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Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence by Rory Miller

Posted at — Jul 18, 2020

This is a book for people who have only encountered violence in the movies or in the context of some sort of martial arts training. It explains in rich detail how neither of those things counts as encountering violence.

The author is a corrections officer from the US with many years of experience. In some parts of the book he is humble about it, and in some…​ well, he’s from the US. Either way, the book is easy to read and pretty short. Immediately after listing a bunch of accolades about himself, sergeant Rory Miller tells firmly:

Never, ever, ever delegate responsibility for your own safety. Never, ever, ever override your own experience and common sense on the say-so of some self-appointed “expert”. Never, ever, ever ignore what your eyes see because it isn’t what you imagined. And strive to always know the difference between what your eyes are seeing and what your brain is adding.

The first chapters are talking about the definition, complexity, and variety of violence. Fighting can happen at a sports tournament, in a bar, in a work situation (e.g. for a police officer), in war, and so on. The circumstances and the most suitable responses to it differ wildly, not to mention the outcomes. That’s the main reason one shouldn’t assume they know how to deal with a street fight because they’re so good at aikido or whatever.

Training a particular set of kicks three times a week won’t help with (a) being in the wrong place in the wrong time, (b) not seeing an attack coming, (c) not being used to hitting with all you’ve got into especially vulnerable spots or to being hit with full force — and so on.

Unsurprisingly, movies are even worse as a source of information.

Rookie officers come to the academy believing that the right way to make a fast entry is with their weapons next to their heads, pointing at the sky. A technique that only existed so that a cameraman could get the star’s face and a gun in the same picture has become something that people who know better try to do. In real life, it is a matter of an instant for a bad guy to grab the barrel and shove it under the officer’s chin. A messy death.

A summary of how real attacks differ from expectations of an average person:

Assaults happen closer, faster, more suddenly, and with more power than most people believe.

A common artificial aspect of martial arts training is the optimal distance for the defender. In reality the attacker chooses the optimal distance for themselves, and often in an area that restricts the victim’s movement.

It is also the attacker who picks the time and already knows what’s going to happen, unlike the defending party. The author points out that this is one of the hardest aspects of an ambush to train for, since by knowing that you’re training for it, you kinda defeat the point.

Speaking of training, in there you don’t want to hit as hard as you can, and your sparring partners don’t do it either. Often it is also set up in a way of exchanging blows. Being hit with full power in a real fight is usually a very new experience which provokes freezing. Many people also wait for the attacker to finish his sequence before responding with their own hits, but there is no jury to appreciate this “taking turns” mindset.

In the third chapter we get a look at the chemical cocktail the body works with under stress:

  • it takes a heartbeat for the effects of the hormones to kick in

  • in general, men get a big surge of adrenaline early and it dissipates quickly; women have a slower build up and a longer cool down (⇒ if the threat is male, the longer you can postpone the actual encounter, the less dangerous he is; if it’s female, the faster you end the situation, the better)

  • the chemical cocktail makes an average person more dangerous, and a skilled trained fighter less dangerous (provided that they haven’t trained for exactly this kind of violence in exactly this kind of environment), because the skill is usually a fine and complex motor one, and those deteriorate

  • “big, red, loud” is probably at the beginning of adrenalization, “small, white, pale” is in an advanced stage and similar to a cornered animal, “emotionless, alert, thousand-yard stare” is experienced with the adrenaline state, retains a large percentage of skill, and can still communicate unlike the other two.

How to train against freezing in a heartbeat? The author suggests getting someone you can trust to be ruthless and unpredictable, then triggering the state so that you can practice recognizing it and snapping out of it. Example drills:

  • slap in the face

  • hit on the head during sparring

  • sudden appearance of a knife

  • hair grab, shoulder grab

  • personal triggers — particular words, scenarios, phobias, etc.

The point of the drill is to do something — anything but standing there with your best deer-in-the-headlights expression. Even inhaling is good enough, if you tell yourself to do it. Screaming also counts. One step above is training some moves — hitting the opponent or creating space between you. There’s more on this in chapter 5 which suggests how to alter the usual martial arts training to adjust it to the reality of “closer, faster, more suddenly, and with more power than most people believe”. For example, you can train a particular block as a response to a straight punch to the face. Or drop-step and spin into the contact with an elbow lead to any attack from behind. Conditioning one response to one stimulus is time-consuming but simple, conditioning one response to a variety of related stimuli is less simple but more effective.

The author also says that doing new things — taking a new class, introducing yourself to strangers, going somewhere you’ve never been before — creates a habit that helps with snapping out of a freeze.

The next part is about criminals, and Miller expresses pretty strong views here. He acknowledges that there are people who end up in jail because they made a mistake, but says they’re rare as hell, and the entire criminal justice system only works for them. The rest of the people he deems impossible to change:

No matter how it arises, the predator, once created, remains a predator. No system of rehabilitation has been able to change this basic personality trait.

This question is, however, outside of the scope of the book.

The next part is about making self-defence training work. One interesting bit there was about lack of permission that many people impose on themselves.

With all the skill in the world, you must still let yourself act. If you need to hurt someone to survive, the first battle may be in your head. It has to be okay for you to hurt someone. A small woman with a little training can strike hard enough to break a rib or a clavicle, if she lets herself.

Some more quotes:

Statistics on survivability are also good. Most people recover fully. Corollary—do not let your imagination kill you! If you are shot or stabbed, keep running! Do not curl up and die because that’s what you’ve seen on TV. One soldier took over thirty rifle bullets and still carried two men to the helicopter.

It’s better to avoid than to run; better to run than to de-escalate; better to de-escalate than to fight; better to fight than to die.

The ending of the book is about the aftermath of violence, including the potential damage to your identity, the story you used to tell about yourself. Miller thinks that humans are not machines that get broken and then get fixed, but rather creatures that grow — maybe twisted, but usually stronger.

What is your worst memory? How much impact did that event have on making you into you? Didn’t your greatest strengths come from your worst times? Didn’t your capacity for compassion arise from your losses and grief? Didn’t your courage come from pain?

The last chapter also has four pages of the author’s diary from a few years back that are impossible to summarize — they’re very raw in describing his life where violence is part of the job.

And then there is the bibliography, which starts off with the advice of “First off, read a damn book.” It’s separated into sections About People, About Criminals, About Training, About Crime, Aftermath, Other, Criminals by Criminals, Books on Self-Defense, and Martial Arts. It’s the best kind of bibliography — not a silent list but at least a few words, and sometimes several sentences, about each entry.

I would recommend this book even to people who have never trained in martial arts and have no interest in violence. If nothing else, it’s an extensive primer on scepticism — breaking out of a widely popularized preconception about something (how a fight looks like) and learning to learn more about it.

A word of caution: this is a book about violence, and it has examples of, well, violence. Be careful if you have a problem with the words “head” and “smashed in” being in the same sentence.


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