Emotional Content In Martial Arts And An Interesting Experiment

This clip above is now an iconic scene from the Bruce Lee movie, Enter The Dragon, where Bruce Lee is teaching a student.

Bruce Lee:  “Kick me”.
Student looks surprised.
Bruce Lee:  “Kick me”.

The student kicks

Bruce Lee:  “What was that?  An exhibition?  We need (pointing to his temple) emotional content.  Try again”.

The student kicks again.

Bruce Lee:  “I said emotional content, not anger.  Now try again, with me”.

The student kicks again, but more sharply.

Bruce Lee (with a smile):  “That’s it”.

There is more to the scene, but this is the part that I want to cover in this post.

What emotion do we need to feel when training or even defending ourselves and/or loved ones for real?  As Bruce says above, not anger.  But what?  I’ll come back to that later.

Emotions do effect our whole body.  Those who are into spiritualism will often say that we vibrate at a higher frequency when we are in more positive emotional states (love, happy, excited) then when we are in more negative states (fear, anger, frustration).

For those that are more science based in their thinking, we have a small part of the brain known as the hypothalamus, which creates chemicals known as peptides.  Every emotional state that we experience has a separate peptide to go with it.  When we go into any given emotional state the hypothalamus will produce the corresponding peptides which circulate the body via the blood stream.  Each cell of our body has many tiny receptors on them which are designed to receive these peptides.  When these peptides enter a receptor, they actually send a signal into the cell.

I personally believe in both, but the bottom line is we are affected on an cellular level when we change our emotional state.  So which is the best emotional state to be in when we need to defend ourselves and/or our loved ones?

I decided to conduct an experiment with some of my adult students.  But first the disclaimers:

  • This experiment was only conducted with 4 students (not exactly large scale).
  • This has not been pressure tested (see, I said it first).

So I am not suggesting that the results are hard evidence, just an indicator.

I asked my students (2 men and 2 ladies) to select the kata (pattern/form) which they felt that they could perform most competently.  I told them that we were going to conduct an experiment, that some of what I was about to ask them to do might seem strange and contrary to my normal teachings, but to just go with the flow and give it a go.  And they would have to use their imaginations.

The experiment was in 2 parts.  Firstly I told them to close their eyes.  Then to imagine that somebody had hurt somebody that they loved or had wronged them in some way.  That they hated and loathed this person who was truly a nasty bit of work and who deserved no sympathy.  As they performed their kata, they were going to visualise destroying this person who completely deserved it and with no mercy at all.  There was a bit more embellishment, but you get the drift.

One of the ladies was struggling to contain a small smile.  Was she not taking the experiment seriously I wondered?

I told them to open their eyes, and “go”.

Their kata’s did not really look much different to any other time to be honest.  Towards the end, one of the men turned and bumped into the other one, and the 2 ladies had giggles.  I must admit I was a bit disappointed, as they didn’t seem to be taking it seriously.

But never mind, on with the second half.  I told them to close their eyes again.  This time, I told them to think of somebody that they loved.  It could be a boyfriend/girlfriend (non of them married), a family member, a child, maybe niece or nephew (none have their own children), or it could be a close friend that they cared about very much.  Somebody was going to hurt their loved one and they were the only one who stood between their loved one and the aggressor.  They were going to have to fight to protect their loved one from harm.  They were to focus their mind on how much they loved the person they were going to protect, how they would do anything, risk anything for their loved one.  Rather than thinking of anger and hate, they were to focus on love.

There were no smiles this time.  I had them open their eyes, and “go”.

One of the men was of like a battle tank on steroids, I’d never seen him move quite like it before.  The others did not look greatly different from before, but completed their katas with more focus, without bumping into each other and without any giggles.

I asked them afterwards, with which emotional state did they feel that their techniques were better?

Well Mr Battle-Tank-On-Steroids definitely felt better when in the love/protecting emotions than in the hate/anger emotions.  The others were a bit more hesitant and unsure at first, then one of the ladies offered that when doing the hate/anger emotion, she felt a strange tingling which didn’t feel right.  The other lady agreed that she felt the same.

Basically, they rejected these feelings because being full of hate and anger was an alien feeling for them.  We all get angry at times, but most well balanced people find it difficult to sustain a state where we have absolutely no compunction about hurting and destroying another human being.  Yes I know there are exceptions, but I’m talking about the majority of well adjusted civilised people.  I guess this explains the giggling and smiles as they could not relate to this state!

I then asked them about mental clarity.  Did it feel any different between the 2 emotional states.  They all agreed that focus and sense of purpose was much better during the love/protection emotional state.

I had to comment afterwards that isn’t it ironic that they performed better at a fighting art when in a state of “love” rather than “hate”!

OK, I know there are many limitations in this experiment and it hasn’t been pressure tested.  Arguably, none of them even really achieved the state of anger/hate, so it could be argued that the experiment was void!  It would be much easier to hate when hurt for real.

But how does this relate to defending yourself rather than others?

Well to my mind (and this could lead to an interesting debate) is that you should love yourself.  Not in an arrogant and conceited way, but by being at peace with who you are and what you stand for and live by.  Martial arts literature is full of talk about self development and being a better person.  Being able to defend yourself obviously gives you more confidence so you can stand up for what is right and for what you believe in.

But does standing up for what is right and what you believe in make you more able to actually defend yourself?

One of my former Sensei’s has admitted that he used to get into a number of fights when he was younger.  He says that when he felt he was in the right, he always won.  When he got into fights that he didn’t necessarily believe in, or perhaps others around him persuaded him to fight, he didn’t do so well.

Obviously somebody who is much bigger, stronger and better trained will nearly always beat somebody who is small, weak and untrained.  I’m not suggesting that if you just lead a good honourable life, you’ll be able to defeat anybody, you do the physical training too.  What I am suggesting however, is that with 2 people who are closely matched, the one who feels that he is fighting a just cause and who is in alignment with his/her own personal integrity will fight harder than somebody who is just out to bully!  The old masters always taught that we should live with integrity and humility.  If we live that way, then should we be forced to fight we shall do so with a clear conscience.  We can “love” (or at least feel good about) ourselves.

As I’ve said above, this little experiment is far from conclusive.  However, I’d like to invite you (especially instructors) to carry out similar experiments yourself and report the results in the comments below.  It would be nice to get a little data base of similar experiments here for others to share.

Kata: Training Beyond Technique

Much is debated and demonstrated about the fighting applications within kata (patterns/forms), myself included.  But not too much is spoken about the mindset, or mental approach you should take when performing your kata.  Yes we all know that we should concentrate and focus, but beyond that . . . . what?

Whilst we are learning our kata, then obviously a certain amount of our concentration will be on making sure that we get the techniques and sequence correct.  With practice we should be able to perform our kata without having to think about them very much.  So now that we no longer have to think about the movements, what do we think about?  What’s for dinner?  Going for a drink afterwards?  Or how cool we look doing this kata without thinking about it?

Well my answer might surprise some people, especially as a large part of our training is about self development and making ourselves better people.  What I think you should do when you perform a kata that  you know well is to pour all you nastiness, malevolence, viciousness and malice into your kata.  That may sound strange from somebody who believes in self development as well as practicality, but please bear with me.

Real violence is nasty, malevolent, vicious and full of malice; and performing kata (or basics) is a mental rehearsal as well as a physical rehearsal.  Thugs may not have good technique, but they are used to “training” in the “adrenalin zone”. When you have to fight to defend yourself or your loved ones, then you are entering the thugs world of real violence and you have to be able to cope with it.  Adrenalin will effect your body, your perceptions and your ability to think. Your training should be real enough in your mind that you get a small adrenalin rush each time.  Whilst too much adrenalin can be unhealthy, a regular amount at low levels is fine, plus you become more immune to it’s negative effects after a while.  You will be able to remain calmer in a crisis.

Now some people may be concerned that training with this mindset may also train a thuggish mentality.  But as soon as you finish your kata, you step up into Yamae (finish position), you go back to calm.

We train ourselves to “switch on” quickly and “switch off” just as quickly.  If somebody attacks us, we do not want to freeze in shock (which happens even to high grade martial artists).  That said, if we successfully defend ourselves and incapacitate our attacker, we do not want to jump up and down on their prostrate body or perform River-Dance on their head.  We need to be able to stop and not be carried away in the heat of an unfamiliar moment.

As martial artists we need to know when to stop for  legal and even more importantly; for moral reasons.  We need to enter the world of vile malevolence when needed and exit it just as quickly when the job is done.  However, nasty the thug may be, we as martial artists should be able to show mercy once we overpower him/her.  It is part of the Yin & Yang of training and of our development.  Its about balance in our personality.

The only way to have little or no fear of violence is to be good at it.  I am not advocating that you act in a violent manner, but when you know that you can handle yourself in most situations, you project a confidence which most predators of the human world will recognise and they will be more likely to avoid you.  Please note that I say “most situations”, as there will always be someone more experienced or better armed then you.

Most human predators mirror the animal predators.  Think of the lion, king of the jungle.  They hunt in prides, but do they for the big muscular young bull buffalo with the great big horns.

No.

They go for the old, the young, the weak, the one with the gammy leg that can’t run properly.  Basically, for predators its about finding an easy target.  For us training is about making you a hard target, physically and emotionally.  The big fit bull with the horns does not need to threaten the lions, the lions just know.  So it is when you walk with an air of confidence, the human predators just know.

But projecting true confidence is not just about how you walk or your posture.  It’s about knowing that you are prepared physically and mentally should a conflict make it necessary.  As Bruce Lee once said in his films, “the art of fighting without fighting”.

I heard of a study years ago where they got 3 groups and tested them at throwing balls through a basketball hoop.  After recording the results, they had one of the groups practice shooting the balls at the hoop, one of the groups not practice at all; and the third group just visualise throwing balls at the hoop.  Later they tested the three groups again.  The group that practiced improved by something like 24% (if I remember right).  The group that did not practice made no improvement at all.

The amazing thing though was that the group that just visualised throwing the balls improved dramatically, with about a 23% improvement.  Visualisation achieved almost as good a result as doing the real thing.  Therefore whilst practicing kata, using visualisations of the violence and malevolence of the situation can actually help you prepare for it more than most people give it credit for (even if you don’t fully understand the bunkai).  Although good technique is important, unless you are practicing primarily for competition it should not always be your main focus.  Funikoshi said that spirit is more important than technique and he primarily taught by kata rather than kumite (sparring).

This concept may be a bit new to some people.  Whether it’s new to you or not, please leave a comment below to tell me what you think, I’d like to hear from you.

Kata: Training Beyond Technique

Much is debated and demonstrated about the fighting applications within kata (patterns/forms), myself included.  But not too much is spoken about the mindset, or mental approach you should take when performing your kata.  Yes we all know that we should concentrate and focus, but beyond that . . . . what?

Whilst we are learning our kata, then obviously a certain amount of our concentration will be on making sure that we get the techniques and sequence correct.  With practice we should be able to perform our kata without having to think about them very much.  So now that we no longer have to think about the movements, what do we think about?  What’s for dinner?  Going for a drink afterwards?  Or how cool we look doing this kata without thinking about it?

Well my answer might surprise some people, especially as a large part of our training is about self development and making ourselves better people.  What I think you should do when you perform a kata that  you know well is to pour all you nastiness, malevolence, viciousness and malice into your kata.  That may sound strange from somebody who believes in self development as well as practicality, but please bear with me.

Real violence is nasty, malevolent, vicious and full of malice; and performing kata (or basics) is a mental rehearsal as well as a physical rehearsal.  Thugs may not have good technique, but they are used to “training” in the “adrenalin zone”. When you have to fight to defend yourself or your loved ones, then you are entering the thugs world of real violence and you have to be able to cope with it.  Adrenalin will effect your body, your perceptions and your ability to think. Your training should be real enough in your mind that you get a small adrenalin rush each time.  Whilst too much adrenalin can be unhealthy, a regular amount at low levels is fine, plus you become more immune to it’s negative effects after a while.  You will be able to remain calmer in a crisis.

Now some people may be concerned that training with this mindset may also train a thuggish mentality.  But as soon as you finish your kata, you step up into Yamae (finish position), you go back to calm.

We train ourselves to “switch on” quickly and “switch off” just as quickly.  If somebody attacks us, we do not want to freeze in shock (which happens even to high grade martial artists).  That said, if we successfully defend ourselves and incapacitate our attacker, we do not want to jump up and down on their prostrate body or perform River-Dance on their head.  We need to be able to stop and not be carried away in the heat of an unfamiliar moment.

As martial artists we need to know when to stop for  legal and even more importantly; for moral reasons.  We need to enter the world of vile malevolence when needed and exit it just as quickly when the job is done.  However, nasty the thug may be, we as martial artists should be able to show mercy once we overpower him/her.  It is part of the Yin & Yang of training and of our development.  Its about balance in our personality.

The only way to have little or no fear of violence is to be good at it.  I am not advocating that you act in a violent manner, but when you know that you can handle yourself in most situations, you project a confidence which most predators of the human world will recognise and they will be more likely to avoid you.  Please note that I say “most situations”, as there will always be someone more experienced or better armed then you.

Most human predators mirror the animal predators.  Think of the lion, king of the jungle.  They hunt in prides, but do they for the big muscular young bull buffalo with the great big horns.

No.

They go for the old, the young, the weak, the one with the gammy leg that can’t run properly.  Basically, for predators its about finding an easy target.  For us training is about making you a hard target, physically and emotionally.  The big fit bull with the horns does not need to threaten the lions, the lions just know.  So it is when you walk with an air of confidence, the human predators just know.

But projecting true confidence is not just about how you walk or your posture.  It’s about knowing that you are prepared physically and mentally should a conflict make it necessary.  As Bruce Lee once said in his films, “the art of fighting without fighting”.

I heard of a study years ago where they got 3 groups and tested them at throwing balls through a basketball hoop.  After recording the results, they had one of the groups practice shooting the balls at the hoop, one of the groups not practice at all; and the third group just visualise throwing balls at the hoop.  Later they tested the three groups again.  The group that practiced improved by something like 24% (if I remember right).  The group that did not practice made no improvement at all.

The amazing thing though was that the group that just visualised throwing the balls improved dramatically, with about a 23% improvement.  Visualisation achieved almost as good a result as doing the real thing.  Therefore whilst practicing kata, using visualisations of the violence and malevolence of the situation can actually help you prepare for it more than most people give it credit for (even if you don’t fully understand the bunkai).  Although good technique is important, unless you are practicing primarily for competition it should not always be your main focus.  Funikoshi said that spirit is more important than technique and he primarily taught by kata rather than kumite (sparring).

This concept may be a bit new to some people.  Whether it’s new to you or not, please leave a comment below to tell me what you think, I’d like to hear from you.

Is Kata (Forms/Patterns) Without Realistic Bunkai “Organized Despair”?

Bruce Lee once famously referred to the way that many traditional martial artists train as, “organized despair”.  The full quote is reproduced below for you:

“Instead of facing combat in it’s suchness, quite a few systems of martial art accumulate “fanciness” that distorts and cramps their practitioners and distracts them from the actual reality of combat, which is simple and direct and non-classical. Instead of going immediately to the heart of things, flowery forms and artificial techniques (organized despair!) are ritually practiced to simulate actual combat. Thus, instead of being in combat, these practitioners are idealistically doing something about combat”

So, are our katas/forms/patterns “flowery forms and artificial techniques“?

Whilst some undoubtedly are, I don’t believe that all of them are and I think that it helps to look at a historical perspective.  When Bruce Lee made that statement, martial arts were very new to the West and they were not as well understood then as they are now.

Traditionally masters would teach a small number of students and the students would have to gain the masters trust before being taught anything of consequence.    However, when fully accepted the student would learn a full system of self defence which would include kicks, punches, locks, throws, breaking bones/joints and much more.

So when Karate was introduced into the Okinawan school system, would you want the school kids knowing how to break each others bones?

Funikoshi took Karate to Japan at a time when Japan was building up for war and saw unarmed martial arts as obsolete, except for personal development.  Do you think Funikoshi who wanted to gain acceptance for his art challenged this stance?

When the Americans occupied Japan after the war, they banned martial arts.  To get permission to train, the Japanese had to play down the martial aspects in favour of sport and self development.  This is the version that the GI’s learnt and took back to America.

The Chinese community in Bruce Lee’s day, were very reluctant to teach Kung Fu to non-Chinese.  When they did finally open up to the Western public, do you think that they would teach mass audiences their best techniques?

Even Ip Man who taught Wing Chun Kung Fu to Bruce Lee is believed to have held back information from Bruce Lee because Bruce was not a full blooded Chinese.

The bottom line is – a lot of information was held back for one reason or another and in Bruce Lee’s day, many people did not have much clue about what the katas/forms/patterns were for.  With Bruce Lee’s very pragmatic approach and with information held back by even his own teachers, can you blame him for seeing it as “organised despair”.

Although so much has opened up today and is continuing to do so all the time, there are still very many people (and whole associations) still caught in trap of not knowing what there katas movements are really for.  So we go back to the question, is Kata without realistic bunkai, just organized despair?

Undoubtedly kata WITH realistic bunkai is a much better way to train.  It brings the katas to life.  However, there is always the old maxim, that before you can control somebody else (in a fight), you must be able to control yourself.

This is where I believe that kata will always be useful.  The turns and spins in different directions; landing with co-ordination, speed, power and crispness are excellent ways to learn that control of yourself.  You will learn more control and co-ordination with kata than you will by pounding pads or punchbags.  You also learn form, structure and principles of movement that you can apply to other things.  That is not to say that pounding pads/punchbags is not useful, because obviously it is.  However, I believe that kata training in its own right does have something to offer martial artists of all styles, even without good bunkai.

I do not suggest that kata training kata should be pursued at the detriment of other aspects of martial training and I agree with Bruce Lee, that in itself kata does not prepare you for actual combat.  However, as part of an fully rounded taining system I do believe that it plays an important part.