Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their consciences.

— C. S. Lewis

You can’t go around making the world a better place for people.  People have to make the world a better place for people, otherwise it’s just a cage.

–Esme Weatherwax, in ‘Witches Abroad’ by Terry Pratchett


I don’t think there is a martial artist in the world who hasn’t indulged in a daydream where they use their phenomenal combat skills to rescue an attacked innocent, foil a bank robbery or cripple an international terrorist organisation.  It’s what happens in pretty much every martial arts movie, anyway, and, let’s face it, that’s what got most of us interested in this strange hobby.

So…hands up who’s actually done it?  Nope…not very many.

Personally, in twenty-five years of karate training, I’ve had no cause to use karate.  Not really use it.  On a few occasions some drunken twerp has taken a swing at me, but inebriated fools who have taken offence at my jacket or my refusal to magically become a member of bar staff and give them another drink simply do not deserve everything that karate has.

Karate developed as an empty-handed defence against an armed attacker, with the will and ability to actually kill you, and to enable a response in kind.  You just can’t go around punching people to death in this society.  Not if you hope for a ‘self-defence’ plea to stick.

Mostly, what I’ve done when attacked in this way is duck and dodge until they get bored and tired or fall over, and even then I feel a bit wrong and dirty when it’s all over.  There is no glory for the warrior in humiliating the untrained.

Most of the people who are likely to end up reading this essay live in the safest civilisation, in its safest period, that the world has ever seen.

Modern news media gleefully dwells on the outlying incidents; murders, riots, and terrorist attacks keep us glued to our televisions and newspapers, because, of course, the purpose of news is not to inform and educate but to keep us buying the news, but the truth is that the chances of being a victim of, or even witnessing such an event is extremely small.  Far smaller than, say, your chances of being killed in a car crash, but we all ride in cars every day, because car crashes are so common they barely make a ripple in the news pond.

Sure, some of us are door supervisors, or police officers or soldiers, and meet real violence with greater frequency than the rest of the population, but the very fact that these jobs exist has contributed to the drastic reduction of violence in western society, allowing the rest of us to go about our daily, incredibly comfortable and safe, lives without the need to act as self-appointed punching-sheriffs.

Justice is a highly subjective concept.  The number of people who think ‘I am evil, I am the baddy, and I am deliberately setting out to make other people miserable’ is vanishingly small.

No matter what people are doing, from tax evasion to genocide, the perpetrators will, in the main, have rationalised their behaviour in such a way that it makes them the good guys.

Those of us who live in the west will be well acquainted with the notion that our ideas of democracy, progress, and human rights represent, if not the real pinnacle of civilised values, then at least the right direction for civilisation to move.  We are also aware that there are people within our society who are not sure that it’s all it’s cracked up to be.  You may even be one of them.

Whether we feel that our society is too left-wing, too right-wing, too religious or profane, no one with a dissenting opinion considers themselves the bad guys.  The Westboro Baptist Church, ISIS, Anders Breivik, Britain First, Anjem Choudary, Sovereign Citizens, and whichever other group of extremists taking actions or having opinions that are beyond the pale of mainstream society all genuinely believe they are acting in the interests of justice, saving the bad world from itself.

The Nazis thought they were doing the right thing; the Crusaders thought they were doing the right thing; the Confederacy, going to war for the right to own people like you own a tractor, thought they were doing the right thing; Guy Fawkes thought he was doing the right thing; Osama Bin Laden thought he was doing the right thing.

Being a conscious servant of evil is the preserve of the truly unhinged, the Geoffrey Dahmers and Ed Geins of the world, and they are few and far between.

The society we live in necessarily informs our notions of what is and is not ‘just.’  If there weren’t other societies in the world in which the definitions of ‘justice’ were different to our own, we wouldn’t even have the word.

Without incidences of ‘injustice’ to point at and decry, it would be impossible to define ‘justice,’ just as without light it would be impossible to define darkness.

Even my own instinctive, culturally acquired notions of what is just and what is not colour my examples of the outliers.  An author with a diametrically opposed ethical basis might list Greenpeace, Hope Not Hate and My Stealthy Freedom as wrong-uns who think they are on the side of right.

Societies attempt to enforce their own definitions of justice through law, and levying punishments upon those who break those laws.  It would be ideal if ‘legal’ and ‘just’ were synonyms, but it doesn’t take a great deal of thinking about the legal systems of one’s own and other societies to come up with plenty of examples of things that are legal which are not just, and things which are just but are not legal, and once again the nature of which is which remains highly subjective..

Cultural relativism is a philosophical position which seeks to acknowledge that ideas of what is ‘good’ and ‘just’ vary between human groups, and withhold judgment of a society or group as good or bad according to our own cultural norms. While this is simple in theory, in practice it becomes trickier.

Consider a primitive tribe which cooks and eats a recently deceased member of the tribe, as a funeral tradition; we may blanch at this custom, but with an effort of intellectual will we can understand that it is at least as efficient a way of returning granddad to the carbon and water cycles as any other, and refrain from striding in there with our sociocultural size nines and telling them that their customs are terribly wrong.  However, we may find this attitude harder to support when we discover that on the first new moon of the year they throw the three youngest members of the tribe off a cliff to appease the Storm God…

So, it’s practically impossible to objectively, definitively state what is just and what is not, and you run into major problems if you think you can.  Much of the conflict in the world today is, superficially at least, between people who think their own world view, be it social, religious or geopolitical, is the right one and the world would be a better place if only everyone agreed with them and lived by their rules.  Unfortunately, others are equally certain of their moral position and resent interference…and before long, people draw battle lines, sometimes literally, and people start to suffer.

The fact that the men who started the conversation about what is right and wrong three thousand years ago had the leisure to sit around the agora in their togas talking about morality because they had slaves to do the real work, neatly encapsulates the problem of ethical philosophy.  Now, as a result of the discussion those men started, it’s pretty well universally agreed that owning other humans like chattel is not okay.

Because of this morass of subjectivity and disagreement, ethical philosophy is only really able to state two nominally concrete conclusions, and they are only concrete insofar as they state the vague nature of the subject.

The first is ‘treat other people as you would expect them to treat you;’ this has been so often stated and restated in religious and philosophical texts over the last few millennia that it is generally called the Golden Rule.

The second is that anyone who claims a direct line to objective ethical truth deserves extreme suspicion; absolutist notions of what the world is, or what right and wrong are, very nearly always lead to someone being oppressed, and when we the oppression originates from someone who is utterly certain that they are doing the right thing the oppression is complete.

On this basis, becoming a righteous supporter of justice is a matter of taking the centre ground.

To choose the side of ‘white’ and dedicate oneself to destroying ‘black’ is to attempt to unbalance the universe – you cannot have white without black – and ultimately makes one the oppressor.

Hard, lonely and cold is the place between, where peace trumps victory and tolerance, even of the intolerant, defies contention.  It takes courage and compassion in equal measure to stand there.

Developing that courage requires venturing outside your comfort zone, physically, mentally and socially.  To understand the basic assumptions of one’s own culture, one must investigate and understand the basic assumptions of other cultures.  To understand one’s own limits one must push beyond them.

Traditional martial arts are not the only way to test your limits; but it is one of the most easily available to ‘ordinary’ people.  You don’t have to climb a mountain, or circumnavigate the globe solo; you just have to turn up to training  and engage in the practice.

Sincere budo requires the ego be dethroned..  Many martial artists don’t realise that the hierarchical behaviours and modes of address, rituals, bowing, and all the rest of it are not intended to boost the ego of the ‘Master’…along with the hardships of physical training, they erode the ego of the student.

With the ego diminished, or at least under control, it becomes possible to surrender fully to the discipline of budo and find it’s deeper truths; further, it becomes possible to step calmly outside one’s assumptions, prejudices and emotional wish to dominate, right or wrong, into the area of compassion and tolerance where right is a compromise that works for everyone.

Truly supporting justice is not piling headlong into the evil doers. It is realising that the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ guys are the same, and cannot be defined as such without each other.  Once an enemy is removed, another must be found or it becomes impossible to define good.

The Budoka chooses his battles with care, fighting not to eliminate evil, or protect his own ego, but to maintain the balance that is peace.  Better still to support that balance without fighting at all.


adrianThe gentleman in the picture at the top of this article is Adrian Miles. Adrian is a nidan (he’ll be sandan soon, if there’s any justice), and has been part of a world championship winning kata team. He’s far from a slouch at kumite, either.

Adrian and I have trained together for a goodly chunk of twenty years. It so happened that a little while ago we both had personal issues that kept us from the dojo for a while, and by the time we both made it back, there were people training at our club who had never seen either of us before.

I got back to training a little before Adrian, and got to know a few of them, and a little while afterwards, Adrian returned as well.

After the first training session in which Adrian and I sparred, one of the newer students sidled up to me and asked ‘Pete, have you and Adrian got a bad history with each other?’

I was more than a bit surprised by this.

‘No!’ I replied. ‘Adrian is my buddy, my brother. We’ve been training together for years…what makes you say that?’

‘Well, you fight like you’re sincerely trying to do each other an injury…I just thought there might be some bad blood!’

This brought me up a little short. It’s true that when Adrian and I spar we go at it hammer and tongs…but actual hostility? Never. We practice kumite with total commitment and total control; strong spirit doesn’t mean anger or hatred.

For a start, fighting angry is a mistake, in any circumstance.

It’s a folk truism that ‘venting,’ engaging in vigorous aggressive sports, or attacking a punch bag or pillow diminishes anger and hostile impulses. It turns out that, in fact the opposite is true; when you are angry expressing your anger through physical aggression feels really good, and so normalises violence as a response to feeling angry.

College students (the go to guinea pigs for psychologists) were asked to complete a simple essay, and then it was returned with an unnecessarily harsh mark, and negative comments scrawled on it in red pen.

Understandably they felt aggrieved, and half were offered the suggestion that they punch couch cushions for two minutes, and others were told to sit and relax and calm down by breathing and relaxing.

A short time after that, all of them were given a plastic cup, and a bottle of Tabasco sauce and asked to pour into the cup the amount of hot sauce they wanted the person who had marked their essay to drink. The group who had punched cushions filled the cups higher.

Anger is high in the list of ‘Top Ten Emotional States Likely to Cause a Mistake or Bad Decision.’ Powerful emotion short circuits the ability to make rational, considered decisions. Anger and it’s kissing cousin fear are especially powerful at robbing the human brain of sense. This is not necessarily a bad thing; like everything else the human body does it happens because doing so promotes surviving to reproduce.

On the plains of Africa, our ancestors were divided, when confronted by a predator or other danger, between those who just ran for it, and those who thought carefully about what to do. The first group had children, the second group became lunch, and the tendency to instinctively flee danger became further ingrained in the species.

When denied a route of escape, fear becomes anger and we go for the ‘fight’ of ‘fight or flight,’ and the sabre toothed tiger has a struggle  for its meal, perhaps enough of a struggle to make it a safer bet to let this one go and find something weaker.

Well, the Smilodons are gone now (I’m not even sure they were contemporary with humans…pre-history cliché #268), but we are still, basically, the same creatures who crept fearfully around the Serengeti a hundred thousand years ago. Our biological evolution has not kept pace with our technological and societal development., and the same powerful emotional reactions can now cause us problems.

Things still make us afraid, and make us angry, even things which can’t really hurt us, and the instinctive reaction within the brain overrides logical thought. An arachnophobe can acknowledge, logically, that most spiders cannot hurt them; when confronted with one, however, the flood of hormones from the amygdala, the primitive hind brain area that drives the fear response, washes away that logical consideration and demands only flight.

There are no wrong feelings; being angry is not wrong, being afraid is not wrong. We cannot control how we feel; but we can with understanding and effort, control the way we act. If we don’t learn to control our actions, we risk making mistakes.

If we cannot control our actions in response to fear, we may become a prisoner to it, avoiding situations, people and objects, limiting our lives; if we cannot control our actions in response to anger, we risk hurting others and ourselves, psychologically and physically.

It might seem that anger would be of benefit to learning a fighting art, but this is not the case. A principal rule of learning budo karate is that it is not for use willy-nilly, to enforce our will upon others.

To train with a feeling of anger would psychologically tie anger to karate…and the next time something makes you angry, you may respond with karate. This is definitely not ok. In addition, the people we train with are not our enemies; but if you spar angry they may become so.

To be sure, one should practice kumite with commitment and even aggression; but aggression is not anger.

Most people have some idea of how a court of law operates. In court, some of the most difficult and upsetting issues arising from human society are discussed, usually in the form of an argument about who is in the right and who is in the wrong. The process is so complex that in most cases it is necessary to employ a representative to carry on the case on your behalf.

Solicitors (attorneys, if this gets as far as the US) are trained to negotiate the procedure and fight their client’s corner, with total commitment and even a good deal of aggression; they usually get more pay if they win. But these people see each other every day, and are even friends professionally and personally. How can you lace into a friend for all you are worth and remain friends?

The answer is manners. Manners are the social conventions that grew up to curb the worst excesses of anger and fear.

In a courtroom, etiquette is everything. The judge is accorded a high degree of respect, addressed formally and politely by all involved, even to the point of standing when he enters and leaves.

In higher courts, Judge and Barristers wear strange archaic robes, and in all courts formal modes of address and speaking are observed. Failure to adhere to these rules carries strict punishments, up to and including jail time.

The effect of this, at first bizarre, mode of behaviour is that it enables all concerned to carry out their job, which is basically having a contentious argument, to the best of their ability in such a way that it does not become actively hostile.

Under these rules, it is perfectly possible for a solicitor to prosecute his case with a high degree of aggression, but no anger, and thus  be able to look his opponent in the eye as a friend and colleague later in the lounge bar of the Chamber Tap.

The manners and etiquette of traditional karate perform the same function.

We wear clothes that we only wear while training. We address each other in ways we only use while training. We perform gestures of respect and friendliness with regularity and sincerity. These behaviours continually reinforce in our minds that this is training, that we are all friends, brothers even, and owe each other loyalty and trust.

As these cues become stronger, it becomes possible to increase the pace, commitment and aggression of sparring in an atmosphere of total trust and a complete lack of anger, fear and hostility.  This helps ensure that in the event we end up facing aggressive behaviours fuelled by hostile emotions, we are not discombobulated by their intensity, and negatively affected by fear.

Further, the forms of etiquette – bowing, formal modes of address – promote the perfection of character sought by budo karateka.  Addressing your seniors as sempai and sensei, bowing first and bowing lower, listening attentively and replying ‘Osu!’ with spirit are not meant to feed the ego of the senior grade…they are meant to diminish your own.

So, when Adrian and I face each other for kumite, staring impassively into one another’s eyes, we know that we can trust each other to fight to the best of our ability without regard for petty considerations like winning and losing.  Development is all that counts, and it is diligent, correct etiquette that allows us to train this way, such good friends that those who watch us spar may think we are enemies.

Forgot to mention: Thanks to Steve Wadlan for the use of the photo.

‘Taking steps is easy, standing still is hard.’ Regina Spector.

Karate is as easy as falling off a log. It really is. But what’s involved in falling from a log?

Well, you just fall off. Don’t you?

No. Because if you intentionally fall off, you’ve actually jumped off. Jumping isn’t falling.

There’s an alternate question: How do you stay on a log?

Well, that’s a lot easier to answer. You stay on a log by allowing a whole raft of internal biological mechanisms do their jobs. Your inner ear , in partnership with your eyes, senses your position and movement relative to your environment. Proprioception tells you where your limbs are, and how they are moving, whether the log is unstable and wobbly, or slippery.

Some of this sensory information doesn’t even make it to the conscious mind. An automatic response called ideomotor action controls automatic fine muscle movements that micro-correct our balance on this slippery, wobbly log.

Ideomotor action is what causes you to flick the light switch as you walk into a room, even though you know the bulb has failed. Ideomotor action is the ‘spirit’ that moves the glass on a Ouija Board. The players absolutely are moving the glass. They just aren’t doing it consciously.

Just standing up and standing still on a flat and level surface involves constant muscular adjustment and readjustment. It’s no wonder lying down on a flat surface feels so good; it’s the only time everything can actually, totally, relax.

Some of the wobbles are too coarse to automatically correct, and their information gets fed up to the conscious brain. The conscious brain is only really any good at things at which it has had practice. Likely, the first time you stand on the log you’ll fall off pretty much straight away anyway. But, you see, that isn’t good enough. You have to fall off in just the right way.

So, back up on the log with you. And stand there properly this time.

Practice indeed makes perfect. As you repeat a task, over and over, brain cells rearrange themselves to better accommodate the neural activity required to successfully do that task, from threading a needle, to sitting at a desk typing, to balancing on a log, the more you do something, the better you get at it; it becomes hard-wired into your brain and ideomotor action is able to take over more and more of the process.

If you do it often enough and long enough, eventually the act of standing on the log is second nature. So now we’re completely happy on the log, standing there, stable and serene.

Now, fall off.

No. You totally jumped off again. Get back on the log.

Jumping off takes a physical effort, initiated by conscious thought. Falling happens naturally. Stop thinking about falling and…fall.

In ‘Zen in the Art of Archery’ the author, Eugen Herrigel, struggles with this puzzle. How is it possible to take action of any kind without conscious thought or decision?
A drawn bow is similar to a well made karate stance. The tension between string and stave, skeleton and tendons, holds the potential energy that translates to the flight of the arrow and  movement of the technique. Hesitation, or snatching, on release robs the projectile (arrow or fist) of some of its energy.

After some months of being reprimanded by his Master, Herrigel discovered something. If the fingers holding the string are gradually relaxed, eventually the string slips free and the arrow flies. Excited, thinking he had found the solution, Herrigel hurried to his Master and showed him, releasing an arrow smoothly, and not a little smugly.

The Master sat forward, watching intently. ‘Do that again,’ he demanded.

Eagerly, Herrigel complied. The Master watched again. After the arrow had flown, the Master opened his fan, turned away from Herrigel and began to calmly pour tea.

Stunned, Herrigel stumbled out. The Master’s simple action of turning his back told Herrigel something he had not expected; that his Master was extremely angry, and no longer wished to teach him.

It was some weeks before Herrigel persuaded the Master, via intermediaries, that he had not intentionally been trying to cheat, but had sincerely felt that he may have found the way, and to allow him to return as a student.

The arrow must fall from the bow as an apple falls from a tree; instantly and completely, without effort or initiation. The apple tree neither slowly releases its grip on the apple, nor deliberately throws it out; at precisely the right moment, the apple…just falls.

This is what we are seeking with our log-falling antics. Slowly relaxing and leaning over until you fall is a conscious effort just as much as jumping, albeit slower.

What we’re talking about here is a physical and mental self-discipline. Physical, because we must train until our bodies are comfortable and relaxed at the very limit of balance, so near to falling that simply releasing that discipline allows the fall to occur; mental because we must train until our minds are calm and clear, recognising and responding to the perfect moment of release without the need for a conscious initiation.

So we’re pretty well back to ideomotor action again, but more refined and controlled.  An ingrained action that happens regardless of subtle changes in the environment can merely waste time and energy (as when we automatically flick a switch which connects to a dead bulb), or be a catastrophic mistake (as when we stamp on the brakes when we feel the car start to slide).  We must keep a level of awareness that allows us to fall from the log at the exact moment, and to refrain from doing so at the wrong moment.

This state of relaxed and calmly aware alertness, focussed on no one opponent or thing, anchored in no one strategy or plan that we seek, is zanshin, the ‘remaining mind’ after fear, anger and ego are silent.  It’s true achievement is the greatest expression of budo, and, once found, allows us to fall from the log exactly when we choose, without ever making a choice.

This very silly, funny and occasionally quite profound status mashing site (that gathers info on you for the NSA for all I know) gave me this completely and utterly appropriate status:

”Once again donning the pyjamas of pain!” PeterBot


Edit: #pyjamasofpain

”The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people are so full of doubts.”  Bertrand Russell

The son of a friend explained to me how he was doing at the ‘Guitar Hero‘ games: ”I’m brilliant at it now!” he enthused ”I play it on easy…medium is too hard.”

This failure to assess one’s own ability is of course excusable in an eight year old; the sad truth is that most adults aren’t much better. TV talent shows force us weekly to watch naïve dipsticks, convinced they can sing, being disabused by people who know very much better what being able to sing is.

Your ability to assess your performance of a skill relates to your ability to do that skill, and your experience of using and observing it.

David Dunning and Justin Kruger  tested students on grammar and asked them how well they thought they had done . Students who had performed poorly over estimated their scores,  while the students who excelled tended to underestimate their results; students with poor understanding of grammar were confident in their wrong answers, while the grammar nerds doubted theirs .

People who are good at grammar are good at grammar because they use grammar often.

Serious students and writers read and write constantly, expanding and refining their understanding of the  use of written language.  Confidence in technique is not an issue.  These people do not sit and practice writing single letters and punctuation marks; they use them in earnest, in words,  sentences and  paragraphs, comparing them against other’s work.

The uncertainty they  feel is a result of  experience. When I  learnt to cook, I knew one way of cooking chips; slice  spuds,  hot oil, sizzle-sizzle, done. I was certain that this recipe was perfect because I knew no other, until I made the mistake of  learning stuff.  Now I know at least three ways of cooking chips, which all produce light fluffy insides and crisp golden outsides, and I can never decide which is  best.

Self-examination and criticism, questioning and evaluation, is part of the price paid to become truly ‘brilliant’ at anything.

This is all very well  if your skill is like writing or cooking, and you can practice ‘in anger’ every day; what if you are practising your response to an emergency far outside the normal daily experience?

I  learnt to do cardiopulmonary resuscitation  when I was eight. Working in the NHS, I  put theory into practice. The first time was an extremely strange experience; I knew exactly what I had to do, and yet each action seemed to need a massive physical effort. The urge to wait and watch, in the hope that  he’ll breath and everything will be back to normal, was huge. I pushed my arm towards the alarm button like the air was gelatine.

The strident alarm noise, and the arrival of people who had dealt with this before broke the spell and I stood in a corner and watched. I knew the techniques of adult life support well; what I lacked was familiarity with the situation. The second time, I managed to help the professionals in simple ways. The third and subsequent times, I was one of them.

I felt my CPR experience had come full circle the first time I steered a student nurse into the corner of the room where she watched with eyes like saucers while we performed on a real person the techniques she had practised on a dummy.

This is normalcy bias, the human tendency to respond with numb inactivity to extreme events; the strange subconscious hope that acting like everything is normal will make it so.

In films, a single shot fired in a crowded mall provokes a screaming stampede for the exits; in reality, some people probably yelp or shriek in surprise, then there is some murmuring and craning of necks, then everyone goes back the their latte.

Normalcy bias burns people to death in their seats on crashed airliners when all they have to do is get up and get off; it forms crowds of rubber-neckers at police cordons around suspect packages; it sends dumbos out on to the pier to watch the hurricane, or on the roof to see the lightning.

Know your enemy and yourself,  Sun Tzu said, and in hundred battles you will never be defeated. Courage – finding the motivation to do what is right – is only any use  when tempered by an honest appraisal of one’s own abilities. To allow an unrealistic belief in oneself to lead one to an impasse one is not equipped to deal with is impetuous in the extreme!

If your dinner arrives on a funny shaped plate, ask yourself what the chef is compensating for.

One of the few things that I take almost as seriously as karate is cooking; I’ve done it for a living, betimes, and can happily fill a weekend trying to make the perfect lasagna.  I also love to eat out, although it is so often prohibitively expensive for my pay grade, and rules I learnt in the kitchen  inform my judgement of what I am being given.

My heart always sinks slightly when my food appears on a triangular plate.  Or a roof tile.  Or a chopping board.  Or with some inedible decoration.  A meal that has been over presented is so often trying to draw the diners attention away from inadequacies in the food.  A great looking burger on a wooden trencher with an american flag pinning it in place turns out to be burnt, cool meat on a soggy bun with flaccid french fries.  Only once, in my personal experience, has this not been the case.

I haven’t had a chance to write a full post this week.  I was needed to transport my mother and her belongings to Cambridge to support my elderly aunt.  Rattling up the M5 in Walter (our Corsa) I spent ten minutes behind a van that annoyed me.  And not because he was hogging the middle lane.

The vehicle was covered in McDojo branding.  The first sign was the large print ‘Martial Arts’ logo.   No style specified; to Ronald McSensei all martial arts are the same, just like rugby and soccer are identical.  Field, ball, kicking;  the same, so why bother specialising?

As I closed up with the van there was a long list of the benefits of this undifferentiated ‘martial art.’  Self defence (the McDojo euphemism for efficiently applied violence) languished near the bottom of an extensive list that included respect, bullying prevention, stranger awareness, internet safety, fire safety and drug awareness.  There were plenty more parent-worrying phrases that I can’t bring to mind now, and I remembered  bad food concealed behind excessive ornamentation.

There is only one thing a martial arts instructor needs to concern himself with: teaching a martial art.  A specific martial art.  Everything else on the list I learnt from parents, teachers and organisations like the Scouts and Cadets; do these people not give these lessons any more?  Is it really responsible parenting to entrust your child’s education about some very ticklish subjects to a stranger in a pair of pyjamas?

To be sure, sincere practice of a martial art is beneficial in developing positive character traits – discipline, courage, perseverance, respect and so on – but all that is really required for that development is quality martial art taught well, just as all that one needs for a good meal is decent ingredients cooked well.   Do not be impressed by the triangular plate of hyperbolic advertising.

Over the last few years, I’ve had cause to attend court on a few occasions, as a result of tiresome family issues. When it all started, I didn’t own a suit and had no choice but to attend a couple of early sessions in my usual attire. It would be disingenuous to describe myself as anything other than habitually scruffy; my guru-like detachment from material desire and a ground state of ‘Utterly Skint’ combine to ensure that I am generally found  wearing a pair of hiking boots with detaching soles, jeans with a completely authentic distress and a t-shirt that was once black but is now grey. In deference to this occasion, I’d chosen a t-shirt with no holes in. Topped off with a fleece and shell jacket that could be politely described as slightly foxed, and with shoulder length hair, I presented the epitome of ‘Keith from Shameless’ chic.

My encounters with the security at the court buildings on these occasions were thorough. I was met by unsympathetic men in G4S uniforms, who meticulously inspected the contents of my pocket as I dropped it into their Tupperware box and passed through the magic door; the magic door beeped of course, and I was rigorously wanded to determine that the button of my jeans was to blame, not my machete.

I always felt vaguely aggrieved by these encounters, but could not justify it to myself. Just doing their job, I told myself, probably this dour and methodical with everyone. Then I got a suit.

Other events that I would be frowned at if I turned up to not in a suit were looming, so having acquired one for those, it seemed silly not to make the effort to wear it to court. There were obviously matching shoes, although of such monumental inflexibility that I had used torn flesh as an excuse to swap to my ragged, comfy trainers at a friend’s wedding. I had also, for the first time in nearly 20 years, got a haircut. It was quite severe.

So, I approached the door of the court building looking significantly different, and was treated significantly differently. It was not a busy time of day, and there was no queue to be admitted. The security chap was sitting at the reception desk, dividing his attention between CCTV screens and an Evening Herald. I had my phone and my keys in my hand as I entered, ready to drop them into the box at the magic door. I did so, and the plastic clatter drew the guard’s attention; he smiled and waved me through the magic door, which beeped.

”It’s your shoes,” he said, smiling broadly, ”Carry on, sir.”

He returned to his paper, and I retrieved my belongings and trotted up the stairs with the strange suspicion one occasionally gets that one has slipped into a similar, but subtly different parallel universe. It wasn’t until I’d finished my business and left that I realised what had happened: the guard had thought I was a lawyer. More specifically, he hadn’t thought it at all; he had simply responded automatically to the set of characteristics he associated with the label ‘lawyer.’

In the 1960’s the psychologist Stanley Milgram became interested in the aftermath of the Holocaust; specifically, whether the oft used defence of lower ranked war-crime defendants that they were ‘only following orders’ bore any weight. He designed a famous and controversial experiment to test how far someone would go solely on the orders of another they perceived as an authority figure. He paid volunteers to take part in the experiment, and told them it was a memory experiment.

Each volunteer was paired with another (actually a stooge) and sham-randomly selected as the ‘teacher.’ The stooge was the ‘learner.’. The learner was taken off to another room, and the teacher was lead to believe that the learner had been attached to an electric shock generator. The teacher then had to carry out a memory test on the learner, via an intercom, and administer steadily increasing electric shocks as punishment for errors. The shocks began at a very low-level, but ramped up to currents that would deliver a fatal shock. As the current increased, the learner screamed, begged for the experiment to be stopped, banged on the wall, complained of a heart condition, and eventually fell silent. If at any point the teacher balked, or requested a halt, or a check on the learner, the experimenter sitting in the room with the teacher would respond with terse stock phrases, demanding the experiment be continued.

Milgram wanted to know how many people would continue the experiment all the way to the lethal final shock; a straw poll of colleagues and students guessed that, at most, 3% would be willing to deliver fatal shocks to another human being solely on the orders of a man in a lab coat they met twenty minutes ago. The results of the experiment were astonishing, and sobering; fully 65% of the subjects continued- not entirely willingly, but continued nonetheless- the experiment to its bitter end.

The experiment has been rerun with variations many times since, and the result remains broadly the same. In Milgram’s own words, from the article ‘The Perils of Obedience’ he states: ‘The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.’

Given that people can be persuaded to torture others to death on the perceived authority of a white coat, it is not a difficult conclusion to make that people respond to other people based on their perception of them, with little real thought about it, all the time. People also respond to others based on their perception of themselves; the concept of enclothed cognition.

In slightly less brutal experiments than Milgram’s, volunteers were given mental agility tests. Half of them were given white coats to wear, while the rest wore only their normal clothing. The group wearing lab coats performed noticeably better than the control group. In a repeat experiment, everyone was given a white coat, but half were this time told it was an artists’ smock and half told it was a doctor’s coat. This time, the ‘doctor’s coat’ group performed noticeably better.

Before he came to work the guard put on his security guard uniform, and along with it his ‘security guard’ persona. In the first instance, I had put on my normal scruff and with it adopted the ‘amiable hippy’ persona I wear so much that I believe it’s the real me. Wearing the suit I adopted a much less often used persona; busy young man in smart suit. I walked taller and exuded an air of purpose, arrogantly inspecting passers-by along the length of my nose.

When we met, the security guard responded not as Fred (or whoever) meeting Pete, but as ‘security guard’ meeting a hangdog looking fellow in clothes the PDSA didn’t want, and responded in the culturally expected manner of a security guard meeting such a person; when he met the smart young man with the big bundle of important looking papers and a damn-you-m’lad expression he did exactly the same.

It’s another blow for the human ego to realise that such a great deal of human behaviour is ruled, not by rational thought, but by culturally imprinted behaviour that we just…do. More depressing still to think that injustice from the minor (discrimination as I experienced at the court) to the extremely major (the Holocaust) could be happening simply because people react to each other based on who is wearing the uniform of authority in a particular instance. Forewarned is forearmed, however, and simply understanding these concepts can prompt us to check our own actions for rationality more often. This is known as metacognition; thinking about what you are thinking. We can, with care, go further and take deliberate steps to alter our own behaviours.

The rituals and etiquette surrounding traditional karate practice are an example of these deliberate steps. True karate seeks to instill a spirit of combat that is controlled and manageable; timidity and wild aggression are equally useless to us. Everything we do reminds us of the purpose of our training; measured, sincere bows upon entering and leaving the dojo remind us of the seriousness of what we do within; the uniform we wear is a simple japanese garment in a colour symbolic of purity and death, and when worn brings with it elements of the new persona we are seeking to imprint, calm, focussed and fearless.

Engage fully in mokuso and wear your gi with quiet pride. Bow completely and sincerely to your opponent and do them the courtesy of attacking with vigour and spirit. Shout ‘Osu!’ with feeling. Consciously adopt the role of one committed to perfection of technique and purity of spirit and it will grow within you.

Sensei Alistair Fell of SKIA Epping dojo...The spirit of effort!

Sensei Alistair Fell of SKIA Epping dojo…The spirit of effort!

”When I went to school in England, the basic premise was that suffering builds character; and therefore all senior boys were at liberty to bang about the junior ones with a perfectly clear conscience, because they were doing them a favour. It was good for them; it was building their character. And as a result of this kind of attitude the word discipline has begun to stink. It has been stinking for a long time.” Alan Watts.

Alan Watts was the son of a former missionary from Chislehurst who became an influential scholar of religious philosophy in general and Zen Buddhism in particular. He wrote countless articles and books, and gave innumerable lectures, many of which are available on the internet and very well worth a listen.

Grasping the essence of Watts’ philosophy is tricky, but the clearest message I have managed to gather so far is that life is not nearly as serious as we think it is. Humans are not individual sacks of flesh and bone forever separate from the rest of the universe, struggling against hostile others, he argues; we are all part of the same entity and consciousness, experiencing existence and itself from infinite points of perspective.

From a cynical, rational point of view, that statement of belief does come across as wearing a purple and green tie-dyed shirt. And a headband. It is, however, congruent with the theory and findings of quantum physics and cosmology.

Everything that exists is momentary patterns in the vast roiling explosion that is the universe. Fourteen billion years ago, energy began to condense into elementary particles of matter. Soon, there were hydrogen atoms, and once you have matter and mass you have gravity; the hot hydrogen fog began to clump together, and some clumps became large enough for the pressure inside them to ignite nuclear fusion. The first stars.

The new stars burned, and within their cores the process of fusion combined hydrogen atoms into heavier elements. One by one the stars consumed their hydrogen fuel and died, collapsing and spewing heavy element ash into surrounding space. Eventually, the clouds of dead star-dust coalesced again, and new stars ignited. These stars, however had clouds and fields and little lumps of matter swirling around them which themselves clumped together into spinning rocky spheroids.

Sometimes, just sometimes, one of these rocky spheroids would have exactly the right chemical conditions and be exactly the right distance from the star to allow certain molecules to arise and carry out their peculiar ability to replicate themselves, and life emerged, made of the elementary particles of matter that have existed since the first moments of the universe. Living things exist for fleeting moments of deep time before the matter composing them flows to a new pattern.

Now, those three paragraphs are wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Einstein sticking his tongue out and glasses, but they drink in the same bar as the tie-dyed statement above. Everything is one thing; our perception of being separate is an artifact of the pattern that creates our perspective.

Given this vertigo inducing realisation, that we are little more than micro-ripples in the maelström, nihilism is tempting. All the effort and toil of generations of humanity, war and progress, happiness and misery, is utterly insignificant to the cosmos. Why bother with anything at all?

Quite simply, because it’s fun. The very fabric of reality as we know it is composed of infinitesimal packets of vibrating energy, jiggling about. The universe has rhythm and cadence,and the rhythm is complex and interesting. Life is not a command to march; it is an invitation to dance.

Richard Dawkins tells us that ‘an astronomically overwhelming majority of the people who could be born never will be. You are one of the tiny minority whose number came up.’ Life is not a set of responsibilities heaped upon us, it is an opportunity offered to us. Creation places only one duty upon us: to be that part of it which observes itself. Simultaneously, we are the most utterly insignificant and the most incredibly privileged matter in the universe.

The debt of gratitude we owe to reality is not best repaid through treating life as an onerous task. There truly is nothing we absolutely have to do. There are a few things that if we do not do them we will die, or people we care for will die, but they aren’t even really a duty as such; we do them because food, shelter, warmth and companionship are pleasurable to human beings. Because we have evolved to enjoy these things, we seek more and better food, more comfortable shelter and stronger bonds of belonging, friendship and love.

However, somewhere along the way it got confused. We began to conceive of things that must be done. Religions, systems of government, institutions and eventually businesses and media outlets told us what we must do, be and have, enforcing patterns of behaviour through disciplinary measures that range from subtly social to brutally inhumane. Worse yet, we began to squabble, and soon to fight, over what exactly the ‘shoulds, oughts and musts’ are, and how we should enforce them.

Forgetting that life is a game we are asked to play, and thinking it is a job we have to do is what has made discipline stink. Discipline imposed externally without consent does stink. This kind of discipline keeps millions in toil that occupies most of their day, every day, doing something they do not enjoy for the real benefit, ultimately, of only the few who have succeeded in positioning themselves as the arbiters of discipline. At best. At worst, millions more suffer grinding poverty, disease, war and death.

Being made to suffer is not character forming. It is character stunting, willpower destroying; it generates broken people, completely cowed or determined to inflict suffering in their turn. Joyless toil does not promote expertise, it promotes disinterest and laziness.

However, understanding the playful nature universe does not imply one should oppose discipline and seriousness, or even suffering. The best games are often those which are no fun unless  taken completely seriously; karate is such a game.

Remember when training that you have chosen to be here. Everyone who comes to karate is looking for something, and if you have decided that what you want is in karate you will realise that it can only be uncovered through disciplined, serious study and that there will be some suffering, physical and mental.

Voluntarily submit to the discipline, and it becomes self-discipline; external control becomes self-control and self-reliance. Endure the suffering, the burning muscles and the bumps and bruises, not as a passive victim but as one who deliberately tests their own resolve and determination, and take pleasure in your growing strength of will and ability.

Embrace the joy in serious endeavours, and the seriousness of joyous endeavours, and you acknowledge the gift and opportunity given us, by sheer chance, to consciously experience the universe.


Many thanks to Sensei Alistair Fell and Steve Wadlan for use of the photo 🙂

”The first principle” said Professor Richard Feynman ”is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool”.

Rational thought is a very recent addition to the human skill set. Much older instincts and urges still drive the body from the more primitive hind and mid-brains, atop which rationality rides in the fore-brain like Horatio Hornblower transplanted to the bridge of an aircraft carrier and given the con.

It’s possible that, pace technological shock, Mr Hornblower would find enough behavioural and procedural similarities between his Navy and that of the modern-day to convince himself he really is in command of a machine he can scarcely comprehend. He’s not really of course. Not by a long way.

It’s no stretch to realise that there are plenty of processes in the body that just happen without conscious intervention; the heart beats, the liver performs many essential functions and a thousand endocrine reactions govern the moment to moment chemical management of the body. That’s a perfectly accepted and comfortable view of the body; we find it  trickier, and more uncomfortable, to understand that a good deal of thinking takes place without  conscious rationality being involved at all.  Important thinking; formation of memories, opinions, decisions and beliefs take place almost entirely under the radar of rational thought.

This is an understanding that the rational mind does not like very much. The realisation that positions one holds -that one had previously believed one had arrived  at through logical, rational consideration- are mostly derived from unconscious associations, hormonal cues and learned responses causes an acute form of psychological discomfort called cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when new information conflicts with an individual’s core beliefs. It is intensely uncomfortable, and the discomfort increases proportionally to the strength of the beliefs, and the force of the new information against them. The response of a truly rational being to this state of affairs would be to assuage the dissonance by assimilating the new information and altering their core beliefs in line with the best description of reality.

The response, however, of the scarcely rational human being is somewhat different. The conscious human mind is too new, too inexperienced, too damn teenage to use its powers of rationality in this mature way; instead it fudges and prevaricates, clinging to all manner of cognitive biases to convince itself that, in this conflict of world versus world-view, it is the world that is wrong.

In short, your brain is a bloody liar. It utilises the most complex and subtle object that we know to exist to tell itself placatory fibs; you need not face this uncomfortable truth, it says, because, look, it isn’t true at all.

It is though. And that’s why, in this state, we feel angry, embarrassed and defensive. People can be driven to really quite extreme actions  to escape the sensation; Storming out of meetings and shouting at the secretary is the low-end of a spectrum that tops out at starting wars.

A few months ago, a young man who practiced a different style of karate visited our dojo.  He had a black belt, and had trained for nine years, he told us proudly.

I believe he was a student recently arrived at University, and short of a dojo teaching his particular style had come to look at us. Embarrassing enough that he could not stop me in low-speed gohon kumite; worse still that he was meat for the fourteen year old 8th kyu too.

We never saw him again. Swallowing a lump of cognitive dissonance that big and hard is extraordinarily difficult. I hope sincerely that he did not just up and quit karate. That would be an extreme response; far more likely he convinced himself that his karate was just fine, that we ‘weren’t training properly’ or somehow cheating. It would be hoping for an exceptionally strong-willed person to expect him to return to us to learn what he was doing wrong.

It is often said in karate that one’s greatest enemy is oneself; in this context it is the whispering liar within that saps your will.

”You can just walk through this combination,” it says ”You could do it properly…if you need to…like when sensei is looking this way.”

”That application absolutely works,”it wheedles ”Uke absolutely didn’t help you throw him…”

”You’re a karate master,” it coos ”Bruce Lee was nothing!”

Karate is exercise for the will. To practise faithfully we must exert our will over our own bodies, from the quivering muscles protesting at a stance to the mid brain packaging those protests in appealing rationalisation. We must subject our every technique, every kata, every bow and utterance to ruthless interrogation, and not shy way from the assessment that they could be improved; not allow the instincts control again until they have learnt what is now expected of them.

The truth is harsh. By looking it boldly in the face, by defeating physical discomfort and emotional petulance with an effort of will, we advance our karate and improve ourselves.

I’ve called this blog ‘What I talk about when I talk about karate,’ in reference to Murakami’s book ‘What I talk about when I talk about running‘ which itself is an obvious reference to ‘What we talk about when we talk about love‘ by Raymond Carver. Faintly ironic, then, is the fact that I hardly talk about karate at all.

In his preamble to dictating The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus Christ has this, according to the New International Version of the gospel of Matthew, to say about correct behaviour while in prayer:

Matthew 6;5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”

At this point, I hasten to point out that I am an atheist; I don’t for a moment believe  Jesus Christ was divine, that the bible is the word of god, or that the gospels are accurate accounts of the life of a rabble rousing preacher in first century Palestine in any more than the most general and vague ways. I don’t think that, as a whole, the bible is suitable in isolation to use as the basis for a moral framework. That way lies the stoning to death of disobedient sons for wearing mixed fabric clothing.

I do think that like all works of fiction it condenses the opinions of its authors for the reader to consider; The reader may be appalled or inspired, depending of course on his own moral and ethical standards. The bible had many authors, of different ethical stripes, and quite a bit of the early stuff is pretty appalling to  modern sensibilities. Mine, anyway.

But this Jesus fellow had some good ideas, which means, even if he didn’t exist at all, that the men who wrote about him had those ideas too. Christ’s guiding principle is so universal that it is known in ethical philosophy as the Golden Rule: treat other people as you would expect them to treat you. He’s not the only human to have said it, nor the only god, but he is perhaps the most well-known.

Do you see what I mean by the way? Four paragraphs in and I’ve only even used the ‘k’ word once…

So, godless heathen that I am, there are nevertheless several things which Jesus is reported to have said that ring true for me, and please me greatly. For perspective, Christ hasn’t rung true for me in this way as often as Granny Weatherwax. The bit with the money lenders I always especially liked, and of late I’ve come upon the quote above.

I encountered it with reference to Tim Tebow, the quarterback who prayed ostentatiously at the side of the field before every game, and attributed his wins to the practice. Most unsympathetic commentary focussed on the arrogance of claiming that god listens to, and acts on, the prayers of a rich white himbo who got lucky in professional sport, but not, for the sake of argument, a starving child in Africa, and that’s a fairly easy shot to take. Other, more subtle, criticism highlighted Tebow’s disregard of this praying guideline laid down by the very entity Tebow believes is ‘answering’ his prayers with touchdowns.

In Matthew 6;5, Christ is not abjuring his followers from ever praying in public; it’s made quite clear elsewhere that people should get together and worship communally . He’s warning them not to mistake those who make their private prayers in public for being especially holy, when they are merely vainglorious. Tebow is not truly communing with a deity, or even benefiting from meditation, of which prayer is a variation; he’s just making sure everyone watching knows how pious he is and, once we know this , the  hollow and hypocritical nature of his faith is clear. That is his ‘reward in full.’

In a broader sense, Matthew 6;5 warns against bragging; against showing off; against the hubris, when doing almost anything, of insincerely attempting to make others aware of how brilliant you are at it for no other reason than to bask in their awe, respect or fear. If you’re doing that, the only benefit you get from the activity, be it praying or paragliding, is to your own vain ego.

I don’t go to church and I don’t pray. The dojo is my church and karate is my prayer. Perhaps I will now say ‘meditation’ instead of prayer. Some people may still find meditation in prayer, but for so many it only means wishing fervently to the sky daddy, or staring dully into space listening with half an ear for when it’s time to say ‘amen.’

These are not spiritual practices; they offer no fulfilment or enlightenment, only false hope, yearning and ennui. Alan Watts contended that it was once possible to be a Christian Mystic and meditate in prayer, but that translating the Eucharist into ‘bad English’ put paid to that; once you can understand the chanting, it loses its meditative value.

Karate then is my meditation. Meditation that is not sincere will be worthless. Just sitting on your heels with your eyes shut is not meditation. Walking through a series of funny body shapes at various speeds is not practising karate. Karate must be focussed and sincere. Karate practised solely to impress, or worse intimidate,  lacks this focus and becomes hypocritical, false, an empty vessel, and can never be anything more. Again, a ‘reward in full.’