Developing Core Awareness
We are all aware of the mind/body separation that we are supposed to overcome in our training. We want to calm the mind during duress and become one with the body. Through diligent practice we hope to meld the two as one. We see this as a psychological process that emanates from mental focus to bring the two in harmony. I think it this awareness goes beyond cognitive practice and is much more prevalent in daily life than you might expect.
In the extreme examples of this there is the reaction of some men in war time situations where under the direst circumstances they suddenly become focused and still. They often describe as being detached from the moment while being in the moment. Athletes go through this at the peak of their ability. Rock climbers often talk of this experience and a type of euphoria it brings. This might be thought of us wei-wu-wei but I am talking about something much more visceral and fundamental to the human biology without philosophical concepts. This exists in all of us as part of our intrinsic physiology. I think of this as core consciousness vs surface consciousness. When under some stressful situations the mind sinks to the core and ignores the reactions of the surface. So, while in danger your body ignores the surface sensations and sinks to the core to react. There have been first responders that have been under extreme physical duress during a rescue but seemed immune to it at the time. They don’t realize their injurie till after the event. Over the years I’ve talked to many fighters who will talk about being hyped up in the dressing room but as they enter the ring their consciousness somehow automatically changes and they become still. They are no longer surface reactive. It is not uncommon for folks to comment on how still these folks are in the face of a fight. If you’ve had a good martial arts teacher you will see that when you throw strikes at them their reaction is unnervingly serene and in control. Their practice has led them to instantly sink into this consciousness.
At the center of this is the difference between the reaction of the body’s surface and the body’s core. When it’s a surface reaction that stimulus overwhelms our consciousness. It’s a conflict between fight and flight. If we are startled we become flooded with sensations from the body. So, if while walking peacefully down the street and a dog suddenly appears barking fiercely we might withdraw and go numb overcome by not knowing what is happening. Our mind is frozen. If suddenly we are immersed in cold water we shiver and hyper ventilate. All of these are the autonomic nervous system taking over. How do we control this effect? How do we master our response? You might think that we can’t control our autonomic response but in fact we can. We can learn core control and awareness.
I recently had a new understanding of this while practicing the Wim Hof breathing method and cold-water techniques. It is comprised of practicing breath retention and then, after a few weeks, you start taking cold showers or submersing yourself in cold water. I know, it sounds like torture. I have been surprised by guys telling me how horrible they think cold water training is. Tough guys tell me this, ‘no way I’ll do the cold water”. I understand it but for some reason it intrigued me. The first two times in the cold water was brutal and I jumped around and hyperventilated like a little child while cursing like a demon. Keep in mind I had been training the breathing for weeks. My first reaction in the water was pure surface consciousness; my skin was freezing and that is all I reacted to, it ruled my mind. On the third day something profound happened. When I stepped into the cold shower my consciousness immediately left the surface and sunk to my core and my breathing went deep and steady. My heart rate dropped to 52 BPM almost instantly. I was no longer cold. I did not shiver. The core took over and it was warm. My mind was clear, lucid and present. It’s like being inside a car and it’s cold rain outside. The surface knows it cold but inside of it is fine. Within a few days this core reaction became an immediate response to cold. No hyper ventilating and no adverse reactions just a deep, calm awareness and a sudden sinking of my breath. I realized it’s the same when I fight, this losing of surface consciousness. I want to stress here that this was not by training psychologically. In my breathing exercises I never thought about cold water training, I just did the breathing. The idea is that you’ve intrinsically programmed the core awareness by the breathing so when stress occurs, such as cold water, it will just take over. Well, it does. Being a complete cold-water pansy in the past I am still shocked at how it does not bother me at all. For the record the water is generally about 59F. I actually look forward to getting it colder. One of the major effects of this is now core consciousness is very apparent in every day life. I’ve bought a pulse and oxygen finger monitor to check my progress. In a matter of just six weeks I can consciously slow my pulse lowering it from 72 PBM to 50 BPM in about a minute. My mind now had a direct link to my core like never before. It makes you fundamentally aware of all aspects of your body in a direct and practical way. Qigong does this at one level but this is so much more hard core (no pun intended) and real that I am amazed by it. Surprisingly now I would much rather prefer a cold shower to a hot one as it energizes the body and makes me much more present.
The point of this is that there are many ways to expand and deepen our training. While we may have great physical awareness and prowess in the gym we might have none when dealing with the elements such as cold weather. This broadening of core consciousness wonderfully unites martial arts training with adapting to our natural environment
Who knew breaking the comfort zone of warm water would be so enriching and at the same time create a larger zone of comfort in cold water? I didn’t.
When I would spar with folks and start jabbing, they’d often reply, “Oh, a boxer, eh”? I’d tell them no, but I do incorporate it into my fighting. Most often they would have no idea how to handle it. For some reason in the traditional arts there is this great disdain for the jab. So, let’s think about this and what the reason for jabbing is. If you have a stick and a dog is barking and approaching you do you swing at it or poke it? If there’s an animal lying quietly in your way do you go up to it or poke it with a stick? You poke it if you have any smarts. Why? Because it tests the animal from a safe spot. You can see the animal’s reaction without being in its grip. A jab does the same and more.
Jabs are not mindless pokes. They are calculated and intelligent. There’s technique, power and intent. If you think you can handle a jab because Johnny Q in your gym will throw some at you, you’re mistaken. It’s like thinking you can handle a fast ball because your buddy throws it versus Nolan Ryan winging it at you. You can’t. A real boxer doing a real jab is a formidable opponent. He’s not just poking the air. When you watch the MMA vs traditional fighters on YouTube you can see them pawing at the jab and falling for a combination. So many people in traditional arts throw regular, big, committed punches when they train. They get used to it and they can recognize and react to it. There’s a real sense of 1-2 movement here that is not realistic. At jab is meant to test you, disrupt you and reveal your reactions. It’s not a stick poking but a lance stabbing. The time you take to paw at it or move from it is the set up to take you down. Non skilled fighters will slip the jab towards the other arm that is chambered up to hit them. It’s called moving towards his power. This is something you learn to avoid only by continual practice. Also, when you jab you can see the opponent put their weight on the back foot to avoid it thus hampering their ability to move after that. You see them move their weight on the back leg and you can pressure them and attack. Similarly, a skilled fighter will act like he is moving his weigh to the back in an attempt to get the jabber to commit forward and then take his balance by moving sideways. A number of the MMA vs trad fights have ended on simple one/two combinations set up with the jab. If you practice it you can see it coming from a mile away. If you don’t you won’t see it and lights out.
Jabbing is an intelligent way to fight. You can immediately learn a lot about your opponent. Many folks say ‘if he jabs, I will just step in and attack, it’s got no power”. Well, wrong, it does and you stepping in is what he wants so he can divert and viciously deliver the other hand. The other comment is “Well, I would just kick under it”. Ok, that might affect a boxer but I am talking about a martial artist using it. He should be highly aware of his vulnerabilities and cover them. Also, it’s a way to get the person to kick so you move to the outside and strike. There’re tons of strategies here. Another response, particularly from Aikido, is “I would grab his arm and do a wrist lock” or “step sideways and grab the arm and throw him”. Sure, have you ever tried to grab a whip? They don’t leave it out there as a gift to you. If you’ve ever watched real boxers train, you’ll hear the trainer yelling “You’re dropping your left, stop it” or “you’re leaving it out there” in attempt to stop those bad habits where someone can take advantage of bad technique. Boxing is based on intelligent theory and practice. They are skilled fighters. It would do you well to learn about this and incorporate it in your repertoire when you train. You might be surprised at what comes out of it.
I strongly suggest you look at some of Marvin Cook’s “True Boxer Stance” videos on you tube. He’s an excellent teacher and he shows the great strategies of real boxing.
“I choose not to”.
“You made a statement, now defend it”.
That might sound a little funny to you but this is an actual conversation I had with someone recently. They had made a very strong assertion that I knew to be completely wrong scientifically and I was challenging it. They would not engage in the discussion and walked away. They had their belief and that was that. This really got me thinking about the idea of self-defense.
Self-defense…. The meaning seems obvious right? Just to defend one’s self, your body, right? But why does that just mean physically? Don’t we actually defend ourselves more mentally than physically in everyday life? In one sense maybe we should call martial arts body or physical defense versus self-defense although it could be both. I want to really look at this deeply because it is something we don’t normally do or tend to develop and I think it’s important to think about.
Our ability to defend ourselves, in the traditional sense, can be easily tested: you fight. It’s here you see if what you believe to work physically actually holds up under pressure. Those of us who have trained for years can tell you countless stories of folks who truly believed in their martial/fighting ability but really had nothing to back it up. You’ve seen this with the fights in China between traditional fighters and some MMA folks. The traditionalists believed with all of their being that they had something substantial to withstand an attack but when reality tested it they crumbled. Their house was built on sand, not stone. Often this comes from sincere and genuine trust in what they’ve been taught by their teachers, from a faith they’ve had and trusted for years. It’s easy to go through life like this because we don’t get tested most of the time. We can carry on the techniques that were handed down without ever really testing or doubting their efficacy.
In the world of combat all illusions get flung out the door, well mostly anyway. There is still the self-delusion that “I was holding back because this isn’t life or death..” which might have a tiny kernel of truth to it but for the most part is self-delusion. Now for the reason I am bringing this topic forward; can you defend yourself as in beliefs, political, spiritual or whatever? What are they based upon? Something that you’ve read or been told by someone else, a teacher, a pundit, parent, friend or other? Perhaps it’s learned from an ancient text or a spiritual teacher. How does the efficacy of your very core beliefs get tested? Why is defending them by vehemently demanding ‘This is what I believe!” considered an adequate defense? You can state whatever you want at whatever volume but this doesn’t make it true. This is really no different than stating I can physically defend myself but not be able to back it up. Since it is an opinion it is more nebulous because it is not substantial or objective but a subjective stance. It’s what you believe to be true. There isn’t a way to challenge it, an objective cosmic gauge of truth here, no hammer of veritas or anything. We just state that we believe it’s true so it is. But can we really defend it without falling back on just our belief as a reason? Why isn’t that belief built on sand?
I remember years ago there was a owner of a very prosperous martial arts school on the east coast. He often talked about his glory days as a fighter in a famous kung fu school in Taiwan. He claimed to have won many tournaments and trophies. One of his students was a good friend of mine who was originally from Taiwan. He used to go there each summer for training. While he was there one summer he realized he was at the actual school this teacher had bragged about. The walls were covered in pictures of the history of the school and their tournaments. He searched it carefully looking to find his teacher’s photos. The pictures went back over 50 years and none of his teacher. He asked the head of the school about it and he didn’t even know the guy. He would have stuck out being American in an all Chinese school. The story was false, totally fabricated, the fellow never studied there. When he returned to the US he confronted his teacher who denied everything; they were just hiding his presence there. He talked to the other students, no reaction, couldn’t be true. So they had a belief and he had facts but beliefs won. He could back up, defend, his accusation but it didn’t matter they weren’t having it. I find this so strange.
The 911 terrorists fully believed in what they did, so much so that they gave their lives. Does this make it true? No, not at all but if you’re on their team it’s true to them. If you’re on another team you think they are crazy and misled. This is how most abstract truths are whether political, religious or just personal. You can’t really prove or disprove them. They are built on the sand of the mind. How do you test it? Look at the churches of snake handling here in the US where they believe that they are immune to snake bites because of the Bible teachings. Here it should be an easy test. If they are correct, they won’t die of the bites. However, it’s not uncommon for these followers to die from the snake bites. Does it prove to them they are wrong? Nope, not to them, they just didn’t have enough faith or some other specious excuse. Similarly, the Boxer rebellion in China had its moment of truth when the villagers thought their qigong training would protect them from foreign weapons in 1901 China. They believed whole heartedly and they died. They could not defend their belief. This is rampant in human behavior, to believe in that which is not real, to base your life on it and in some cases to die because of it. How many preachers in recent times have declared their immunity to COVID-19 19 and then died from it?
I am not writing this to attack religion. I am writing this to expose the core of self-defense. Can you really defend yourself, your core values, self-identity and beliefs and back it up with anything other than “I believe this”? We give ourselves such leeway when dealing with this personally yet we have no acceptance of the other persons stance which is opposite of our own. I was faced with this head on, with no leeway, from my first and primary Zen teacher Dr DeMartino. He was a scholar and a great Zen man. In one way he taught very little but in another taught profoundly. He challenged you to defend yourself, your idea of self, at every turn and gave you no respite in arbitrary views, theories or declarations. “How do you know that”? was often spoken by him. He didn’t fill in the blanks, he made you do it, if you could. He drove at the core of what I held true and made me truly question what and why I believed. This makes you seek a foundation rather than a hypothesis.
This comes up at this time in my life because so many people are vehement about what they see as reality. They are willing to die for it though they haven’t taken the time to test it, to really see if it holds water or stands the test of time. They just believe it and that’s it. This is dangerous because it is ignorant. It is ignorant of facts, science and history. It is what you believe to be the truth rather than what the truth actually might be. You can believe in a cure or you can use the cure that has actually been proven to work. Given a choice which one would you choose?
Can you defend yourself?
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