Reality Fighting on The Brain

Chances are that you don’t have to defend yourself on a daily basis from criminals (unless that’s your job). Yet, have you ever considered, that by engaging in reality based self-defence training may not be as positive as it first appears?

The truth is, many reality based schools of thought believe that the closer they can get you to experience the realities of a real interpersonal violent encounter in training — the more prepared you will be to handle such a situation. Elaborate drills are concocted to get you hyped up, psychologically, emotionally and physiologically — so you can test your limits of engaging with what you may potentially have to out on street. On the one side of this argument, they are absolutely right. If you want to learn how to defend yourself, the closer you can get to what it would look and feel like in training, the more likely when it does appear for real you will have the necessary tools, strategies, and experience to deal with that threat.

But one also has to take into account the reality of the world people live in who seek out this kind of training. Unless you are actually living in a war zone (which I would argue, you wouldn’t have the time to seek out self-defence training, as you would actually be to busy trying to survive), interpersonal violence is rare in the ‘civilised’ world, regardless of how much the media wants us to believe otherwise. So here you find yourself, a few nights a week, completely immersed in violent action, violent thoughts, violent/fearful/aggressive emotions and survival physiology — in the hopes, that that level of ‘killer instinct’ training you develop — will enable you to defend yourself if that 1-in-100000 real self-defence situation ever arrives.

The problem I have with this kind of approach to self-defence training, is that no one ever discusses what the potential risk is to the participants (and no, I am not talking about physical injury) — but rather psychological by immersing in this kind of behaviour weekly? We all know through the stream of media reports, that soldiers returning from war suffer immensely from what they not only had to engage in, but in what they saw. Much of this distress emerges in a psychophysiological way.

Spc. Joshua Dubois, in a L.A. Times article entitled ‘Enemy Contact. Kill ’em, Kill ‘em.’ notes,

“I’m confused about how I should feel about killing,” says Dubois, who has a toddler back home. “The first time I shot someone, it was the most exhilarating thing I’d ever felt”…”We talk about killing all the time,” he says. “I never used to talk this way. I’m not proud of it, but it’s like I can’t stop. I’m worried what I will be like when I get home.” As trained as these soldiers are, many find it hard to reintegrate back into a society where how they were on the battlefield, and needed to be in order to survive, is now not acceptable on civvy street.

While the vast majority of people who attend reality based self defence lessons are not soldiers, and while they may not be training to kill another human being (although those lessons are taught as well, under the guise of self defence), the fact remains, that these civvy street students have to place themselves in a foreign state of being, a violent state that they do not live in on a daily basis. The novelty of this experience has the real potential to restructure a persons neural pathways through a process of neuroplasticity. In other words you rewire your brain for a new way of being. Soldiers on the battlefield who live day in and day out with the threat of dying, and having to kill the enemy to live, rewire their brain — its needed to survive the environment they find themselves in. As noted earlier though, that environment is a far cry from the urban streets back home, and that kind of change in the brain, is not conducive to living there.

As that LA Times article noted, “The emotional and psychological ramifications of killing are mostly unstudied by the military, defence officials acknowledge.” No one I know of, has ever studied the ramification of taking normal civilians on our streets through hardcore, reality based self-defence training (which much of it is). Crucially it doesn’t take extreme experiences like going to war to rewire your brain, the simple act of engaging in a new experience, something that is foreign to you, novel, and engaging can do that. Now take an experience that has all of that, and throw a whole lot of violence into it, regardless of the sensible language used to explain it away (“I am learning how to fight the bad guy”) the outcome, especially if someone stays in those experiences too long, may be less than desirable.

So what’s the solution? Don’t train how to defend oneself?

I am a huge advocate for learning how to defend oneself. Not only do I believe it is your God given right to do so, its honourable and needed. But I approach it very differently to my contemporaries. My attitude is this, if you are faced with interpersonal violence, the priming of the body in its anticipation to deal with the threat is unavoidable in that situation. Without any purposeful engagement on your part, all the physiological changes that are part and parcel of the fight/flight/freeze response will take place with or without your permission. My point is this, you don’t need to prime yourself to deal with violence, evolution will take care of that for you — automagically. What you do have some measure of control over is how you then not only use your physiological imperative of survival (that beautiful chemical cocktail) and the brain state to go with it.

It is in the brain state that my approach to self-preservation seems to diverge greatly from others in the world of self-defence training. I don’t believe you should get purposively hyped up, aggressive, or inspire to unleash rage, and killer instinct on your opponent. On the contrary, I feel this makes you less effective. In order to achieve this state, you essentially have to talk your way into it — especially if this is not your natural state of being (which as I argue in this article the vast majority of people training reality based self-defence aren’t). What is important to recognise here is that much of the traffic between the primitive and modern parts of our brains is devoted to the conscious calculation of risks and rewards. When you attempt to place to much conscious control over it, you become too impulsive or too deliberate for our own good. Both of these in a self defence situation can spell disaster. Crucial to all of this is that emotions shape your decision making far more than you believe that those decisions were ever made consciously.

What does this mean? If your emotions are driving your decision making, something you require effective application of in order to survive a physical attack — an overemphasis on heightening those emotions for example to become more aggressive in intent etc al. is going to backfire on you. Why? By the mere fact that you are placing all your resources on the conscious control over the risk you have to engage in, your reactions are likely to be either impulsive or too deliberate (in other words you either don’t think clearly, and rush head strong into a fight you can’t win, or you over think your next move, that allows an opponent to get the better of you). My approach is the exact opposite, I take for granted that my body will prime itself to deal with a threat. I recognise that emotions will surface in that event. Rather than engaging with those emotions, and or trying to light them up further, I am respectful of them, accepting and switch rather to my training. In this sense, I adhere to the maxim of the Samurai,

“Mental bearing (calmness), not skill, is the sign of a matured samurai. A Samurai therefore should neither be pompous nor arrogant.” – Tsukahara Bokuden.

You see, the samurai, like all great warriors, knew that what you wanted most in a life and death situation is a calm mind (not a frenzied one). This is simply not possible, if you have to invoke supercharged emotional states in an attempt to overrun an opponent. What the samurai also knew is that when you come out all aggressive, ‘swords blazing’ and it doesn’t work, you are going to find yourself in a heap of shit. Anyone who has ever tried to beat someone with aggression, and then to find it doesn’t work, knows all to well the consequence — you lose confidence, you become afraid, and you are no longer able to respond (you freeze).

The samurai Togo Shigekata knew this too when he writes,”One finds life through conquering the fear of death within one’s mind. Empty the mind of all forms of attachment, make a go-for-broke charge and conquer the opponent with one decisive slash.” Again, there is this element of emptying the mind. If the mind is empty then it is not attached to ones emotions. If one is not attached to ones emotions, one is able to respond with clarity. As Takuan suggested, ”To think, “I will not think” – This, too, is something in one’s thoughts. Simply do not think about not thinking at all.”

Beyond this argument, there is something else that is crucial and sits at the heart of my thesis. If I train my students to defend themselves, but in doing so teach them to be present, not attached to the outcome, or hooked by either their emotions and mind, what emerges is someone who can successfully defend themselves if need be — yet is not burdened by the violence itself. As I began in this article, I believe that for all reality based self defence’s value in training — the negative impact on ones psyche far outweighs the benefits. Very few if anyone training in reality based self defence will use what they have learned, even fewer live in areas mired by violence (this is why ironically most self defence schools are in the middle to upper class neighbourhoods of the world).

Secondly to this, and crucially for me, I am teaching my students how to take on the martial arts of every day life more skilfully. We all have to deal with the pain in the butt boss, toxic relationship at work, etc. All of these bring about what we view as negative emotions we all feel we wish we didn’t have to deal with. Training self-preservation the way I suggest, teaches students how to take on these every day grievances more skilfully. The way I see it, how most reality based schools encourage their students to be, the palaces they want them to go in their minds (and bodies), will likely negatively impact their everyday life, not to dissimilar to a solider returning home — but now embodying a state that no longer works or is even accepted in the environment it finds itself in.


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