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.
In tennis there is a concept known as “forced errors and unforced errors”. A forced error is when one player demonstrates superior technique and strategy, pushing the opponent into a situation where they cannot respond effectively. Essentially, any time you see a player outright win a point, he is forcing the other player to be out of position or to hit a sub-optimal shot.
An unforced error, on the other hand, is when a player makes a mistake through no direct influence of their opponent. If you see someone serve into the net, or hit a ball wide, those are unforced errors.
That being said, I’d like to share a story about how I came to understand this concept and how it can apply to your martial arts training.
Story Time – The Trashman
In high school I was a tennis player, although not a very good one. I enjoyed playing, but martial arts got most of my time and attention. As such, I generally played down in the Junior Varsity leagues, scrumming around and having a fun time. Something weird happened my senior year though – I managed to place as the #2 seed on our starting team.
I was getting a little better year by year, but not to the point where I was actually good. My senior year “rank boost” happened because I figured something out – tennis players are neurotic. Much like golf, tennis is a very individualized sport where players spend a lot of time in their own head. As a result, the biggest opponent on the court is often “oneself”.
With that in mind, I developed a strategy whereupon my only real goal was to get the ball back over the net. I wasn’t trying to hit down-the-line winners or blitz serves at 80mph. I hit sloppy, medium paced shots that managed to make it back to my opponent time after time. My instructor affectionately nicknamed me “the trashman”, since I was routinely putting up garbage.
Something that frustrates tennis players is when they KNOW they are better than their opponent, yet aren’t getting ahead. As their self talk spins further and further out of control, they begin committing unforced errors as they lose patience and try to press too hard. Before they know it they are losing to an inferior opponent…which is generally when the cursing and racquet breaking begins.
I was never good at tennis, but I did come to understand the psychology of forced errors vs unforced errors.
Forced and Unforced: Your Opponent
It’s quite possible you don’t care about tennis, nor have any desire to get better at playing it. That’s ok! These concepts apply just as well to the martial arts.
When thinking of sparring and fighting, we generally conceptualize methods in which we will force our opponent into suboptimal situations. For example, if we punch them in the face we can then kick them in the groin and throw them to the ground. Straight forward and effective. However, forcing errors can go a little deeper than that.
If you think about distancing and body positioning during a combative engagement, the opponent MUST use the information you provide to make an informed decision about what he/she will do next. If you are close, they cannot use high kicks. If you are far away, they cannot grapple (unless they close the distance). As a result, you can use the knowledge of the situation to force your opponent into moving in particular ways. For example, if you are standing at a distance with your hands dropped low, what is the likelihood that the opponent will attempt a high, long ranged technique? Furthermore, he/she knows that a high technique is the obvious choice, so they will likely attempt a feint high in order to open up a low technique, which is their real intention.
You can never know exactly what the opponent will do, but you can refine their options which will make them more predictable, reducing the needed response options on your part and increasing the chance of your own effectiveness (the end goal of any combative engagement).
As for unforced errors…
An opponent’s unforced error may seem obvious at first – bad technique or decisions that leave huge openings. This is indeed part of unforced error capitalization. But we can go a step further. In tennis I used a calm persistence to disrupt the psychology of the opponent. Do we not have that same opportunity in fighting? Of course, conflict never lasts as long as a tennis match, but we can utilize the idea of gaining a psychological advantage (and implanting suggestion) even before a single strike is thrown as well as during the engagement itself.
Forced and Unforced: You!
If you’ve ever sparred you know what it’s like to get pushed around the dojo floor from time to time. You also know the frustrating repercussions of trying something stupid that is immediately shut down and punished. If you want to learn more about forced and unforced errors, take an honest look at your losses. Take it one step further and ask the individuals who beat you what they saw and how they were able to exploit it.
Let’s step out of the combative ring for a moment though. Unforced errors play more of a role in training than most people realize. Think of all the solo activity that goes along with martial arts training – kata, demonstrations, testing, etc etc. During all of those events it’s just you, the open floor space, and maybe some watchful eyes. There is nothing standing between you and success…which can be a debilitating problem for many individuals.
Unforced errors (aka wrinkles in personal psychology) appear all the time in martial arts training and can be so smothering that they cause many individuals to quit altogether. Anxiety during a testing, cold sweat as people watch you…these are purely internal matters and can only be rectified by one person (you).
I have found that identifying and placing a name on this kind of anxiety helps to overcome it. If you feel an overwhelming sense of dread or tension during solo performances, just remember that nothing can stop you except for you. Don’t “throw away the match” by riding the psychological tailspin of unforced errors. Recognize it, put it away, and do what it is you’ve trained to do!