This is the second article in Reader Week II. Author Jason Knight is a Nidan in Washin-Ryu Karate-do with the Pacific Martial Arts Federation. He holds a Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Counseling where he studied the psychological benefits of martial arts training. He has developed karate programs for non-profits and school districts focusing on character development throughout San Diego and Los Angeles Counties. He continues this work in his dojo in Los Angeles and writes about personal transformation through karate-do training in his blog yearofbruce.com.
The Science Behind the Benefits of Martial Arts Training
As martial artists, many of us are familiar with Eastern philosophical descriptions of the benefits of martial arts training. Just as Western medicine has begun research into understanding the possible benefits of Eastern medicine, Western research psychology has begun to investigate the possible benefits of Eastern approaches to psychological health due to the tendency to focus on preventative mental health as opposed to waiting until problems become visible and more entrenched. In traditional Japanese culture, this would often take the form of parents recruiting an adult role model who would lead their child on a path of learning involving a traditional art. These arts have included iaido, ikebana, chado, and karate-do (Suzuki, 1970).
Seeking to understand the benefits of the martial arts, Western research in disciplines including education, psychology, and sports psychology have begun to explore how the martial arts can effect mental wellness. Alan James and Richard Jones (1982) were among the first researchers to describe the benefits of karate-do as a means of cultural development. In their research they describe how through karate-do’s systematic form of training, individuals go through a process of acquiring a new social identity and consequently begin to absorb the dojo’s belief system. The authors discuss character development along two processes: physical and mental (pg. 343):
“An important accomplishment of many novice karatika comes from pushing the body through a sequence of strenuous physical exercises … By pushing the body to the limits and beyond, the karatika becomes aware of an inner strength, and gains the confidence in being able to perform exercises previously regarded as impossible … Increased fitness and suppleness, an awareness of what has been achieved on the physical plane, penetrates the psychological make-up of the karatika and contributes to the emergence of a new, confident self-image.”
In this case, the authors describe the process as pushing the body in order to develop physical awareness, which in turn will improve psychological awareness. As a result of this new self-image, the authors describe a state of preparedness “which is expressed in the normative expectation that once a karatika enters the dojo he becomes and remains, fully alert and prepared … (involving) concentration on one’s own efforts and ignoring everything else” (p 343). The authors further state, “In time, longer and more intense periods of concentration (occur), thereby enhancing self-confidence and diminishing self-consciousness” (p. 244).
Schmidt (1982) describes martial arts training, as it is thought of in Japan, as philosophical education. This training unfolds as a process that emerges from the relationship between the student and Sensei and progresses in a predictable way. The author explains further (p. 71):
“Reflective of the Zen method of training, the emphasis is on a non-verbalized, intuitive approach, rather than intellection … It is the total involvement of one’s physical and mental powers to unceasingly struggle for a solution to a problem.”
In the above statement, the problem can be conceptualized as the attempt for perfection, while the struggle could be conceptualized as a progressively increasing set of goals. The author further describes how this training develops across four stages: gyo, shugyo, jutsu, and do (p. 72):
“The gyo, or introductory, stage represents the initial level of training, where the Budoka, is introduced to his chosen martial art, its customs and etiquette, his teachers and senseis, as well as his training hall, the dojo. The trainee learns that budo techniques must be practiced assiduously. At this level, training is a process of trial and error. (At the shugyo stage), the trainee attempts to reproduce the actions of the master teacher. … The master teacher presents the trainee with physical koans (kata in karate-do), which force the trainee to solve the various conceptual problems associated with this particular art. (At the jutsu level), the trainee has acquired a mastery of basic skills but still senses an incompleteness in the techniques. Movements once requiring conscious thought processes are now fully internalized and executed automatically. At the do stage, training becomes an ‘artless’ art where the expert, who has transcended the outer forms, is both master of himself and the art.”
Additionally, Kauz (1977) explains (pg. 83):
“The intention is to learn to focus the conscious mind on something other than our everyday concerns, which usually receive its exclusive attention. Moreover, the students attempt to maintain their focus for longer and longer periods of time, undistracted by intruding thoughts or sensations (italics added).”
Weiser, Kutz, Jaconsen, and Weiser (1995) describe martial arts training as a more effective psychotherapy (pg. 123):
“The physical learning through the nonverbal exercises of the martial arts can improve mental health. It fosters recognition of the integration of mind and body, teaches practitioners to relax, to focus, to communicate, to persevere, and to be self-aware and self-accepting, while striving for improvement. In addition, it emphasizes minimizing fear and anger in order to maximize focus and concentration.”
Improved Attention Through “Flow”
In researching elite-level athletes and entrepreneurs, Csikszentmihalyi (1990), appears to have discovered individuals who are highly adept at seeking out and creating ‘do’ experiences in their lives. He called this process “flow” based on the subjective report of feeling “in the flow” described by many of the subjects that he had studied. He describes a phenomenon that occurs with many elite individuals whether through rock climbing or running a Fortune 500 company. When engaged in the activity in which they had achieved an elite status, these individuals described the following psychological processes:
“A sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal directed, rule bound action system that provides clear cues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over. … Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. … People are willing to do (a flow activity) for it’s own sake.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 71)
This definition describes how flow is essentially the experience of a participant in a specific type of activity that provides rules, structure that can facilitate growth, and is action oriented. The psychological effect of an activity such as this can be quite profound for the participant and can include the psychological processes described below.
Challenge-skill balance is characterized by the perception of a balance between situational challenges and individual skills.
Unambiguous feedback can be described as clear, immediate feedback regarding the activity.
Action-awareness merging is characterized by the participant’s deep involvement in the activity so that it becomes “spontaneous or automatic” (Jackson and Marsh, 1996, pp. 18-19).
Total concentration in the activity is one aspect of the flow experience, which “leaves no room in the mind for irrelevant information” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 58).
A sense of exercising control can be experienced in the flow process, without consciously thinking about exerting control over the self. The action of the activity dominates consciousness and the sense of the independent self can be lost.
The participant may have a perception that time feels either slower or faster, or time may feel absent from consciousness as objective time is superceded “by the rhythms dictated by the activity” (Csikszentmihalyi, p. 66, 1990).
These flow states appear to be quite similar to the state that is described as mushin (“no-mind”) in Zen Buddhist philosophy. When an individual is involved in a do-zen activity it has been described as feeling like one is moving automatically without will (flow state of action-awareness merging), with single-pointed concentration (flow state of total concentration), feeling totally in control of oneself and indeed one’s opponent (flow state of sense of exercising control), and feeling as if no time had passed (flow state of time feeling slower or faster).
It is through developing these heightened awarenesses that karate-do students may develop increased concentration and develop a sense of calmness, relaxation, and freedom from agitation (Columbus & Rice, 1998). It has even been postulated that juvenile delinquency may be a result of a lack of flow or do-zen experiences (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 69):
“Much of what has been labeled juvenile delinquency—car theft, vandalism, rowdy behavior in general—is motivated by the need to have flow experiences not available in ordinary life. As long as a significant segment of society has few opportunities to encounter meaningful challenges, and few chances to develop the skills necessary to benefit from them, we must expect that violence and crime will attract those who cannot find their way to a more complex autotelic (self-directed flow) experience.”
This is, of course, a process of development that involves a lifetime of training and involves many experiences, but is an attempt nonetheless to explore how traditional martial arts training aids in character development. This article highlights that if actions are continuously repeated in slow progression toward mastery until actions and thinking become spontaneous, major benefits occur. In Zen philosophy, spontaneous action is the natural state that allows the mentally unencumbered individual to act in a continuously tranquil, yet powerful manner. This is the ultimate desired outcome and has natural ramifications for positive mental health.
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It’s my pleasure to present this interview with Rory Miller. Mr. Miller is a rare and valuable resource for martial artists, law enforcement officers, and civilians alike looking to improve their understanding of violence.
Rory Miller has seventeen years of experience working in maximum security detentions, booking, and mental health facilities. He has been able to take that experience into the “classroom” where he has conducted many training sessions for professionals and civilians. Mr. Miller has developed a unique voice in the self defense community and is widely regarded for his ability to transmit not just technical knowledge but also insight into the emotional and psychological nature of violent acts.
Mr. Miller recently sat down for a video Q&A that explores some of his background and ideas regarding violence in the modern world. He discusses his early days studying judo and jujutsu as well as learning about physiology and taking his experience into the world of law enforcement (warning: some explicit language):
I was able to ask Mr. Miller some questions myself, aimed more toward his experience with traditional martial arts and what he’s learned that could help other TMA practitioners. Please enjoy!
MA: In the martial arts world there is sometimes a feeling of needing to “prove” one’s fighting skills and style by engaging in real combat, even sometimes seeking it out. This brings up an interesting conundrum – is seeking out real trouble necessary, and can it be reconciled with the ethical tenants in most arts of using violence only as a last resort?
RM: If you want to prove your fighting skills, or if you want to test yourself, there is boxing, judo, MMA, etc. These are fantastic. I think martial sports, particularly MMA, has evolved to semi-safely measure strength, speed, endurance, adaptability, intelligence, and skill. If that is what you are asking, no– there’s no need to seek trouble.
That said, until you get in trouble, you’ll never really grasp that it is a different problem than fighting skill.
It’s hard to explain. Everything physical you get from a martial sport will help you in a shitty situation. The only real problems are mental– the assumption that unexpected violence is the same as a match; the mindset that you must ‘win’ a ‘contest.’ The idea that it is a fight. The reliance on time to prepare or the expectations of what will or won’t happen…It’s not that one is right or wrong or that one is more intense than the other. My first use of force at the sheriff’s office was a skinny addict gang-banger. After training with college-level athletes for most of a decade, he felt like he was made of cheese.But, because you are taking it farther, under higher adrenaline, with both more chaos and fewer ‘knowns’ there are some things you will learn in real trouble that you simply can’t learn anywhere else. Some of it will validate your training, some will discredit it and a lot will explain some things that are useless for sparring work great in an ambush.
MA: You have experience in classical jujutsu as well as law enforcement. What lessons from jujutsu have you found most applicable to your law enforcement? On the flipside, what have you taken from law enforcement that helped you in jujutsu?
RM: I had the luck of starting with extraordinary trainers. My first judo coaches, Wolfgang Dill and Mike Moore were conditioning monsters who made it clear this was physics, not mysticism. So I spent most of my early career with college athletes, going hard, trying for perfect body mechanics– and they insisted it wasn’t real judo unless I could fight out of my weight class. That, especially expected and required to compete at least one and usually two weight classes up, was crucial. Jujutsu under Dave Sumner was another level. It wasn’t just a mixed martial art in the sense that it had take-downs, strikes, grappling, locking, gouging… it was also completely integrated. Strikes were part of the takedowns. One motion could simultaenously lock, strike, and throw. The o-soto-gari outside leg sweep that I learned in judo was modified by simple adjusting the angle of two limbs into a technique that took exactly the same amount of time, had the same throw, but also collapsed the trachea and blew out the knee.
So what I got from the classical JJ, was fantastic body mechanics, extremely efficient motion, an ability to deal with fast complicated attacks and a familiarity with damn near everything a bad guy can do.
What I got from working Corrections was perspective. Judo was a sport and jujutsu pre-dates the concept of force law so needing to justify each force incident made me understand the ethics. The fact that so many things happened so fast taught me to trust and understand how my subconscious works under stress. One physically obvious perspective shift– the hardest part of a judo match is getting into position for the hip and shoulder throws. It’s a chess match of timing and ruthless speed. I once had someone tell me that those throws were worthless in a real encounter because “you never turn your back on an enemy” and it made sense at the time. Thing is, though, that real enemies jump on your back. Not only was something that was deemed ‘worthless’ actually effective, the part that was hardest in training was given to you in real life.
MA: Your life experiences have helped you in understanding real life violence. In what ways have you helped traditional martial artists break bad assumptions or habits they have developed during their training which may actually get them hurt?
RM: No one understands real violence. Anything I’ve done is only a piece. You can be the most experienced doorman in the world but you will know nothing about how an infantry soldier feels or what a rape victim has experienced. You can be the world’s foremost expert on domestic violence and know almost nothing about predatory criminals or gang culture. It’s a big animal. I’m just a former jail guard. I know some things, like criminals, pretty well. Job circumstances required most incidents to be handled without weapons, which is closer to what most martial artists train. But outside of that, there are tons of things I don’t know. Currently a few of us are trying to coordinate a group of people with expertise in different parts of this subject. Can’t share details right now but it will be first hand information available nowhere else.
Martial artists break their own assumptions. I do help with some things. People tell you, “There are no rules in a streetfight,” but at the same time if you get a call from school saying your eight-year-old stabbed a kid who pushed him on the playground, you know well that he broke one of the streetfighting ‘rules.’ The model in “Facing Violence” and “Logic of Violence” help explain that there are different types of violence with different rules. What is completely appropriate for a home invasion is ridiculously overkill for taking the keys away from a drunk friend. Once the martial artists see the context, actually look at the problem, they can make informed decision about where their system fits. How to apply it and when not to. If I’ve done anything for the martial arts community it is simply describing the problem, creating a lexicon so we are talking about the same thing and introducing a few drills. Making it useful will always be on the students, on the people who adapt the knowledge.
MA: One piece of advice you provide is not to keep training generic, but to actually think about the kind of threat profile a person may face. For individuals who have never attempted such a mental exercise, could you give some basic advice for how to implement that into training?
RM: Yeah, but you probably won’t like it. The “Logic of Violence” DVD, by the way, is an attempt to video the class that covers this.
There are only a handful of types of interpersonal violence. I’m going to leave domestic violence out of this, because it’s a big subject and easy to confuse. Basically, social violence is about group dynamics and centers around membership, territory, status and rules. If a stranger comes to your house to tell you you are a crappy father, you’ll get angry. And, because of the group identity, often your victim will get angry, defend you and attack the police. Insiders versus outsiders. Territory and status range from, “What are you lookin’ at, asshole?” to “You lookin’ at my girl?” Rules enforcement violence ranges from a spanking to an execution, from a look when someone is rude to “I’m gonna teach you a lesson, boy.” All of these are predictable and avoidable.
Predatory violence breaks down two ways– resource predators need money, usually for drugs and they want it as quickly and safely as possible. A process predator wants the joy of causing pain and making someone beg.
So with the exception of relations you stay in (one of the reasons I avoid DV here) the social violences are avoidable. I’ll go so far as to say that if you want to use your mad martial arts skillz against a social level of attack (which most closely mirrors the dueling or sparring paradigm) you actually have to be an ass to trigger it.
For predatory violence, you are targeted when you have a resource the bad guy wants (money, say, or sex or even the kind of face that a bully thinks he can make cry) and he thinks he can get away with it.
Basically, and this is the part most martial artists don’t want to hear – the average guy who is really into martial arts will be or become fit and alert. They become the kind of person who will never be targeted for the things they train. Not unless they are asses or actively seek it. And even then, it won’t be the perfect fantasy. A drunk college kid in a Monkey Dance, maybe.
The people who most need the training are the ones who won’t seek it. That’s both cause and effect. Women are targeted for more predatory crimes, and more horrible ones, than men. Geriatrics are more vulnerable to bad guys than young athletes. Your victim profile if you are a young, fit martial athlete? Damn near nothing, unless you are stupid, arrogant and/or socially inept. Stupid people can and will get in trouble despite any amount or quality of training.
MA: The phrase “I’d rather be tried by twelve than carried by six” is common and popular in martial arts circles these days. The main idea is that worrying about legalities and levels of force will result in a cluttered mind and ultimately a lost fight. Could you discuss your take on this?
RM: If it were a binary choice, I’d have no problem with the phrase. But it is not a binary choice. Would you rather stab yourself in the leg with a knife or hit yourself in the hand with a hammer? How about neither To keep it simple, and I will try not to rant – we all know that there are potential legal consequences to a force decision. Every reasonably intelligent adult knows that. Since they already know, they will worry. So the question becomes which will make you freeze less: a worry where you are ignorant or a worry where you aren’t? Knowing and training with respect to SD law is just common sense. Anyone who says it clutters the mind or limits your options or… is probably entirely ignorant of what the law actually is.
My experience is that almost everyone who says that phrase is ignorant of self-defense law, doesn’t teach it, and needs a quick soundbite to make ignorance sound like a reasonable choice.
That said, something to think about: I don’t teach SD Law as a decision making class. With a few (predictable) exceptions, all reasonably good citizens will make good choices. But these will be so fast and subconscious that it is kind of silly to pretend that there is a flow chart. You teach the class first to find glitches. If anyone has problems with the law (and if you present what the law actually says, that is very rare) you can find a point where they will freeze and you can work on that. The focus on the class is on articulation. How to explain a decision that may have been super-fast and subconscious. To put it simply, criminals practice lying to the police and civilians don’t practice telling the truth. Practice matters and a skilled criminal can convince people you were the bad guy. You need to be able to convince people that you were the good guy. And you need to know when to talk and with whom.
MA: Over the years you have developed a skill for making small joint locking work on even big, non-compliant opponents. What do you think is key when utilizing these kinds of techniques?
RM: The biggest key is ‘gifts’. I never put locks on people. They hand me the lock and I finish it. My judo coaches used to say that there is no way for a human to stand or move without being vulnerable to a throw. You just had to recognize the vulnerability and apply the right throw with ruthless speed. It’s the same with locks. A bent elbow hands you the shoulder lock. A straightening arm hands you the elbow. In a scuffle people put their open fingers in the palm of your hand all the time. Should have a video about this coming out from YMAA later this year.
MA: You’ve always trained your body hard and have experienced years of physical contact incidences. While most martial artists won’t experience your level of rigor, are there any pieces of advice you could give (now looking back) on how to avoid injury?
RM: Not really. Everyone that trains hard eventually winds up as a little bundle of injuries. Play hard, pay hard. The people that like playing at that level generally don’t listen when the old guys say, “You’re gonna regret that in a few years.” So, I would say all the same things and the people who need to hear it won’t listen. Memory loss from concussions, blurry eye from a gouge, arthritis in the broken fingers, hands go numb when I sleep from all the shoulder dislocations, even light training in a massive knee brace… may seem like a heavy price at the end of my forties. But I’m in my forties, so, yay. If you’re training for fun, injuries aren’t fun. If you’re training for health, joint problems down the road are counter-productive. If you’re training for a deeper understanding, micro-concussions are a problem.
One piece of advice: train your body to its limits. As far as you can go without injury. Train like a strong young athlete. But train your mind and techniques like you are old, decrepit and sneaky.
MA: You’ve built out an excellent catalogue of resources to help citizens and martial artists understand the law and violence better. Individuals just getting acquainted with your work may not know where to start. Could you provide a brief description of soem of your books/dvds and who they might benefit most?
|“Violence: A Writer’s Guide” is an introduction to the world of violence. To the parts that people don’t understand. The parts that books and movies get wrong. Not just the mechanics, but how people who live in a violent world think and feel about what they do and what they see done. $13.49 (subject to change)|
|“Meditations on Violence” is a core dump. It is a big psychic vomit. At the end of an interesting year for the first time, things weren’t processing. Martial arts training had always been a mental sanctuary but it wasn’t working. So I started writing just to get things out of my head. Kris Wilder sent it to a publisher. If the readers want a pretty raw, emotional contrast between the world and the training hall, this is a good place to start. Book – $14.03 (subject to change)|
|“Facing Violence” is an expansion of a single section (two paragraphs?) of “Meditations on Violence.” Violence is not just the fight. It has a purpose and a lead up and a context and consequences. “Facing” delineates those and gives some advice on what to do about it. I think it is the most practical book I’ve written. DVD – $24.95 (subject to change)|
|“Force Decisions” is probably the most important book I’ve written and the one no one will read. We live in a very safe liberal democracy, where officers are authority figures in a culture where it is acceptable to question authority. A place where we try to solve or limit the problems of crime and violence by making a profession that specializes in facing those problems. And the line of misunderstanding between the officers and the citizens has gotten dark. I had no problem with citizens questioning my force decisions. I was using force on their behalf. But I did have an issue if the objections were emotional and suggested no better options. So, “Force Decisions” is a book for citizens on how and why officers use force. And few will read it, because they have already made an emotional decision about whether cops are good or evil and will never dare get some facts that might change their beliefs. Book – $13.21 (subject to change)|
|“Scaling Force” was Lawrence Kane’s concept. Most martial arts (or SD derived from martial arts) actually use a very limited range of options. Karate punches and kicks don’t really have good options for calming down Uncle Bob at Thanksgiving dinner. Pure shooters are only equipped for deadly force encounters. Locking specialists may be surprised if the threat is not feeling pain… and so on. So we wanted an introduction to the options everyone should have skill in, from presence and verbal up to deadly force. The chapters on presence and verbal, by the way, are pretty unique. Book – $12.86 (subject to change)|
MA: “The Dream is damned and Dreamer too if Dreaming’s all that Dreamers do” – Is this a quote you developed or that you found somewhere else? Why did you choose this as the motto of your blog?
RM: It’s the only thing I’ve ever written that I think qualifies as poetry. The basic truth is that no one becomes amazing by sitting on his ass, watching videos, reading books and listening to podcasts. You want to become extraordinary, you have to go do stuff. That simple. If all you do is dream and you never work, you contribute nothing to the world.
MA: My audience consists of mostly traditional martial artists. Are there any parting words you’d like to leave them with to help nudge them onto a path of real life protection?
RM: Explore. Be curious. Play. Don’t be surprised if some of the old stuff you don’t use in sparring turns out to be critical in ambushes. The old stuff arose in very violent times and most of it was good. Things fall apart in the misunderstandings and the training methods And take a look at how you train. If your art is truly designed to be efficient, shouldn’t your teaching methods be equally efficient? If it takes years to get good at something effective, that is almost always an indication it is being taught inefficiently.
If you study a traditional art you’ve inevitably heard a speech regarding control. Control (as most responsible Sensei will tell you) is absolutely vital to safe and effective practice. But that begs the question, what exactly is control?
Let’s lay down a baseline definition of what control is in the context of martial training:
Control Rule #1: Execute techniques accurately to the intended target with proper form.
Control Rule #2: Execute techniques while preserving the safety of your partner via force temperance.
Rule #1 explains that your technique must express the intended concept as being taught. As such you must be able to strike to the correct anatomical parts of the opponent or execute joint locks and throws while using proper fundamentals (like kuzushi).
Rule #2 suggests that in order to preserve the safety of your partner you must be able to strike, joint lock, or throw with appropriate distance and power. That means if you can do nothing but full power or wild techniques you lack the needed control to train at a high level. You can’t be trusted with effective techniques.
That’s it! Well…that’s it if you want to understand the basic, foundational aspects of control. Of course, as training and experience piles up practitioners can begin to explore deeper implications of how to use their body to maximum effect. To demonstrate these more advanced ideas, I think showing as well as telling would be appropriate.
Watch the following video for a higher level discussion of control in martial arts training:
(If desired, click the small gear in the lower right corner to select 720p, high quality video. If choppy, let it load all the way)
As the video explains, sharp techniques that are fast and well placed do not automatically qualify as “well controlled”. Once a practitioner gets passed the basics they need to learn how to execute techniques that are completely capable of doing damage, but by the choice of the practitioner, are withheld.
“The choice of the practitioner” – that’s a key thought. As you might imagine, certain training wheels and precautions have been put on classical styles of martial arts over the years so as to avoid placing extremely effective techniques in the wrong hands. When a practitioner learns to be more deadly it is only their character and mental control that stays their hand and guides them.
To understand control fully, the methods of the body cannot be separated from that of the mind and heart. Mental control allows a person to maintain perspective even in times of high stress, choosing the right level of force for the occasion. Emotional control prevents anger, resentment, and fear from overtaking better judgment.
A good classical art will build all of these things over time.