used to their own adrenalized state and don’t realize the loss of fine motor control that happens. As such, a tool deeply buried in a purse or one that has finnicky gadgets is essentially useless. To make an implement valuable the individual MUST train with it and become routine in it’s usage.
Dorm rooms are a must-have location for some sort of self defense weapon. What’s allowable will depend greatly on the university’s specific rules, so check them ASAP. I usually recommend a jo to anybody and everybody. To read more about why, click here. In short, the jo is a piece of solid wood about three feet long. It attracts zero attention from RAs, roommates, friends, or anyone else. Why would it? It’s just a dowel rod that looks like you might hang clothes on it.
Thanks to its compact size, the jo can be placed conveniently near your bed or doorway. Imagine if you were escaping from an aggressor where you might try to escape to, or where someone might try to take advantage of you. Have it near there. The length of the jo can keep the assailant out of arms reach until you gather your wits and are ready to really fight back.
As a quick note for the jo, I recommend using a thrusting motion to the opponent’s face followed by repeated swinging motions to beat them into submission. Do not start with a swing as most people’s flinch reflex will block it or catch it. The straight thrust causes a better flinch and is much tougher to catch.
Tool #5: Smart Decisions
No one deserves to be assaulted, sexually harassed, or mugged. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen or that your choices won’t effect the outcome. If you’re a woman and you find yourself walking around in high heels, a short skirt, half drunk and alone…well you know. It’s bad. If you’re a guy and you’re dressed very nicely, looking studious and nerdy, with an air about you that you’d really rather not fight…well you know. It’s bad.
Keep cell phone usage to a minimum. Dress intelligently for your circumstances and if you need to be at risk in terms of clothing or activity utilize a group.
Final Thoughts Before You Head Out
You probably noticed that this article focused heavily on preparation and mindset over actual technique. One thing I’ve learned is that the mental aspects of self defense tend to be neglected for the more vibrant and exciting physical aspects. We instructors often say “use awareness to stay out of danger, but if something happens do the following…”
Why did we skip over that awareness part?
Individuals who are crunched for time and money may not be able to enroll full time in martial arts…but they can practice their awareness every single day, improve their personal presence, and make smarter decisions so as to dissuade their most likely attackers. When you know who is aiming for you steps can be taken to make their lives a lot harder.
Use this guide as a first step to better understanding the world of violence and self defense. Build on the tools presented here to enhance your capabilities so that you can maximize the Paradox of Willingness and make yourself a truly unappetizing target.
Most traditional martial artists arrive at a point in their training when they realize violence “ain’t what it used to be”. Sure, humans are essentially unchanged. We still have two hands, two feet, a brain, and a mouth which we can use to get ourselves into trouble…but quite a bit has changed beyond that. Nowadays we have to concern ourselves with easily concealable weapons like folding knives, guns, mace, Tazers, etc. Not only that, but we operate inside of a civilized society with rules and consequences for violence.
Certainly our old styles are too antiquated to handle that sort of environment?
In some ways…yes…but don’t run off and burn your belt just yet. The old ways may need tweaking in order to compensate for modern law and tools of violence, but that doesn’t mean we need to throw them out entirely. In fact, in some ways old styles may be even better suited to the reality of modern civilian violence than many military and mixed martial arts.
Psychological Insight with Rory Miller
I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Rory Miller and consuming a large amount of his published material. He has quickly become one of my favorite voices in understanding violence and finding ways to cope with it in modern society. He has an understanding of traditional martial arts and decades of experience in detentions and law enforcement. As a result he can dig down as deep as you want into psychology and law but still explain it in a digestible way.
If you’d like to kickstart a Rory Miller library of your own I would recommend these two DVDs:
|Facing Violence||Logic of Violence|
In “Logic of Violence”, Rory explores the different kinds of predators that an individual may face. In addition, he discusses the most probable victims for each of those predators and how they go about determining the best places to hunt, who they hunt for, and how citizens can understand which predators may be targeting them.
At one point, he breaks down the different predator types like so:
In order to understand the fundamental point of this blog post (ways in which old style training is optimal for modern violence), we need to investigate Rory’s structure a little closer.
You’ll notice in the chart above that predators are broken into two fundamental groups: asocial and social. Asocial predators are the ones with no desire to look good in front of others. They want something from you (your money, your body, your watch, etc) and the violence they inflict is to that end. They may simply enjoy the process of killing or raping and thus the action is the goal.
Social predators are very much concerned with how their actions are perceived and who perceives them. The monkey dance for example is often exhibited when two males compete over ego, a female, or territory. An educational beatdown may occur if a stranger or group member breaks the perceived rules of a particular group (think biker gang).
I won’t belabor the different predators here, but if you want to understand each type be sure to check out Rory’s work linked above.
The most interesting thing about the predator types is how different they may act. Asocial predators, for example, do not want an audience. They want to finish their task as quickly as possible. They also want the weakest, most lucrative targets they can get with little thought of ego (beating up an old lady and stealing her car won’t get the crook street cred but it will result in a financial gain).
A monkey dancing jerk on the other hand wants as many people as possible to witness his show of strength and dominance. As such he will puff his chest out, make declarations, and be sure to prove a point while fighting someone he deems worth the effort (a social predator would be more likely to challenge another fit male rather than an old man).
With that understood, let’s look at the habits of martial arts training and why old methods are well designed to deal with these predatory situations.
The Ironic Ego Build for Fit Athletes
One of Rory’s favorite quotes is as follows: “A lot of martial arts involve fighters teaching fighters how to fight fighters.” Once you break that down and wade through the meaning, it makes a lot of sense. Take a peek into many hardknock schools and you’ll likely see lots of fit, tone, big individuals that you wouldn’t want to tangle with. These schools are supposedly teaching students how to survive encounters on the street. They talk about defending against muggers and knife wielding murderers. But here’s the twist – most of the individuals training are NOT the primary target for resource and process predators.
If you were a mugger and you were watching for people to attack, would you choose the bulky, 6’0″ guy wearing the “tap, snap, or nap” T-shirt? No. So many of the fantasies regarding street self defense are misplaced.
As we discussed in the predator chart above, fit men are at risk mostly from social attacks, either from a single challenger or a group that wants to beat him down. Now if we take a trained martial artist and add in an inflated ego and bloodlust thanks to constant aggressive training he becomes even more of a target. The means and methods of his “self defense” have, in fact, heightened the probability of him getting attacked.
Here is where old style training kicks in. As opposed to the more modern mindset of “strike first, strike hard, no mercy sir”, the old method was steeped in ritual and process to promote humility. Students were (and still are in some places) inclined to clean the dojo floor, dust around photos of old masters, bow into and out of the dojo, etc etc. This process feels belabored and humiliating to a lot of modern artists, and certainly it has been abused by many instructors. However, what these habits tried to instill was the idea that a puffed up ego would not get a student ahead in the dojo. With ego deflation as part of the training, the student was more inclined to keep that ego controlled when in “real life” environments.
There is an old saying that the stalk with the most rice bows the lowest. Similarly, it was considered a great sign of individual character when a martial arts master went unnoticed in a room, and many masters would do everything in their power to divert attention away from themselves. Do these qualities not sound more fitting to survive social violence encounters, the kind likely to befall modern civilians who are fit and able?
The Ideal Training When Victimization Rises
We discussed how a great many martial artists are strong and capable individuals, making them non-ideal targets for process and resource predators. But then, who would be ideal? Women perhaps due to less inherent physical strength (even well trained women if they catch the eye of a determined predator)…but who else? What about children? The elderly?
Have you ever seen old boxers walking around? Not only are their bodies battered but often their minds as well. Every now and then we hear a great story about an old time boxer fending off some punk kids, but all too often the extreme punishment of the sport takes it’s toll during middle age and later in life. Same goes for many football players, pro wrestlers, and pro fighters. They were athletes training at the top of their game, but now they are lucky to move around without assistance.
On the other hand, there are seniors in old style martial arts like karate that can move with alarming speed and fluidity:
Of course karate and other hard styles can go overboard and instill too much bodily abuse, but the essence of longevity is there for students to explore.
The key to old style training is the combination of self defense capabilities with body awareness, wellness, diet, and moderation. A good, balanced program will feature challenging elements like body conditioning and sparring but spell them with bouts of kata training, meditation, and kihon (basics). This diversity allows the practitioner to become skillful in his/her prime years but continue training passed that time. In fact, the solo training becomes even more important for maintaining fitness.
Underestimated even in many of today’s modern schools is the old emphasis on wellness and diet. The idea of keeping the inside of the body fit used to be as important as the outside. Of course, it’s harder to sell diet and wellness as part of a business model and modern students hardly consider it any business of the Sensei. However, when observed carefully, these old ways allow for training well into old age. As we established, old age is the exact time when even fit males start to become targets for resource and process predators. In his book “Karatedo: My Way of Life”, Funakoshi recounts multiple self defense encounters he had later in life. It wasn’t dynamic fighting that saved him but good common sense techniques like using implements (an umbrella for example) and simple but effective techniques (groin strikes).
If Funakoshi was unable to move efficiently in his autumn years he would have become just another victim despite decades of hard training.
Simple and Reliable Concepts
In his video and written material Rory does very little explanation of the techniques he likes to use. Instead he prefers the viewer/reader to apply what they already do in a functional context. However, one stipulation he does suggest is that techniques should be simple, robust (can go wrong but still be salvageable), redundant (work on almost anything), and congruent with your mindset (works with your ideal distance and body type). One of his favorites is a two hand “augmented” technique that looks like this:
In Okinawan Karate we refer to this technique as “meotode” or “mefutode”. It is one of the most fundamental positions we adopt and is featured prominently in our kata. Watch Seisan below for an obvious example of this technique in action:
The fantastic thing about this body posture is that it meets all of Rory’s common sense requirements for a good self defense method. It closes off the most vulnerable parts of the body, works with the natural body flinch reflex, can be used with open or closed hand, keeps all body weapons in play, and builds upon itself in redundancy so that if an initial movement fails it has a followup coming directly after. Best of all, there are routines to drill it so that it becomes muscle memory.
The funny thing is, it isn’t a glamorous fighting method. It probably won’t win any tournament competitions and wouldn’t be ideal in a professional bout. However, in a real self defense situation when the body is tight, adrenaline is high, and the mind is resetting down to what it has trained the most…this technique is a winner and it can be found in old karate, kung fu, and others.
Defense First Mindset
“Karate Ni Sente Nashi” is a phrase that adorns the walls of many dojo. It means “There is no First Attack in Karate”. Some people like to interpret that literally in that a block is always thrown before a strike. However, I tend to interpret it more philosophically. The main idea behind the phrase is that the mind does not act aggressively toward others without provocation. If a kareteka senses danger he/she may choose to take the initiative but it was only due to the fact that all other options for resolution seem to have failed.
This is an important concept to study as it coincides with the modern legal paradigm of I.M.O.P. IMOP means “intent, means, opportunity, preclusion” and are the four major ingredients that make up a self defense encounter. If an attacker has the intent to do harm, the means to do it (physical power, weapon, etc), and the opportunity (same room, same street, etc) then the situation is close to self defense. However, the final piece, preclusion, is just as important. Preclusion means the victim did everything in their power to remove themselves (and loved ones if applicable) from the situation before resorting to violence.
By keeping “Karate Ni Sente Nashi” in mind during day-to-day living a martial artist will inevitably attempt to forego the ego of violence and instead seek a way to resolve/remove the situation. If the individual can properly recount the events and the steps taken to avoid the encounter he/she has a significant advantage defending their case in a court of law.
It may sound like I am a little down on modern styles, but actually my goal is to suggest the value of both. Modern styles tend to speak more openly about the law and the importance of diversifying training (scenario drills, groundwork, etc). I also believe traditional styles are unsurpassed in terms of adopting an attitude toward training that is geared toward longevity, humility, and overall wellness.
By listening to Rory Miller, an astute observer of violence and the human condition, we hear echoed thoughts from styles developed generations ago. I am encouraged that we can continue to learn and grow in a manner that accepts the reality of danger while optimizing our ability to cope with it. Let’s keep our minds open to wisdom from the past and ears open to wisdom in our modern world.
One of the immutable truths of martial arts training is that it requires hard work. Time, sweat, and pain are the primary currencies for martial growth. However, I’ve never believed in the concept of training without thought. “Shut Up and Train” may be a great way to kick yourself (or others) into gear, but a career spent “shutting up and training” fails the true potential of martial arts, by my estimation.
Let me explain in the context of exercise, and walking around the neighborhood.
What is a Walk?
Sometimes when I am taking a stroll around my neighborhood I wonder what passersby must think of me. As they push forward to make pace on their run, mind the behavior of their dogs, or chat with their jogging buddies, they see me doing none of those things. In fact, I am walking at death row pace and looking around like I’m lost. They might very well think me a vagrant…or so high I forgot how I got there.
In truth I use those walks to untether my mind from the day’s grind. I try my best to appreciate small things I never noticed before, or wrestle with problems that I haven’t yet come to terms with.
While I walk I wonder of those passing me, must everything be so…regimented?
The Trap of Pure Exercise in the Dojo
There are limitations in my story above. For example, I hardly know what other people are thinking or what their intentions are…and I certainly don’t think people need to do things the way I do them. In fact, many people state that they achieve a relaxed mental state and calmness through hard physical activity (like hitting a bag) or repetitive activity (like running). But that is the subtlety here – I am not referring to a peaceful mind, but instead of mindfulness.
In his book “My Journey With the Grandmaster” Bill Hayes Sensei discusses the results of training Sanchin kata over and over again. He pushed his mind and body to a point where normal aches and pains washed away in the rhythm of the kata. By the end, his attitude and perspective had changed and he felt a great happiness. This is the potential benefit of prolonged exercise. However, it was not on that same day that Hayes Sensei gained his massive insight into the fundamental operations of that kata and how it could be applied throughout his entire karate paradigm. He did that slowly and thoughtfully on different days, observing himself and others and finding the important questions to ponder.
If, every day, an individual arrives at the dojo and commits fantastic effort into their training they have a chance at receiving the same kind of benefits Hayes Sensei experienced. But if that’s all they do, they could be forever limited.
Mindfulness in the dojo should not be confused with discussing technique or bunkai drilling as both of those matters have distinct purpose. Instead, mindfulness is taking the time to step outside yourself and “watch” with patience as you execute the art. You, as the observer and the executer, have the opportunity to poke around and ask why, how, and to whom. As such, the observations made will likely begin technical and expand beyond it.
A mindful observation of form and function should consider physical technique as well as emotional content (we all remember the finger pointing to the moon right?) and presence of character. Some questions that might arise include: who are you? Why are you moving in such a way? What change in emotional state does this bring? Are you feeling focus…or anger? How does this relate to the bigger picture of the art? Are you being wasteful? Does the dignity of this kata walk with you when you leave the dojo?
One of the least tangible but most critical qualities of true martial arts masters is Hinkaku, a possession of quiet dignity. When around those rare individuals who embody Hinkaku one tends to feel at ease, and wishes the individual would speak more as everything they say and do has weight. In some manner, the dignified individual both exemplifies the simplicity of training for trainings-sake and the discovery of mindful introspection.
Of course, a person of Hinkaku has something else that can’t be written about or photographed or recorded. But that once again is the purpose of mindfulness, as everyone’s something is entirely unique and embodying it is paramount to the martial way.