May 30, 2014

To Train a Warrior Art - Part II

This third and last aspect is the most difficult to achieve. It’s to reconcile the ethic with tactical insight to best maintain martial viability - the way we physically train to keep oneself and others alive. There are two separate points:
1. Fundamental ethical contexts 
2. Movement in Tactical Space
Fundamental Ethical Contexts
Most martial training concentrates on the practice of techniques. The thinking is that if they can be intuited by memorized practice, muscle memory will form, and the techniques will simply occur - even without conscious thought - when needed.

Now, I personally don’t even like it when I say things absent-mindedly – a Freudian slip or whatever – they are always mistakes. So, I am not a fan of a methodology for my body to react to conflict without my consent. This is an especially unpleasant court defense - “My body just reacted.” That’s great, Bruce Lee. Find your checkbook.    

If technique-oriented focus is useful it is only useful sparingly to introduce and familiarize students with sometimes esoteric or historical movements. The danger is in its continued use and reliance. Learning techniques as answers inevitably drives the moment of their use – if one has a hammer just about everything is a nail. This is not only naïve, it can be deadly to the user who forces a technique in a threatening situation. Lousy martial artists are like lousy magicians here – obvious and oblivious to it. 

For ability to truly advance we must recognize and intuit tactical insight. Thus training does not break down into specific “what-to-dos” – techniques - but rather how we can know and habituate knowing the right “what-to-do” under given circumstances. This means even a single technique could be utilized in a variety of ways under a variety of contexts. If training is about anything, it’s not simply about practicing a range of techniques as options, but habit forming a method to know how an option is right for any given moment. To understand this aspect we have to recognize this truth: Ethical action is tactical action.

Tactics alone may not necessarily beget ethics – you can take any number of tactical actions, but none of them may be ethical. However, ethics, and in this case we speak of a “Protector Ethic” – protection of self, others, and if possible, all others including the enemy - will always beget tactics. In essence, if you do the ethical action that is prudent – common sensible - you will automatically do the most tactical thing you can do as well. The inherent balance needs to be found in common sense. We are not out to do the “most rightest action,” but the action we know we ought to do and are capable of doing.  

An example: You are enjoying an evening with your significant other. Upon exiting a restaurant you are greeted by a brawling crowd in the parking lot. You know none of the brawlers. What ought you do?
A. Escape to the relative safety of the restaurant and call authorities. 
B. Extract the person in the brawl most at risk. 
C. Intercede and stop the fighting. 
D. Confront and subdue any perpetrator.
The truth is that any of these options and more, may, in fact, be the “right” thing to do. If your significant is about to be set upon, you may very well extract them. If it’s your family or friends that are brawling you may intercede and separate everyone. If a police officer is about to be overwhelmed or overcome, you may decide to go to their aid by confronting aggressors. If you are of law enforcement you may have to subdue those involved and arrest them. Bear in mind, each of these options may also be appropriate even if you know no one involved, but simply recognize when strangers need help and protection they cannot deliver for themselves.

This brings us to back to the point: Ethical action is tactical action. Knowing the ethical context – what you ought to do – points us toward the tactical action you can do. Ought we escape, defend ourselves, or protect others? The ethical context activates our feedback loop against how well we know ourselves and our martial ability. Once those elements reconcile we can be prudent toward common sense action – what we ought and can do. If you’ve a high level of skill, but you’re sick or injured, then repositioning by escape is probably for you. If you’re low skilled, but a loved one is under attack, it would be hard not to intercede on their behalf.   

I count six fundamental ethical contexts for training: 
1. Escape
2. Resist
3. Extract
4. Intercede
5. Confront
6. Subdue
ESCAPE is to reposition so as to be alleviated from immediate danger, threat, and conflict: Running away, outmaneuvering, seeking cover or concealment, driving off, causing a distraction, whatever. In these cases, escaping stops the conflict. Escape must be the first level of tactical training that everyone knows and understands – especially kids. In our physical training, escape takes the form of Taihenjutsu Ukemi, the dynamic body in action for familiarity with the ground and the prevention of injury. This may involve tumbling and leaping skills against armed and unarmed opponents, climbing, and vaulting. If students cannot attain skill enough to physically reposition, reassess, and reduce or eliminate any imminent threat, no other training will matter. In fact, nothing else will matter.

To RESIST is what we typically think of as self-defense. We resist when escaping is not an option and until we can facilitate an escape. This will involve times when one is caught and cannot get away or when doing so may increase the likelihood of harm. Resisting means removing oneself from people’s grip whether that’s a bear hug, or wrist/lapel/elbow/hair grabs, tackling and mounted positions, even defeating mechanical restraints like handcuffs and flexties Houdini-style. It involves recognizing the range of the body’s natural weapons (we count 16): A variety of fist and hand positions, elbows, knees, legs and feet, and even the teeth and head. Not to mention the best and surest weapon of all, the body’s full weight. One should also be familiar with the body’s targeted points of weakness: The eyes and throat, soft spots of the head and face, nose, teeth, groin, anus, and armpits. For Taijutsu, there are a number of kyusho, weak points, that riddle the body, but their utilization takes study and experience.   

To EXTRACT is to go to the aid of another, specifically to extricate them. In this case, evacuating them reduces or prohibits any threat or harm. These are people that may be injured and need to be carried or simply evacuated from an area. Under stress, one may become confused as to the ethical action to take. In these cases, choose to extract, like a bodyguard, someone in need, making their protection and defense your job. It will not only protect them, but yourself as well.   

To INTERCEDE is to go to the defense of others. It is to lend resistance to another so they can safely escape or you can extract them. The challenge here is in remembering that this action is about protecting and defending them, with the goal of escape or extraction. Many times well-intentioned folks go to the aid of others in conflict only to throw matches on gasoline. Any escalation in threats or violence does not often end well and in the meantime increases the peril of those trapped by it, not to mention bystanders, and the one interceding. It even puts any enemy at greater risk as escalation may be met with broader resistance and violence that may force one’s hand to turn deadly.

CONFRONT is to attack an enemy whether openly or through deception. It may be considered necessary when preventing someone from entering your secure area, be it your home, or anywhere that must be protected and defended. The range of tactics here involve all kinds of martial aspects, however, the manner in which they are best trained is by naturalizing movements so as to “hide” their execution in spontaneous ambiguity and thereby ambush any opponent to grant them little to no time for response.

To SUBDUE  is to effect the submission of threats, done through the physical confinement of an individual by submission locks or holds or a verbal interruption that halts further confrontation. This is by far the most difficult aspect to achieve, both physically and non-physically, for it calls to the highest order of the Protector Ethic – reduction of conflict through protecting everyone, reachable only when all parties feel safe, victims and perpetrators alike.   

If we cast an eye upon the ethic itself and review its all-embracing formula we find that in order to achieve a level that aspires to protection of everyone requires us to embrace tactics of unlimited creativity. This is simply logical: If we can never be certain as to what exactly we will encounter in terms of opposing variables, then it stands to reason the broadest method of defense ought to be embraced. Here in lies the rub.

Each martial art is epitomized by specific techniques that they wish their students to learn. But from the broadest tactical perspective, the application of those techniques may not be especially useful due to the narrow or culturally myopic focus they are normally delivered and understood by. Thus turning attention toward the ethical context can in many ways broaden our awareness of tactical options under given conditions.

Which specific technique is used under those circumstances – the roundhouse kick of Tae Kwon Do or the wrist-twists of Aikido - will in large measure be due to one’s understanding and capacity for such use. The short of it: Know the techniques - the variety of martial arts dictate an assortment of responses. As their practitioner you are ultimately responsible for their choice, use, and consequences. It is this commonality that all martial artists share – the techniques used will vary, but their ethical usage is something everyone need aspire to. Thus right action not only precipitates technical usage, it can indicate which technique from your training is most appropriate. Twisting a drunk’s wrist, who’s pinned a police officer, so they can be handcuffed, is not the same as roundhousing grandma to get her hooks out of Uncle Joe’s neck. This will mean no more ribbon candy at Christmas. 

In Part III, I'll detail movement in tactical space. 

May 22, 2014

To Train a Warrior Art - Part I

This is about characterizing one’s training as a warrior art.

Now, I should quickly note here, this is not me drawing a line regarding debates of “Ninjutsu as Koryu” or “Ninjutsu verses Koryu” or the defining characteristics of historical lineages and what exactly, precisely those lineages actually demonstrate. After a while it all starts to sound like a B-movie monster mash up – Ninjuki VERSES Korukan!

I don’t dispute that these debates are meaningful to some or that they are, in and of themselves, meaningful for history. However, my feelings on the matter are best encapsulated by the now family famous words of my late grandmother, who at 90-odd years of age could still rock a solid joke as when she rose after a viewing of the Tom Hanks tearjerker, “Sleepless in Seattle,” to declare her unequivocal review: “BOOOR-ring!!” After the thesis of her argument had been clearly stated, her unassailable reasoning was to go to bed.

It’s true that these arts are invariably referred to as “warrior arts,” due to their historical and/or lineal distinctions and most characteristically due to the fact they were developed and/or refined and used during periods of war.

My purpose here is not to demonstrate which arts are and which arts are not warrior arts – I’m unclear as to how that exactly improves one’s training and even takes on a “my-dad-can-beat-up-your-dad” quality. This is an attempt to show a manner by which to challenge one’s training in order that anyone training martial arts - no matter the art – can approach their training as a warrior art.

Another note is this obvious statement: As martial training is, at the very least, a journey regarding self-awareness, one ought to be prepared to acknowledge that one’s current training may not be one’s final study. In other words, an agnostic may be interested in aspects of theology and may in fact participate in ancillary study of such. But this can only ever be ancillary. The student must acknowledge that only immersion and deep study from within the art itself can manifest the potentials one may be seeking.

I personally don’t feel that the catalog of martial arts as they are known and understood by the general populace covers how I approach training. Due to the art I train in - Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu - and the method I have learned over its years of study, I would grant that the art, such as it is, is really its own catalog – an amalgam of disparate strategies, tactics, techniques, and philosophy. But the difference as I have experienced it is in the manner, the “way” I have chosen to train it. I might call this the “character” of my training. Far from “what” I train – the specific techniques - it is this character that creates the opportunity for distinction. I see three aspects crucial to warrior art characterization: 
1.      Recognize oneself as a protector.
2.      Recognize the root ethic that protectors must defend.
3.      Reconcile this ethic with tactical insight to best maintain martial viability.  
First and most importantly is to embrace the originating role martial arts were discovered for in the first place - that of the “protector.” Protecting oneself and others is intrinsic to human nature and the human family – it is “natural” to us in that the inclination does not require special training. The simple truth here is that without those willing to fight and protect others it is clear there could have been and can be nothing else. So, just as donning the student dogi, uniform, is to feel like a student, embracing the role of protector through training is to activate one's will as such.  

Second, a protector by its own definition must protect something. Thus, the next aspect of a warrior art is the recognition of that which gives meaning, purpose, and authentication to the role of protector.

There are lots of good reasons that people consider themselves to be a protector – for one it just feels right. But no matter how great any single reason is there’s always going to be a glaring issue with it: Conflict between reasons. 

Conflict here is inevitable whether those reasons are different or the same, for different people can define the same reason in extraordinarily different ways – a “subjective” difference. Just take the old adage, “One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” You will never convince someone by your reasons that you’re a freedom fighter if they subjectively define those same reasons as in league with terrorists. So, when it comes to authentication, reasons are not enough. We must, in fact, look toward what justifies those reasons, or in essence, what “warrants” them. It will not be something unique we can all agree on, but instead something universal that none of us can deny.

Why recognize the universal? The short answer is it’s the best way to reduce conflict. The long and better answer is that it builds trust. First, if protectors don’t deal in universals, then their thoughts, words, and deeds will remain untrustworthy to those who are forced to live by their decisions. The ethical measure of decisions can often come down to how well they apply to everyone equally. This begins with trying to protect everyone in conflict – victims and perpetrators – and then basing decisions on changing circumstances or context. (One of my students is a police officer whose technique for reducing conflict is to handcuff every suspect - for their protection and his - and then listen to explanations. When he figures out who the bad guys are they’re already cuffed.) If they do not treat everyone equally, decisions will be suspect, as will the protector, and more conflict will foment.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, if protectors don’t deal in universals, then they risk their own thoughts, words, and deeds mutating like cancerous cells and working against them. Doing the right thing means knowing how to discover what the right thing is. But if that’s done through disrespect, dehumanization, greed, or even “right-minded” reasons like a subjective definition of “freedom,” or reliance upon any other relative – subjective – value, then protecting actually becomes more like bullying – coercing the weak by force - which can cause confusion, frustration, and even physical sickness to everyone involved. In today’s world it is known as Post Traumatic Stress. Protectors need clarity to trust their decision-making for they are the ones who must ultimately live with the decisions they may be forced to make.

If we reviewed the history of philosophy we would soon learn of the ongoing debate over its "holy grail" - the “source of normativity” or the “high-yield, super-chief, double-whammy,ganga-ganga” answer to deciphering obligatory human nature and its behavior; philosophers have only been waxing on this for literally thousands of years.

Normativity is understood as the standards or “norms” by which we are compelled to act or behave - a sense of "oughtness." And the source of this normativity is most often contrived as coming from within what I call the “big five”: Values, morals, ethics, justice, and rights. But claiming any particular value, moral, ethic, aspect of justice, or inalienable right as the basis of protector authentication is to miss the forest for the trees – we aren’t looking for the particular or subjective here that everyone must agree on. Humans are funny this way – there’s nothing we all agree on, hence thousands of years of debate. Even if it’s the same thing, we’ll figure out ways to disagree on it just to satisfy a drive for individuality.  

We are instead searching for a simple aspect of logic. The “source” or “warrant” for these aspects must be a universally necessary requirement that connects and invigorates all of these contrivances of human nature.

If you think hard enough, you’ll recognize there's only one thing that ultimately satisfies. In fact, it’s the same commonality that also connects every human to every other human by an earthly basis – a universal value of life. This is the immense motivational drive – the very first natural law of human “inclination” that St. Thomas Aquinas wrote of in his epic Summa Theologica - that all humans experience toward their own and most often toward the lives of others they care about.

For this universality to be recognized as true – or for our purposes, such that it cannot be denied - it matters not that some of us do not or will not value all life. Universality only requires the fact that all people do and will value some life, even if it is simply their own or someone else’s. 

If you’re not convinced that the power of duty/oughtness embodied by the big five is due to the value we place on life, then ask yourself: Why do the big five matter anyway? What is it that makes morals, or ethics, or rights valuable in the first place? Is it simply because we agree they are? Do they only matter as much as the prevailing majority opinion that agrees with them? A 51% rule is a dangerously seductive precept to discover obligational clarity considering human nature is flawed and human agreement fallible. In fact, mere opinion drains words like, “must,” “ought,” and “should” of any command.

There is an intrinsic quality that makes these notions valuable even if the majority of us agreed they were not of value. This intrinsic quality that invigorates the big five must be life, for life is what they are recognized to protect and defend. If the value of life – its aliveness and worthiness, the dignity of “being” – were somehow of no importance in our experience, then the big five would simply not exist because they would not have mattered enough to be discovered, articulated, and recognized repeatedly over the course of history. You can’t have ideas about values, morals, ethics, justice, or rights if there is nothing about life ideally worth protecting by bearing values, morals, ethics, justice, or inalienable rights.        

Since we already feel this “life value” connectivity, it’s reasonable to expect it can be extended to the whole of the human community through empathetic “common humanity” allowing us to protect ourselves, others we care about, and voluntarily choose to protect the life of strangers who cannot protect themselves and even those who might oppose us, our enemies. 

Think about it – if under stressful circumstances, life and death even, we could by Hogwarts powers, or Jedi training, or genie magic, protect everyone involved, would that somehow be offensive to our sensibilities, or our human nature? Of course not. Many might, in fact, agree that recognition, respect, protection, and defense of the life value is the "common sense" aspirations of humanity. 

In Part II, I'll detail the physical requirements that reconcile the ethical with tactical training. 

May 8, 2014


Growing up in a Western culture, along with its values and what not, I seemed to learn a kind of “sports” mentality to the doing and practicing of things. “Practice makes perfect,” I often heard. Later I was told that wasn’t quite right - “Perfect practice makes perfect.” 

It’s well understood that if we’re intent on mastering something we must do it a lot, like, 10,000 times a lot. But there must also be a kind of "perfection" to this repetition, in that, we must do whatever it is we are doing “perfectly” 10,000 times. Here’s the problem: Neither of these can be relied on when it comes to the training of Budo.

I’d say for many things, perhaps even most, this strategy works just fine. A baseball player, provided they wish to be a good player, must hit the ball 10,000 times to get the feel of hitting the ball well. But when it comes to the training of Budo and Bujutsu, this strategy can actually work against us.

The reason why is pretty simple: The baseball player practicing to hit the ball 10,000 times is unconcerned that at any moment and without warning the umpire will pull a knife and stab him. He’s not concerned that as he runs to first base he’ll be shot from the stands with a high-powered rifle. He’s not concerned about these things, and rightly so, because they are not part of the playing of baseball. If the ballplayer misses the first pitch, there is a second. If they miss that, there’s a third. They may even wind up walking to first base.

Because it’s intuitive, it’s easy to understand how we can infuse this kind of "sports" mentality into the training of martial arts. Don't get me wrong, practicing 10,000 times will get you to do that thing more dexterously than you were doing it before. But whether or not that thing will actually be more effective depends on how well we can apply it into the context of training. 

The ballplayer is working within a set of rules and regulations. Provided he understands those things well, he can play the game better. But to that end, what exactly are the rules or regulations in Budo/Bujutsu? The bizarre, banal, crude, charming, and brutal ever-changing reality of life is the only basic “rule” I am aware of that creates the complexity for being able to "play" well as a Budoka.

In other words, the only "rule" I know to be true is this: Change is coming. That is the only constant we can understand. That coming change may be good, bad, or indifferent. But the best response to that unknown is to be spontaneously adaptive in creative, life-preserving, viable ways.

There are plenty of folks that can do the "what" of training - the techniques - and do them very, very well. They should be - they’ve practiced them 10,000 times. This may mean they can perform these techniques under stress, but the bigger challenge is always in creating a viable strategy to overcome life or death challenges when we are using techniques. If we are constantly focused specifically on hitting the ball, instead of hitting the ball in a tactical way - a way that compromises the ump’s chances of stabbing - it may, in fact, contribute to striking out.

We can wind up training this way because we imagine a continuum where sports is at one end and Budo the other. But we should erase this notion that the opposite of sports is martial arts, let alone warrior arts. It is not. Sports are not the opposite of martial arts and just imagining they are can fool us into complacency. 

Sports are real - just like martial arts - but exist in a kind of measured reality – there are rules for winning. So, a more proper opposite would have to be something like a no-holds-barred measured un-reality, akin to video games or “Calvinball” (thank you, Jason), where the rules are made up as you play. To this end, the better opposite of warrior arts and its training is to take its immediate, no-second-chance reality and imagine it in the unreal – coordinated reenactment, movies, plays, and performance. “Faking it” is more properly the opposite of warrior arts and this is the great concern of mixing up our training.

The Budoka’s job is not about being reactive to the conflicts of life with pre-programmed responses. If this is the end goal of training, the Budoka is all but dead. Repetition is important in Budo, but responses must be measured, thus training is geared to seeing, shaping, and even making the tactical space - the creation of a tactical moment. For every one of those 10,000 times we train something, the Budoka must apply it into seeing, shaping, and making the Kukan viable. 

This is literally to “make time” so we can best do the one thing that makes warrior training worth training at all: Recognize our ethic - protect ourselves, protect others, and if possible, even our enemy.