April 24, 2014

@#$* it! We’ll Do It Live!

Kata are not answers. I don’t view them as a procedural list - they are not a “what to do” series of techniques, but rather a “how to.” 

In studying them we have to be careful not to lose the vitality of what makes them important to begin with. Sometimes I fear they are relied on as an instructional set and “performed” or merely “reenacted.” They should not be. Instead, they ought to be brought to life and made viable.

Kata are tools to ask better questions. As such, they are a wonderful means of spontaneous creativity, a measured study in the efficiency of organization for internal and external alignment, a lesson in the practical to tactical (I like to say “tacticality”), as well as a tutoring in history.  

We had a great session the other night - a brain buster as we took it from the perspective of “method” rather than “technique.” The first thing we did was open the book and look at the notes. We happened to be using Soke’s, Unarmed Fighting Techniques of the Samurai. I handed the book to a student, he paged through it, and picked out Ken Nagare, from the Togakure ryu: 
The opponent comes in to cut down from daijodan with a long sword. Immediately execute the technique for falling face down, and strike the solar plexus with the right fist. Turn to face the opposite direction using the method for falling, turn, and stand. Assume zanshin.
Ukemi in Togakure ryu is a shinkengata, which is about real fighting. We read the notes in English, although I would have appreciated turning to the back of the book to translate Soke’s original notes. As my Japanese is rust-covered, we relied on the English translation. Mind you, we did not allow the translation to dictate our training. We let our Taijutsu do that.

Aww, come on ...
The first go through is intentionally difficult and a mess. As the guys were using fukuro shinai there was a lot of head and body mashing and then the inevitable turn to speed and power to counter said mashing. The result is utter confusion. I like the confusion. It’s a solid way for students to recognize their progress and see just how far they can come once clarity is established. So, we clarify.

First, we looked at the attack. Uke, the swordsman, is trying to lead - shape – the response and options of Tori, the fellow trying not to die by the sword. This involves shaping responses and providing the kinds of options to keep safe and make the opponent less safe. As such, we follow two main rules:

1. Be Honest: Strike as you would strike, not as some generic attacker is “supposed” to. The “uprightness” of honesty here is in being “authentic” of self. In essence, not simply “striking to strike” in the context of training, but instead “striking to kill” because that’s what you would be doing in life or death circumstances. That may involve all manner of crafting your movement so you cannot be denied the kill – leading, maneuvering, whatever.

2. Be Tactical: Only strike in a way that is necessary to insure that honesty. Move in the least amount with maximum results.

The result, if you could not guess, was that Tori failed to “strike the solar plexus with the right fist” so long as Uke didn’t cut like a dummy. In fact, Tori failed miserably, over and over again. It was great. Very good attacks. And exactly where we need to be.

“But wait a minute,” you may be asking, “What’s the point?” If Uke’s attack is so good that its kill cannot be denied, then how are you supposed to “do” the kata? Great question. The answer to it is what makes training kata so valuable to begin with.   

Shaping the body, the cut, and the moment in such a way - an attack with no openings - as to prevent Tori from being able to complete the kata is to recognize and direct us to the challenge of its response. The answer we come to is to the reject the idea of trying to “do” the kata at all, take the sword, wanting to “strike the solar plexus with the right fist,” or whatever.

From a Tori, defender, point of view, we must try to lead Uke by creating a new and better line that they have no choice but to follow. The only way to surmount the terrible odds of a superior weapon and position is to allow them to "kill" you. If they are intent on leading you, we must allow them to do it to their satisfaction. This is the only way to get ahead of them and shape the space, the moment, so their only choice – if they wish to remain honest and tactical – is to do exactly and only exactly what you allow for them so they can fulfill their action. And if, for whatever reason, they do not remain “honest and tactical,” they are easy pickings because this all comes down to who is better at shaping the space (the moment).

The practical of all this is that once Tori understands well positionally where all the mashing, killing, and death is, they can then establish a position where all of that is not. Then, slowly, as Tori and Uke begin to move toward each other, Tori can begin shaping themselves to breach Uke’s “no opening” attack by using the very same strategy Uke is using but with one difference: Self-risk in the form of ukemi or as the kata says, “the technique for falling face down.” How and what this is exactly is something you should discover for yourself through training. Having me explain it defies the point.

By expanding their self-risk, Tori is able to place Uke in a compromising spot. If executed well enough, Uke will find themselves at a crossroad: Either they must attack or retreat. But attacking means compromising their “tacticality” as does retreating – neither option is good, although both seem reasonable. It is at that point, Tori can successfully fulfill the kata, no matter Uke’s choice. In fact, the guys were so successful, that we were able to craft all manner of henka from the original kata and wound up moving in several different but equally successful ways, even at the hands of a continually so-called “no openings” attack.

The successes by Tori were then in stark relief to their frustration of being mashed earlier by Uke’s shinai. Now, in a complete reversal, it was Uke’s turn to be frustrated, for no matter how well they shaped or tried to lead, the moment continually belonged to Tori. The “insurmountable” and “undefeatable” attack was surmounted and defeated, even to the point of playing with and being creative with the manner of its defeat.

Here’s a quick rundown:

1. Establish an honest, tactical attack by Uke shaped to kill Tori that cannot be denied.
2. Establish a safe position for Tori, outside the range of attack.
3. Have Tori maneuver toward Uke incrementally from far to close.
4. Through maneuvering, establish the “moment” at which Tori can gain advantage and shape Uke's attack to deliver the technique in the kata.
5. Shape henka.

Camo jumpsuit - check. Lollypop - check. Headband - check.
Awesomeness - hell yeah.
On a scale of zero to ten, zero being death, ten being the combined ability of every Sho Kosugi character from every Ninja movie he ever made, ever, (BTW you will never be this awesome) try to establish oneself as going not from zero to ten, but from zero to one - possible injury, but not death. The way we compensated for this is by training as if we had armor on, at least, at first.

By bypassing to ten and trying to perform the kata “perfectly,” which in reality means no honesty and no tacticality, folks miss the incremental nature of building and shaping the space because there is essentially no consequences for failure. In other words, (actually those of Shidoshi Kris McKinney) don't let the kata fool you into being dishonest. The more we examined this the more we could understand how to go from “one” to “two” and “two” to “four” and so on. Effectiveness giving way to efficiency.

There was a lot to discover, much more than this - in fact, it made our brains hurt. By not following the “technique,” and instead following the “method,” the principles manifested and the kata went from the page to viability.

April 18, 2014

Your Martial Art, How You Say ... Sucks

Your reflexes are pitiful.
The seasons move faster.
Okay, uh, hey everybody! This is a little awkward for me-
Hurry up, white boy!
Yeah. So, uh, I've been ordered-
*Ahem* Asked ... to allow a guest writer on the blog. And, uh, well ...
I am way-ting ...
Right. So, here he is ... the Master of the house of Sinanju, Chiun.
The great, wise, and powerful Master of Sinanju, dumbass. Do not forget it. It is no wonder you have lost so much hair, Jimbo - your brain was not even smart enough to keep it attached to your misshapen head!
Now, where was I ...? 
Ah, yes, your martial art, how you say ... sucks. It is "crappy." Please bear this in mind when writing in the future.  
Sinanju is the 'Big Bang' from whence all other arts were created. Some, like yours, may have generated a small following. How cute you wear those split-toed booties. Perhaps you could fit a paint brush in there and draw crappy calligraphy too.     
But really, why bother training in a crappy martial art? Why bother training in any that is not Sinanju for the matter of that? 

Many years ago, during my college days, I trained with a guy for several years. I left his training for a simple reason: He was a dick.

I liked his art and he was quite capable at it. But, man, he was a narcissistic douchebag. He came off like Chiun from the Destroyer/Remo Williams series. Eventually, I realized I could no longer tolerate training with an asshole. I walked.

Enter any school as a student (or teacher) with an attitude, ready to prove something, and you will quickly realize you cannot accomplish anything. This is an old theme, akin to, “emptying your cup.” We need to provide ourselves with a perspective that can actually give us perspective. This has to do with giving ourselves permission to learn, to discover, and provide it to others - teacher and students - so we can get to a place to gain some understanding. If we find we cannot do this, then it’s clear we’re not ready for training.

I remember a time Nagato sensei and I were talking about my wife (girlfriend at the time), who I was learning Makko Ho from. He asked, "Is she any good?" Yes, I replied, very good. “Then just believe her," he said. This is very indicative of a Japanese mindset, but nevertheless also very true. Faith needs to come first, whether in religion or martial training. The great thinker St. Augustine’s favorite quote was actually a mis-quote of Isaiah 7:9: If you do not believe, then you will not understand. In other words, faith seeks understanding. Augustine was quite convinced of this and would write 15 books on the matter (see, On the Trinity).

Faith can be very powerful because it is, at the very least, a form of assent, an expression of approval, agreement. But in a deeper sense faith in the form of assent is the permission we give to ourselves to accept the outcome, be it rewards or consequences, in regards to an endeavor, relationship, or way of thinking. It is integral to martial training because without it, there’s no training.

Anytime you deal with martial arts you are actually dealing with three (at least three) aspects: The art itself, the teacher, and the manner in which the teacher teaches. Now, if someone does not go to training they don't get the training. Simple. But for those who go, if they do not assent to learn and instead let an unfettered ego or their own issues take point, it causes conflict between them and one or more of the above aspects – the art, teacher, or the manner of teaching.

For newbies, this is especially troubling because of its inherent contradiction: They are usually in no position to understand their opposition - “Why am I resisting this, again?” And because of this internal estrangement they won’t even make sense of the simplest aspects of training.

I’m not saying this should be an all-or-nothing compromise. We should be careful with how we approach this stuff - there are plenty of frauds out there. If you are serious about training, don’t close yourself off from others - you are not part of a cult. Be aggressive in your exploration and discovery, but don't get myopic about it just because it’s what you’re doing. We should be mindful and ask questions, but that doesn't necessarily mean putting the art, teacher, or the teachings, up on the stand and cross examining them. 

To get good, learn deeply, be creative, we have to give ourselves permission and "just believe it" - the art, teacher, and delivery - until we know otherwise.  This search takes time. I searched for years to find what I was looking for. Hell, I had to move to Japan to find it.

There is one simple reason I am the head of my dojo. It’s the same reason my dojo exists at all: The assent - faith - of the folks who have made themselves apart of it. If I were an asshole, no one would make themselves apart of anything with me. This is because the dojo is not just me – it’s a community. And as such, one must comport oneself as part of that community.

If you choose not to do that, guess what? No training for you.

April 10, 2014

Parva svb Ingenti

Recently, I was treated to the story of a young man who went to the aid of a young woman - she was being beaten. As the story goes, the hero approached and thwarted the attack by attacking the attacker. But unknown to our hero, the attacker’s friends were not far behind, and beat the crap out of him. What happened to the girl is anyone’s guess.

Question: Was our hero’s actions ethical? Did he do the right thing?

If we want to understand warrior arts tactically, we have to understand them ethically. And yes, I get this is not as sexy as learning that sweet new move to make opponents spit up a variety of colors. Or the Spackler technique of cutting the hamstring on the back of the leg, right at the bottom, to affect weight displacement to never play golf again (they'll push everything right and quit the game).

I get that some people believe the ethical and tactical are mutually exclusive - incompatible - of one another. They'll say, "Son," (they use words like, "Son," even though we're the same age), "the tactical is about survival - kill or be killed. And the ethical, well, that shit's for Sunday school, religion, or philosophers whiling away in ivory towers." They forgot obsessive bloggers. I have to admit, to a certain extent, this is correct. But only to a certain extent. Here’s how.

We can be tactical without being ethical. It’s easy, really - far easier than trying to be both, for sure. Take the story above. Our young hero saw the violence and knew it was wrong – this young lady did not deserve to be beaten by a cretin. In his gut, he knew this to be immoral and acted. Our hero, a trained martial artist, gained tactical advantage and took the bully out. 

Now, had the violence stopped at that point, perhaps he could've walked into the sunset, even in the embrace of a newly found female friend ever grateful for a real man. But was he ethical? Did this tactical action provide him with the best option to stop the violence and prevent more?

Some will say, yes. And how would they know? Maybe by his intention to do right. But intending to do right is not the same as doing right. I define ethics as "moral values in action," so we're looking for the thing that is done, not just its right-minded intention. Perhaps then by merit of the outcome – his action caused the violence to cease. But this is unhelpful - just because the outcome goes his way does not mean the action was ethical. The outcome could be borne of pure luck – our Rum-smiling hero dropping that NaeNae accidentally knocks the attacker out. The violence has stopped and further prevented.  

I have to say no, even if the outcome had gone his way. I'd say he was lucky and nothing more – a good thing coming in spite of doing a noble dumb thing. GK Chesterton said, "If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly." Defending another is a thing worth doing. But doing it badly in this case, the actual case, meant an outcome that was not sunsets and schmaltz, it meant a shitty, in fact, potentially deadly outcome.

I'll assume the hero has already confronted this - martial artists are like that. They don’t naturally like surprises and like less actually being surprised. It informs them that they were “open,” vulnerable. Even though he had been tactical, he had not been ethical first. Had he been, he would have given himself the best opportunity for the very kind of outcome he was initially compelled to affect.

Think about it. Why exactly did he intervene to begin with? Was it to deliver “justice” to a douchebag? I must have missed the part when our hero swung in on a Batarang. Or did he do it to protect a young woman who could not protect herself? Why, then, did he choose a tactic that delivered “justice” upon her attacker?

And once he'd ladled out this creamy bowl of “justice,” the attacker's friends found it unpalatable and beat the chef, creating a new issue: The hero cannot now protect himself. And once our hero is compromised, what happens to the young woman? She’s left in the very same predicament our hero found her in in the first place. 

By unnecessarily attacking the attacker, the hero has placed himself, the girl, and even his attackers in further harm, potentially deadly harm. Yes, even his attackers: Had the hero (or the attackers or anyone else) been carrying a concealed weapon - a knife or firearm - this is the part where he may decide it comes out. And we get an ending shittier than, "No Country for Old Men."    

What ought the hero have done?

He ought to have placed himself between the young woman and her abuser and separated them. Now, no one can foresee the future, but this tactical action is the best ethical action for a simple reason: It protects everyone. 
It physically protects the girl by shielding her from further violence.
It physically protects the hero by not immediately threatening the attacker, which means they aren't forced to fight. And by standing up for the girl, the hero establishes himself as an obstacle to any further attack.    
It physically protects the attacker from immediate harm by the hero and from lawful harm he may pose to himself by his own poor behavior, even if the dumbass doesn't realize it. 
The tactic stems exclusively from the ethical, specifically a protector ethic. Our hero ought to have acted as a protector of self, others, and, if possible, all others, including the enemy. 

This outlines the ethical/tactical continuum, with the “if possible,” as pivot (kaname, in Japanese) of the balance, since one can only engage the continuum from a sober understanding of one’s own confidence and capacity in martial ability under a given context. If the Chang Sing's and Wing Kong's are going at it, you may not feel like Kung Fu-ing a trench between them, but instead calling the police. 

This all boils down to the sticky, black muck at the base of the pan: How one trains martial ability shapes, even drives, the moment and manner of its use. Technique-based training is too often the tactical driving the ethical, rather than an ethical method driving and shaping the use of the tactical in context.

If your core value in training is to slit throats from behind, like a commando, but you are not a commando, be not surprised when your credo, “Kill’em all, let God sort’em out,” takes you horribly off course, even off the map, causing more conflict and violence than you wished. 

Don’t get me wrong, the world is a brutal place and there will be cases when good folks have no choice but to attack the attacker, even at great risk to themselves or others. But that hardly provides license to make Jack Bauer-ing the guiding orientation of training when we are clearly not Jack Bauer.

Ultimately, protecting your enemy has very much to do with protecting yourself, physically and even lawfully. Operating from the perspective that less is definitively more, our default stance when engaging violence ought to be by the least necessary tactic to conform with the protector ethic. 

Balancing the ethical continuum - self, others, and, if possible, all others, including the enemy - is the best way to gain insight for tactical action because it's when you cannot protect everyone, that tactics become clear.

April 3, 2014

Martial "Way," not Martial "What"

We had our annual visit from Jack Hoban recently. He normally comes into Chicagoland for two things, well, three: The ILEETA (International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainer's Association) conference, where he presents the "Ethical Protector" mindset to trainers from around the world, a Bujinkan seminar, and steak. The best we've had is at Keefer's, but as they were closed, Mastro's filled in nicely.

In presenting the Ethical Protector, Jack is both lecturer and coach. He talks some and then gets butts out of seats to get physical. It's at this point things get confusing, even for law enforcement veterans.

There's something about maneuvering tactically that many folks don't grasp or appreciate. It's by far the most difficult concept to communicate, even though it's also the most intrinsic and important. 

The simple of it is: Understanding tactical maneuvering is about understanding ethical maneuvering. There it is - the big secret. Rub your eyes and read it again. 

But this is grist for a larger post (some other time). My point here is in highlighting the difference between training a "technique" and a "method" approach.

When teaching different groups it's clear which of these wins out: Folks are utterly fascinated with techniques to the tune of blah, blah, blah: "What do I do against a punch?" "What if they kick?" "Can I show him his own beating heart before I kill him?" The blah-blah-ers will always want to know the secret Mitsukoshi Flying Demon attack rather than some dusty, old method, even if that method is the key to everything else. Folks are funny that way.

It's easy to see why: Techniques detail WHAT you are going to do. First, you do THIS, then you do THAT. But here's the problem: It may not even help, even if you do THIS then THAT 10,000 times. The reasoning here is simple: Sole reliance on THIS then THAT 10,000 times, presents 10,000 opportunities to instill reactive movements without regard to vulnerabilities in the form of potentially deadly tactical consequences. 

It's what happens when you train techniques in a sterile box, outside of any relational context. Contradictory, but true none the less: One can actually train themselves to deny their own use of THIS then THAT, accounting, at least partially, for the dissonance many long-time martial artists (and Police officers) palpably feel from the training mat to the Tasty-Freeze parking lot afterwards.  

Recently we had a fellow drop in for training. Nice guy. He told me he was a black belt in several different arts and had been training for 26 years. I believed him. I believed him because of the way he held himself, his manner, and his demeanor. I watched how he approached, made contact, spoke, and comported himself. He shook my hand firmly and looked me in the eye. And so, I took him at his word. From these small details I could tell he was a guy who had extensive training. He then proceeded to get on the floor with us, bringing along his 26 years of training, and be all but useless. 

It became clear later that the only reason he had shown up was to see our technique. That was it. That was all he was interested in. It wasn't about what our perspective offered him, it was all about the technique. Now, had he been able to actually identify any technique, he could have then gotten his expert on, saying, "Yes, interesting. But our technique is like this!" It gave me the distinct feeling of being "auditioned" for comparison. What a shame he didn't find any techniques, he could have at least left satisfied, which he did not - he left confused and never came back.

This fellow saw his training through the lens of technique. I see it through method, one that can give me a tactical advantage no matter the technique. I am not especially concerned about your technique. I am, however, concerned about you gaining advantage over any opportunity that I might create to prevent such. 

Jack often speaks about these various aspects through this same kind of ideology - a method point of view. And the same is true when he speaks about ethics. Ethics is not some THIS then THAT which you either know or do not - "Know this point and you will be ethical." That's a lot like saying, "Know this technique and it will save your life." Hogwash! 

Firearm Retention Technique
Step 1: Freeze.
Step 2: Place death grip on gun.
Step 3: Repeat step 1. 
Training has to do with the WAY we habituate the alignment between internal body dynamics and external ethical/tactical space, to be able to apply WHATever kind of knowledge or information (technique) we have been taught, learned, or discovered, within any given context. Which is why technique alone does us no good. In fact, it could very well work against us, doing the opposite of what we hope and want it to do. A lot like this cop found out. [Note: This is not the time to find out.] 

The WHAT part, the knowledge part - the technique - is always added at the end, like the vocabulary of language. We have to first organize and align these various words and especially the manner with which we utilize them - their cadence and tone - to formulate and apply them to the concepts or thoughts we are trying to articulate and communicate. This speaks to how well we truly understand their capacity for use. Were we to reverse the process and simply yell these individual words out in conversation, no one would rightly comprehend us no matter how cool the word was. 

So, what's needed is a method - a WAY - to orient the use of THIS then THAT to clearly demonstrate how one applies them under given circumstances. Cars don't drive themselves - techniques on their own don't work. They must always be controlled, directed, operated by some form of discernment. This is so we don't crash. 

In any car there is the brake and gas pedals which are pressed to activate control of the car to stop and to go. But it's the "feel" of the operation of the car that allows one to discern when and how the brake and gas pedals are actually applied. In a snowstorm, one does not simply jam on the brake, lest one windup with the driver behind you as a passenger. 

One does not simply rely on technique ... 
So, we learn how to drive defensively - mindful of other drivers and conditions around us. And not just drive defensively in any car, but most especially, in yours, because yours is the car you drive. Just like your own body. 

It's the method that's of true value. The method will always show us the "way" that the "what" needs to be done.