Monday, March 31, 2008
Still no memory. It was fifteen years ago. I remember some fights from that era, significant ones... but I'm not sure what it takes to count as significant any more. We talked and he walked away. I turned to Mark, the deputy, "I don't remember it. How screwed up is that?"
"We've been doing this for a long time, sarge."
Yeah. Over fifteen years. I have a rough estimate of the number of uses of force I've been in, 400 or more. Most of those weren't epic. I remember clearly only a handful. Occasionally I find an old report that details blood and fast decisions and I have no memory of it. The ones I remember are important in some way. Things I learned, mistakes made, miracles sometimes.
Feeling a little old right now.
So, when I got to college I signed on with the first MA class I could find. It was luck, but it was awesome and set a pattern for the rest of my life: I chanced into Judo and had the privilege of being taught by a former member of the West German National team and a USA Nationals champion. They set the bar for what I considered good instruction. I’ve never stayed with an instructor of lesser quality and I’ve walked out of many classes taught by people with national reputations who simply didn’t meet my standards.
The other luck aspect was judo itself. No mysteries, no mysticism. Clean physics, good timing and superior conditioning. There are many things judo doesn’t incorporate, but there are very few bad habits built into the system. Unlike almost every martial art, I’ve never had to unlearn an aspect of judo to use it in real life. The school was extremely competitive, which drove you to the limits of your endurance. It was also very traditional. Within the school we were taught that weight classes were a mistake in overall training. Small people can and do beat big people, but not by fighting like they were the same size. (Years later, as a 154 pound sankyu I went to a dojo where the smallest person was 200 pounds. I threw or tapped everyone in the dojo, including the owner’s nidan son until I got to the owner- who simply picked me up and choked me out at arm’s length).
I lived, ate and breathed MA. I would skip classes in the morning to sit in on the other two judo morning classes as well as take the one I was scheduled; then work out with the judo team three nights a week. Most of the time I did Shito-ryu karate or fencing on the off days and TKD after judo. The shito-ryu guys were very good, very precise and demanded perfect form. I didn’t like it at the time and did it purely as a matter of discipline (and because one of the instructors was really cute). I loved TKD and had no idea how lucky I was to meet Al, who not only taught me how to kick but when NOT to, and wasn’t afraid to apply it with knives at bad-breath range and taught me how to take a full-power strike. On the weekends and in the afternoons I would work out heavy fighting with the Society for Creative Anachronism.
After college and in-between, I played at every thing I could. As a very typical and arrogant young martial artist, I’d been toying with blending all I was good at into a single system. My first exposure to Jujitsu (Danzan-ryu) had it all blended, but the instructor was a piece of work. He spent more time trying to convince me he was a “true master” than he did teaching. In the end, though I liked the system, I stuck with judo.
Judo was my home, and still holds the glow of a first love, but then I ran into Sosuishitsu-ryu and Dave Sumner. Sosuishitsu had the integrated blend that I wanted, but centered around a ruthlessly effective mindset. The system matched my experience with real violence. The instructor exceeded my expectations of what a teacher and a fighter should be. In my first week he took my forte, judo, and showed me three entirely new ways to put someone down. Not new techniques, new principles each of which could lend itself to dozens of techniques.
I still played, dabbling in karate and arnis and muay thai and kajukenbo …everything. But Sosuishitsu was my home. For depth and efficiency I haven’t seen anything close. Honestly, I’ve been drifting martially (not combatively), since Dave retired.
I’ve always had extraordinary instructors. I didn’t waste my time with:
• The guy with three black belts who had created his own system- I dropped his assistant instructor with only two months of judo training.
• No interest in wrestling- I got challenged by a kid who saw my gi. He’d been a state champion wrestler in high school. I strangled him unconscious in a few seconds. When he woke up he insisted that he “won on points”. Whatever.
• The jujitsu instructor who spent more time explaining why he was a ‘true master’ (?) than teaching. (Actually, I stayed with him for a couple of months- the system was really good).
• The other jujitsu instructor who cut his own throat with his knife defenses and didn’t know it.
• The JKD/Muay Thai guy who insisted I was doing something wrong because I was hurting him through his pads and said to do it his way because it hurt less (more stories with this bozo on request).
• The guy who claimed advanced ranks in about nine arts but wouldn’t let his students work out with the judo club next door.
• The group that said previous training may make it hard to see the purity of their truth.
• The guy with the sloppy footwork and bad stick work who claimed advanced titles in things he couldn’t pronounce.
• The guy who claimed to have won a Pan Am gold in a year it wasn’t even held (by charter, the Pan Am games are held the year before the Olympics).
So, in those different paradigms: I’ve been a serious competitor; a training fanatic; a traditionalist; an MMA guy before there was such a thing; a weapon guy; the devotee of an extraordinary instructor (and very lucky in that he didn’t tolerate any cultish behavior- he wanted men who would stand up, that’s what training was for); I did dojo arashi and parking lot challenge matches. Martial arts was a huge part of who I became.
Then the rubber met the road.
This is going to be a short series- where I started and went and am… There are stages that people go through- martial artists, cops, everyone who grows and matures. Some of these are paradigm shifts, profound changes in the way you look at and relate to the world. The thing is, before a paradigm shift, you can be pretty sure that you have a good handle on things. You “know” things. After the paradigm shift, not so much. You still know stuff, but you also know that the stuff that you “knew” before was dead wrong- or maybe not, maybe just limited, blind in a way. Do it enough, have enough “knowns” exposed as myths or guesses or wishful thinking and you become skeptical of your own certainty. That’s a necessary stage. Without it, it’s very hard to open your mind to other people who have had different shifts than you and have much to share. It seems that a part of the human condition is an inability to acknowledge that your “it” or “truth” might be an old and primitive stage to someone else. A necessary step, but an early one.
Background: born in a thriving community with extremely intelligent parents. My father was a contractor, road builder and blaster; a former army (Korea era vet) and Golden Gloves boxer, a bar brawler and a legendary tough guy (he once sat politely through a dinner party with a crushed foot, unwilling to disturb the guests until mom saw the blood oozing from his crushed steel-toed boots). Also an alcoholic with little time or patience for children who did actually teach me to swim by throwing me in a river and telling me I had no choice. Mom was a former ballerina, fencer and gymnast, a yoga teacher and a legendary barroom brawler in her own right. Both were raised pretty hardscrabble, by parents who made it through WWII and the Great Depression.
Hunting and camping were family events. Bike riding in the desert, exploring caves and climbing were things I did alone or with a small group of friends. Somewhere in early childhood I got the habit of being the first to do the dangerous things. Not because I was brave. I wasn’t. It was just easier for me to deal with the risk of being injured or killed than it was to deal with the possibility of watching someone else be injured or killed
Then the move. Since the world was supposed to end we became homesteaders on a good-sized piece of land. From the time of twelve on, I was raising and killing most of my own food. Mom and dad did a lot of the butchering and dressing, actually.
I was pretty sheltered before this. My old school had been very progressive and I had been trained that I was a pacifist, a higher order of being. Being transplanted into a school in a town of 210 that averaged one murder a year (not counting the serial killer who was arrested while we were living there); where a good high school fight involved upward of four broken bones and a “fair fight” involved a confederate wrapping a coat around the victims eyes and throwing him to the floor where the fighter would be waiting to kick until the victim stopped moving…
It was an experience. My early exposure to violence was that a moral and righteous truth was meaningless to anyone willing to use violence and must be backed up to be real at all. That ‘fair’ was a word that ignorant people used and evil people twisted. That no adult cared. That no one had a solution. That a righteous rage could overcome numbers and strength, but at a cost. That plans disappeared when you felt a boot slam into your face.
It made me quick and alert and strong and quiet. It made me capable of being harsh. So the first paradigm shift from this was that, “Violence is the last resort of the ignorant,” was a platitude that people hide behind and it swirls into mist when the violence is right there.
There was another paradigm shift too, a moment when I was very scared and had been told I would be killed and I decided and acted and watched a big (man? boy? Fifteen years old at most but 220 pounds, at least 130 pounds more than me) on his knees trying to scream and making no sound. I’d slammed my fingers into his throat and he couldn’t breathe. I still remember his eyes sometimes, and sometimes I let my mind play with “what ifs.” What if the first teacher there had not been a medic in Vietnam? What if charges had been pressed. What if. The possibilities make an abyss.
Enough on violence. There was a spiritual side to it too. I spent more hours alone in a year than I imagine many do in a life time. This was the essence of my spiritual training: If you have a question, go into the desert. Don’t eat or drink. You will get an answer or you will die. You will always get an answer if you have the strength.
And meditation, constantly. It became my normal mode NOT to have any voice in my head. I lived in a constant state of what some consider a fairly deep meditation. I vision quested on my own (fastest on record, since I fell off a cliff on the way to the place I had chosen and got the whole experience in the second or so of free-fall). I considered, and still do, taking lethal risks as a form of religious sacrifice: Do you want me, Sif, Tyche, Athena, Odin? Have I failed? Here’s your chance.
This was the ground-work. Before I had an opportunity to study martial arts my spiritual grounding was solid; I’d seen enough violence to have a perspective; I had parents who set (by example) a very high bar for competence on all levels; and I had the work ethic that gets formed by cows that have to be milked and hay that has to be brought in.
Sunday, March 30, 2008
Monday, March 24, 2008
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Maybe that seems hypocritical to you. Maybe it seems that his enlightenment wasn't real if it wasn't universal. That call is up to you.
I think he was very wise. He knew what he had and didn't let his ego force him into spreading it farther than it reached. That is a sign of non-attachment.
Good martial arts (and real fighting} is in the transition. Victory happens less in the technique than in the spaces between the techniques. At the point of impact boxers, muay thai guys and karateka aren't that different, but what they do with their hips, their legs and their shoulders before and after are very, very different. Do you know why classical jujutsu does more damage in a strike than a "pure' striking art? It's because jujutsu teaches target preparation as an obvious and easy part of striking. Make no mistake- a good boxer hits much harder than I do, but 9 times out of ten, if I have to hit the ribs, the threat is bent over my hip with his spine extended and twisted and his ribs exposed and flexed to absorb the strike.
If you haven't been taught to prep the target, it seems like magic. If you have been taught, it seems obvious. A good fighter is integrated. Offense is defense. There is no separation between weapon and target. At higher levels your enemy is working for you, just another variable in an equation. A really good fighter integrates the threat, himself and the environment. An extraordinary fighter integrates luck.
The key to using luck is letting go. Luck can be defined as the things you didn't expect. 'Expectation' is the ‘what you believe’- your experience, your training. When you can accept it when training or experience fail, when you are cool with being surprised, you can exploit luck. Like anything, some people have a talent at it but it can also been learned, trained and practiced.
If you have ever been in the high desert of Eastern Oregon you have seen the steep hills. One of our fun childhood games was to run down those hills full-speed. The trick was to not rely on contact with the ground. Once you were at extraordinary speed you were effectively falling and, when appropriate, when necessary, when effective you would make a small contact with the ground to steer just a bit. It was control in the loosest possible sense. I never saw an adult play this game and it is just as well. The slightest stiffness, the slightest need to show more control than you had would lead to a hellacious tumble and broken bones.
It was good training. Life is like that- something like freefall. Control, beyond a basic ability to control yourself, is an illusion. Even that control is limited ( think how your skills will change with injury and advanced age and different blood sugars). But well-timed instances of control can let you ride out a storm or survive a situation that would crush the stolid and certain.
So back to the dorms, talking to inmates. I'm breathing a little heavily and imagine that when I was younger that never happened, but it did.
Two more back-up calls, medical only. Not worth the sprint. And the regular job: paperwork, counseling deputies, counseling inmates. It's already feeling like an off night. Jean makes a point of letting me know I'm not my usual chipper self. Maybe.
Then the first big one. Back up for a fight. Multiples involved. By the time it is over, a matter of seconds, five inmates are cuffed and removed. Several more may have been involved. Blood and pepperspray make the floors slippery. I cuffed one and helped with a second, but H and G were the heroes wading in early and hard. Enough inmates were involved to qualify as a riot in any other facility. If there had been even a second of hesitation from staff, it would have been a full-blown battle with racial and gang over-tones.
But this staff doesn't hesitate. Can you imagine charging into a fight with at least five involved and another fifty cheering and, without hesitation, taking control? Could you imagine doing it as a woman who is outweighed by at least a hundred pounds by every single individual involved? H didn't hesitate. I hope it was because she realized that she wouldn't be alone. We were all there in a few seconds. Still outnumbered, technically, but decisive action more than makes up for indecisive numbers.
The world happens at the same time. We were short staff. The next shift needed to be filled and officers reassigned and enforcement officers needed escorting and visits went on... and in the midst of that another fight, one notch less brutal. So much to do. So much to make sure got done. Reports. OC decontamination. Medical evaluation. The daily cleaning, too, and the regular day-to-day problems.
Sitting and writing reports afterwards it hit me hard how much I love these people. It can be an ugly job. There aren't a lot of praise and thanks and recognition. When things are slow we bicker and whine like a huge dysfunctional family. But when things go very bad, they are there. Fast, decisive and above all, professional. Despite the blood and numbers and force, we didn't injure a single inmate. One, later, tried to provoke force and only got a sad smile.
I'm proud of my troops today. They did good.
Saturday, March 15, 2008
One of those friends, John Darby, asked if he could set up a seminar. Sure. Whatever. John Bossert asked for the joint lock class. I think I vaguely remember that stuff...
So the talk part will cover the seven stages; the physical part entries, locking and probably environmental fighting. I don't at this point even know how much time is reserved...which just makes it more fun. If you're interested and in the area, drop by.
SUDDEN CHANGE. IT's 11:45 Sunday morning and the venue has changed. I found out by cell while driving to Seattle a couple of hours ago.
New venue is:New Life Center off Evergreen on Madison Ave, to the east.
the directions are on www.newlifecenter.org...call me (John Darby) 425-327-2152
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Experienced officers are rarely surprised in a dorm setting. The mix of 75 inmates in an open room has a sound and a feel and you almost always sense when things are going bad well in advance. So the things that "jump off in a second" never really do. Most take days or hours for enmities and anger and indignation to build up... at the same time, these things can jump off in a second. The days and hours may have happened years ago on the street or in another prison. An experienced officer is rarely surprised, except when he is, and then he tends to be really surprised.
Someone breaks into your house in your sleep- do you make a noise to let them know the house is occupied? That would actually work for many of the low-level burglars. If, however, it was a home-invasion rape that's just calling the predator.
But what if you say you have a gun? Probably good, unless this was a process predator who had studied you and believed that you didn't. Lying from fear would encourage him. If you actually had a gun? Cool, except not announcing works better if you have to use it, announcing might work to prevent having to use it.
The assertive body language that discourages most predatory assaults might invite or even trigger a monkey dance.
The best research shows that survivors of vicious assaults fell back on an enraged and righteous mindset... but acting from anger instead of fear might negate a claim of self-defense (your lawyer will try to explain that anger was an expression of fear, the opposing attorney will argue that fear and anger are mutually exclusive and the jury will decide who had the most honest-looking haircut.)
I have to teach about the effects of adrenaline and the different types of freezes, but I rarely get them anymore. But I still can, and it is just as bad.
If you have trained to reflex so that the thug attacks and you parry and strike faster than thought and pull the punch a half inch away from his nose, he'll probably reconsider and back off and you will think you have done really well...except if the guy is experienced he will immediately know that you have just missed, pulling strikes is a reflex and you have thus been training to miss and he will bring a fight to you like nothing you have ever felt.
You will get cut in a knife defense. Believe it... but in my local circle of friends, including myself, we have twelve knife defenses and only one of us has even been scratched- and it was just a scratch. At the same time, it's a false sort, since the people who did get cut are far less likely to tell the story. (I could add two more data points, Jeff and Mauricio, but I don't have the details of number and severity of encounters.)
Action beats reaction. I live by this, but I've beaten it too, and so has everyone I know who survived a close-range knife ambush. Does the fact that I've done it mean my students can do it? It doesn't even necessarily mean that I can do it again.
That's a lot of hard truth that all boils down to uncertainty. Nothing works all the time, not even a .45 to the head. It is hard to teach confidence when the more you know, the less confident you feel. And for the record, the real job (and life for that matter) is to act anyway. You don't need confidence in a successful outcome to do the right thing (and that confidence would be false, anyway.) Every time you put your life on the line, it is an act of faith.
Saturday, March 08, 2008
"I really like what you're talking about, essentially maintaining a broad frame of reference (basically, what compassion is), but, how did/do you train to get there when violent situations rapidly narrow that frame? Is it just lots of practice?
Did you ever get emotionally traumatized from a violent encounter? Because that really locks a person into a certain magnification or frame of reference and keeps him from varying it, and I would imagine that then the reaction to any similar events would be the same again and again. How do you escape from that vicious cycle?"
First, defining compassion as having a broad frame of reference is completely new to me and it works in many ways. Thanks for something to think about.
Second: "...violent situations rapidly narrow that frame." and "... locks the person into a certain magnification..." and "... the reaction to any similar events would be the same..." Are assumptions. that doesn't meant that they are wrong, but you really have to look at where they came from, whether they are true and whether, even if they generally happen, does that make them automatic? When I talk about how people tend to be off when discussing the subject of violence yet so positive they are right, it often gets down to basic assumptions that are seen as facts.
Some people react to stress by focusing too broadly- "why is this happening?" often on questions that don't really affect the situation. Sometimes extraneous thoughts float into your head. Sometimes you are so focused on trivia that it fills your whole mind. Alexis Arwohl writes of an officer who was reading the cases of his partners ejected brass in flight while in a shootout. That's a pretty tight view. One of my contentions is that people confuse what they remember and the words in their heads for thinking. Most cognition happens so fast and below the surface that humans usually make good decisions before they have ever said the questions in their heads. My best guess (I puzzled for years why their would be both tachypsychia and the blur state, why your brain would evolve two different mental strategies for dealing with similar stresses) is that these aren't mental states at all as much as memory conditions. In tachypsychia, the conscious brain is given some busy-work so that the real brain can take care of business; in the blur state it is put in a closet.
So the key for me is a broader understanding of consciousness. In even an ugly fast fight, my decisions are my responsibility. They are conscious, but they are not handled at the level of talking myself through the decision process. That would be too slow and would miss too many levels.
That might have made things more confusing.
You may or may not lock into the same pattern next time. It will depend largely on whether what you did the first time was successful. Just be aware that the hind brain may have a very different idea of success than you do. When you see someone who has been repeatedly victimized without fighting back, the logical brain may say, "that is stupid, look at the injuries, this is a bad idea..." the hindbrain only knows that survival followed non-resistance, ergo non-resistance is the only proven strategy for survival so far. The hindbrain is reluctant to attempt ANY new strategy when the stakes are that high.
Which brings up another aspect of this that can contradict everything else. Really, really panicked people; people really surprised; people with no experience with what is happening; people who had very firm expectations that are completely thrown out of the loop by events tend to fall back into pure hindbrain mode and they fight (or freeze or run) like animals. Their training goes out the window completely. (The firm expectations are the ones that scare me, the ones I call kool-aide drinkers. The more sure they are, the more vulnerable they are.) This is the piece that can be helped hugely by experience, but there are levels to it.
Anybody can be surprised, but recovering from surprise is a skill that can be conditioned. That helps with that part. Experience is the guardian against not being able to tell what is going on- just as a good MA instructor can spar and give advice to another student simultaneously, I've been fully engaged with a bad guy while watching the rookies for levels of emotion and sending them on chores e.g. "Go get a a pair of leg irons." But, when the circumstances change, experienced people can be nailed because they go with their experience instead of the changing situation. If every other time I've done this entry I got surprise and spun the bad guy but this time he saw it coming and jumped up and away... many experienced people will continue the move that they planned instead of changing to what they need.
The third level is to just accept that this is chaos and luck plays a role and to have no expectations. I believe good teachers foster this from day one by saying that there are no right answers, nothing works every time and constantly encouraging students to adapt, to recover from mistakes instead of starting over. Never set up as an ideal something that is unlikely in chaos (and that's not entirely true either- I've taken down crooks with perfect form- good stances are just good body mechanics, but the focus and energy was never on the form but on getting the job done. Doing well, not looking right.)
how did/do you train to get there is the real question. Experience is huge, of course. Training to the problem is important, which means training for real bad guys using real attacks in a real environment under real rules. How do ambushes happen? How do criminals set them up? What do you look for in advance? What do you do if you are surprised? How do you deal with clutter and enclosed places- not just avoiding but using the gifts. Are you training to do stuff that will land you in prison?
The third, which I believe can be taught but am also aware that I have a natural inclination this way, is to be comfortable with uncertainty. I've never felt I had answers or know what would happen if or what I will do when... I've never had any illusions that I was ready. That is a huge advantage because I don't have emotional attachment to a plan and can walk away the second it ceases to apply. I deal with how the threat attacks and not how he is supposed to attack. THIS ONE IS CRITICAL: If something happens that I don't believe is possible I deal with it as it is before I try to fix my mental map!!! The reason nonsequitors work in de-escalation, the reason that karate and jujutsu were so successful in the early years and the Gracie stuff later is that people would stop fighting to figure out what was happening. Fight first, re-write your reality map later.
I'll talk about emotional trauma later, but... one example.
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
Steve commented on the last post that I hadn't addressed several of Bobbe's points. 'Course not. There was no reason to. I didn't really address his theme, either- just let it inspire some thoughts on another aspect of the same subject. So I'm going to be even worse here and run with something that Steve got me thinking- note bene: not stuff Steve said or Steve meant, just some stuff I read into his words that I rarely address.
Two people write on the same subject, one obviously after the other, their general conclusions very different. It can look like disagreement without being disagreement. One can write on how the trivia transmitted can overwhelm the function; the other writes that without a base it's possible to transmit nothing of value, or not transmit at all, and it might mimic someone avoiding trivia. No contention. It's like tracking with a friend- it's not a matter of being wrong, but of looking at different things. I might look at prints and miss the lint on the thorn; my friend might see the strange print configuration of four distinct paws on a direct register animal and not think to smell the dirt which explains it all.
Disagreement leads people to expect some emotional content. That leads, often, to an all-or-nothing mindset: if you really disagree, you must disagree about everything. (This is simplistic, I know. Bear with me.) I never meant to tear down Bobbe's house. I just saw a wall that could use some spackle. But that expectation flow: difference to disagreement to contention to total annihilation is expected in certain circles- in politics, in internet flame wars-
I don't hate criminals. I'm very aware of some of the most horrendous things done in this area. I know the people who did them. Sometimes I knew the victims. But I don't think I could do this job if I expended the emotional energy to hate. I would suck at the job if I turned a blind eye to how the criminals are as people (some are respectful, well-behaved, even wise when they are off drugs and away from a victim pool; some are good parents; most have hopes and dreams) just so I could preserve the integrity of my vision of them as criminals. This is not soft bleeding-heart talk. This is not an either/or. Both are in my head at all times: a particular person may be vicious, depraved and will continue to victimize people until somebody sticks a needle in his arm and a good chess player and mentor to fish who don't know how to do time. I can treat him with respect without extending trust.
This extends to use of force itself. Maybe the threat sees me as an enemy. Maybe he needs to. Maybe he needs to imagine that I am corrupt and evil and the blunt instrument of a repressive society. But I don't have to play the game. By refusing to limit the problem to a him-or-me, by refusing to see it in terms that are expected or demanded, I can choose to make it a problem and not a fight. Or even the step beyond and decide that it isn't a problem at all.
No one fights all out. Almost no one. When it is over and the cuffs are on, I try to recognize and remember that. The fight is over because the threat quit fighting. He chose to quit fighting. No matter who he or she is, the threat could have made the fight harder, worse, more dangerous. Might have won, if they had taken it to a place where my will had crumpled before theirs (and part of it is easy in that most criminals are very aware that if they 'lose' they will not be injured, a comfort the officer does not have. It makes it easier and safer for the threat to quit). Sometimes I say what I am thinking, "Thanks. You could have made that a lot worse. I appreciate that you quit when you did." It's not sarcastic and they seem to respond to the sincerity of it. It's been very calming for psychs and people on stimulants. I don't think you could use the words unless you feel it, but it opens up a door. If the officer is seeing something that allows him to appreciate ... what else is there to see? And, over the years, a lot of inmates have chosen to talk instead of fight when I'm available to try to find another way.
I couldn't access this if I saw conflict as emotion-laden or violent or total. It's just two organisms trying to work something out. Most of the time, the problem isn't even between the two organisms, but between one of the organisms and its environment. As an interested fellow organism I can sometimes share my perspective.
First things first- not everyone studies martial arts for the same reasons. I have no problem with people exercising or learning a culture or testing themselves in the arena. It is what it is. I have a little problem with people who think that all of those things- fitness, culture, sport- are the same. Worse when they delude themselves into thinking that those skills equate to either combat or self-defense (and those two are not the same, either). I don't have a big problem until people start teaching that they are all the same. Even there, though, it is not a huge problem- delusional people teaching other delusional people things that they will never test is like any other religion: a big problem, but not my big problem.
Anybody offended yet?
Second, though I get a lot of secondary benefits from study and practice, my primary objective in studying martial arts is to keep me uninjured though I spend a great deal of time unarmed while in close contact with violent criminals. (In person, I would go off on a tangent here about how broad and strategic a subject that is- reputation and presentation have prevented more bad events than skill has ever overcome).
People are fond of saying that there are only a finite number of ways the human body can move. That's true, but there is a nearly infinite number of ways those movements can be prioritized. For every ten things a person sees, there can be a hundred interpretations. Interpretations affect what we 'see'. What we 'see' and how we are taught to prioritize it, drives what we do.
From this perspective, lineage and tradition are important.
Whatever you study came from somewhere and it came through somebody. If the time difference between where it came from and you is great, then it was transmitted through several people. This makes for two obvious and important places where things can go very, very wrong.
Where it came from: Though there are athletic basics to martial arts, the 'how to fight' guts of a system came from one of two places. Either one or more people experienced enough cutting and bone breaking to pass it on or somebody made it up. That simple- in it's earliest incarnation, what you learned is either based on truth or fiction. Experience or imagination (well-reasoned imagination, probably... but we know by now how far off basic assumptions can be). Is it possible for an imagination-based art to be workable? Sure, for two reasons: sometimes random chance works. The art may be workable just by luck. More likely, though, it is because of the ingenuity of humans. A great natural fighter can make a shitty system work. People hate losing and certain people are very good at winning (the art of advantage is a very broad-spectrum skill). All bets are off when you have someone good. The converse is also true- in one of the arts I most admire for it's sheer tactical efficiency and ruthlessness, I know two instructors who couldn't fight their way out of a paper bag.
This is also why it is important to know what your system was for. Military arts are very different than civilian arts. Arts of last resort are completely unrelated to dueling arts. What an Okinawan peasant needed to know to prevail in a bar fight or a fishing rights dispute is vastly different than what a soldier needs to know for sentry removal and both are completely different than the skill the sentry needs in order to not be removed. Things stretch, but they only stretch so far. The most valuable techniques on my list for ambush survival are nearly worthless sparring. Things are what they are.
So tradition, in the sense of where it came from and what it was designed to do, can be vital.
Transmission The second source of problems is in how the lessons are taught. As Mr. Edmonds pointed out, you have only ever learned from your direct instructor(s). Sensei Billy-Bob may have learned from someone who learned from someone who learned from someone who learned directly from Shihan Smackemdown but you have only learned from Billy-Bob.
The whole point of teaching, really, is to bypass the experience issue. . I want students who can do what I can do without the (feel free to ignore, it's been written before) screws in the knee and the fists that won't close all the way and the memory loss from concussions and the eye that is permanently blurry from the scratched lens and the wrist that pops loud enough to wake me up and the fingers that go numb.
Combat is rare enough and messy enough that very few people will ever gather enough experiences to have much insight. It is weird, too in that everything you have learned about human psychology and civilization ceases to apply under rage and fear; that everything you think you can expect from your mind and body changes under extreme stress. On a very fundamental level, the 'you' in an assault won't be the same 'you' that trained for the assault. People don't accept this. People are funny, too. They can't leave simple alone; they feel a need to 'improve' things even when they don't understand them... and secretly, they think that they are smarter than everybody else.
So the fact that someone gathered and the experience he or she transmitted is now at the mercy of how well each generation of instructor can pass it on. And each generation will be tempted to 'improve' the product. Each generation may lose or forget something or accidentally change something. The changes become part of the tradition.
Rote memory can avoid this, sort of. If you make a standard high enough, information can be passed down word for word and motion for motion even if no one understands it. The problem, of course, is that people come to believe their skill is measured by precision and not by adaptability, by how they move and not how they think or see. It is the essence of the dilemma between moving right and moving well.
One of the cool things about the rote system is that it can get information, intact, to people who might use it generations down the line. I've never seriously studied karate, but I see more good fighting skills and wisdom in karate kata than almost any karate instructor I know. But in a lot of ways, it is like teaching answers without questions.
Bottom line- are tradition and lineage important? If you have neither, you're just making stuff up. Unless you have a good amount of first-hand experience with the subject it is just mental entertainment. If the tradition arose from somewhere else that applies, the seeds were there. If not, you are just indulging in someone else's fantasy. If the seeds were there but the teaching was flawed... the seeds are usually still there, but you will have to find them on your own. My preference is to learn things that have proven useful, passed on by people who understood them- but I'm funny that way.
Sunday, March 02, 2008
It is possible for someone to do something badly because they don't know how to do it well. It is also possible for someone to do something badly in exactly the same way because of who they are. One is a training issue, the other a character flaw. One is a relatively easy fix. The other may not be fixable.
This problem hits a lot of buttons in our society. The word "flaw" is very judgmental, and that is frowned on. The idea that some people might not be able to learn something seems clearly discriminatory and possibly even elitist.
These buttons exist side-by-side with other facts, that are rarely challenged but just the same things in different words. All people are different. Personalities are defined as the collection of character traits that last over time. It is okay to say that everyone has a talent (though some seem to very clearly not) and it is sort of okay to say that everyone has a weak spot... but when it extends to 'certain people are incapable of certain things', we glitch.
Theoretical example: a rookie police officer who uses excessive force. It may be a training issue in that he lacks the skills to handle things at a lower level. It may be an experience issue that he doesn't have the confidence in himself to handle things the softer and riskier way. Those are both fixable. But he may also be prone to panic, and when the fear kicks in he lashes out in a blind flurry. Or he just may be mean. Those are character issues and harder to fix, if they are fixable at all. One of the problems is that in an actual incident mistakes or bad behavior can look exactly the same regardless of source. A rookie with training issues can be an asset given time and effort and experience. The same rookie with a character flaw will be a detriment and a danger to everyone for as long as he has access to victims.
It's similar on the criminal side. Every human being has criminal impulses. It would be cool to have instant gratification and if it weren't for this stupid conscience and this nagging, quixotic belief in the humanity of others we could go to town, baby! Relatively few act on the impulses. A smaller number have no hesitation. What would be an impulse in another person is just the way things are- the humanity of their victims doesn't even register... and you get a career violent criminal. (There's more going on there, of course- just an illustration)
So which things are character and which are training? How much of the self-help industry is based on attempting to train away problems that are deeper than knowledge? If someone believes that they are largely jellyfish adrift and controlled by events (what psychologists term an external locus of control) can you really just teach them to take control of their lives and be assertive?
(And this hits another snag in the discussion- there are deeper levels of teaching, some of which can affect character, but often not reliably or it doesn't last. Or people will say or even believe that their character has changed, but their behavior doesn't. Buyer beware.)
How sure do you have to be to declare something a character flaw? When do you take away an officer's gun?
Again, in most lines of work, the difference might not matter much. But in a profession where the person will be subject to high levels of stress and must make high stakes decisions under that stress very quickly a character that freezes or over-reacts can get a lot of people hurt.
Even more, since I am a monkey and have to complicate things- what are the gradations of character and where do you draw the lines? I am very, very good at staying objective under stress. Partially training, a lot due to experience, but much of it is just temperament- for whatever reason I don't feel fear as an emotion with a lot of connotations. I register the adrenaline but it's not a pleasant or unpleasant thing. It just is. So, what about the guys who are just very good at it? Or good? Or okay? Most human traits are scalar, not binary.
This is just a discussion here but in another place and time it is a harsh decision with potentially drastic consequences. As a teacher, as a supervisor how much risk at what stakes with what evidence...