Category Archive: Awareness

How to Get In The Zone

Great performers of all sorts, from athletes to musicians, have experienced being in the zone. It is the optimal state for performance, where the performer and performance are one, unobstructed by conscious thought.

Many performers assume this state of mind is a random byproduct of the act of performing, not realizing it is simply a state of mind that with practice can be readily accessible.

This state of being in the zone is the same state that meditators work to discover, maintain, observe, and gain insight from – a state of core consciousness and awareness, unobstructed by thoughts and conceptions.

The name Buddha means “one who is awake”, and refers to this ideal. For meditators, life is the performance, and the goal is to wake up and maintain the experience throughout life.

Why Should You Care?

The ability to “wake up” or be in the zone at will is more valuable than anything else you can achieve. It is the doorway not only to optimal performance, but much more importantly, to a deep sense of happiness and satisfaction in life where stress, sadness, anger, and pain cannot touch you – liberation and freedom. There is nothing better.

I’ve tried to write about this a number of times over the years without sounding either crazy, unintelligible, or pointless. Today I think I may have found the words to make intellectual sense.

What Is Waking Up?

To be awake is to be fully aware in the present flow. We do not exist in the past. We do not exist in the future. We only exist in the present flow. There is only the present flow. It is the only place where we actually exist.

To be fully aware in the present flow cannot happen on the level of your thinking mind. It can only happen on the level of your core consciousness.

From your core consciousness you will perceive the arising of thoughts. On this level the perception of a thought arising will be no different to you from the perception of the sound of a bird chirping. The perception of a thought arising, no matter the contents of the thought, will not affect or change your core consciousness.

Thus, your core consciousness, perceptions, feelings, and emotions are not affected or influenced by your thoughts or ideas.

In our normal consciousness we feel that we are identical to our thoughts. Our perceptions, feelings, and emotions are dictated by our thoughts, and we ride them like a boat on rough water or dust blown around in the wind. There is a fundamental lack of freedom in this, not to mention emotional instability.

Being fully aware in the present flow, aware from the level of your core consciousness, there is a profound freedom – freedom from the past, the future, the limits of your thoughts and ideas – and a profound perception of perfection and satisfaction. The experience is literally like waking up from a dream. Perception becomes faster. Every sight, sound, and sensation becomes clearer. Any form of stress or negativity disappears. Performance is optimized. On observation and reflection, deep and numerous insights can be realized.

How Long Does It Last?

How long this state lasts and how frequently you access it largely determines how much it changes your life. The longer and more frequently you wake up, the more it rewires your brain, the more insights you can realize, leading to deeper places, and the more quickly and easily you can do it at will.

The ultimate goal for some meditators is to wake up permanently, the mind state of what is perhaps only a mythical Buddha. I am open to the possibility, but I have serious doubts as to if waking up permanently is achievable. If it is, to rewire your brain so completely it would likely require living isolated and meditating constantly for the majority of your life. But there is a spectrum, from a single unrealized experience of being in the zone that does nothing to change your life, to a fully enlightened Buddha.

Establishing a Practice

By establishing a practice of meditation, you can learn to free your mind or wake up every day. The more you do it, the longer it will last, and the closer your everyday mind will be to it. You will be able to notice when a negative or unproductive thought arises, quickly go to your core level of consciousness, and clear your mind of the negativity. Even if not a fully enlightened “Buddha”, you will realize a liberating freedom, deep satisfaction, and a way to nullify stress, anger, sadness, and any other negative feeling or emotion.

This waking up practice gives you the ability to be alive and happy on a level that most people, sleepwalking through life or riding on the waves of their unconscious thoughts, can hardly imagine. Again, it is literally like waking up from a dream.

How Do You Practice?

My current sitting meditation practice is fairly simple, but it does take time and effort – time and effort very well spent. I’m not a meditation teacher, but I can tell you what works well for me.

1. Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight, so your posture is maintained more by your skeletal structure than by muscular tension. My preference is to use a zafu cushion and sit on the floor, cross-legged. You can close your eyes or leave them open. Many people prefer to close their eyes. I prefer to keep mine open and fixed on a point in front of me.  Take a couple of breaths to relax, and then simply observe your breathing. Observe the inhalation, and observe the exhalation. Thoughts will disrupt your observation. When you realize you have become lost in thought, return your observation to the present flow of your breathing. Do this for a while.

2. Expand your awareness/observation to your entire body. Your breath is part of your body awareness, and you can use it to help keep you in the flow of the present. Do this for a while.

These two steps alone will do a great deal to stop your thought patterns, reduce stress, and increase your physical health.

3. Here is the somewhat tricky/subtle part – Turn your attention inward and look for what it is that is observing your body, breath, and everything externally. In this looking, you will find nothing there but your core consciousness in the present flow.

This is the goal.  You may be able to skip steps 1 and 2 and go straight to this step.  In my own practice, I begin here now.  If this doesn’t make sense to you, after practicing steps 1 and 2 for a while, it should begin to make sense.

Hold on to this core conscious awareness. Here you will see the arising of thoughts but be unaffected by them. Every sensation, what you see, hear, feel, and any thoughts that arise, will be one in the same – consciousness or energy in the present flow. You will be in the zone, awake. Hold on to this for a while. Try to maintain it even as you get up from your meditation spot. Try to maintain it longer and longer, and more often.

Disclaimer

I have practiced different forms of meditation since 1992, but I’m really not a meditation teacher.  I did teach a basic form of meditation that I learned from my first instructor to many of my students, for 10 years or so, aimed at developing concentration for martial arts/self defense practice, and although that practice had a deep and profound impact on me, I do not have the experience of efficiently guiding practitioners there.

My current practice, listed above, has been the most effective and enduring. The steps that I have described were positively influenced by a Sam Harris podcast with Joseph Goldstein, and Harris’ book, Waking Up. The idea that had the biggest impact on both my practice and my ability to describe it was stated by Sam Harris as an idea from Dzogchen: “The goal is the path.”

This idea is that there is not a path where the goal is only found at the end of the path. The goal itself, to wake up, is available to us all right now. It simply involves looking in the right place in the right way. The path to the final goal, a full and permanent awakening, or at least an extension of the time that we are awake, is to simply hold on to the experience of waking up. The goal is the path.

If you take the time and effort to do this, you can maximize your performance in everything that you do. You can realize a liberating freedom, unchained from your past and from the limits of thinking and conceptions. You can dramatically increase your well-being and minimize negativity in your life. You can literally wake up from the dream-like state that the vast majority of people live in. I highly recommend it.

The Importance of No Style

Breaking Walls

Breaking Down the Walls

Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do concept, which is philosophically rooted in Zen, was and still is outstanding.  The central aspect of it is to have no style, to avoid being limited by the confines of particular styles and to maintain a fully open mind with respect to everything.  It is only with an open or empty mind that one can see clearly, without being blocked by the boundaries of particular ideas and ways.

Are All Styles Bad?

It’s not that every style is all bad.  There are great techniques, training methods, and strategies in many styles.  But in order for a style to be a particular style, it must be defined.  It must be limited to particular ways.  And those limitations become your limitations.

If the style you practice only trains striking, then you won’t know what do to if someone gets you into a clinch or on the ground.  If the style you practice only trains grappling, then you won’t know how to handle someone who tries to strike you.  If the style you train only involves techniques to certain areas of your body, then you will be ill prepared if your opponent attacks you in an area that is off limits in your style.

Some styles only train stand up, and some only train ground.  Some styles only train strikes, and some only train locks.  Some styles don’t train with weapons at all, and some only train with weapons.

In order to train real “self defense”, no single style is enough.  Additionally, being limited by any single style is detrimental both mentally and physically, limiting what you are able to see and what you think about what works and what doesn’t work.  Whatever you train or think operates in two directions.  Your training and thinking influences how you see the world.

Breaking Down The Walls

This concept is also very important outside of self defense and martial arts.  Limiting yourself to particular ways of thinking or to particular ideas and ideologies blinds you to the truth outside of them.  You literally become a prisoner of your own imaginary walls.  Anything outside of your walls becomes either bad, wrong, or must be ignored in order to maintain the validity of your walls.  If you break down your walls, refusing to attach yourself to any ideology or way of thinking, then you open your mind to the truth regardless of where it originates.  Reality and the truth exist beyond any ideology or system of thought.  The only way to see as clearly as possible is to break down your walls.

This is far harder than it may seem, and very few people are able to come close to accomplishing it.  In Zen, breaking down the walls is “enlightenment”…100% freedom of thought, not limited by anything other than physics and biology.  Complete freedom requires destroying ALL of the imaginary walls.  It means destroying your conception of self, who you think you are, and therefore how you think you need to act.  It means severing all attachment to everything you have learned.

This does not mean that you should or even can forget what you have learned and experienced.  But if you want to be able to see whatever truth exists beyond what you already think you know, if you want to see where you are mistaken and what that you think is incorrect, then you must sever your attachments to any knowledge, group, or ideology.  If you want to see as clearly as possible, your mind must be free to do so.  It must be unattached to style, ideology, and doctrine.  The truth is beyond them.

The way you think determines what and how you think about everything.  Breaking down the walls will not only allow you to see beyond the limitations of various self defense and martial arts styles, but also to live your life as freely as possible in every moment.

What imaginary walls have you built for yourself?  This is worth seriously thinking about and applying to both your self defense practice and your life.  It will make you a better and more satisfied person in every way.

Fight From the Void

Komuso Monk

Komuso Monk

If you fight from the void you’ll always win.

There are different meanings and levels of understanding of the void, all of which are valuable.

Technical Void and Physical Space

When an opponent attempts to punch you in the head there is only one small space that is immediately dangerous.  If you move anywhere else it is not dangerous.  When your opponent attacks, his effort is directed at one point.  He creates a large personal void everywhere else.  If you move into that void and attack from it your opponent will have a difficult time defending.

When you fake an attack to a particular target and your opponent reaches out or covers to defend against your attack, he creates a large personal void everywhere else.  When you redirect your attack into that void your opponent will have a difficult time defending.

When your opponent has been deceived and is entirely unaware that you will attack, his body and the area around it is a void.  When you attack from and into such a void your opponent will be unable to defend.

In the above situations there is a technical/physical void, but there is also a corresponding mental void.  Your opponent expects one thing and not another, and you attack with what he does not expect, what he is not ready for.

Mushin (No Mind)

Mushin is a state of “no mind” or “empty mind”.  It is the ideal state for high level performance not only in martial arts/self defense, but in any activity.  When you focus on one thing you are not focused on any other thing.  As a beginner, any activity requires that you focus on particular individual components of that activity.  But as you get better and better and the activity becomes natural to you, you no longer need to focus on any individual component.  You can perform from a state of mushin, with no thought to get in the way or slow you down.  When you perform from a state of mushin you are fighting from the void.

A person who fights from the void can adapt instantly to change.  A beginner will be defeated by the technical strategies listed above (interceptions, fakes, etc.), but an advanced practitioner who fights from the void can adapt to them.  This is a higher level of fighting from the void.

Here is a quote on this subject by the Japanese swordsman Yagyu Munenori translated in William Scott Wilson’s book The One Taste of Truth – Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea:

When practicing archery, if your mind is occupied by thoughts of shooting the bow, your aim will be disordered and wandering.  When using the sword, if your mind is occupied with thoughts of strikes and parries, its tip will not likely be regulated.  When practicing calligraphy, if your mind is occupied by thoughts of writing, the brush will be unsettled.  When playing the koto, if your mind is filled with thoughts of plucking the strings, the melody will be confused.

Yagyu Munenori uses examples from a variety of arts: archery, sword fighting, calligraphy, and playing the koto (a musical instrument).  Anything you do that teaches you to act from the void or get into a state of mushin, including meditation, will give you experience operating from the ideal performance state.  That experience will help you in everything else that you do, as long as you put in enough practice time to make the fundamental movements second nature.

It’s no wonder that out-of-work samurai formed the Fuke Sect of Zen and spent their days playing the shakuhachi…

Blowing From the Void

Mujitsu Shakuhachi

Mujitsu Shakuhachi

The idea for this post came from my last shakuhachi lesson with my excellent teacher, Jon Kypros.  A few of my recent posts have been related to the shakuhachi and how they were designed to be used as weapons by samurai monks.  The more I play and learn about the instrument, the more I realize how perfectly the instrument and its original music complements martial arts practice.  I would go as far as to say that anyone who wants to get deep into martial arts would benefit from playing the shakuhachi for a variety of reasons.

In shakuhachi honkyoku music, it is taught that the empty space or void between the sound is as important as the sound itself.  An ideal is for the sound of the flute to ring out of the void*, and in order to do this well it must be played from a state of mushin.

In my last lesson my teacher mentioned that he spent three years practicing before he felt good about playing a certain two notes in succession.  To sound right they need to ring out of nothingness with the right attack, and the duration of each note must be fitting.  This idea of ringing out of the void gave me a new way to think about strategy and tactics in martial arts/self defense.  As I said, it’s no surprise that out-of-work samurai formed the Fuke Sect and spent their days playing the shakuhachi.

Lauren Rubin writes:

The daily life of the Fuke monks at the temples was quite regulated and disciplined. The komusō monks engaged in suizen meditation (“blowing zen”, meditation through shakuhachi playing), zazen (seated meditation), and sutra chanting. Daily activity at the temple centered on playing the shakuhachi. The daily schedule for the monks included practicing martial arts, practicing the shakuhachi, and begging.

The shakuhachi in the picture above is one I recently purchased from Ken LaCosse (highly recommended!), which he made with a black urushi lacquer exterior coating based on vintage komuso flutes.  Ken makes two types of shakuhachi.  He calls the one I bought in the picture above a mujitsu shakuhachi, and writes that mujitsu “alludes to the contrast/connection between emptiness (mu) and form (jitsu)”.  This idea of emptiness/void and form is common in both martial arts and shakuhachi.

You can hear it in the music my teacher plays below, on one of his much longer flutes (made and for sale by him):

Sorry, this video has been removed.

Again, I highly recommend playing the shakuhachi and lessons with Jon as a compliment to your martial arts practice.  You won’t regret it.

*Two of the three most highly regarded honkyoku are named koku and kyoreiKoku translates roughly as “empty sky” or “empty space”, where empty has a meaning equivalent to the void.  The composition is written and played to express sound ringing out from the void (as the the monk Fuke’s bell rang out).  Kyorei translates roughly as “empty bell” or “empty spirit”, and again the composition reflects the sound of the monk Fuke’s bell ringing out of the void.

How to Avoid a Beating

Wim Demeere recently wrote an excellent post with an embedded YouTube video I’m going to share here.  I’ll comment on the video myself, but please read Wim’s post too.  The video appears to show black shirt trying to start a fight with no shirtNo shirt seems to be trying to avoid the fight, but black shirt continues and eventually hits no shirt and the fight is on.  Although black shirt appears to have been the aggressor, no shirt turns the tables and gives black shirt a very serious beating.  Here’s the video:

Wim writes about how dangerous a street fight can be. The person or people you get involved with may be willing and able to take things much further than you were willing to go. It doesn’t matter what side you are on, whether you are the aggressor or the defender. If you get into a physical conflict with another person, you have no way of knowing how far it will go. This point is extremely important and you need to remember it.  I’ll relate two stories that illustrate this point.

My former boxing coach, a friend of mine, was taking a walk when someone bumped into him.  The situation escalated, and if I remember correctly the other guy attempted to hit him.  My friend ducked, hit the guy with a cross to the solar plexus, and knocked him down with a hook to the jaw.  The guy fell, and my friend bent over him to hit him again.  But then my friend woke up with a variety of injuries.  Apparently someone hit him from behind, knocked him out, and then gave him a beating while he was unconscious.

Another friend of mine, who I wrote about in my book, was sitting in his car with his fiancée at a drive up ATM machine.  Someone approached them and demanded my friend give him money.  My friend was a cop.  He pulled his gun, but before he had pointed it at the robber, he was shot in the head and killed.

In both of those situations, my boxing coach and my police officer friend thought they had the upper hand.  But you just don’t know how skillful the person standing in front of you is.  You don’t know if they have friends you don’t see, or weapons you don’t see.  This is why it is so important to avoid a physical confrontation no matter what it takes.  If you want to survive, the absolute best way to do it is to avoid getting into a fight in the first place.

My boxing coach friend could have continued walking instead of allowing the situation to escalate.  He could have evaded the punch and escaped.  My police officer friend could have given up his money and then called for back up.  It might have hurt their pride, but they would certainly have been better off.

Again, I want to direct you do my awareness and prevention page.  If you haven’t read it, please read it.  If you have read it, please read it again.

Last night my wife and I were having dinner with friends and discussed getting aggravated with drivers who are assholes.  It’s temping to yell at them and/or give them the middle finger.  But if you do that to the wrong person, you may end up with a lot more than you bargain for.  When I was a kid and first got my driver’s license, I was driving on the highway with a friend of mine as a passenger.  Someone behind us was driving like a manic, coming extremely close to the back of my car.  My friend gave him the middle finger, and we both thought it was funny.  But a moment later the guy had pulled up to the side of my car with a gun pointed at us.  As soon as I saw the gun coming up I yelled for my friend to get down and I slammed on the brakes.  I didn’t realize that I nearly caused another car that was behind us to crash into us.  So shortly afterwards the guy that nearly crashed into us drove up to the side of my car screaming that he was going to “kick my ass”.  You just don’t know how these things will end up.  Again, the best thing you can do is avoid a conflict.

Evasive Techniques

One reason I start new students with boxing on the first day of training is because boxing defense includes a great deal of evasive techniques that do not require you to make contact with your opponent.  If you fail to avoid trouble, are unable to maintain a safe distance, and unable to deescalate a situation, then you may be able to use boxing style evasions to evade an attack and escape without a serious physical confrontation.

I know numerous people who have been “jumped”…quickly punched or attacked by strangers on the street, where the attacker(s) strike once or twice and then keep walking, or even running.  In these situations and in others, evading the attack may be more effective than counterattacking.  Evading the attack may end it, whereas counterattacking is likely to escalate it, particularly if there is more than one attacker.  It may not always be possible, but in some situations an initial evasion can be all it takes to end an attack.  The aggressor will see that his initial attack has failed, that you are not an easy target, and if nothing else he will have lost the element of surprise.

Here’s a video from my boxing page, of a basic boxing progression I use with new students.  My partner in the video is a friend of mine who had only practiced three times.  Notice how the catch allows you to avoid getting hit with a simple backward step.  The shoulder roll, starting at 44 seconds, is also an excellent evasive technique.  And the cover, starting at 2:03, is a great technique that can be used with an evasion followed by an escape, rather than the counter punching seen in the video.

The key point here is to avoid a physical confrontation at all costs.  Even if you are attacked, evading the attack and escaping may be a better option than counterattacking.  You just don’t know how far your opponents are willing to take things.  And in addition to the immediate situation, revenge and law suites are another consideration.  Physical self defense training is great exercise and great fun, and it’s possible you may need it some day.  It’s possible that it can save your life.  But it should always be an absolute last resort!

Uncertainty

Uncertainty

Uncertainty

Last week I practiced for the first time with a friend of mine named Paul.  He practiced karate and aikido for a number of years, is a very athletic guy, and is also a physical therapist.  We followed the progression I nearly always do.  In the first hour and a half or so we started with the boxing and Thai boxing portions of the MMA Base, trading jabs, crosses, hooks, and Thai kicks along with various defensive techniques.  Then we added triangular footwork and went over the first of the Fundamental Five…the eye strike and groin slap with a hit and run strategy.  At the end of about 2 hours Paul was doing very well with all of the above, and combining the techniques into an offensive and counter-offensive blast.

As we were finishing up with practice Paul told me he learned more in 2 hours than he had in years of previous practice.  In terms of truly functional techniques and applications that may be true.  For a moment I thought…man, maybe a person can learn everything necessary for self defense in a relatively short period of time.

But here’s the deal…there is a huge difference between these three scenarios:

  1. You know exactly what your opponent is going to do, and you either get to attack him first or you get to respond to a prearranged attack.
  2. You don’t know exactly what your opponent is going to do, but you do know that he is going to attack, and you do know that it’s alright to counter attack, even that you are supposed to counter attack.
  3. You don’t know if your opponent is an opponent or not.  You don’t know if you’re going to be attacked or not, what that possible attack might involve, or if you have legal or ethical grounds to do anything at all.

The first scenario only occurs in training, and in some martial arts/self defense schools this is the only kind of scenario that is practiced.  The second scenario is substantially more difficult.  Knowing that your opponent is going to throw a straight right punch and that you are going to use a specific counter is easy as pie.  When your opponent can attack you with anything…a punch or punches, a kick or kicks, a combination of punches and kicks, a tackle, etc…it makes defending much, much more challenging.  (Using high percentage default responses and interceptions, as we do with the Fundamental Five, lessens the difficulty.)  Any school that has practitioners spar is using the second scenario, so it’s not all that uncommon, but many traditional martial arts schools neglect to do it.

Uncertainty & Distraction

The third scenario however is rare in the vast majority of martial art and self defense schools, despite the fact that it is the most common self defense scenario.  It is also by far the most difficult situation to find yourself in.  In Chapter 8 of my book, Environmental Applications, I explain the challenges of this scenario along with solutions, but it occurred to me that I’ve written little about it on my website.  The problem with the third scenario, in addition to not knowing if your opponent will attack or what he will attack with, is that you’ll likely be distracted by other environmental factors.  The potential threat may be talking to you, asking you a question, or occupying you with some relatively normal physical gesture (a handshake for example).  Responding to a surprise attack while your brain is focused on answering a question or responding to a physical gesture adds a considerable level of complexity to the attack.

Try reading a book and talking to someone at the same time.  You can’t do it.  Your brain can only really focus on one thing at a time.  So when an attacker causes you to focus on something by talking to you or making a physical gesture that requires a response on your part, and then attacks you…it is very, very different compared to the first and second scenarios.  At a minimum you’ll be uncertain as to if the attack will come and what it will be.  If a distraction is used, purposefully or not, your mind will also likely be preoccupied and unable to consciously respond in time to stop the attack.

Learning how to use a specific technique against another specific technique, what you’re doing with the first scenario, is absolutely essential.  It’s not bad training, but it’s not complete training either.  It’s like learning to drive in a parked car.  You need to learn where the gas pedal and brake are before the car starts moving, but you also need a lot more than that.  It would be wrong to sit in a parked car and press on the gas and brake pedals and think…wow…driving is easy!

Learning how to use techniques against random attacks, what you’re doing in the second scenario, is also essential.  But in that scenario there is no real uncertainty as to if there will be an attack.  There is no uncertainty as to what you’re going to need to do tactically in response.  The only thing you need to focus on is physically responding.  It’s really not that difficult to learn to spar at a decent level of intensity.  So it’s easy to understand why people who only train using the first two scenarios might feel like self defense is easy and quick to learn.  When there is little uncertainty and one simple point of focus…of course it is!

What makes self defense so difficult is the uncertainty and the distractions.  In order to respond effectively and unconsciously, which is the only way you can respond fast enough to a surprise attack, particularly if you were being distracted, is to train long and hard enough to ingrain the material in your subconscious.  Add a fully resisting and uncooperative opponent or two to the mix, and you’ve got a serious problem on your hands!

I talked to Paul about this when we finished practicing, and he told me that as a physical therapist he uses conversation and questions to make exercises for his patients more difficult.  He explained that once they learn to do a certain exercise, asking them a question or talking to them totally throws them off.  It shows him how well they have internalized the movement.

In your own training, you need to have your partner approach you and ask you a question or make a physical gesture that requires you to respond.  Sometimes your partner will attack you.  But sometimes he won’t.  He may ask you three or four questions, and you have to respond to them all.  You’ll have no idea if he will attack or how he will attack.  If you haven’t tried such scenario training before, it will be eye opening.  You’ll have a new appreciation for how difficult real self defense situations are, and how much training is actually required to respond successfully.

Strategic Solution

I may have mentioned it before, but I used to have a simple rule of thumb I gave my students:  “Maintain a safe distance.  If you feel threatened and cannot escape, attack.”  If you’re able to maintain a safe distance from potential threats, it will be easier to identify a threat before it becomes an assault.  If you attempt to maintain a safe distance and the threat doesn’t allow you to, then you have a problem.  No well-intentioned individual is going to invade your space when you physically and verbally tell him not to.  If you feel threatened, attempt to escape, and cannot, then you have a person who has already begun his attack.  I won’t elaborate here on legal self defense, what you can do, and when you can do it, but this page might help in that regard.

In any case, it’s important to realize that real self defense often involves a great deal of uncertainty and distraction.  It would be nice if self defense was as easy as one person throwing a straight right and another person stepping aside and kicking him in the groin.  But there is a great deal that comes both before and after the first technique, and these things require functional strategy and training to wade through.

Vigilant Personal Alarms

Personal Alarm

Vigilant Personal Alarm

I was not paid to do this post.  And I don’t ever review or recommend products that I haven’t tried myself and found to be functional/effective.  With that out of the way, Vigilant PPS (Personal Protection Systems) contacted me and asked if they could send me one of their personal alarms to test and review.  I’ve never bought, owned, or even seen a personal alarm before, and hadn’t thought much about them, but I found the idea interesting, and agreed to give one a try.  Here’s a link to the unit they sent me, on their website (also pictured at right).  This particular unit is a special addition in partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, where Vigilant donates $1 to the center for each unit sold.

I tried making a video for this review, but my laptop automatically and drastically decreased the volume when the alarm sounded, making it seem less effective than it is, so I decided only to post about it instead.  In the picture above, the same image displayed on Vigilant’s site, the unit may look slightly smaller than it is.  Here are a couple of pictures so you can accurately see the size of the unit:

Personal Alarm

Personal Alarm (Click for bigger image)

Although it’s slightly wider than my hand, it’s very light, thin, and would easily fit in a pant pocket.  The round “circle” is the “speaker”, and not a button.  And the orange button is used to activate an LED light that sticks out right below where the lanyard attaches to the device.  To make the alarm go off, you simply pull the lanyard off of the device, or pull the device off of the lanyard.  I think this is a smart design, as it would be easier to use under stress than having to find and press a button, and keep it pressed.  To silence the alarm you have to put the “pin”/lanyard back into the device.

The alarm is VERY loud, and it’s surprising that such a small device can produce such a loud sound.  It’s actually painful to my ears, and extremely annoying.  I have no doubt that the alarm would surprise an attacker, particularly indoors.  Although the alarm is extremely loud, it doesn’t travel well through walls or closed doors, so I wouldn’t rely on it to alert someone who is a wall/door or two away from you.  They may hear it, but I would assume that many people would just wonder what the noise was.  I’m also not sure you’d get much attention from people indoors if you used it outdoors, especially considering how many car alarms go off accidentally, and how few people pay attention to them.  However, an attacker isn’t going to know that.  He/she is just going to hear an extremely loud alarm go off.  If the attacker doesn’t want attention drawn to the scene, the use of this alarm could definitely cause him or her to flee.

It Doesn’t Replace Awareness and Prevention

No weapon replaces the need to be aware and to do what you can to prevent an attack before it occurs, and the owners of Vigilant said the same in an email to me.  In order to use this device you need to have it or the lanyard in your hand, or very quickly accessible, and you need to see the threat coming.  Again, that’s true not only for this personal alarm, but also for a gun, knife, pepper spray, etc.

When to Use It

I just received this alarm and have never used one before, so my thoughts on this are relatively fresh.  If anyone disagrees with me here, please let me know/discuss in the comments.

My thinking is that this alarm would not be ideally suited for a robbery, where an attacker threatens you with a weapon and demands your money, purse, etc.  Such robberies tend to be quick, the attacker can still grab what he wants, and I wouldn’t risk angering an attacker with an alarm in such a situation, particularly since the alarm isn’t going to do anything to stop the attacker from stabbing/shooting/assaulting you.

But I do think that in situations where bodily harm is the goal of the attack (from kidnapping/abduction to physical assault), this alarm could be valuable.  It’s far easier and quicker for an attacker to get an object you’re carrying than to rape or abduct you, and an attacker who wants you can’t get you if they simply run away.  They can’t run away with you.  Because more time is generally needed for rape or abduction, a loud alarm that draws attention may dissuade an attacker from continuing, increasing the chance that he gets exposed or caught.  So my initial thoughts are that this alarm would be ideal when bodily harm is threatened (or even beginning) and bringing attention to the attacker may cause him to flee.

I don’t see this as an effective tool for men in most situations.  Men are far less likely to be abducted or raped, and “fights” that men get into (which are almost always avoidable) often happen in crowded places anyway, where attention is already on the participants.

However, I do think it could be an effective self defense tool for women (particularly those who don’t want to carry pepper spray) and children.  Giving children pepper spray probably isn’t a good idea, but this alarm is something they could carry 24/7, anywhere.  It’s something they could easily learn to use, and something they wouldn’t have to feel bad about using even if they used it in error.  Unlike with pepper spray and other weapons, using a personal alarm cannot injure someone mistaken for an attacker.  There is zero downside to giving this alarm to a child, and considering it could save the child’s life, it’s hard for me to imagine why a child shouldn’t have one.  They’re also very inexpensive.

The key with any self defense tool is understanding when it should be used, and when it shouldn’t.  No weapon works in all situations.  No weapon is perfect.  For adults willing to put in the training time, I highly recommend learning to use and defend against weapons.  Weapons use dramatically increases your odds, and the training can be great fun.  But especially for women who are unwilling to learn to use a weapon (or unarmed self defense for that matter), and most definitely for children, I think this alarm could be an excellent self defense tool.

Let me know what you think in the comments…

Note: Vigilant also sells pepper spray, and they happen to carry my favorite keyring unit.

Don’t Get Involved

Prevention

What should you do if you see a woman or child you don’t know being attacked by a grown man?

My gut reaction is to step in and stop him.  But as hard as it may be to accept, that might not be the best move.

The first priority in self defense is to avoid getting injured or killed, and if you have a wife, husband, and/or children, you have even more on the line.  Maybe you don’t see a weapon, but that doesn’t mean the attacker doesn’t have one.  Maybe you move to stop a man from beating a child and he turns around and shoots or stabs you.  How smart is it to risk your life for someone you don’t know, particularly if you have a family to take care of?

In 2002 my wife and I were at a hill tribe market in a remote part of northern Vietnam.  We were the only foreigners there.  We turned a corner and saw a man beating a woman, with a small crowd circling them.  The woman was bleeding, and the man kept punching her.  I really wanted to step in and nail the guy, but I had no idea what would happen if I did.  Would the crowd of people attack me?  There were sharp farming tools on the ground all over the market.  I could have been swarmed and killed.  Or, I could have ended up in a Vietnamese jail.  What would have happened to my wife?  As hard as it was, I think I made the right decision…to walk on.

On another occasion my wife and I had a couple of friends over to watch a movie at our house.  During the movie we heard a woman screaming outside.  We went to the window and a man was chasing a woman around a car parked in front of our house.  My wife ran to the phone to call the police, but as soon as she picked it up the man jumped across the hood of the car, grabbed the woman, and put her in a rear choke hold, choking her.  Without thinking, I went straight out the front door, moving to stop the guy.  It was dark, and I had no idea if the guy had a weapon.  I went outside so quickly that I didn’t even consider grabbing a weapon myself.  Fortunately, as I got close to the guy he let go of the woman and she ran away.  He turned and walked away too.  I got lucky.  When I came back in my wife asked me if I was crazy.  I made a mistake.  Although what I did was perhaps normal and definitely understandable, in my neighborhood it could have easily resulted in me getting shot.

Yesterday a good friend of mine emailed me and told me about a situation that had just occurred.  His brother stopped a driver (with a passenger) from driving away after hitting a parked car.  The driver got mad, the situation escalated, and he grabbed my friend by the shirt and attempted to hit him.  My friend hit him first and dropped him.  But then the passenger had grabbed my friend from behind, trying to hit him.  This continued for a bit, with my friend fortunately getting the better of the situation.  But it could have easily gone another way.  The passenger could have stabbed my friend in the back.  Would it have been worth it, to potentially stop someone from getting away with a hit and run?

So I decided to write this post.  These situations are never easy.  What you should do isn’t always obvious.  But my rule of thumb now is: Don’t get involved.  You’re not the police (most of you, at least).  If you or someone you care about isn’t being injured, call the police.  Maybe say out loud that the police are on their way.

It may feel wrong to stand by while someone attacks a smaller or weaker person, and some people may be unable to do that, but you have to consider the consequences of getting involved for those who depend on you.  If you do decide to get involved, you should do everything you can to accurately assess the situation first, and to minimize the damage you do.

If you come upon a situation where someone is doing something wrong, like a hit and run on a parked car, but no one is actually in danger, you definitely shouldn’t get involved.  You’re not the police, and it’s none of your business.  Don’t put yourself in danger.

This is a controversial topic, such situations are rarely simple, and different people will disagree on what should or shouldn’t be done. What’s most important is that you realize the pros and cons of getting involved. Think about it now, rather than acting without having thought about it before. Think about what you have to lose, what you would be risking, and when you are willing to take such risks. Let me know what you think about this in the comments.

Solo Training, and Why Most WW2 Combatives Are Scams

As with my last two posts, this one has also been prompted by emails from visitors/subscribers.  Over the last two days I’ve gotten three emails from people asking about learning self defense without a partner, and it’s a question I get at least once a week.

The fact is, you cannot learn physical self defense without a partner.

I often tell people it’s like trying to learn to swim without water, or trying to play a guitar without a guitar.  You cannot learn to defend against an attack without the actual attack.  The techniques you use in physical self defense do not exist in isolation.  They exist as a response to a complex threat and/or a complex attack, involving a host of physical, verbal, environmental, and legal considerations, to mention just a few.

What About WW2 Comabtives?

Someone who emailed yesterday wrote back that WW2 Combatives taught by Damion Ross are different, because they are self offense instead of self defense.  He also wrote: “Combatives is something you do to someone……marital arts is something you do with someone and that’s a big difference.”  And, “When it comes to self defense, partner training is of benefit but marginally…hitting things is far more important.”

I’m not writing this to pick on the guy who emailed me.  I’m writing this because what he is saying is a commonly held misconception, promoted by people trying to make quick money selling BS self defense videos.

Fortunately, the Combatives Wikipedia page has it right, under the Modern Army Combatives section:

The regimen is focused on teaching soldiers how to train rather than attempting to give them the perfect techniques for any given situation. The main idea is that all real ability is developed after the initial training and only if training becomes routine.

(When I say that most WW2 Combatives are a scam, I’m talking about the systems that focus on a few “killer” techniques that you practice over and over again on a dummy or on a cooperative opponent.  This is unfortunately most of what I have seen in terms of what is marketed as Combatives.)  The problem is, techniques don’t make self defense.  Training does.  And training absolutely, necessarily, requires a partner.  But what about Combatives where you learn self offense?  What about if you nail your opponent first?  That only happens in prearranged, contrived videos and training scenarios.  It’s hard to know where to even begin to address this…

The Approach/Interview

First, an attacker and his chosen victim do not exist in a vacuum.  They exist in a real environment.  An attacker will not magically appear, standing still in front of his “victim”, waiting for his victim to take him out.  He’s also highly unlikely to approach his victim in an outwardly obvious way, and stand there waiting to get chopped in the clavicle (a pretty bad choice, anyway).  Any half decent attacker is going to either attack his victim by surprise, or approach in a socially acceptable way, gaining control before the victim even realizes what’s happening.  This is much, much easier than most people think, and many attackers are very good at it.  IF the chosen victim does realize what’s going on (see my prevention page for details on how to do that), there is still going to be uncertainty.  Is the threat really going to attack?  Is an offensive technique justifiable?

The threat is likely to be moving.  He’s likely to be putting his hand out for you to shake (and the vast majority of people will instinctively reach out to reciprocate), putting his hand on your shoulder, or making some other socially acceptable movement.  There may be other people around, and other distractions.  The threat will likely be talking to you, asking you questions, making it difficult for your brain to focus on an attack.

An offensive technique is the last, easiest part of self defense.  The difficult part about self defense is not the physical technique.  A 6 year old girl can be taught to smack someone in the balls or poke someone in the eye.  But that same 6 year old girl isn’t going to have a chance against a real attacker, because a real self defense situation involves MUCH more than some awesome technique you have perfected alone in the air, or on a training dummy, or on a cooperative partner.

The Importance of Uncooperative Training

And this is where today’s military, and the Wikipedia Combatives page have it right…it’s the training that provides skill in self defense.  That’s why the military is having people train Brazillian Jiu Jitsu, despite the fact that BJJ isn’t the best self defense system, by a long shot.  But it is a great system for learning to deal with an uncooperative opponent.  This is why I emphasize the MMA Base as the first and most fundamental part of training.

Techniques are important.  They’re very important.  There are many, many ways to do something wrong, in a way that unnecessarily exposes you to your opponent’s counter attack, etc.  Strategy is also extremely important.  These three components of self defense, techniques, training, and strategy, are like a three legged stool.  Without any one of them, the stool will fall.  Without any one of them, physical self defense is likely to fail.

So the problem with the idea that all you need is a few deadly techniques is BS.  You have to train being approached by a threat who is talking to you, who is coming up to shake your hand, etc.  You have to train situations where you don’t know what he is going to do, and you don’t know what you are going to do.  Because that’s what real self defense will be like.  Sometimes your opponent will shake your hand and move on.  And nothing happens.  Sometimes he’ll walk up and “sucker punch” you.  Sometimes he’ll try to talk to you first, and invade your space.  Most of the time, you cannot morally or legally attack first.  It’s a tricky place to be.  And you cannot train it without a partner.

Next…what happens when you try your perfect technique and your opponent blocks it?  What happens when he attacks at the same time?  What happens when it just doesn’t work?  People move!  No one is going to stand there and let you chop them in the throat!  No one is going to stand still and let you land the perfect palm strike on the chin.  When you move, your opponent is going to move.  You may THINK you can nail your opponent before he even tries to move out of the way.  And maybe you will get lucky.  But maybe you won’t.  It takes serious training with an uncooperative partner to learn when to attack, how to attack, what to do if your opponent defends against the attack, what to do if he counters, etc., etc..

It may be unfortunate, but it is what it is.  You cannot learn physical self defense without a partner.  If you want to learn physical self defense and you don’t have a training partner, your first step must be to find a partner.  I hope this settles it.

The Best Self Defense

Yesterday I received an email from one of my subscribers, a law enforcement officer, who is setting up a self defense course due to popular demand.  I was relating a story to him on the importance of prevention, and thought I should post it here.

The Attack

Years ago, a family member of mine was taking groceries out of her car, in front of her house.  There was no one on the street except for a man walking on the opposite side.  As she was getting the groceries out, he crossed the street directly where she was standing, behind her car.  He passed her as she was taking a couple of steps from the car to the gate, punched her in the face, slamming her head into the iron gate.  He took her car keys, started to walk toward the car, and then turned back and came back for her.  Fortunately, some strangers turned the corner at that moment, saw what was happening, and started screaming.  The guy quickly jumped in her car and took off with it.

She called me from the hospital, and one of the first things she said was: “None of that self defense stuff you teach would have helped in this situation.  The guy sucker punched me.”

The Sucker Punch

But here’s the thing, and I don’t mean to blame the victim or be callous here at all: a sucker punch requires a “sucker”.  It requires a person who doesn’t see the punch coming.  The reason I don’t blame the victim though, is that it’s natural and easy to do.  We’re not socially conditioned to tell a stranger to back off, or to maintain distance by circling a parked car, etc.  So it’s easy for a criminal to get close to his victim even on an isolated street, and to punch him or her dead in the face…for it to seem like it “came out of nowhere”.  But it never comes out of nowhere.

The Easy Solution

The attacker must necessarily close the distance.  If you keep him from closing, he cannot attack you.  Period.  It’s not that hard to do.  But it does require strategy and awareness.  What strategy?  What is awareness?  What do you need to be aware of, and what do you need to do when something potentially dangerous shows up on your radar?  It’s all on my prevention page.  The information on that page is more valuable than 99% of most martial arts classes and training, for self defense.

The reason I’m making that information available for free, despite it taking me literally weeks to write, and decades of experience to come up with, is because my friends and family members have suffered horrible attacks that could have easily been prevented.  The material on that page can very easily safe a life.

Unfortunately, related to prevention, most people who visit my site are looking for material on a specific martial art or technique.  My site doesn’t rank well in search engines for “self defense”.  So if you’re reading this, email a link to this post or a link to my prevention page to everyone you know.  Take the time to share it on Facebook or Twitter.  It’s solid material that’s worth a lot more than money.

If you’re a self defense or martial arts instructor, or if you’re considering becoming one, think about the story I just related above.  Simple prevention would have made that attack impossible.  Physical self defense would have likely failed.  Physical self defense is HARD.  It takes a great deal of training to be able to take out a significantly larger, stronger, younger, faster opponent.  Or multiple opponents.  Or armed opponents.  Prevention is #1.  It is the best self defense there is.  And I lay it out for free on my prevention page.  Take advantage of that!

STOP: Become Aware, More Skilled, and Happier by Reducing Distractions

Texting While Eating

Unaware & Distracted

Now more than ever, we are bombarded with disruptions that keep us unaware.  If continuous mental chatter isn’t enough, we’ve got tweets, text messages, emails, phone calls, and urges to check this or that on our internet-connected devices.  The pace for many people is fast and continuous.

Humans are wired to pay attention to disruptions.  For most of our existence as a species, these disruptions were extremely important.  They were usually created by something living, and very often potentially one of two things: food or danger.  It makes sense that we paid attention to them.  But today, more often than not these disruptions are addictive, trivial, and rob us of awareness, skill, and maximum enjoyment.

One At A Time

Thinking is linear, and we can’t think about more than one thing in any given moment.  Although many people think they can multi-task well, they cannot.  In study after study, attempts at completing A, B, and C are degraded by mixing them…in everyone.  Both the time it takes to complete the tasks and the quality of the work is decreased when the tasks are mixed.  The best way to complete A, B, and C, is to do them one after another, with no disruptions.

In addition to humans being unable to do two things at once, at least things that require concentration or focus, it also takes our brains time to switch to being fully involved in one task to being fully involved in another.  Even if you only stop what you’re doing to glance at a tweet, text message, or email, you’ve just degraded your concentration.

How To Cultivate Awareness

Real awareness requires effort.  Try for just a moment to focus only on your breath.  Right now:  Breath in, and feel it without thought.  Breath out, and feel it without thought.  Do that 4 or 5 times in a row.  If you’re aware of what’s going on inside your head, you’ll quickly realize how difficult it is to silence your thoughts.  Your mind will continuously bombard you with this and that, often unnecessarily.

The next time you’re eating, don’t watch TV, read the paper, work on a computer, talk on the phone, send text messages, or surf the web on your smart phone.  Just eat.  Empty your mind, and really taste the food you’re eating.  If you’re eating good food, you’ll enjoy it many times more.  If you’re eating bad food, you’ll realize it.  Without being mindful and aware of what you’re doing in any given moment, you’ll miss out on the good and be unaware of the bad.

These days, it’s common for people in the middle of a real conversation to pull out their phone to read and send text messages or answer a call.  It distracts both participants of the conversation, and degrades our ability to be fully considerate, active, and present.

Whatever you’re doing, be mindful of it.  Eliminate disruptions.  You’ll notice how much richer your experiences become, and those you live and interact with will also benefit.

In the Zone: Active Non-focused Awareness

Eliminating technological disruptions, by giving yourself time to specifically return your messages for example (but not while you’re doing anything else!), would be easy if we weren’t addicted to these disruptions.  But many of us are.  However, eliminating them is worth the effort.  You’ll find yourself able to better focus on whatever you’re doing…to be present in the moment and maximize your experiences.

Eliminating mental disruptions, your own thoughts, is a lot harder.  It takes practice.  Find a quiet place to sit comfortably, feel your breathing, and quiet your mind.  Sit in awareness of the present, with nothing else.  With practice, you’ll be able to do it.  And you’ll start to notice things.  You’ll notice sounds and smells you didn’t notice before.  You’ll see things in a new light.  Quieting your mind is the key to being fully present.

The longer you practice this active, non-focused awareness, the more it will spill out into your everyday life.  Instead of walking to your car while checking your text messages, unaware of what’s around you, you’ll notice both the good and the bad (if it’s present).  The world will open up to you.

I used the phrase “non-focused awareness”.  It takes focus to achieve it, and that’s what initially makes it hard for everyone.  First, you’ll have to focus on quieting your mind, and you’ll have to maintain that focus to keep it quiet.  With that focus in place, you’ll have achieved a non-focused awareness.  It may be more accurate to call it a “focused, non-focus”, or a focused non-attachment.

Becoming More Skilled

Highly skilled practitioners, of anything, are fully aware and hard to distract.  Cultivating an active, non-focused awareness is the key to noticing what’s going on within and around you, and acting/responding efficiently and effectively.  With awareness, you’ll be better able to notice and correct your own mistakes, and to counter your opponents actions.  It’s no surprise that many martial arts place emphasis on meditation, and most high level athletes have some form of mental training, even if that’s done through the practice of their sport.

Start Today

Stop.  Regularly take time to sit in the present.  Eliminate distractions both internal and external.  You’ll become more aware, better at everything you do, and more skilled in your art.  You’ll also be able to fully enjoy the good in your life, and see and eliminate the bad.