June 26, 2014

Breath, Fear, and Conflict

“Agitation and anxiety caused by the presence or imminence of danger,” is the dictionary definition of fear. But why should danger cause us agitation and anxiety when many people do dangerous things everyday? Driving a car is one of the most dangerous things anyone can do – over a five year period more than 25% of drivers will be involved in an accident, roughly one out of four. Yet among the public there is a much greater fear of flying, which is statistically far safer, than of driving. So what exactly are we afraid of?

The ancestor of the word fear, the Old English “fǽr,” meant calamity or disaster. Modern synonyms of fear, such as trepidation, consternation, and dismay, mark the hesitancy, paralyzing helplessness, and the robbing of courage to act. So, whereas “fear” characterizes an emotional response, it seems the consequences of inaction, hesitancy, and helplessness may be its cause.

Feeling we aren’t capable enough, or strong enough, or smart enough to make it, to finish, to “win,” are primal fears – of first importance - indicative of our notions about survival. Fear is a survival instinct. Our own genetics are collectively infused with 10,000 years of cautious living - fearful survival. Fear, and our respect for it, has kept our species alive and as much as we may try, it’s not about to disappear just because we get a Yahoo! account. But it does fade.

Our reliance on technology and modern society’s conveyances and security tries hard to reduce fear’s gift to us. So much so, that many folks seek out fear-inducing thrills – scary movies, thrilling physical feats like skydiving or bungee jumping – in what I believe to be an unconscious attempt to sharpen, even reinvigorate their instinct of fear. 

Unless you’ve been to war, or perhaps serve in law-enforcement, I suspect not many have much use for fear as an instinct of survival. Most don’t believe they live “day to day” and don’t actually have to deal with the circumstances of aggressive conflict. They’re citizens, who have jobs, families, a lifestyle, money, resources – security. They probably feel secure enough inside the lives they lead, so as not to need to live fearfully - read, carefully or even respectfully.

Animals don’t live fearfully or fearlessly, they just live. They’ve learned to walk that line between the two because they have to – their very lives may depend on it. Humans shared these instincts long ago much more than we do today. Our remarkable progress in human endeavor has ensured our mastery of the Earth, but it has inevitably segregated us from nature, making it possible to insulate ourselves from any reliance on fear to assist us in living. What we have lost is our sense of awareness - acute observational vigilance – critical to our very survival. Awareness also has to do with our capacity to understand the depth and scope of what we might face, which gives us a leg up on how to meet and diminish it, not letting it destroy us. 

We learn to drive, and drive effectively, without being afraid, yet there may be times while driving we become fearful, such as in inclement weather, chaotic traffic, or unpredictable circumstances. Yet the more experience we accrue driving, the more we find we can tolerate – the more confident and unflappable we become of our own and others’ survival. I wouldn’t call this “fear inoculation,” but rather learning to mitigate our fears through proper training to formulate “good habits.” 

The training of martial arts for good habits can likewise reduce the threat of the consequences of hesitancy and helplessness, so we can act in spite of being afraid in the face of imminent danger. Training provides access to a knowledge base that is thousands of years old and contains options to age-old problems of conflict. By studying these options, we begin to demystify the problem, and gain answers that offer a glimpse into the martial perspective.

Consistent training in a relaxed manner, free from anxiety and tension is one of the best ways to achieve the confident composure required to deal with conflict and danger. This is not only the key to gaining ability in Taijutsu, it also provides us a physiological advantage in the awareness and command of our body under the conditions of stress.

Our autonomic nervous system makes up the physiological aspects out of our direct control, like heartbeat and perspiration. When its sympathetic response, like the emotions of fear and anger, unleash themselves it is our breath that can bring them back into alignment and control. Thus the study and command of proper breathing is another good habit everyone should strive for.

Lie down and draw the feet in, so the knees raise up. “Lengthen” the body by activating the posture – have the feeling of trying to touch the top of one’s head to the wall. Begin breathing by inhaling through the nose to the fullest extent. Fill the lungs to capacity and exhale through the nose.

On the second inhalation, inhale again through the nose as if filling the entire body cavity with air - like a balloon. Exhale through the mouth with the distinctive sound, “HAAA.” The belly should rise and fall with each breath, in and out. The back should also expand, closing the gap between the small of the back and the floor on each inhalation (this expansion is also true while in a seated position).

This belly breathing can become the natural way of breathing. It is how most babies breathe and can be very useful with Taijutsu. Once comfortable with the manner above, begin to push the belly outward, expanding it like a balloon on inhalation, and then draw it in, contracting it, on exhalation. Push the muscles out to make the belly round, creating space inside the body cavity, and then pull the muscles in, as if trying to touch the spine with the stomach from the inside. Hold for several seconds, before and after inhalation. This is not only worthwhile training, but also serves as a massage for the organs and can assist with problems of digestion.

Tactical Breathing
Throughout the Law Enforcement and military community there exists a manner of breathing for stress reduction commonly known as “Tactical Breathing.” It is well known that stress affects the body in destructive ways over short and long periods of time. Conscious and sustained breath control during periods of stress and post-stress (when vulnerability may actually be highest) calms nerves to regain focus and control. The widely used technique is an “inhale-hold-exhale-hold” method most often based upon a count of four: 
Inhale through the nose and into the belly for four counts
Hold for four counts 
Exhale through the mouth for four counts
Hold for four counts
Repeat as needed
On Breathing
When trying to fit arbitrary breathing methods into various positions, movements, or endeavors we may find them cumbersome and intrusive. There are methods of deep breathing, belly breathing, and chest breathing, but none of them may seem to be appropriate all of the time. In some cases, belly breathing may be best, in others, higher up, chest breathing. Knowing how breath “fits” into the actions being performed is better than relying on any single method.

Shizuto Masunaga writes about breathing and the use of imagery at length in his book, Meridian Exercises: 
In ancient times Chinese said that people near death breathed through their nose only, while sick persons breathed with their shoulders, and ordinary people breathed with their chest. Wise men were said to breathe with their belly, and masters from the soles of their feet. This means that the lower the focal point of one’s breathing, the more an individual has ochituski (Japanese for settled or stable Ki) or composure, and the more one can breathe with his whole body. Abdominal breathing is what wise individuals strive for, but even this is not the ultimate way to breathe. The ideal to work toward is a mental image of drawing in and sending out Ki from the tips of our fingers and toes.    
Integrating the principles of Hara Kokyuho, deep breathing methods, including activation of the posture, into everyday life is a terrific way to maintain superior breath and give us a pathway toward better well-being and awareness. This also increases our chances of understanding the way breath can and should operate naturally whether training, fighting, or resting.

June 12, 2014

To Train a Warrior Art – Part III

This third and final installment has to do with moving in tactical space, the last piece to training warrior arts.

As the story goes, at the Hombu dojo in Japan, Soke Masaaki Hatsumi painted the kanji for “life” on a sheet a paper. Then flipped it over and painted “death” on the back - a poetic distinction of the meager difference between living and dying.

Physically, this sheer difference is also the realistic margin of error we’re working within when we train. Too often, I see folks using far too much or too little space, paying no mind to the margin. But if the thickness of paper can mean the difference between life and death, then something like a foot of misused space might as well be the zombie apocalypse. General Douglas MacArthur supposedly said the following after battling the Japanese to reach Australia:
It was close, but that's the way it is in war. You win or lose, live or die - and the difference is just an eyelash. 
What happens when we lose sight of the margin? When our movement is too thick or thin and ill-timed? That’s easy: We set ourselves up to die. That’s the end, the one and only result when talking warrior arts.

So, how do we maintain this margin and train ourselves to stay within the thickness of a sheet of paper? Ultimately, we train and keep going. But first, we must learn to recognize the margin, recognize "tactical space." 

What is “tactical space?” What do we mean when we say “seeing the tactical space?” Is there really something there to “see?” Yes, but it's not something we merely observe, rather it’s about visualizing our martial awareness.

The term “space” is a little confusing here since we are really trying to determine at least two aspects when we speak of it. The first involves recognizing openings, vulnerabilities, that may be of use defensively or offensively. And the second is determining the particular timing necessary to their utilization, which normally requires entering or retreating from them. Now, I know that seems like a lot, but it turns out we already do this a good deal of the time. At least, if you drive a car. I can think of at least two rules here:
Keep open the tactical space. 
Expand into tactical space.
Driving a vehicle requires us to “see the tactical space” in a way that is very similar to martial arts. The vehicle occupies a certain area, just like our bodies do. As we operate the car we need to continually invoke and habituate the two rules mentioned above: We need to consistently keep the area around the vehicle open, which requires keen awareness of the occupied space of the vehicle and the environment and obstacles that it’s operating in and nearby. And we need to continually maneuver the vehicle into space we can expand into - area that is unoccupied - as this prevents the vehicle from hitting anything, which may include other vehicles and pedestrians. Driving, changing lanes, parking, and backing up requires that we perform at least these two aspects and consistently so.

Lastly, we don’t drive cars just anywhere. We don’t drive them onto sidewalks and through the front yards of people’s homes. There are these things called “roads” and when we drive we use them as guides. The manner in which we negotiate roads by the two rules above represents the use of the “tactical space,” since the roads are the key to getting us where we want to go.

Now, this driving analogy isn’t perfect because it represents a 2-D model, whereas martial arts move ideally in three dimensions. “Expanding” into tactical space is the key here - moving in all three dimensions as opposed to two. We are most familiar with mobility in two dimensions, the north/south, east/west movements, because many of us take for granted the third dimension as we move and interact with the world - the z-axis or up/down movement. We are always activating this axis - gravity requires us to do so. But this action, so intrinsic and ingrained in our daily mobility, often means it is left out of our martial movements. Which is unfortunate since training in 3-D is necessary to take full advantage of tactical space. So, we must learn (or relearn as the case may be) to reactivate this axis to gain advantage over what is often two-dimensional movement used against us. 

The analogy also doesn’t paint all options regarding what is and is not tactical space. Certainly moving into any open space, including the opposite side of the road, may be a better alternative to preserve life and escape an accident than risking injury and death by following the “rules of the road.” But I’m sure you get the point.

All of this means orienting ourselves to be a good driver, which means being a “defensive driver.” Defensive driving is all about raising awareness of your actions and behavior. This includes but may not be limited to: Following distance, vehicle speed, and focus for consistency of movement. One’s following distance is measured by how much time one follows the car ahead. The vehicle speed positions the car in regards to its context, the circumstances of its environment, like traffic and weather. And the final aspect regards the focus one employs for consistent, non-erratic driving, as in refraining from distracting actions, like texting and driving.

These elements matter because they foster acuity from which to deliver spontaneous and creative responses to variables we may well encounter while driving, like roadway debris and accidents. This habituated high-level of awareness, our bearing, then allows us take advantage of tactical space – time and place - so that if something unexpected happens, we have the wherewithal and enough time to avoid it whether that means slowing down, stopping, or changing direction. These three simple aspects of defensive driving that most of us probably take for granted translate well to the martial sphere as initiative, positioning, and leverage – the three principles of Taijutsu and one could argue Budo as a whole. 

INITIATIVE is represented by “when” as in “when ought I act?” It characterizes the timing of our motivational instincts of self-and-others preservation, our “common sense,” to initiate the scope and shape of our ethical bearing, our response to the "ought" of obligation when we deal with conflict.

POSITIONING is represented by “where” as in “where ought I act?” It physically maneuvers the body tactically, which provides no openings for conflict to occur.

LEVERAGE is represented by “what” as in “what ought I do?” The application of techniques, their shaping and manipulation, belong to the state of leverage we can gain over conflict to ensure our response’s “viability,” or the life-preserving action that occurs when the ethical and tactical are reconciled.   

Together these principles make up the elements necessary for successful use of tactical space or the “moment” of motive, place, and action. To use them successfully we must abide by the two rules above regarding keeping the tactical space open so that we can expand into it as necessary.

The main issue in preventing use of tactical space and refining one’s combat mindset and “tacticality” as I like to say, is the reliance upon techniques to “do the work.” But as it turns out this is not simply an issue for the martial community but the military as well.

Check out this quote from the “Maneuver Warfare Handbook,” by William S. Lind. The quote itself is by Colonel Michael D. Wyly, USMC, from the introduction to a lecture series on tactics he delivered to the Amphibious Warfare School in the 1981-82 school year. It is longish, but highly informative.

After he first declares that the “fundamentals” of tactics are not “control measures” and “formats” (think techniques and kata), he defines fundamentals as, “that which dealt with defeating the enemy. The answer to the question of what will work to undo the opposing force is what we must be searching for in tactics … All else is peripheral.”
… First the student must learn to think creatively, to innovate, and to do the things that will most quickly seek out the enemy’s weak spots and undo him. Learning to think in that fashion is fundamental … Once these fundamentals are learned, that is, once the student has begun to think clearly about how best to undo his adversary, once he has been rewarded in the classroom or the field for creative thought, the careful weighing of alternatives and risks followed by boldness in decision-making, he will then be ready to study definitions, control measures and formats. He will grasp their meaning more rapidly, for he will have a context in which to place them. They will be more than words and symbols. 
When we teach tactics in the opposite order, that is, the mechanics ahead of the thinking, too often we produce, instead of soldiers, structured mechanics who find it difficult to think without rules. The art of war has no traffic with rules. Yet I have often seen students reject their best tactical ideas because they could not fit them into the format.     
As this quote is representational of warfare – they are past the politics of deployment and already on the field of battle - and not the civilian and martial sphere, I would tweak the first paragraph, perhaps exchanging the word “creatively” for “ethically,” and then apply the notion to the six-model contexts from Part II (Escape, Resist, Extract, Intercede, Confront, Subdue). Bearing in mind the protector ethic, which of those contexts will “undo” the adversary? "Learning to think in that fashion is fundamental."       

Wyly also cautions against becoming, “structured mechanics who find it difficult to think without rules” (think "technique collectors"). “Seeing” the space between you and your partner, let alone an opponent, as extraordinarily charged, is to treat them as if they are radioactive. When is the earliest point I (or others) can disengage from threats or danger? 

Following that gut feeling is to speak from the ethic and ask, how ought I protect myself and/or protect others? Concentrating on the motive of “ought” - when we ought and ought not to act - opens us to the opportunities for technique. So, we must make a concentrated effort to let go of “what to do.” Turns out, there is no what to do, only our personal ethical bearing and "when" and "where" to act upon it. It is this combination that naturally produces the “what,” the technique.

Our own human nature can in some ways work against our best intentions. For every day we go conflict free, every chance, turn, and moment we feel safe and secure, we are seduced into dropping our guard, our mindset of zanshin (and sanshin, the shingitai) just a little bit more (to say nothing of the way in which society’s moral relativism seduces to drop our ethical bearing!) When we start focusing on technique to do our work for us, when we let the “what to do” drive the moment of its use, we numb ourselves just a little bit more to our own common sense, our own common humanity. This should scare the hell out of any serious budoka.

There is an old Japanese proverb, Ichi go, Ichi e, 一期一会,and it speaks to having, “one time, one meeting.” It is often used to describe the transient uniqueness of a given moment and thus it is apt for use in Budo and warrior arts as, “no second chances.” Years ago, Hatsumi sensei painted Ichi go, Ichi e for me during a break in training. And being the poet he is, changed its meaning entirely by substituting kanji characters that sounded identical phonetically, but had an altogether different meaning. His new phrase? Ichi go, Ichi e一会, “one enlightenment, one meeting.”

Just as there may be no second chances to safeguarding life, there may be no second chances for safeguarding life.