Embodied Tactical Awareness for Self-Preservation: When Situational Awareness is No Longer Enough!

There’s a difference to the ‘now’ of modern existence, and the ‘now’ of being present. As Douglas Rushkoff, author of Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now suggests, “We created technologies that would help connect us faster, gather news, map the planet, and compile knowledge. We strove for an instantaneous network where time and space could be compressed. Well, the future’s arrived. We live in a continuous now enabled by Twitter, email, and a so-called real-time technological shift. Yet this “now” is an elusive goal that we can never quite reach. And the dissonance between our digital selves and our analog bodies has thrown us into a new state of anxiety: present shock.”

I would go further and suggest that this ‘present shock’ has in fact disconnected us further from our innate survival mechanisms. Living through external mediums such as our mobile phone, Facebook, Twitter etc, has taken our attention away from our personal sovereignty. Rather than owning our bodily integrity and being the exclusive controller of our own body and life, we are now steered by external disembodied forces. The paradox of all of this is that even though we are almost always connected to ‘now’ we are never present. Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of self-protection. The reality of spending so much time in artificial frames of reality, people are now more than ever, disconnected from the present nature of themselves.


One Night in a Jungle

When I reflect on what is the most important skill to have in surviving interpersonal conflict of any kind, man-made or animal, the greatest asset one can have is their ability to be fully attentive to both what is occurring internally as well as externally in their environment. Our over reliance on technology is a sure fire way to disconnect ourselves from our intuition. To intuit something requires a person to be fully integrated with themselves (not some gadget). To trust your intuition is to be connected fully with oneself in the moment. Said another way, if I dropped you off in the middle of a jungle, with only yourself to rely on, leaving all technology behind, the thing that will enable you to survive most is to be fully immersed with yourself and by extension the environment, in every step you take, responding appropriately to every rustling leaf, and engaging all your senses in anticipating a potential predator. But because you likely have spent, like so many other people in modernity handing over your innate primality for the dopamine rich experience of the iPhone 10, you likely wouldn’t make a night in the jungle before you became someones dinner. Your natural state of arousal emerging from engaging with your environment, now replaced by the need for artificial stimulation to wake your brain up.

You see, at least in my view, the greatest threat to anyone’s survival who is immersed in the technological opulence of the West is their vanishing sense of embodied attention. What use then is self-preservation training, if one is not re-taught how to reengage their embodied knowledge? Interestingly, as someone who teaches other people how to protect themselves, I find increasingly that what I am teaching people is how to trust themselves again first, before they can even begin to trust the techniques I teach them. Just getting people these days to lay technology down for an hour, and spend that time on their ‘embodied technology’ is a challenge (is there a new career here for me as an Embodied Technologist?)


Reclaiming Your Personal Sovereignty

If there is any truth to what I am saying, then to be truly effective in self-preservation, one requires first and foremost to reclaim one’s personal sovereignty — and this starts by reclaiming ones embodied attention. Research shows that how we engage with our bodies changes the way we feel, and in turn think about ourselves (and by extension our environment). Embodied attention then starts with the body, and needs to be reclaimed as such through the body. In this sense, not only is it important to be attentive to the body, but to then accurately interpret the body proper. The body in other words isn’t simply a vehicle to get us from point A to point B, but rather the body needs to be seen as a natural intelligence that serves as a mechanism that steers us in making the appropriate in the moment survival choices needed. When someone then walks out of a store on to the walkway attached to their phone, not only do they lose touch with the environment, but they equally lose touch with their embodied attention. If suddenly a danger appears in their periphery or just an intuition that danger may be close – it simply won’t be picked up on. The consequence could be someone simply running off with your phone, but at worse a terrorist plowing you and everyone else down with a motor vehicle.

Being aware then is simply one of the most important self preservation skills to develop. But what I am suggesting goes beyond simply being aware with ones eyes and ears to ones surrounding. While that is important, it is simply not enough. If you have followed what I have been arguing then awareness really is the engagement of embodied attention which is, as I have suggested the engagement of a fully embodied inner awareness, while being outwardly aware not just through visual acuity, but in engaging all of ones senses. To much attachment to technology shifts the responsibility of attention away from ourselves, our personal sovereignty and rather into the realm of artificiality. The most obvious thing to point out here is that the reality of interpersonal violence of the physical kind happens ‘inter-person’. In other words, the Facebook app isn’t coming to your rescue when someone tries to abduct you.

You cannot build this embodied trust, and by default embodied attention through any other means than through somatically training oneself in those skills. I offer a course/workshop to my students on this topic entitled Embodied-Tactical Awareness (ETA). It is a combination of skill sets that teaches a person how to achieve more embodied trust. In other words seeing the inner terrain of oneself as an evolutionary primed survival machine that has built in it various modes of alerts to danger: from the physiological changes, interpretation of emotional content, the brains capacity to generate various fields of focus, along with intuition. Not only is the embodied self awareness key in the training, it is crucial in the wide outside world where real threats live.

One argument against this approach may be that in all this inner reflection, is there not a risk in one becoming disconnected from the primacy of unreflective, or immediate experience? Because of course, the actions of an attack happens in the immediacy of the experience unfolding. While acknowledging this position, Richard Shusterman, author of Thinking through the Body, has argued that a heightened sense of embodied (or somatic) self-awareness, need not disrupt our engagement with the outside world, but rather allows for the improvement of the instrument of all our action and perception (i.e., our body) in the world itself. Bryan Turner in The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, has argued in order to be a ‘self’ we must be able to reflect upon our identities, our actions, and our relationships with others — “the body is not just an object that is external to that subjectivity, but participates in an embodied agency towards the everyday world” (p. 527). As such, giving embodiment primacy, and recognising how we show up in the world through it — would afford greater clarity of our mind, our body and the world. As Lakoff and Johnson, authors of Philosophy in the Flesh note, embodiment itself is the condition for meaningfulness.


In Conclusion

So while we often hear how important situational awareness is in self-preservation, it’s meaning is far more than simply the reliance on eyesight or hearing. Situational awareness is equally about the situational aspect of embodiment, and how attentive a person is being to the signals coming from their inner terrain. This goes further in how well a person can then manage what arises inside (i.e., embodied trust), while acknowledging and ultimately dealing with the external threat in their environment. This is no easy task, especially for people in the West who are increasingly becoming disembodied.

The embodied attention of a tribal hunter in the Amazon jungle, is miles apart from the embodied attention of the average New Yorker. The later though is still concerned in knowing how to deal with interpersonal threats, and sadly, now needs a reeducation of the embodied kind that most ‘self-defense’ instructors know little about. Anyone who thinks they can just go into a ‘self-defense’ school or a weekend ‘self-defense’ seminar and be prepared merely through the learning of a few physical techniques is fooling themselves. Sadly, for us as self-preservation trainers, modernity with all its glorious advances, has in addition made our jobs that much more difficult. Gone are the days really where a ‘self-defense’ instructor can simply teach physical responses to danger and then think their jobs are done, in fact, their job is just starting!