Conflict De-escalation: The Broken Record

One method of de-escalating a conflict is an old technique called “the broken record”.  It can be used when somebody is being confrontational and is intent on picking an argument with you, which you don’t want to get sucked into.

Just to be clear, this is primarily for use for verbal altercations, which have the potential to escalate, rather than when somebody is trying to actively pick a physical fight (though it does have some applications there too).  The idea is basically to repeat a simple phrase over and over, rather than responding to the other persons verbal attacks.  You answer like a broken record stuck in the groove (might be before some people’s time for those born in the digital era  🙂 )

In most cases if you try to answer the verbal attacks the aggressor will simply try to shoot down your answers and come back with more and more verbal attacks.  Often he/she will have no interest in discussing the matter and finding any resolution, they simply want to belittle and/or intimidate you.  So why waste your time and energy explaining your point to somebody who has no interest in reasoning and no interest in listening other than to find a new line of attack?  They are only interested in looking for more ammunition from whatever you say to use against you.  So why give it to them?

A recent incident reminded me of this.  Whilst driving through a roundabout, myself and a car behind me were both taking the opposite exit and going straight ahead.  He tried to pass me on the roundabout and when I continued straight ahead he felt that I’d cut him up.  He tooted at me and not wanting any trouble I ignored him.  Then he continued to drive too close to my car  in an unsafe manner, trying to intimidate me.

I saw in my mirror a very young lad who looked like a strong gust of wind would blow him over.  He gesticulated several times angrily with his hands and I ignored him.  There was also a young lady beside him.

When we came to the next roundabout, I just figured that this was not worth it so I made a complete circle on the roundabout so that he could get ahead of me and be on his way.  This seemed to work and away he he went.

However, when he realised that I was now behind him, he pulled into a lay-by to wait for me, then pulled in behind me when I passed.  I kept an eye on him as he followed me for several miles down the road.  When we reached the city I pulled of into a side road where I was working and stopped to check the map.  He followed me into the side road, passed me, turned round then drew up next to me with his window down.  I wound my window down.

The conversation went something like this:

Young driver:  “What’s your problem then”?

Me:  “What do you mean”?

Young driver:  “Cutting me up on that roundabout”.

After a brief explanation/discussion, it quickly became clear that he was a boy trying to act how he erroneously thought men behaved.  I’d guess that he was trying to impress the young girl who sat silently looking very uncomfortable throughout the whole incident.

Me:  “OK, you’re a big man, you’ve made your point.  Now move along”.

Young driver:  “It’s not about that.   You ought to learn how to f***ing drive”!

I could have pointed out that I’d been driving since before he was born, that I’d driven all over this country and on the continent (where they drive on the other side of the road), that I’d driven big vans/small lorries and hardly ever had any accidents at all.  But in his youthful wisdom he’d have just rubbished all that and probably told me that I whatever I’d done before, I was a bad driver now or that I should know better!  So why waste my breath and give him more ammunition.

Me:  “Just move along”.

Young driver:  “You just can’t admit that you’re wrong”!

I could of explained/argued that I was not in the wrong and corrected him, but he wouldn’t have accepted any of it and just argued that I was in the wrong.  So why waste my breath?

Me:  “Just move along”.

Young driver:  “You’re just a knob” (British slang for part of the male anatomy).

I could have returned the insult, because if he got physical he was clearly no match for me.  But he would have continued to give even more abuse; then what do I do, continue hurling yet more and more abuse back at him?

Me:  “Just move along”.

At this point, the young driver did move along.  He probably felt satisfied that he’d given some older guy a piece of his mind (not that he had much to spare) and impressed the young lady with how tough he was.

OK, with hindsight there was a couple of things that perhaps that I could of done better.  I could have simply apologised right at the very start, even though I didn’t think that I was in the wrong.  It’s only a matter of pride, but it saves time and energy.  I could have probably left out the comment about “OK, you’re a big man, you’ve made your point”, as that was unnecessarily provocative.  But then it’s always easy with hindsight.  And yes, I admit that I did let my pride get in the way a bit!

But the most important thing is, I just kept repeating a simple phrase in a nonchalant manner so that no matter how hard he tried, he was not able to escalate the confrontation or use anything else against me.  He very quickly ran out of things to say.   Wanting to beat the other person in an argument is only a matter of ego and as martial artists we should be above that.  I could probably have argued with him for a good half hour.  I might even of won the argument, but so what if I did!  How would it improve my life by spending a lot of time and energy getting one up on a cocky young lad with no real life experience?  The best result for me was simply to get rid of him quickly and efficiently without taking up too much time or energy and the broken record was the best way.

Whatever phrase you use will depend on the situation.  It just has to be something that they can’t take anything from and use against you to escalate things.

Anticipating How Your Opponent Will Attack!

I was recently asked about how to anticipate what move somebody is about to attack you with.  The guy was very much looking for a way to be able to stay ahead of the game.

I think that he was a bit disappointed in my initial answer, until I explained in more depth.  The initial answer is that you DON’T try to anticipate the opponents actual attack.

Just to clarify, anticipate whether or not they are actually going to attack you by all means, but don’t try to anticipate that they will kick or they punch, or they will . . . . . whatever!

If you are trying to think too hard about what he/she/they are going to do next, the thought process will actually slow you down.  Assuming that you are in a pre-fight situation where somebody is threatening you, shouting and swearing, psyching themself up for an attack; then you should really be looking to engage their mind by talking in order to distract them whilst lining them up for a pre-emptive strike.

However, for the sake of argument lets assume that for whatever reason you do not get the chance to perform a pre-emptive strike.  Maybe the attacker did not get close enough, maybe he knew that you are a capable adversary so kept his distance . . . . . whatever.  But you are now in the position where he is about to attack from a fraction out of your pre-emptive striking range.  You know it’s coming, but you don’t know what form the attack will take.

Should you try to anticipate what the actual attack will be?

If you anticipate a punch and prepare for it, then he kicks instead you could be in trouble.  If you anticipate a kick and prepare for it, then he just rushes in and grabs you, again you could be in trouble.

It is always best to be taking the lead rather than responding (action rather than reaction), but this may not always possible.  So how do you react when you haven’t got a clue what the actual form the attack about to launched at you will actually take?

Well there are several things that you need.

Firstly, you need an automatic deeply drilled response that comes out automatically without you having to think about it.  That is why we practice basics over and over and over and over again.  So when you need them, you can respond automatically without having to be slowed down by “thinking” about what you should be doing or how you should be doing it.

Some form of reality based training or pressure training is good too, so that you don’t “freeze” under the effects of adrenalin.  However, if you have experience in real altercations this may not always be necessary.

However, the calmer you can keep your mind, the more likely you are to find an instinctive response to whatever comes at you. If your mind is running away with “oh my god, he’s bigger than me”, (or similar thoughts); you are likely to hesitate.  This is something I’ve discussed before in more depth before.


There are a number of elements to our training which assist in calming the mind in these situations.  Most obviously, a number of martial arts include some form of meditation (moksu) during the class, where you breathe deeply and clear the mind.

Physical technique done properly should be performed with a relaxed body.  The more you relax your body in training, the more your mind will follow and relax too (as body and mind are linked).  This is probably more important in many ways than the meditation (just my humble opinion).

Many martial arts also put an emphasis on diaphragmatic breathing (especially if they meditate).  This type of breathing is central to Yoga, Tai Chi and any discipline that is about relaxation, so there’s another clue.  Diaphragmatic breathing can be used to calm the mind and body in any situation from meditation, traffic jams, problems with work/relationships, through to a physical confrontation.  As it relaxes both the mind and body, you can see why it is an integral part in the execution of technique within many traditional martial arts.

So if you can keep your mind calm, relaxed and free from the distraction of having to actually think, then instincts and intuition take over.  Your ability to deal with any random attack and counter with a well-drilled response will be greatly increased.  An instinctive response will always be faster than a calculated thought out response.

That is why we do not try try to anticipate what the actual attack will be, as by doing so we limit our response options to what we expect will come at us; and by-pass our intuitive nature.


Diaphragmatic Breathing In Martial Arts

Diaphragmatic breathing is used in many traditional martial arts, but I don’t think that all martial artists completely realise the full extent of how important this really is.  It actually helps us on a number of different levels.

But first though for anybody new to martial arts (or this concept) lets have a look at what diaphragmatic breathing actually is.  Most adults breathe into the top of their lungs and as they do so their shoulders and collar bones rise slightly.  But with diaphragmatic breathing, the diaphragm (which is a large internal muscle at the base of the lungs) is used.  This pulls down on the lower part of the lungs, opening up the whole of the lungs and thus pulling in more air (hence more Oxygen).  When breath is pulled in this way, the shoulders and collar bones do not rise.  However, as the diaphragm pulls down it displaces the lower torso organs and the stomach area in particular is pushed outwards.

Young children and animals naturally breathe this way.

Many people say that you “breathe into your stomach”.  This is of course not physically possible, but that is how it feels.  And sometimes looking for a feeling will help you to get the correct technique, even if it is not actually possible.

So lets look at some of the many ways in which diaphragmatic breathing helps us:


As above, when you pull the breath in with your diaphragm and it feels as if it is going down to your stomach (otherwise known as hara or dan tien).  This is where your centre of gravity is, so by having your focus on that part of your body, you can start to move more fluidly.  When you movement is generated by your centre of gravity the rest of your body follows naturally, whereas if you lead with shoulders or upper torso (which is common with beginners), you drag your centre of gravity which will slow you down and compromise fluidity.

When you inhale with your diaphragm it has a relaxing effect on the rest of the body.  Again this helps with the fluidity of movement as it helps to remove tensions from the rest of the body.

When you exhale rapidly from the  diaphragm, it allows you to generate rapid muscular movement to drive your strike/punch/kick into your opponent.  As the diaphragm is connected to the core muscles, it also assists with the over stability of your body and your ability to absorb any reaction force to the impact of your blow.

Masking Intent

In a conflict situation the last thing you want is for your opponent to know what you are planning to do and when you plan to move.  It is instinctive to inhale before launching an attack.  As mentioned above, most untrained people breath into the top of their lungs and their shoulders and collar bones rise up.  When you see this, you get a warning that you are about to be attacked.

Even if you did not know this fact and your conscious mind does not notice, your unconscious mind will notice and give you that intuitive feeling that something is coming, giving you that tiny fractional bit more time to prepare or react.

When you inhale with your diaphragm your shoulders and collar bones do not rise so you don’t give away this little warning signal, so your opponent has less chance to react or prepare for it.

Calming the mind

Much is written these days about the effects of adrenaline, especially by those who are into reality based martial arts, and that is a good thing.  One of the effects of adrenalin is that breathing becomes short and shallow.  Oxygen tends to be pumped into the limbs ready for fight or flight, but the brain receives less oxygen which blunts the ability to think a way out of the situation.  This can even lead to panic or freezing up.

Diaphragmatic breathing should be practiced during pressure training.  That way when you are in a real street conflict situation you are more likely to be able to maintain diaphragmatic breathing rather than resorting to the short shallow breathing.  This in turn allows you to draw in more oxygen which will allow you to function better both physically and mentally.  It will keep you calmer.

If can use this to keep your calm when you are facing a violent assault, you can also use it in other areas of your life (problems at work, exam nerves, relationship tensions, even just stressed when stuck in traffic).


This is tied in with the section on calmness above.  As mentioned earlier, the unconscious mind can pick up a lot of signals that the conscious mind misses.  This is when we have a feeling of intuition, when we just sense or feel something but don’t really know how or where this knowing comes from.

However, a mind that is in a state of panic will not access this intuition as well as a calm mind.  This is why you can sometimes fight/spar with a very experienced person and they just seem to read you like a book and know what your moves are almost before you do.  They respond with what seems almost supernatural reactions.  But what you notice from anybody with this ability is that they stay completely calm throughout, allowing themselves to access this intuition.


Firstly, we need oxygen to live.  Oxygen has great healing properties and can even kill cancer cells.  Diaphragmatic breathing pulls more oxygen into the body then just breathing into the top of the lungs.

Also, toxins always gather in the body, including in the lungs.  Those who only breathe into the top of their lungs do not clear the toxins from the bottom of the lungs.  People who are used to diaphragmatic breathing will pull the breath right down to bottom of the lungs and clear these deep rooted toxins.

Engage Your Opponents Brain To Increase Their Vulnerability

Since the last of the Neanderthals died out about 20,000 years ago the human brain has continued to evolve from what was primarily an animal brain governed by instinct, to a much larger and more complicated brain capable of logical thought.  A very large part of our brain today deals with communication, reason, social behaviour/interaction and a whole lot of other things that other animals are not capable of.  The ideas of guilt and remorse, right and wrong, good and evil, are all absent in the animal kingdom.

However, we still have the primitive parts of our brain which controls many of our more basic instincts, including amongst other things: violence.

When we find ourselves in a confrontational situation, decades of social conditioning and logic will often restrain us.  Even most thugs will stop at beating somebody up rather than actually killing them, whereas most animals would not really give killing a second thought.  In a confrontational situation adrenalin is released into the body and extra blood goes into the limbs to prepare for the fight or flight.  A side effect of this is that blood is drained from the brain, so the higher functions of logic, social conditioning and reasoning become much less efficient.  However, the more primitive part of the brain (sometimes called “the reptilian brain”) still functions normally and this is the part that deals with violence.

This is the same for both the aggressor and the victim.  Although not everybody fully understands this process, it is used intuitively to gain advantage.  A bully may shout, swear and threaten to intimidate his/her target; but as they do so they psyche themself up by adrenalising themselves.  This reduces their own higher brain functions and taking themselves to their own lower “reptilian” brain.  By doing this they can to a certain extent anesthetize themselves to their own barbaric behaviour which their higher brain functions might question and reject.  It makes sense then to shut down those higher brain function which might restrict and limit their plan to harm somebody.  It’s a bit like a warrior giving out a battle cry before the battle begins, it serves the same purpose.

Of course there are some exceptions to this.  Sociopaths believe that the rules do not apply themselves, so violence comes easy to them without having to psyche themselves up.  Most “professional” street predators (rapists, muggers, etc) are sociopaths.  But I would guess (and it is a guess) that most average street thugs do have some small level of conscience which they prefer to silence, so that they do not have to face it.

So how can you use this knowledge to your advantage when confronted with a thug who is psyching themself up?

Well the first thing to do is to try to get them back to their higher brain functions if you can, where they are less likely to attack.  You can do this by asking questions that make them think.  In FAST (Fear Adrenalin Stress Training) Defence, they recommend asking in an assertive manner “what do you want”?

But it could really be anything.  You could say something completely random like “isn’t it a shame about the polar bears at the North Pole”?  The normal response will be something like, “What the f***”?  Either way, it gets them thinking and going back to the higher brain function and away from the reptilian brain.  At best this may be enough to avert an imminent attack.  Hopefully it will make them pause as their higher brain functions (including conscience, reasoning, social conditioning, etc) kick back in, even if only for a moment.  This momentary hesitation should be enough time for a trained martial artist to successfully launch a pre-emptive strike and hopefully finish the situation then and there (before they realise and start psyching themself back up again).

I’m not saying that this will work every time against every aggressor, but it could give you an edge when you need it most.  This type of tactic is often practiced in reality based martial art training, but is usually absent where people don’t not look beyond the boundaries of their own traditional martial art.


Are Traditional Martial Arts Any Use To Somebody Who Is Being Bullied?

My on-line friend Colin Wee, 6th Dan TKD, has proposed an Anti-Bullying Blogging Carnival.  As I used to be bullied a lot back in far distant school days, I thought this was a good idea, so this is my contribution to the Carnival.

The obvious answer the title question is of course, YES, traditional martial arts can help somebody who is being bullied; but there are some limitations that need to be taken into consideration.

For somebody just starting their training, traditional martial arts can take quite a while to learn up to a proficient standard.  Something like Kickboxing is simpler and can be learnt to a proficient level considerably quicker.  Confidence is quickly gained when hitting an actual target (like focus mitts or punchbag).  Traditional martial arts may have more depth and include a much greater range of techniques and capabilities (grappling, pressure points, grab releases, etc); but the emphasis on perfecting technique makes them more difficult and slower to learn.

For somebody who is being physically bullied NOW, taking up traditional martial arts alone may be a bit slow to produce results.

Another factor which is much more important however is the pre-fight build up and the emotional response to the threat of violence, which is often overlooked in traditional martial arts.  A fight can be won or lost before the first punch/kick is even thrown by one person intimidating the other and undermining their confidence.  Bullies routinely use this tactic as part of their build up; be it name calling, threatening, minor pushing around; all testing the response and intimidating their victim into a feeling of helplessness and fear.  This loss of confidence and fear leads to hesitations and even freezing at a critical moment making it even easier for the bully to dominate in a physical conflict as the victim can become too scared to even fight back.

Simplistically put, the bully psyches them-self up, whilst the victim is psyched down.

Some instructors who have been in a number of altercations in their younger days assume that the pre-fight stage is a matter of common sense once you know how to fight.  It may be common sense to somebody who has actually had experience at real fighting.  But it is not common sense to somebody who has not been in that position before and hasn’t had that experience.  It certainly is not common sense to somebody who has been routinely bullied and has developed an ingrained behaviour pattern of backing down and acting passively when threatened, they just don’t know anything else.  When under this type of pressure, blood goes to the limbs (for fight or flight) and away from the brain.  Therefore the  brain does not think very clearly and relies on instincts and experience.  If the last experience when being bullied was to act passively, then the chances are that they will act passively again.  Not always, sometimes they snap and go for it, but in most cases they will do more or less the same as before.

Many years ago, whilst rising up through the coloured belts in my Karate, I trained hard, was naturally flexible and had good technique for my grade.  However, when sparring or entering in a competition I would often not do very well, even when I was faster, sharper and had better technique than the person that I was facing.  I realised later that it was because I was not very aggressive and had a passive nature.  Yes, I was bullied a lot at school and no, I didn’t really stick up for myself.

So if I was not doing well in the relative safety of sparring and competition, what would have happened if I’d been involved in a street fight?

Many traditional martial arts give little consideration to the pre-fight stages of the conflict and how to deal with it emotionally or psychologically.  Many systems do include pre-arranged sparring routines which can be used to work this area and include emotional intensity/pressure.  When you face somebody who is going to come in at you fast and strong and if you don’t block, side step or evade, they’ll take your head off; then you do get used to dealing with the adrenaline and fear but it can take a long time.

Shortly after passing my black belt I was sparring with my Sensei.  Whilst he obviously got the better of me, I stood my ground quite well and made it work for it.  He said to me afterwards with a little smile, “what happened to that green belt that I used to be able to kick all around the dojo”?

Traditional martial arts training had made a big difference to me mentally and emotionally and by the time I had obtained my black belt I had overcome much of my limitations caused by my passive nature.  However, it had taken me nearly 4 years to get there.  For somebody who is being bullied NOW, that is a long time.

This is why I am in favour of reality based training which uses scenarios to de-sensitize people to the threats, abuse and taunts, and teaches them to function even under the effects of adrenaline and fear.  Humans always learn much more quickly when in an emotional state, which is why reality based training gets very quick results and change that freeze reaction to an active response.  As mentioned above, when under pressure the brain losses blood and relies on experience.  If you can simulate a realistic experience where the victim takes action (be it assertive verbal behaviour to dissuade an attacker, or actual physical fighting back), then that becomes the default experience the next time that person is in that situation.

One of the first times I did this kind on training there was a young lady who was a reasonably high grade in Taekwondo.  When the trainer (as part of the training scenario) venomously called her a “f***ing bitch”, she started to cry.  She had obviously been through some abusive experiences in the past, but her traditional martial arts training had not prepared her to emotionally deal with this simple abuse and she went straight into the old ingrained behaviour pattern.  However, she continued the exercise and learnt a new response to take away with her, so I applaud her courage for sticking with it.  She took a bigger step forward that day than the rest of us.

I would warn however, that although learning under heightened emotional pressure produces quick results, it also hard-wires the response.  So if you overcome the “freeze” response but swing wildly, then the wild swinging could become your hard wired (and not very effective) response.  This is why I believe that scenario based training (reality based training) is very beneficial, but it should be used sparingly and should NOT become the default training method.  Traditional martial arts are the best way to obtain the best long term results, but if you don’t have the time, then you need a little extra.

Martial Arts Perth

Mind Like The Moon & Mind Like Water

Mind Like The Moon (Tsuki No Kokoro)  and Mind Like Water (Mizu No Kokuro) are old Japanese/Chinese phrases which are integrated into Zen and martial arts and are inter-related to each other.  This posting looks at them primarily from a martial arts context.

Starting with Mind Like The Moon, whereas the light of the moon shines on everything below it evenly, so you should see everything when facing an opponent.  Clouds blocking the moonlight are likened to nervousness, fears, doubts and distractions blocking your mental clarity.  By seeing “everything”, I don’t only mean your opponents physical presence; I also include

  • The whole psychological game (how they use words/threats/body language to intimidate)
  • Anything that they may be trying to conceal (weapons, a friend who might jump you from behind)
  • Their intention and the timing of their attack (by their breathing/subtle shift of body weight/slight tensing of some muscles).

The unconscious mind picks up these (and other) tiny signals that the conscious mind often misses; but feeds the information back to us in what we call intuition or instinct, when you just know what is about to happen a fraction before it actually does; even though you don’t really know how you know!

With this intuitive knowledge, you react appropriately and with correct counter for the given situation in a natural instinctive manner, without any thought or intellectual processes being required.  By removing the thought processes, the instinctive reaction is much quicker and more effective, not giving the opponent any chance to respond.

This is Mind Like Water.  When you stick your hand into a stream, the water reacts instantly and appropriately, to continue its path and just goes around your arm.  There is no pause, no hesitation, no having to think to work out the best root.  It just does it naturally and instantly; which is how you should strive to counter any attacks that come at you (as above).

This intuitive state takes you beyond mere physical response.  Martial art forums are full of arguments about which techniques or styles are best, but as long as you have good techniques, the choice of technique/style almost becomes irrelevant compared to the ability to respond intuitively; as if you know what your attacker is about to do before they even actually attack.

But how do you actually achieve this higher state of intuitive mental clarity (mind like the moon/mind like water)?

I have written before about silencing that little voice in your head, you know, the one that always tells you can’t do something.  Going into a fight with that little voice telling you that you’re about to be killed, beaten up, humiliated, is not good (they are mental clouds blocking your “moonlight”).  In fact it can lose you the fight before the first punch is even thrown.

I have expanded on this by writing about  “living in the present“, rather than keep resenting past events or worrying about the future.  Worrying about “this always happens to me” when somebody picks on you is living in the past, whilst worrying about how this is going to hurt and humiliate is thinking in the future.  You need to be very much in the present (the “now”) if you are going to deal with an imminent assault.  This is very much tied in with little voice in your head undermining you (which usually takes you to the past or future).

I would like to expand on this theme even more.  However, I suggest that you read the other two postings first, as this one will make more sense following on.

Our training is geared to getting us into the moment (into the “now”).  Whether sparring or doing a pre-arranged drill, we need to focus and be intensely in that moment.  In most other sports/activities, lack of focus means that we lose a point/goal, etc; but in martial arts it means that we get a smack round the head which hurts.  This makes it more intense and immediate, so it is better to pay very close attention.  Over a period of time we learn to maintain this focus of attention in the present moment.  When we do this, it helps to silence the voice inside out head, hence our own mind stops distracting us.

Even with kata’s/patterns/forms, we should visualise an opponent, which again brings our mind into the present.

Although this process will happen naturally over years of training, I think it helps to know what we are looking for.  It is easier then to find it and to teach it to others.

If you have trouble silencing the voice in your mind, they there are other techniques that you can practice to help you.  As discussed in the first posting (about silencing the voice inside your head), most people can’t hold a positive/happy thought for just 15 seconds without another random thought interrupting.  Practicing holding a positive/happy thought until you can do it for a complete 15 seconds uninterrupted is the first stage to gaining conscious control of your own mind, without the little voice (your own personal nutter) controlling you in a negative way!

Another way is simply to observe your own thoughts without judgement.  No thought stands still, it either takes you forward or holds you back.  So whenever a random thought comes into your head, just ask yourself “is that thought helping me or hurting me”?   For example, when somebody does something stupid like they cut you up in their car or knock your drink over in a bar and you get angry calling them all kinds of expletives, is that helping you?  Not really, you’re just upsetting yourself further.  You wasn’t hurt, your car wasn’t damaged, your drink can be replaced; so what is the profit for you get all emotional and angry about it as well?

Before somebody says, “yeah but it helps you let of steam and get the anger out”; have you considered, why have the steam and the anger in the first place?  Wouldn’t life be better without them?  Wouldn’t you feel happier, more at peace and healthier if you could react without that anger?

Some will dismiss this idea as “that’s just the way I am”.

But it’s not the way you have to be!  By learning to control your mind through silencing that reactive voice, you can change your emotional response to situations that should really be mildly irritating rather than a cause of great anger!  Ever heard the phrase, “learning to fight so that I don’t have to fight”?

Don’t try to stop the these thoughts or  try to control them or judge them.  Just observe as they happen.  The mere process of observation brings them to your conscious attention rather then them just happening automatically and almost unconsciously.  When you consciously observe them, they have less control over you as you can begin to consciously disregard them.  The thoughts and the negative emotions that accompany them then start to dissipate.  This is a process which takes time and will not have instant results.

Now it starts to get a bit weird.  If you are observing these thoughts, who is the real you.  Are you the observer or the thinker?

Does this mean that you have 2 identities, the one thinking these negative thoughts and the one that is observing them?  This were we could go into the realm of serious mental illness . . . . “the voices told me to do it”!!!!

However, it is perfectly normal to have this inner voice, it is only the degree to which we listen to it or let it control us that can become a problem.

OK, the inner voice, for want of a better name is your ego, and is driven by your past experiences.  It only knows what has actually happened in the past, so it assumes that these things will continue to happen as that is all it knows.  This is why people who are unaware of their inner voice are more likely to get stuck in life’s ruts and not be able to move on in life.  Those who learn to silence the voice are more creative, imaginative, intuitive and do better in all aspects of life.

So who/what is the observer?

This is where different people will have different views.  The more spiritually inclined might say that it is your higher self or inner being!  If you are not spiritually inclined, then consider this; we all know that we only consciously use about 10% of our brain capacity.  That leaves a massive 90% that we don’t consciously use.  Imagine the power of the mind if you could tap into that 90%.  How much more could you achieve and be capable of?  That is the part of the mind that you are beginning to bring into play when you start observing your own thoughts and hence over time, silencing them.

Intuition is when our unconscious mind knows something, but our conscious mind has not recognised it.  People who have learnt to silence their mind can tap into this intuition much more readily than those who live in the constant noise their own personal nutter!  Our subconscious mind (higher self/inner being depending on your belief system) cannot communicate with us by thought, it communicates via emotions.  Whether its a nasty gut feeling when somebody offers to help you and you don’t trust them, or a happy feeling when you are offered an opportunity which you have to make a choice about.

Moving meditation (such as kata/forms/patterns) or still meditation (moksu) will take us closer to this intuitive state over a period of time.  Observing our thoughts will help take us to get there more quickly.

The top martial artists seem to have an ability to almost “read somebody” before they even move.  How can they know what attack is coming and prepare for it or counter it, almost before the attack is even launched?  It comes back to that intuition.  It comes back to the unconscious mind detecting those almost unperceivable subtle shifts in the opponents weight, breathing, body tension, etc; which are too small for the conscious mind to register.  But if the mind is quiet, then those unperceivable signals will be detected (mind like the moon) and fed back into an instinctive reflex counter (mind like water), which even the defender is not really aware of how he/she knew what was coming!  It just happened automatically and without thought.

Have you ever had a fight, (whether real or in competition) where afterwards somebody has said, “that was a good ******** that you did there” (where ******** can be any technique at all); and you can’t properly remember doing it?  That is where you’ve switched of the conscious mind, the urgency of the situation has brought you very much into the present moment and the unconscious mind has recognised the tiny signals that give away the attackers intent, and you’ve trusted this intuition enough to let it chose the right counter for you without you having to consciously decide.  Hence you don’t remember what you did not consciously chose to do, even though it was probably one of your best techniques ever!

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Martial Arts: Fighting Spirit Vs Technique

Sometimes you see in martial arts forums and/or magazines, debates on what is most important in training; focusing on pure technique or developing a fierce fighting spirit?  Everybody seems to have an opinion and as the old saying goes . . . . opinions are like a**e holes, everybody has one.

So I though I’d add mine to the mix as well.  Opinion that is.  Obviously both are very important and nobody will get far without a certain amount of both.  However, as for which is most important . . . . . . I would say that depends on what stage of your training you’re at.

For beginners, I would say that more emphasis should be placed on technique.  Good technique is the foundation to traditional martial arts.  It is the basic building block on which all else is built.  People often argue that pure basics are unrealistic in a real fight.  I would agree.  However, when you build a house, the first thing you do is dig a great big hole and fill it in with cement.  This is your foundation.  When the house is built, you don’t actually see the foundation, but without it the house will fall down.

It’s the same with fighting skills.  When you fight or spar you take short cuts and you seldom see pure basics being used, but without good basics the techniques that you do fight or spar with will be limited.

I do think it is good to do some reality based scenario training (see the video’s in my post below) early as well, as that does teach the student tactics to deal with the raw aggression and pre-fight stage when somebody is trying to pick a fight with you.  This form of training can yield very quick results, particularly at overcoming any likelihood of “freezing” in a confrontation, so I don’t really feel that you need to do a lot of it.  Also, it should be separate from technique training, at least in the early days.

To learn good techniques takes time and is best learnt in a relaxed environment.  Learning under pressure tends to hard wire results into your brain very quickly, hence bad habits from early training can become hard wired and be difficult to remove later.

However, when the student becomes proficient at their techniques, then you can bit by bit build up the pressure and intensity.  But by this time, there should be a good foundation in place.  This can of course be done through several different methods:

  • Sparring is the most obvious as the student is on the receiving end of random attacks and has to react to them as they happen.
  • Even pre-arranged sparring can be intense.  When you are partnered with somebody who is fast, powerful, accurate and they come in at you with full intent (and you have to wait for them to initiate), it can requires full attention.
  • Kata/patterns/forms or even basics can be used too if you really visualise an opponent in front of you.  The body’s nervous system does not know the difference between what is real and what is imagined (that’s why you heartbeat goes up and you jump at a scary movie, even when you brain knows that you’re safely snuggled up on your sofa).
  • More reality based (scenario) training, though now you can involve more technique.

This is particularly good at the approach to 1st Dan, when the balance can shift in favour of emphasising the spirit a bit more than technique.  Throughout the kyu/kup grades the techniques have been emphasised, but when the student goes for their Dan grade, they really need to show that they have the will to fight for it (mentally as well as literally).   It is often said that it is harder to live up to a black belt than it is to earn it, as a black belt is supposed to be courageous, confident and an example to others.   Somebody who folds under pressure (no matter how technically competent) cannot really be held up as an example.

Besides, martial arts are not only there to teach us to take the physical knocks of the Dojo (or even a street fight), they are also supposed to teach us to take the mental and emotional knocks of life itself.  That certainly requires great spirit.

However, as you continue to progress, (especially as you get older), you should learn to relax both physically and mentally under pressure.  This means switching back to focusing more on technique again.  I would say that by the time you’ve passed 2nd Dan or above, you should be accustomed to being place under pressure and rather than continuing to meet it with a “GRRRRRRR” mentality, you should be looking to casually evade, become deceptive, learn how to incapacitate using the least amount of your energy as you can.


Two reasons.

Firstly, martial arts are a lifetimes study and if you want to keep training as you get older, you need to consider the implications of age.  A lifetime of martial arts does not mean that you the same thing throughout your life.  A martial arts matures as the martial artist matures. Why would people in the 60’s or 70’s want to kick head height?  But without evolving into pure (and softer) technique as we move throughout our lives, then we bring forward our sell by date when we are forced to stop training.

Secondly, its a far more effective and efficient way of fighting, especially against multiple opponents.  A real fight can be exhausting, so using up all your energy fiercely and spiritedly defeating the first guy, just to find that his mates want to have a go too, is not wise.

How Exactly Is Fighting More Mental Than Physical?

For centuries masters have taught that fighting is more mental than physical.  However, when training martial arts we concentrate mainly on the physical technique.  As we progress, we learn to be more focused, aggressive and intense; but how exactly does that make fighting more mental than physical when we are still punching, kicking, throwing, gouging or simply bitch-slapping some bugger that deserves it?

I’m going to ask you to bear with me as I explain, as at first this is going to look like I’m going of subject, but it will fit together in the end, I promise.

Something that I’ve come across a couple of times lately is the idea that we should be “living in the present”.  Well of course we are you might say, how can we not be in the present?

Let me explain a bit more.  Many people spend a lot of time living in regret for things they have done in the past or missed opportunities; or resentment about things that have been done to them.  They are in effect, spending a lot their time thinking about and focusing on the past, constantly re-living the causes of their regret/resentment.

Others spend a lot of time looking to the future.  How many times have you thought, “I can’t wait for work to finish and go home”, “I can’t wait for the weekend” or “I can’t wait for my holiday/retirement/promotion/whatever”?  This is in effect living for the future.  The idea is, “I’ll be happy when . . . . . . . whatever”.

The key to actually being happy, or even effective in live, is not to be re-living past problems or to be just biding your time until something better comes along, but to be consciously present in the current moment.  This is not to say that you don’t plan for the future, just don’t focus on being there instead of now.  Be present now, whilst you plan your future (you’ll plan it much much better that way).  This is a big subject which I can’t really do justice to in one post.  Books have been written on this subject, so for now please just accept this general idea.

So what has this got to do with martial arts?

One more detour first, then I’ll answer that.  I have read several times in the past that soldiers in real combat report that they had “never felt so alive”.  That’s not to say that they found it to be fun!  Rather they found it very intense, the very fact that their existence could end at any instance made them very much aware of that instance (rather than dwelling on the past or what could be).  They were very intense on staying alive and very present in that moment.  Hence feeling really “alive”.

OK, back to the martial arts.  How often have you said (or heard somebody say) that when training you/they forget all your worries and problems?

kata bunkaiWhy does this happen?  It is because we are practicing a combat art.  We need to maintain our concentration and focus, especially when partnered up for sparring.  We know we’ll soon get hit if don’t focus and be present in that moment.  Even in pre-arranged sparring routines, if you don’t block/parry/evade an attack that is coming in full-steam, you’ll get hit.

In solitary practice as well (basics or kata/patterns/forms) we should still train with an opponent in mind.

Note:  Our nervous system can not tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined.  For example, if we watch a scary film, we know full well that we are safe and it’s only on a screen.  However, we still “jump”, our heart beat can speed up and our breathing can change.  This is our nervous system responding to our imagination as we are engrossed in the film.  Therefore training with an opponent in mind is almost as good as training with a real partner.

Our training forces us to be in the present.  It forces us to forget our past problems and to forget about our daydreams of our future and to be much more there, focused on the guy in front who is about to knock you into next week if you don’t focus fully on what he is about to do to you.

Being fully focused and aware in the present moment is a necessary reaction to danger.  Fortunately it is an almost automatic reaction to being in danger.

That said, some people still struggle with it.  When confronted with a bully/mugger/predator, some people will focus on “this isn’t fair”, “why does this always happen to me”, “this b*****d is always picking on me”.  The are still partly in the past.

Some will be thinking, “I’m going to get killed”, or “this could really be humiliating”.  They are still partially in the future.

wing chun bunkaiOver time with many sessions of partner activities (whether free sparring or pre-arranged activities), we don’t just get used to physical technique, but we get uses to being in the present moment.  We get better control over our fears and become more able to instinctively push out the fears of defeat/humiliation or feelings of victimisation.  It is often said that martial arts fosters courage.  One of the main ways it does this is by teaching you to be in the present rather than focusing on the past or future.

Usually if you get a black belt sparring with a somebody of a middle range grade (say purple/blue belt) then assuming all other things are equal (age, build, strength, size, etc) the black belt will usually dominate.  Obviously the black belt should have the better technique, but if you put the 2 of them side by side and tell them to perform say a punch at the same time, the black belt will be only a split second faster.

Does this split second account for the level of domination that most black belts have over lower grades?

Obviously it is part of the reason, but I don’t think it is the full reason.  By the time somebody reaches black belt, usually they are much more used having their mind in the present moment and not worrying out defeat, humiliation, fighting a higher grade etc.  They find it much easier to commit to their technique and just go for their target, un-hindered by a mind worrying about what the outcome might be.  There is a greater sense of certainty about the way they move.

This is where the mind is trained to be “present”.  It is more important than just the physical technique that the body is performing.  This is where fighting becomes “mental”.  This is where your focus and concentration over many years will take you to.

A side effect of this is of course is that you learn to be more “present” in your everyday life as well.  You usually find that high grade martial artists often have more resilience to deal with the everyday problems that life throws up than most other people do (whether it’s divorce, career, health, whatever).  Why?  Because you can solve your life problems much better if you are thinking in the present rather than resenting how you got there (thinking in the past) or fearing the outcome (thinking in the future).

So many martial arts talk about making you a better person with a stronger character and it is irrefutable that they do.  Most however are short on explanation on how this actually happens.  I personally believe that learning to be “present” is one of the most central principles of the “Do” (The Way).

This concept is a continuation of the idea of silencing that little voice inside your head (which I’ve written about before).  You know, that little voice that keeps telling you that you can’t do something for this or that reason.  That reason is usually something in the past – dragging you back there and away from the present moment.


Note:  Being “present” is a very big subject which I cannot do justice to in one posting.  If you want more information then I would suggest that you check out either:
A Bug Free Mind (heavily marketed, but has changed my outlook)
The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle (I’ve seen this recommended several times.  I have a copy waiting for me to find the time to read it).

How Exactly Is Fighting More Mental Than Physical?

For centuries masters have taught that fighting is more mental than physical.  However, when training martial arts we concentrate mainly on the physical technique.  As we progress, we learn to be more focused, aggressive and intense; but how exactly does that make fighting more mental than physical when we are still punching, kicking, throwing, gouging or simply bitch-slapping some bugger that deserves it?

I’m going to ask you to bear with me as I explain, as at first this is going to look like I’m going of subject, but it will fit together in the end, I promise.

Something that I’ve come across a couple of times lately is the idea Continue reading “How Exactly Is Fighting More Mental Than Physical?” »

Do You Have A Monkey Mind?

I recently wrote about how to keep calm in the face of danger, which was basically about silencing the mind so that it does not distract you too much when you really need it to stay calm.  Shortly after that my Sensei, Paul Mitchell, started talking about the “monkey mind” in one of his classes.

Now maybe I’m insecure, but I wondered if he meant me at first!

However, it is an old Chinese phrase for when the mind wonders, or when you are trying to silence it and random thoughts keep popping in to say hello.  Like a mischievous monkey, the mind cannot be properly controlled.  It can be very difficult to stop those random thoughts coming in, not matter how hard you try.

Monkey Mind
Me struggling with the “monkey mind”

Don’t you just love Chinese phraseology.  As discussed in my previous posting, giving the mind something else to focus on is one of the best ways to deal with this monkey mind and help to banish these random thoughts.  This can be kata/patterns/forms etc.  It is easier in the begining to focus the mind with movement.  Doing it when you are still, as in meditation (moksu) for example is much harder.  However, when we do get to this stage, we start by focus on our breathing.  When we can focus on breathing to the exclusion of the random thoughts, then we can start to even cut out the focus on breathing and just let it happen.  This is when we start to develop a tranquil mind.

Do the Chinese have a phrase for this?  Of course they do.  You feed your monkey mind a banana!