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Thursday, 2 April 2009

Ramblings on attitude from a recent self defence course

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I taught one of my corporate courses this week and, once again, got challenged by an ex-South African prosecutor. I don’t whether it is something to do with their education system or the general collective temperament of the country, but South Africans to seem to love argue. I encourage scepticism and criticism in my classes. This, along with accepting no absolutes, helps prevent my method of self-protection/defence, cross-training and mixed martial arts from becoming a dogmatic system or style.

I was challenged regarding my definition of attitude – be confident, be proactive, keep focused and never give in - and how it applies to self protection. The prosecutor, who incidentally sold a car to my cousin’s husband, Brian, said that attitude didn’t matter a jot in South Africa. He used an example of a woman who was trapped between two cars, raped and shot. It’s a common tactic in South Africa. She could do nothing, he argued. How could she take control in such a situation? In another incident a woman was shot and killed in an almost deserted petrol station. Another episode, he cited, a couple were ambushed out walking their dog. The man was held at gunpoint whilst he wife was raped in front of him. How could he take control? Surely giving in was the only option he had.

I countered that for a start there are no absolutes. No one has a tailormade solution to every situation. You can get so far and your chances of survival become very slim indeed. The brutality of South Africa is a stark wake-up call to most citizens of the developed world. Many foreigners often get killed, robbed and raped in South Africa by making the big mistake of not taking local advice regarding personal security. Nevertheless, people have got out of situations where incredible odds have been stacked against them. People have disarmed gunmen, have survived gunshot wounds and used psychology to turn around situations where they were at a seemingly hopeless disadvantage. Even when he was deprived of everything in a German concentration camp - his personal liberty, the lives of his entire family, his work, food and his dignity - Viktor Frankl found a means to develop an attitude of proactivity. He was able not to be consumed by the camp, but used it as a means to strengthen his mental resolve. Viktor Frankl is testament that a person can take charge when, on the surface, it would appear he has control of nothing. Then there was the case of the child who was kidnapped by a serial killer. She was put through hell, but ended up using a type of reverse Stockholm syndrome. She talked to her kidnapper, cooked for him, cared for him and all the while kept planning her escape. Eventually she seized her moment and made a successful break for freedom. In a shorter variation of this, the last victim of Jeffrey Dhamer also used a similar method to pacify his kidnapper who was almost certainly going to kill him.

I explained to my sceptic - who incidentally was a friendly and knowledgeable individual - that for a start none of these incidents “just happened”. Often when people replay incidents they talk about how quick it all happened. I admit hindsight can be a pompous and self-righteous luxury, however, how can we learn without looking for better alternatives to being raped and murdered? And there are alternatives. The two cars did not just beam down in front and behind the woman. Early awareness or prior knowledge of the area may have given her better avoidance strategies. Boxing someone in on the motorway is not an undefeatable tactic. Watch any number of police shows and see how long it can take using this tactic even with more than two cars in contact via radio, and in some instances how a pursued vehicle can even evade this situation. Another question: why wasn’t the woman armed? It is South Africa all, the land where “Freeze!” isn’t in a gunman’s vocabulary. As for the woman in the almost abandoned petrol station, there were surely some similar even more straightforward solutions here. Why pick an almost deserted petrol station? Why wasn’t she armed? The man held at gunpoint may have done the right thing. After all, he and his wife did survive. However, and I appreciate this is much easier said than done, gunmen have been talked down and even disarmed. My uncle made front page headlines in Northern Ireland when he disarmed a gunman and chased the wannabe robber and his accomplice off.

This is all easier said than done, but so is criticism. What is the alternative to my definition for an effective self defence attitude? Be unsure of yourself, be reactive, let your mind wander and give in. While you are still breathing there is hope. If you don’t believe me I will show you case files of children who fought off attempted abductors – despite my critics’ assertion that you cannot teach children self-defence – I will show you documented stories of people who survived numerous stabwounds (ask Eddie Quin of “The Approach” and Karl Tanswell of the “Straight Blast Gym” for a start), I will point you towards accounts of old age pensioners who fought off muggers and, due to my circus background, I have a list as long as my arm of incidents where men have survived being savaged to death by wild animals through true grit and determination. The truth is there is no perfect answer to dealing with real life violence, but at least through developing a strong and decisive attitude you can be better prepared to increase your chances of survival.

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Sunday, 29 March 2009

Challenging Material

Timothy LearyTimothy Leary (via

Timothy Leary’s “Evolutionary Agents” is not a book one would immediately associate with Geoff Thompson’s Real Combat Method. I doubt even Leary - with his audaciously leftfield views - imagined that his lucid and controversial work would become set reading material for a class training to get certification in self-defence instruction. Yet there we all stood in a circle being questioned by Geoff Thompson, himself, about our thoughts on the work. In truth the course was far more than a simple “hard skills” course for training how to deal with a violent situation. Most of the students who went on the course already had instructor level certification in one respected realistic combative form or another. My take on Geoff’s decision that the reason why books such as Leary’s were made compulsory homework for all who attended the course was because they prompted the internal battle. This is what might be termed cerebral self-defence – as Geoff once put it “self-defence is defence against the self”.

There is nothing quite like tackling what might be called “challenging material”. Such material might repel you or make you feel awkward at first, but ultimately provides you with a deeper perspective over what you might have written off as absolutes. Challenging material is best when it scares you and it has clearly scared others. It should scare you not only because it challenges your beliefs, but because in some way it reinforces them. Geoff presented us with various books that acted as cerebral weight training material. He did not expect us to agree with all the books in their entirety – it is impossible that anyone could given the diversity of their individual philosophies – but to draw positive inspiration from each and every one of them. We were all on easy footing with books like “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin De Becker – a book treated like a bible in my own self-defence class – and “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl; however, it was clear that Yogananda’s “The Autobiography of a Yogi” would herald in the more challenging information. Out of these texts, “Evolutionary Agents” was one I found the most personally challenging.

Let’s get one thing straight, “Evolutionary Agents” is not, technically speaking, heavy reading. In fact, the first thing that impressed me about the book was the way its author got things moving from the start. In fact, the simplicity of the prose is quite daring. It is written as if the author was feverishly scrawling down his thoughts as they rushed into his mind, not stopping to take a breath and then rushing the book’s finish line. This might not be too far from the truth given Leary’s proud stance on the controlled use of hallucinogenic drugs, LSD in particular, to improve man’s capacity for creativity. In fact, he was part of a movement of controversial authors who aggressively promoted this theory. The pace of Leary’s writing style is in line with his argument regarding pace and the back of his book states that it is “not the survival of the fittest, but the survival of the fastest”. He plays with the word race in human race to put forward his theory that everything is about mobility.

Leary goes to great pains to explain the direction all natural progression moves. His all encompassing philosophy sees everything as a race through time with all of us living in different time zones – the progressive thinkers are living in the future and the rest are living in the past. He then gets quite deep into metaphors – so deep in fact it gets a little difficult to decide where the metaphorical finishes and where the literal begins. Likewise his arguments vary from the genuinely original and creative to what suspiciously reads like “shock for the sake of shock” statements. I am not completely dismissive of the obvious shock tactic. Some times we need to go to extremes to re-set a balance. Leary is very much – and consciously so – in line with punk in this respect. However, it didn’t take long in my first reading of “Evolutionary Agents” to really feel the bite of his elitist argument. This is the first stage where you realize you are facing “challenging material”. The fact that the book was compulsory reading, I have to admit, was the first coax to continue my reading. At this stage I feared that what I was reading was typical 1960s undergraduate academia at its most masturbatory.

There is plenty to support this fear. Despite preaching the importance of mobility towards to the future, there is clear nostalgia for the values of “The Age of Aquarius”. He says that the greatest advancements in creativity occurred between 1960 and 1980, his era, and he sees California being a migratory Mecca for all Evolutionary Agents. Of course, California was the place to be in the 1960s as far as the psychedelic movement was concerned – the location has also proven to be fertile ground for some of the world’s strangest cults, pseudoscience and mystical charlatans. Does Leary fall into this category?

My answer is that I don’t know, but one thing I did find despite all this was that “Evolutionary Agents” is an inspirational read. It inspires because it provokes and motivates at the same time. Like Ayn Rand, another hugely influential writer who has also been accused of being a founder of a “cult of personality”, Leary’s main focus is on developing the individual and breaking away from the conventions of society. He has fascinating metaphors to describe the insect-like castes that humans create to keep people from progressing as individuals. Looking at human behaviour in animalistic terms is quite valid. The great anthropologist Desmond Morris wrote some very accurate findings on the way humans act in a group in his “Naked Ape” and “Manwatching” books. Leary may not follow an orthodox biological route on this one, but I completely agree that humans generally follow a herd mentality or – as Leary would say – our “hive” mentality. Those who break away from these castes are what Leary calls “outcastes” – another play on words – and are the pioneers of the future. History certainly backs Leary up on this one. Single individuals who have gone against the norm of the day and stood hard and fast to their principles are those who have affected some of the greatest changes. They have shifted the paradigms of their time and changed our perceptions.

Changing perceptions; now this is a common theme running through the discussions conducted on the Geoff Thompson course. Around the time when I was seriously considering giving up reading “Evolutionary Agents” or, at least, skimming it, I arrived at his “Correspondence Theory”. This actually reinforced a belief I have had for a long time – that everything is connected and that it is a crime to completely break with the past. There is so much we can learn through history and valid foundations for the future are laid there. This is a fairly sound principle.

However, I did not intend this article to be a review of “Evolutionary Agents”, but rather a reflection on what happens when we expose ourselves to “Challenging Material”. This particular book was the first in a long while that exposed my personal prejudices. I don’t like to pigeonhole myself as anything, but I guess I am, roughly speaking, agnostic and sceptical in my life philosophy. I guess this has come about from often wanting to be objective, open-minded and having more than the average person’s experience with charlatans. Therefore books like Leary’s and another book on our list, Joe Vitale’s “Zero Limits” are immediate foils for me to exercise my principles and progress my thinking. The experience is never comfortable, but once you find a connection somewhere in the work – an “energy” as some might say – it becomes quite compelling.

Around the time I completed the Geoff Thompson instructor course I read a short book entitled “The Sadeian Woman” by the feminist author, Angela Carter. The book is perhaps one of the bravest I read in a long time. Carter effectively takes on Sade’s philosophy and not only draws positive ideas amid the scenes of extreme pornography that include torture, rape and a nihilistic approach to life, but actually finds the great libertine’s limit. This is no easy task. Sade is very hard reading and I don’t mean that in a “War and Peace” or “Paradise Lost” deeply profound way. If Timothy Leary’s books are written in a fast-paced style that easily pulls you along, Sade’s are long winded affairs that just seems to catalogue as many perversions and contentious ideas as possible. Having said this, his Libertine characters do have many parallels with Timothy Leary’s Outcastes or Ayn Rand’s Objectivists. After all he is presenting a philosophy that champions hedonism, like Leary, and selfishness, like Rand. Incidentally Rand has one character describe the hero of “The Fountainhead” as “The Marquis De Sade of architecture” for his audacity.

Angela Carter does not react with a counter-argument or the condemnation that many other feminist authors have done when they discuss Sade. Instead she discusses how his heroines, Justine and Juliette, are prototypes for the twentieth century image of women. Sade’s heroine Justine, of the book of the same name, who is punished throughout her whole meaningless life for trying to be virtuous, is seen as the forerunner for the inoffensive and vulnerable blondes of the media like Marilyn Monroe. Likewise Justine’s sister, Juliette, the eponymous heroine of the Justine’s sequel, who is rewarded for her crimes of survival and indulgence, is described as the archetype for the “career women” of the 1980s.

However, it is in his play “Philosophy in the Bedroom” that Carter actually finds that De Sade will only go so far. She demonstrates that far from having the sensuality usually associated with erotic fiction it is all rather mechanical and the orgy that is mainly described by the players comes across as a sort of aristocratic parlour game – regimented and anything but free. The play culminates in a scene clearly designed to derive the most shock possible – the rape and torture of a mother by her daughter. However, it is during this act that Carter sees that Sade will only go so far – that he actually does fear real chaos – and he pulls back. It is this one crucial moment that many a shocked or reactionary critic would have missed in their rising disgust for the horrendous acts being committed that Carter really goes that stage further as a literary feminist. She effectively challenges Sade, a man whose work was far more explicit than anything the controversial DH Lawrence would write and far more aggressively anti-religious than the expelled atheist poet Percy Shelley would publish, on his own terms and ends her succinct criticism with a type of “is that all you’ve got?”

During our course Geoff spoke of a short film he recently completed and was soon to be distributed called “Romans 20:12”. The film apparently deals with that most loathed and feared of crimes in our society, child abuse, and using the titular verse from the New Testament it offers forgiveness as the only real way the abused can successfully claim revenge. Geoff predicts it will be met with opposition and that it is a controversial idea, but he believes in its worth. Keen readers of Geoff’s work will see that it is another connection with his autobiography “Watch My Back”, where he described the abuse he suffered as a child and his adult confrontation with his abuser. I feel it will challenge those who do have religious views and perhaps spark debate on the nature of forgiveness – is it another hidden example of true selfishness and even a type of revenge?

We need material that challenges us if we are to progress. As the celebrated martial arts and self-defence instructor Mo Teague regularly says, “We need traction to move forward”. The challenge can come in many different ways, but I think it is important that it addresses an area we feel fundamentally weak about. I think this is not a million miles away from the Stephen R. Covey principle regarding empathetic listening. If we do not listen, read or face something that makes us feel uncomfortable we allow that thing to become an insurmountable obstacle. Also we allow unnecessary prejudices to feed our ignorance and handicap us from understanding more about our fears. My personal take on what stops certain people from looking into things that scare them is that they worry it will change them. This is every reason to take on the fear. How do you know that your principles are strong if you have never truly tested them?

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A Touch of Puritanism

Oliver Cromwell's death mask at Warwick Castle.Image via Wikipedia

Puritanism as defined by most dictionaries and encyclopaedias was the sixteenth century English religious movement that sought to further reform the Protestant Church of England, so that it would be stripped of what followers saw as the old trappings of the Catholic Church. The main thrust of the movement was to get rid of the old hierarchy and all the pomp associated with it, which Puritans saw as the corruption of their faith. This serves as a good analogy with various other movements throughout history and into the modern day. I am a martial arts teacher and writer and have seen the urge to value basics and preserve principles to be a regular urge that prompts our self-defence community.
Therefore when I use the term puritan or puritanical I don’t just think of the term in a direct religious or moral sense, but as a method different groups have applied in order get back to the basics of their particular philosophy or art. I am not alone in this analogy as the 2000 collection of short stories, “All Hail the New Puritans” demonstrates. Part of its attraction is the apparent honesty in its approach and also the clarity it provides. There is an attraction and even a feeling of logical necessity to take a puritanical approach. However, there is also danger in getting caught up in the dogma of Puritanism.

The ancient Chinese discipline of Feng Shui is a prime example of a method that has some good honest principles and some sound advice, but unfortunately the dogma of this art has often allowed it to descend into superstition and make unverified claims. First of all it deals with getting rid of physical and emotional clutter. This sounds like a good rule. We dispense with what we do not need or are not going to use. This is analogous with our relationships with people. There is no point in allowing negative people who sap your time and energies to occupy your time or influence your outlook on life. Then there are rules about not having your chair backed to a door. Many a nightclub doorman or self-defence instructor will back that one up. Okay, so far so much spring cleaning, good time management skills and sound self-protection advice. Now we come to the stuff about certain colours and images being unhealthy in your household or the direction they are pointed. I don’t like the idea of “oppressive” colours in my home and I recently took all my true crime books out of my bedroom – too many of them feature photos of notorious killers grinning at you from the book spine. This is just an aesthetic preference. Despite what some claim, Feng Shui is not an “exact science” and a great deal of it smacks of superstition. However, as I have pointed out, the general principles are very sensible and worth studying. I can appreciate Feng Shui on a base and metaphorical level, but never as a science.

The religious Puritan Movement saw corruption in the Christian religion. It saw it in the excessive hierarchy and in all the ceremony that surrounded the Catholic Church, so it strove to remove all the remnants of this religion from the Church of England. The peak of its success was in its winning of the English Civil War with the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell being made dictator. A new system of government would be installed that would shape the future of democracy, but for the meantime the Puritan law would be enforced. This would see the banning of virtually all forms of entertainment, dancing and even Christmas, despite its Christian connection. Meanwhile the government would not survive. They were torn apart by internal factional disputes between different types of Puritan. It was a cult of personality and once Cromwell died it would fall apart only to be replaced by the return of the monarchy with Charles II echoing in an age of decadence that was virtually the antithesis of Protestant Puritanism. And yet the prudishness and conservatism of Puritan moral values would re-emerge, at least on the surface, during the Victorian age and the urge to scale down the grandiose and the ostentatious would begin in the Edwardian era. By this time, however, the Modernist movement was already beginning to gather steam.

The architecture of the Modernist movement was celebrated in Ayn Rand’s famous novel “The Fountainhead”, which introduced the world to Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. From Modernism emerged another movement, which perhaps best describes the visual expression of all these movements and concepts: the Minimalist movement. This began to emerge after World War II and peaked in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Today we often see Minimalism being applied in interior design and decorating as a type of non-spiritual version of Feng Shui. It has also found its way into various forms of music, most recently in the simple 4/4 beats of Minimal Techno. In 1995 a new independent cinematic movement began known as Dogme 1995 (Dogma 1995). As with the Modernist movement, the thought behind Dogme directors and writers was to create a stripped down version of their art with strict guidelines designed to eschew various gimmicks and techniques in order to focus more on the film’s storyline and the actors’ performances. Inspired by Dogme 95, came the aforementioned New Puritans, a group of writers who wrote short stories according to a strict manifesto designed to promote the straightforward and linear narrative form without any so-called grammatical or storytelling gimmickry.

The Dogme 95 film-making movement was quite clear about its own dogmatic attitude from the very beginning, as can be seen in the title chosen. It created a clear-cut and Spartan manifesto that reflected reality and not expressionism. This is in line with the objectives of the Realist movement. However, the very failure for most Dogme directors to strictly conform to the so-called “Vow of Chasity” manifesto (the rules that govern making a Dogme film) exposes a vital flaw in Puritanism in general. Whereas the art of restriction can clearly develop artists of all forms and focus them on a project, too much restriction can actually stem creativity. Furthermore, some times when we strip back too much we actually fall into the trap of forgetting the original idea or objective. We get caught up in all the abstinence and in line with our inquisitive and creative human nature we re-interpret the rules. Sometimes - and this all too often seen in religion - we warp the rules and cherry pick the rules to conform to our own feelings of insecurity or desires for power.

Minimalism and Modernism are not to everyone’s liking or necessarily proof of a higher or a truer art. I was never completely drawn to the aesthetics of Minimalism just as I wasn’t attracted to the ideas behind religious Puritanism. Minimalism can present us with a fresh outlook. At its base we have a clear approach to keeping everything simple and to keep everything down to a bare minimum. We know that organization and simplicity are at the core of any efficient mechanism from a well constructed engine to a successful business. And yet humans are individuals by nature. Our so-called “herd instinct” can often be attributed to lazy or unconfident thinking, which can be overcome by our ability to choose, an ability that has intrigued philosophers and spiritual leaders probably since civilisation began. One thing is for sure, as much as we naturally seek patterns, humans are forever producing exceptions to the rule and history shows us that single individuals are responsible for initiating some of our greatest changes.

Ayn Rand argued that there was a strong connection between Minimalism (in the form of Modernism) and the individuality - in fact she saw this particular movement as the natural artistic expression of the individualist. Nevertheless Minimalism’s greatest criticism has been in its sterile look. How can one compare see the physical embodiment of the chaotic thought processes of a truly voracious creative thinker with his numerous references, abstract influences and dozens of new ideas in the form of featureless walls and sparse furnishings. Perhaps it reflects the discipline we aspire to that will focus our ideas and keep us working at what every project we need to complete, but then one has to ask why was this type of interior decoration was the one favoured by the yuppies of the 1980s? I can say that I have yet to enter the household of someone who I value as a creative thinker or as a serious artist whose interior followed completely down the dogmatic lines of Minimalism. .

Modernism often gets it in the neck over being pretentious. Never has the fable of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” been applied so regularly in modern times than to the Modernist or Modern Art movement. Yet the intentions of the movement are virtually integrity incarnate. Again, Ayn Rand saw this in the Modernist movement. Modernists create for today rather then feeling they have to recreate the past. Rand liked the confidence of the Modernist innovators – their sheer audacity to challenge the neo-classical movements that inferred you could not better the movements of the past. Rather than evolving from any other movement, Modernists aimed to break completely with the old school and to use their innovation to create a truly contemporary product. Unlike the other Puritan movements, Modernism has little strict dogma to stick to other than to be original. This is a tough enough rule to follow and in principle it sounds very admirable, but there is a decisive downside. Modernisms lack of conformity makes the whole process very subjective, and without any set structure or obvious contrast it is the most vulnerable to charlatans and the delusional. There are plenty of comedic sketches based on the pretensions and the ignorant pomposity that all too often surrounds bad pieces of Modernist art. The Tony Hancock film, “The Rebel”, is a perfect example of this type of satire.

Even before we had the Modernist Movement there was the Realist Movement in art, which is probably more in line with the martial arts Puritanism I have come across so often. My two passions are writing and martial arts. Seeing as I am using writing to convey my argument I guess martial arts should get the lion’s share of my own personal observations. In the world of martial arts there have been regular eras when different martial arts disciplines have been challenged by their students regarding the arts effectiveness. Arguments have ranged from either the art being antiquated and therefore not relevant for today or that the art has strayed so far from its root that its original intention has become obscured.
My own approach to martial arts was to teach a process that would allow people to develop as individuals. For this reason, I can see the benefits of taking a puritanical approach, but this cannot prohibit the individual from making their choices and decisions, and learning from their own experiences. I do not pretend that CCMA is a wholly scientific approach, but by being a sceptic I can at least put in measures that I hope will prevent it from becoming steeped in dogma. My humble manifesto does not have a long list of stringent rules any more than it has a list of set techniques. It is a principle centred approach, but even before principles I emphasise the importance of common sense, which makes sure that everything starts, where it will end, with the individual.

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