Friday, March 26, 2010

It's All About Power

Sounds harsh, but there it is. In a predator/prey dynamic the ideal, for the predator, is for the prey to be powerless. Helpless. If the power shifts too far in any relationship it only avoids being abusive by the choice of the powerful. There is nothing the weak can do, no level of reason or pleading that can prevent those in power abusing the weak. Influence, maybe. Prevent? No.

From that perspective martial arts and self-defense training is all about pushing the power to the students. On every level. Physical fitness, of course. Technical skill, surely. But "Knowledge is power" as well, and so is awareness and understanding. If the goal is really self-defense, then the goal of instruction is to increase each and every student's power until they can not be pushed to the prey side of the predator prey dynamic. So that they are strong enough to have a choice. Always.

It's a fantasy. There is no "always." Regardless of who you are or how you train, there are levels of violence that can squash you like a bug on a windshield. There are confluences of timing and incidents and threats that can negate whatever advantages you bring to the table. there is no "safe", only safer. And that is knowledge, and in that knowledge is some power, if you can understand and use it.

It is only a fantasy of degree, though. I can't make you invincible. I can make you a harder target.

This is the way things should be... if the training is about the student. If you are not, as a student, getting stronger, smarter, faster and more aware each and every practice the training may not be about you. It might be about the style, if the emphasis is on rigid ideals of perfection. It might also be about the instructor, about he or she maintaining power. That will not serve you well.

In a vain attempt not to hurt anyone's feelings, I'm going to talk about myself here. Martially, I'm pretty competent. Ask around with people who have crossed hands with me to get an idea of what that means, since I'm too close to judge. But anyone I have trained for a year should present a serious physical threat to me. If we were to close without safety rules, I would be in serious danger.

If I can't get someone to that point in a year or at most two, I'm either 1) a shitty teacher; 2) don't understand what I know well enough to teach it or; 3) I'm holding the student back, denying them power (which they may need in the real world to keep breathing) to maintain my own power in the little bullshit world of the training hall.

That's a little different for sports-based arts. Competition allows for a very narrow but deep game. Something like chess. It's even somewhat different for traditional arts, in that the progression of teaching is set, and so there are some things that you gain in steps (necessary or not).

But if someone claims to be teaching you to fight or teaching you to defend yourself and you are helpless after 3 or five or ten years, there is something wrong. Something serious. If the tactics that so impressed you when you were young and naive still work (or, worse, you can't pull them off yourself yet)... give it some thought. If the rules get tighter as you get better, or if you are forbidden to win by any method than the ones you have been shown, it is not about empowering you. It is about something else.

Am I saying you should be as good as your instructor after two years? No. Insight, connections, integration and other things all increase with experience. I don't expect my students to be able to beat me after a year. But I would be ashamed if they could not hurt me. If they didn't have at minimum the power to make me pay for a victory. If I could still beat them easily.


Jay Gischer said...

A couple of things come to mind. When you say "a year" it would be better I think to put a number of hours on that. A year is very different for someone doing two hours a week than for someone doing 10 or 20.

Second, I've come to realize that with the things we teach, if we aren't careful, people who come in off the street could hurt us, just doing slight variations of the drills we do. So the curriculum, the ryu, has some safeties built in, to protect instructors from students until the bond of trust has developed, or until the student has gone away.

I agree generally with your point, and my training has brought me to the point where I can be a right pain in the butt to sensei. I have no intention to harm him, but I certainly have the ability.

So, so often though, students want to move on from material that they haven't, in fact, mastered, or even understood, and then complain that it isn't "effective".

Mac said...

And that's what the Chinese tradition of 'secret techniques' are all about - not secret '5 Crane Walking Heart Attack palm-strike', but the instructor having that one technique in reserve so that when he, or she, tests the student, taking him, or her, to the very brink of life or death, the instructor would have that one technique that would let them survive to train another student.

Anonymous said...


We so need to train together. All this talk makes me want to motor. But don't hurt me, or I'll have to shoot you, soon as I leave the hospital. :P


Rory said...

It doesn't take that much time. Hurting people isn't hard. Often it is harder to get them over their mental blocks than to transmit the skills. FWIW, I am very leery of any instructor/style/class where it is common wisdom that 'beginners are dangerous' and you are more likely to be injured by a white belt than a black belt. I understand lack of control and accidents, but taking judo as an example when a beginner dropping you is hard to ukemi from, but an instructor isn't, there is a habit being ingrained that won't serve you.

Mac- Time for a long talk over coffee again? KJ and I are planning a seminar in Portland for early May.

Feeling is mutual, bro. Are you anywhere near Austin? I'll be there the 10th of April.

Unknown said...

Only the strong can be gentle. The weak don't have the ability.

Anonymous said...


I'm about 3 hours out of Austin. Texas is freaking huge (that's the scientific term). I'm not sure what my schedule is like, with our current surge. I'd love to hook up, as much for the drinks afterwards as much as the training. Did seat extractions in FIST gear today. Fun stuff.