christmas homework: personal limits

as we all settle in for a few days off over the christmas period, we all have a chance to enjoy doing a little less than usual and eating a little more than usual. kenmei is no exception, and while we'll be returning to training in january with aspirations for another good year of karate, it will be nice to take a break from training.

over the holidays, though, might be a useful time to spend a little time thinking about the context of karate, and what we choose to get out of it. there are lots of reasons that people start karate, and lots of reasons people continue with karate (and also, of course, leave karate). one of the most common reasons for starting, in my empirical experience, is self-defence; certainly, this is why i originally started (though in that case it was less myself, than wanting to be able to protect others). the difficulty of training for self-defence is that violent encounters are something much better avoided, and that includes within the dojo. karate exists very well as a sport, but the imposition of rules and etiquette that a sport demands can be detrimental to fighters who learn to look for the referee and who practice pulling techniques or stopping after one successful strike. further, the very act of practicing being attacked removes the element of surprise, which is a vital part of many attacker's strategies.

kata really isn't going to help in a fight

this is all old news in karate circles, of course, but it has relevance when you consider the intellectual pathway of karate study (and naturally, your milage my vary). if i come to karate to learn to defend myself, straight punches where the other hand does not cover isn't what i need. kata isn't what i need. gloves and mats and areas and referees aren't what i need. unfortunately, this is where the karate journey must start, because the principles like discipline, and focus, and power, and awareness of my surroundings are exactly what i need, and these are the things i learn embedded in the dojo training environment over a longer timeframe. i could short-cut martial arts training by simply going out and fighting people, again and again, and learn through experience; the risk of being permanently damaged would be high, though, and this is precisely why some formal exercise of fighting without that capacity for damage is attractive.

it is conceivable - i myself fall into this group - that someone starting karate with an aim towards self-defence may end up liking the other aspects, and that those become a separate motivation to continue training. this is good for the immediate reason that i enjoy my weekly training, but also because with extended training i will be in a far better position to learn the important martial aspects that comprise an ability to deal with violence.

the fight is in the psychology

so let's be frank; enjoy your karate for fitness and sport, but if you want to lay claim to any fighting ability as might be deployed in a real-life violent encounter, you need to have gone through the psychological process as well as the physical. there are certain problems that, for different reasons, are never covered in the dojo. simple things like: when you get attacked, you will freeze. you will; everybody does. when you are pumped full of adrenaline, for example after you get hit the first time, tunnel vision and impaired motor control will literally alter your mind and body: what you think, and what you can physically do, are different. afterwards, you will go over the encounter again and again, reliving it, thinking what you might have ("should have") done, and so forth. the mental picture of yourself, as a person as well as a karateka, will be shaken if not destroyed, and you will have to start again. and these are big issues, and to miss them out is to dangerously oversimplify the sorts of situations we are nominally training for.

here's the question, then, and please give time to seriously thinking about what your answer is: how far would you go to defend yourself? another way of putting it would be: what are your personal limits? everyone will be different, of course, and these answers may change over time, but please do honestly ask yourself this question, and properly visualise the consequences of your answer. given that the situation required it (this is an important legal distinction also, but that is for another time), could you:

- punch someone in the face, knowing you might break their nose?
- punch someone in the throat, knowing you might damage their windpipe?
- stab your fingers into someone's eyes, knowing you might blind them?
- tear someone's ear off?
- deliberately break a person's arm?
- use an improvised clubbing weapon?
- use an improvised cutting weapon?

and so on; try to think of other examples that are more and less extreme also. it is easy to think of these ideas, and describe them in the dojo, in abstract terms, and then never actually deal with them in real life. but they are real things, difficult things, that some day might be needed to save your life, or your children's; think about what such actions actually are, and what situations you might be prepared to do them in. some things, perhaps killing someone else, you know you could never do, even in self-defence and if there were no other option. perhaps you feel you could shoot someone, but not strangle them. please spend some time to think about this; these are your personal limits. there is no shame in what your answers are, whatever they may be, and certainly no 'right' or 'wrong' answers, but it is important for you to know what they are, since this will influence your training and will ultimately be useful to keep you safe.

knowing your personal limits means that you can concentrate, without hesitating to decide, on what you know your weapons will be and how to use them. there will be no time to decide such things, or be surprised by them, when the worst has already happened. any time at all you can save by being prepared will help you should you ever find yourself in such a position of needing to use violence to escape an attack. for example, if you know you could never deeply attack the eyes, you won't have to worry about it at the time and can work on doing what you can - a punch to the nose instead, or a knee in the groin, whatever. you will concentrate on these and make sure that these are your best, most powerful weapons, executed with commitment and power. if you know you would have difficulty striking anyone 'for real' ever, because that's not who you are, then you know that your karate experience will sharpen your awareness and ability to project confidence (posture, posture, posture) so that you minimise the chances of ending up in a tight spot, and you will know to start running sooner than someone else might otherwise. and so on. the question is for you to think about, and the same for your answers: they are private, but you will do yourself a huge disservice if, as a result of your karate training, you do not take time to understand, to really know what you are capable of, and what situations you are prepared to use your weapons and skills in.

what are your personal limits, in which situations?

in karate, as in life, context counts. enjoy your karate for all it offers, but put each part in context. the game we enjoy in training may not always be a game; competition kumite is not for the street, and you cannot - must not - confuse the two. when real life brings real danger, you will need to have asked yourself, for real, how you are going to respond.

if you enjoyed the topic of this article, and you are interested in learning more about the reality of violent encounters, i highly recommend the books 'facing violence' and 'meditations on violence' by rory miller.


-neil jerome, 2012


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