Thursday, May 22, 2014

Hit My Buttons

I have a love-hate relationship with teaching. I love teaching, or I'd make my living another way. Watching people grow stronger is one of the coolest things to watch, right up there with desert sunsets and ocean storms. And feeling even a tiny bit of responsibility for that growth is a huge ego stroke. No denying that. And teaching is one of those professions where you can really watch the ripples of what you've done spreading in the world.

As a wise friend likes to point out, we are all teachers.

But I hate being a teacher.

The teacher/student relationship is incredibly toxic for self-defense. And it is incredibly limited and limiting for any real growth or deep internal work.

Toxic for self-defense. The core skill of SD, beyond hitting and hurting, even beyond awareness, is the ability to stand up for yourself. The skills to see what is going on and make a decision are vital, but in the end, you have to be able to act on that decision. If you can't act, your understanding and situational awareness skills will only serve to make you a smarter, more aware victim. This decision to act is not made in a vacuum. There will be another personality there, the threat, and he or she also wants this to end a certain way. And the threat will use power-- physical, personal, voice, authority, threats...-- to make you do what he wants, not what you want.

And so spending six hours a week with an authority figure, doing what he wants in training, may be the exact opposite of the internal training a student needs.

It can be even worse in martial arts. If you pick the right art and the right school the kid who was always picked last for kickball can convince himself he's not just an athlete but a martial athlete. You can convince yourself that you are a great fighter or a "warrior" without ever experiencing real pain or fear. And the person without the social skills to get a date, if he sticks it out long enough, can be called "master" and demand that his students kneel.  You can see why this is a petri dish for certain predatory personality types. And even if the instructor isn't a predator, the system itself is ripe for abuse.

Limited and limiting. Most of our concepts of learning came from our experiences in schools, naturally. We all spent twelve or more years running through what was essentially a factory. Time scripted. Tasks designated. Every assignment judged. There have always been a few extraordinary teachers, but generally any creativity snuffed on sight. Can't speak for everyone, but I've never been sent to the principal's office or had my parents called for doing bad work... but I have for pulling out an encyclopedia and proving the teacher wrong. I never saw stupidity or ineffectiveness punished in the place I was sent to learn. The only sin was disobedience.

And that shared experience is the idea of teaching and learning that we all too often take to other training.

You can't become proficient at chaos by rote. You need to play. To mix it up, to make mistakes. You need to play with people so much better that they remind you there are levels of skill alien to you, and play with people of passion with no skill because they'll surprise you, too. But chaos is scary for some. As soul-crushing as I think our educational system is designed to be, it created a comfort zone and people try to recreate that comfort zone in the dojo. Complete with an imaginary imbalance of power, as if the students were first graders and the teacher the only adult.

You can't learn the stuff you need to know from that dynamic. It's too limited. And it is also limiting, because once you accept an authority figure as a font of knowledge you lose the habit of thinking for yourself (assuming you had that habit to begin with.) NO ONE has all the answers. There are no experts in this field. And even if someone knew everything there was to know about violence, that person still wouldn't know you, not the way that you do. And you are a big part of any situation.

A training environment where all acceptable answers come from a source outside yourself limits some of your greatest survival advantages: Your creativity and your adaptability.

Given all this...ahem... if you sent me an e-mail recently asking me to be your guru and I went a little ballistic, this is why. It's one of my buttons.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Two Reactions

Two people can have entirely different reactions to the same event. What can be crippling psychological damage to one is a challenge or an incentive to grow for another.

Civilian scenario training, like we did in Sheffield, is more complex and more dangerous (on may levels, not just physical) than most of what I see out there. Unlike police scenario training, you aren't working with a population who have been through psychological batteries and have a baseline of training. If you do it long enough, you will get psychological breakdowns. Part of the job is to bring the scenarios as close to the student's core as you safely, realistically (two different things), think you can. So hitting the edge is expected, but sometimes you will hit it inadvertently. Side effect of lack of psychological batteries is that you won't know where the suppressed mindfields (I like that pun) lie.

With a skilled facilitator, that's not usually a problem. If the facilitator is aware and understands dynamics, hitting the edge becomes a huge win, a rare insight that others can never truly share.

But outside of scenario training, people process big events on their own. Or with amateurs (friends) who may care, but may have no idea of what hitting an edge is like. Or with others who were exposed to the same event and will be trying, with very varied levels of success, to deal with the same issues. In the wild, as opposed to good training or, say, exposure to events with an experienced team or FTO, processing tends to be a crapshoot.

Most people adapt. There are relatively few events that can crush the psyche of a fairly healthy human. Very few environments where a human will hit unrecoverable exhaustion before they hit adaptation. People adapt, that's what they do. So most people are or become okay. For various values of 'okay.'

There are two common reactions of the people who do well. Both are acts of will, both are active instead of passive, but they are very different.

One decides that there are forces in the world beyond personal control and concentrates on internal and personal work: learning, training. Becoming more aware, informed, adaptable and tough.

The other decides not to change and focuses on forcing the world to change. Controlling the behavior of people nearby, trying to change social norms, laws and policies.

Objectively, with my reasoning mind, both methods of adaptation are admirable. The second, even, is the core of changing the world for the better, maybe. But my emotional reaction, my Monkey Brain, feels that the second way is on the same continuum as bullying, that these former victims have discovered a version of the power that was used against them and have become a reflection of what they hate and fear. And some revel in that power.

Forcing change is still using force. Making people be what you want them to be against their desires is exactly what your victimizer did to you. You can tell yourself that it's different because the change you demand is right and good. But some extraordinarily bad people have said that as well.

But that's probably just my Monkey Brain talking.

Thursday, May 15, 2014


I've slept. Two nights in a row of good sleep. Doesn't make up for the last eleven years or so...

Mental, physical and spiritual. Three dimensions that all of this stuff (fighting, relationships, life, whatever) share. I'm always uncomfortable with the concept of 'spiritual' and the implications of the word-- but I know that mental and physical are not enough to describe sensation.

One example, that comes easily right now. Physical and mental exhaustion are not the same as emotional exhaustion.

Long ago, our highschool basketball coach (yes, I played highschool basketball at 4'10" advantage of a school with only twenty-nine total students) had us do an exercise called a "chinese chair". Backs against the wall, hands over head, up on toes and knees bent so that the thighs were parallel to the ground. Everyone had trembling thighs very quickly. Only two of us finished two minutes and neither of us could walk afterwards.  The coach said that if anyone collapsed and could walk afterwards, their bodies hadn't failed, their minds had.

Physical exhaustion. Climbing or judo (or milking cows) hands would go to total muscle failure again and again. You learned to rest them, stretch them and get them back to work as soon as possible. BCT we would do pushups to failure and then a partner would support part of our weight so we could do more. For endurance running, tasting blood in my mouth was the sign that the real training was about to begin.

That's not the same as mental exhaustion, and I've experienced that mostly with sleep deprivation. Forty hours in I start to hallucinate. Run multiple days on one or two hours of sleep and muscle tics and tremors develop. Eyes get less sharp. It's hard to monitor your own thinking, but mentally tired makes me stupid as well, and frequently stubborn. Emotions come to the surface. For me, especially, a sense of other people's physical and emotional weakness.

But there is a completely different type of exhaustion. Physically great. Calm, hydrated (dehydration can cause the symptoms of all three kinds of tired) and well-rested. But soul tired. Every human voice and presence is scratching on a raw nerve. My beloved K knows when I am getting "peopled-out" and insists on a rest day-- at home or in the woods, no contact, no phone, no computer.

This is a different kind of tired than being physically or mentally tired. I know other introverts feel it but honestly don't know if extraverts can relate. For me, one of the physical symptoms is that it becomes very difficult to make eye contact, it feels like a force is pushing my eyes away from faces. Spiritually tired. Burn-out, I think, is the high end version. Burnout in our (actually, my old) profession can come from big events, seeing something dark; or a lot of cumulative events. Sometimes from the internal expectation of being the only one who can handle the bad things and always stepping up or always being ready to step up and denying ourselves down-time.

Alone time is the cure. Maybe. Sometimes the big things process better with someone to talk to. But alone time is looking really precious right now.

Friday, May 02, 2014


"Are you having fun?"
The student grins, "Yes."
"Are you getting hurt?"
He looks a little confused,"No."
"Then there's no reason to be so tense. Relax. Breathe."

RC pointed out that in certain professions, sleep deprivation is just a natural state. Whether you're a pager slave or you do shift work; whether it's crossing time zones or adapting to the sounds and smells of a new place every night-- or injuries. People who do certain things don't sleep much or well, generally. And that can put you in what I call the Death March mode. You have a job to do, a condition to outlast and mentally, physically and spiritually you are running on reserve power. What do you do? Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. And breathe.

When the energetic, powerful kid wants to grapple, relax. Let him burn his energy as you fill the spaces that he creates in his thrashing. Just breathe. Even better if you can arrange that your dead weight is on his diaphragm, so you can breathe and he can't.

When the pain gets bad but you must remain absolutely still, breathe. When you know you've made a bad mistake and don't think there's anyway out and you feel the little rat in the back of your skull clawing away at you, telling you to panic, breathe. The air comes in, and fills your belly and holds it full and the air goes out until your lungs are empty and you feel that empty sensation before you inhale.

When you want to find a dark corner and just rock and hum, that's okay. Rocking and humming is breathing.

And every so often, for no reason at all, got out in the night, lie down, look at the stars, and breathe.