Friday, September 21, 2012

The Discipline of Self-Defense

A day or two ago a friend-of-a-Facebook-friend posted a harrowing tale of having been attacked in her own neighborhood. She managed to escape without injury, but was obviously seriously frightened. My FB friend, and many others, wrote notes expressing sympathy and sorrow that someone would be attacked right outside of her own home.

The post has stuck with me, even though I do not know the woman in question. What struck me was this sentence:
I have taken self-defense classes and read plenty of articles about being aware of my surroundings but as it turned out I was completely clueless
Now, I'm a big supporter of self-defense classes, although I suspect that folks that do take them (like this woman) do so extremely infrequently. Subconsciously, we think of classes like that more as inoculations - do it and then you can check it off your list.

Important side comment: I am NOT in any way blaming this woman for what happened to her, or casting aspersions on her, her choices, or her actions. The fact that she escaped two attackers, one apparently armed, without a scratch is a tremendous accomplishment and for that alone she has my respect. Her conclusion about the experience:
Aside from being the most terrifying thing I’ve ever experienced, it made me realize how completely unprepared I was
And here's the problem with the check-it-off-the-list approach to self-defense: it doesn't work. Defending yourself against an attacker is not like riding a bike - if it's been a while, you can't just pick it right back up again. Preparing to deal with emergencies, crises, and out of the ordinary events always involves developing and maintaining instincts over time.

Developing and maintaining instincts, of course, is a function of practice - both physical practice (forcing your body through the movements to build them into muscle memory) and mental practice (thinking through "what would I do" scenarios, and imagining your body responding appropriately). Practice, in turn, is a function of discipline.

As strange as the martial arts often appear to outsiders, this is why they have developed the way they have. All martial arts (Western or Eastern) are built around discipline and the continual practice of movements and techniques that often don't make any sense to non-practitioners. The development of a self-defense capacity happens over time; like good health, it can easily be lost through neglect.

Awareness is an interesting subset. Anybody can become aware, because awareness is an entirely mental skill - it involves nothing more than paying attention to the senses. And every self-defense workshop includes in its first lessons the importance of awareness ("your most powerful weapon is your mind" is one common formulation). But awareness, like any other skill, can only be built and maintained if practiced continually. Once the knack is learned, anyone can practice it in daily life. But very few, unfortunately, do.

The only conclusion I can draw is this: if you think you need to develop the capacity to defend yourself, don't just go to a workshop. Make it a lifestyle, a part of who you are. Don't just attend a couple of sessions and then check it off of your to-do list. Find a method of training and practice, with a good instructor and supportive peers, that works for you - I guarantee that, wherever you live, there are a half-dozen or more good martial arts schools and programs within easy reach. Go regularly. Nobody loses weight by going to the gym once a year. Nobody learns self-defense on the same schedule either.

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