8. But…Does it work? –The “Warrior’s Mind”

The other day I walked past a dojo where a group of earnest karate students were practicing their kicks and punches. They looked pretty good in their nice, white, traditional karategi, but after a few seconds of observation, I surmised that none of them, not even their black belt instructor, had a kick or punch that would keel me over with one “killing blow.” And that’s not saying much, because I’m an aging old geezer over 50 years old.

So…does traditional karate NOT work? Is it true that the only really practical martial arts are the ones where you “rock and roll” and mix it up, like judo or Brazilian jujutsu, or the MMA type stuff?

Well, since it’s my blog and it’s my opinion, I’d say for the majority of people in a dojo like the one I saw, not really. But lest you think Wayne-o has gone over to the Dark Side, I’d say maybe almost the same percentage of practitioners in MMA and other nontraditional martial arts are also incapable of really mixing it up.

Here’s the sad truth, as I see it. Whether it’s MMA modern cage fighting or traditional budo, the majority of students in the United States (I can’t say my observations are any good outside of the US) are probably going to be mediocre when it comes to a high stress, truly combative situation. Will they be better off compared to if they had not had ANY training at all? Perhaps. And that goes for myself. I can’t truly say I’d be the last man standing in a violent confrontation, and I’m not talking a drunken brawl over spilled beer. I’m talking a life-and-death situation.

I would say, however, that all things being equal, MAYBE a judoka or MMA practitioner might have a slightly better chance of survival because of the high level of endurance training they undergo, and that on average active judo, karate and MMA players are younger and more reslient, and being younger they are able to train harder and longer. But take out factors of youth and training time, and I’d say any kind of martial arts training, on average, will give you only a marginally better chance of survival.

UNLESS…(there’s always a caveat with me)…unless you train with real intent. I don’t mean coming at each other with a beer bottle in practice and cracking your partner’s head if he/she fails to properly block your swing. I mean with real focus and mental intensity. In other words, you really, really think about what you are doing when you are practicing, and you don’t waltz around like two contestants in “So You Think You Can Dance.”

If you read books by folk who do real research in survival and combat stress situations (and not books by “wannabe’s” posing with camo pants and short little weenie knives), books by folk like Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (On Combat, at http://www.killology.com) and Ben Sherwood (The Survivors Club), you will note that in many high stress combative and extreme survival situations, the major factor for survival is not physical (although repetitive combat and survival training does help), but mental. You have to have a “survivor’s mind,” or a “warrior’s mind.”

For some illiterate, ignorant nutcases, that means being a stone cold psycho killer one step away from lawlessness. You know, like those bad guys in the old “Karate Kid” movies: “Yes Sensei! No mercy, sensei!” There are, unfortunately, people in our midst who don’t have a mental barrier that keeps them from hurting other people. They have no compunctions when it comes to killing, maiming, stealing or hurting other people. That’s not a warrior’s mind. That’s being a psycho.

But that’s not the case at all when you dissect what writers like Grossman and Sherwood are saying. What they are saying is that through proper training, the mental as well as the physical is conditioned to be prepared and to react properly under duress, without freaking out. Under high stress situations, our body goes through documented physical changes, including the release of hormones that can stimulate our brains in different ways. Our nerves react with either the fight, flight or freeze as stiff as a board impulse, brought on by thousands of years of genetic imprinting. Our breathing gets faster, our vision narrows, our heartbeat speeds up and our blood is flooded with hormones that move us to either run as fast as we can, flail away at our attacker, or freeze in disbelief because “it can’t be happening, it can’t be happening!”

Unsticking our body and minds and then getting them to move in the right way in order to survive a combative or survival situation requires two things: preparation and proper mind set. As far as preparation goes, that can mean proper budo or martial arts training. Whether it’s classical budo or MMA type training, if your body has been properly trained in repetitive combative or semi-combative situations, you should be somewhat physically prepared to do something. Preparation in a survival situation, as Sherwood culls from actual incidents, can be as simple as knowing where the exits are on an airplane before an accident happens, or buckling up your seat belt before you drive on that really accident-prone stretch of highway, or avoiding a darkened alleyway because you heard that it’s frequented by muggers late at night.

Having the proper mind set, what Grossman calls a “warrior mind,” is being able to have some amount of control over your instinctive, subconscious impulses with your cognitive mind, even in the midst of the chaos and “fog of war,” violence or traumatic incident.

Sportive type martial arts advocates often decry “traditional” martial arts practice because they see kata geiko (practice of preset “forms”) as “unrealistic.” However, you could classify a lot of training that modern law enforcement and military units undergo as kata geiko. Running through a simulated urban environment shooting at targets is a form of kata geiko, for example. Repeating evacuation procedures for flight attendants is kata geiko. If, therefore, kata geiko is not any good, why are they still used as a major form of pedagogy in modern systems of combat and survival training?

In budo, kata geiko performs the same function, more or less, as in more modern systems of training. Sans being put in actual danger, kata geiko offers a modicum of safety while the student performs physical movements that may be necessary in high stress situations. By repeating the training over and over, the movements become almost instinctive. Having the movements be instinctive is a good thing, because in actual situations, the cognitive brain can “freeze” or lock up. So if you take too much time thinking, “Well, I’ve got to make a fist. Let’s see, close my fingers together, thumb over other fingers, thrust out the fist, strike the guy with the knuckles of my fist just below his nose…” That’s too much thinking, especially when a part of your brain is screaming, “Oh my God, Oh my God, he’s trying to kill me! I can’t believe it! Let me out of here!”

No. You just have to punch your attacker in the face without having to think about HOW you are going to form a fist and make a strike.

The weakness of kata geiko for classical budo students is that it can become a dance. It can be shorn of their combativeness, their intent, their seriousness. If you don’t practice a karate kata with proper focus and intent, and then you try a half-arsed punch at your attacker and he’s still standing, you are in real deep poo poo.

Lest the MMA and sportive crowd snicker at the kata folk, there is also a danger in too much sportive training done the wrong way. Again, if you treat your training too much like a sport, while you may gain a lot of physical conditioning, you may not gain the proper mindset for a combative or survival event. An actual violent or survival confrontation is not a sport. There are no rules, no out-of-bounds targets, no neutral corners. “Playing” at a martial art like it’s a game doesn’t help in the development of a proper mind set.

That’s why, I suppose, when I was a young judoka, judo was treated a lot differently than it usually is today. I talked about it once with an old-timer judo instructor. We both mused over the differences in intent. In the old days, he said, we never could just amble off the mats to drink water and lie around in between matches. We had to sit up straight and focus on the practice. That was because, I now realize, judo still retained a sense of  budo-ness; it was still trying to develop a warrior mind, not a sports mind.

The judo sensei shrugged his shoulders and commented further. Nowadays, he said, students think nothing of walking off the mat, sucking on Gatorade or water from water bottles, lying on their backs and talking amiably with each other. “Well,” he concluded. “It’s a sport. What can I say? It’s not like the old days. We can’t force them to endure, to do shugyo (severe mental and physical discipline).”

It’s even worse if you talk about the kinds of aerobic exercises that use martial-artsy moves like kicks, punches and blocks. All the examples I’ve seen have not convinced me that they have any shred of real utility in a combative situation. The intent of those exercises is mainly for sheer aerobic exercise. In most cases, I see most of the practitioners executing movements with terrible form, poor kime (focus) and with very little delivery of real force at the point of attack.

One famous movie star testified that after doing a form of aerobic kick-boxing, he felt confident that he could “kick ass.” I don’t think so. He looked pretty good in spandex tights hopping around, but as far as really stopping someone in their tracks with his bare hands…Uh, nope.

Unfortunately, whether it’s classical budo or modern MMA type martial arts, you can’t FORCE someone to develop a “warrior mind.” You can encourage them to focus on training, but it’s hard to outwardly judge intent, focus or mental preparedness. You can only suggest it to others, and prepare your own self, mentally, for such real life situations.

Going back to that karate club with the bad techniques: What I will say is that the members appeared to be trying hard. Some kind of training is better than nothing, and perhaps given where they started from, the members may have come a long way in their physical dexterity. I couldn’t say. So they were crappy. But maybe they are better than if they had done nothing at all. I have to give them that much.

But the biggest fallacy for any martial arts student is to be smug. Performing kata half-assed or “playing” at randori or groundwork without focus and intention are both detrimental to the development of the “warrior’s mind.” I’m not saying that everything should be stoically, deadly, boringly serious. No, what I’m saying is that practice, whether kata geiko or free “sparring,” should be focused and thoughtful, and one should never be satisfied with what you can do. You should always strive to get better in some way. By striving, the mind is actively engaged in honing the movements, in paying attention to what’s going on. By focusing on practice, you focus on training the mind and body to have the proper movements and reactions “stick” to you mentally and physically, with less and less effort.

That, for me, is to have a “warrior’s mind.” And maybe, just maybe, your techniques MIGHT work.

6. Step by step and inch by inch

Budo pedagogy: progressive learning in budo

Jeremy Beatty, Yagyu Seigo-ryu Batto-iai
Jeremy Beatty, Yagyu Seigo-ryu Batto-iai

A short while ago, a curious incident occurred in my dojo. Well, it was curious for ME. I’m not sure if it registered at all on the other people involved. Anyway, we had an eager, excited new young student in our iai class. I took him through the first reishiki (forms of etiquette) and the first kata. He was doing poorly at it, but I figure, given time, he’d be fine. He just needed to hone his movements. So I told him to work on what he learned for a while and left him alone.

I turned my attention to another student and tried to correct his techniques for fourth kata. The new student ran up to watch what we were doing, even to the point of trying to imitate some of the form. Ignoring this red light, I walked away and approached another student, who was doing the ninth kata of the series. The new student ran up to us too and watched us eagerly, then he blurted out, “Wow! Can I learn that too?”

I had to pause a beat to even comprehend that on this, the first night he actually stepped on the floor to learn iai, he wanted to jump all over the place. After recovering from my amazement, I could only laugh in disbelief and then replied with a curt, “No!”

I turned away. Then my conscience took the better of me and so I turned back to the crestfallen student and explained to him that in a budo training system, you do the forms in a progressive way, going from the basics and moving up to more advanced sets, only through the guidance of a teacher. You don’t jump around, especially when your basics were still so shaky.

I’m not sure if he understood where I was coming from. When I thought about it, I realize that quite often, the pedagogy of teaching budo (which is very true in koryu but holds no less authority in many modern budo that are taught traditionally) may be completely foreign to modern youngsters and teens brought up in a society of instant gratification, infantile pop culturalism, and denigration of excellence and striving. Then again, the pedagogy is not exclusive to budo. The essence of the way you train in budo is the same in many traditional arts or apprenticeships, and in my old age, I think it may have to do with simply the way humans learn certain things: very slowly, empirically and through many, many years of effort.

That’s anathema to people raised on instant-everything. Learn form 1, move on to form 2. They get the sequence, but their body dynamics, timing, distancing…everything that really makes up the art…suck. Try to tell those people to wait and they get indignant. They may protest, “I can do Ippon-Me Mae! Why can’t I learn the next kata?”

Sure you can do Ippon-Me, sort of. You can do it but your basics suck. If you can’t do a kiri oroshi right in Ippon-Me, what makes you think you can do it right in Nihon-Me Ushiro?  You just end up with someone who can do a lot of things badly.

When I first started doing iai seriously in Kyoto, one of my teachers was famous for making his beginning students do only one kata over and over again for hours on end until he/she “got” it.  You never progressed beyond that until you reached a level that satisfied him, and that level was extremely high. Even my main teacher was firm about having me learn one kata at a time decently before moving on. He was less strict about getting it “perfect,” but he did advise me to focus on quality of the kata I knew, not on the quantity.

“If you just practiced these kata over and over…” and he ticked off a list of only five forms, “Then all the rest of your forms will be fine,” he said. Years later, I am coming to understand what he meant. The basics count. Big time. They are your foundations. If your foundations are based on a hill of sand, you’ll never build anything enduring on top of it.

Focusing on the basics is not something a lot of modern-day students want to hear. But it’s necessary. You don’t have to be 100 percent perfect in doing a front kick, for example (most of us will, after all, never reach “perfection”), but you should reach a certain level of expertise in a basic movement before trying to move on to work on more advanced work. However fancier or complex an advanced form may be, it will still look like junk unless the basic forms that make up the advanced form are at a decent level.

Eagerness and enthusiasm are good things to have. But you shouldn’t have them overwhelm equally important elements of patience and striving for perfection of form. I still like to go back to the first kata of Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and repeat it several times before I get into the specific techniques I want to work on during practice.

And after all, the best musicians still go back to playing basic finger exercises. Tiger Woods still practices his basic swing, ballet stars still work on basic form, form, form.