Thursday, April 30, 2015

Philosophy as a verb

Originally published in 2012:

There are more than a few ways the word ‘philosophy’ can be defined. For the purposes of this article I am going to use the following:

1. the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.

Most dictionaries would place that description under the category of noun. I am about to argue that we view it instead as a verb, as an action, as something we ‘do’.

In a recent conversation with someone whose work I admire, they responded to a question I had by starting with this sentence, “my views on this topic have evolved over the years”.

I would contend that this statement is an indication of someone who actually ‘does’ philosophy, rather than someone who simply studies the works of others who’ve ‘done’ philosophy.

It is somewhat strange that so many see the changing and evolving of one’s thoughts and ideas as a weakness, rather than what it so obviously is, a sign of maturity and growth. How I thought about things, and as a consequence how I taught eighteen years ago, was very different from what it was ten years ago; and how I think and coach others now, is dramatically different from the way it was even just five years ago. Relaying some of those changes, and the reasons for them, is what I would like to get across to my readers.

Part of what made SBG what it is today, isn’t just the functional martial arts we teach. Though true we were doing MMA before the sport even existed, and true that the thesis we championed for Alive training has now gone full circle from “That’s crazy”, to “how dare you say that”, and finally to “everyone knows that already”, all of which is a sign of success for us if ever there was one; it wasn’t just that which put us on the map. When you look back on the record it’s pretty clear it was also an ideal, one which encouraged the doing of philosophy, of philosophy as a verb, for those who were seeking the ‘truth’, whether in martial arts or life in general, truth in the fact sense of that word, truth in the sense of aligning as much as possible our beliefs and methods with the actuality of the natural world.

Given that context, philosophy as a verb has improved everything we do at SBG.

In these next couple of articles I will discuss some of the changes we’ve made at SBG over the years. In order to do that, in order to best explain how are methods and philosophy have evolved, I’ll need to go into a little history regarding where we (SBG) came from, and what the climate was like when SBG began almost twenty years ago.

Part one, the theology of traditional Martial Arts.

When I first started SBG over eighteen years ago, the world was filled with Martial Arts ‘academies’, ‘Institutes’, and ‘schools’. These were usually traditional martial arts, with the few variations being of the JKD variety, or the occasional Muay Thai or Judo school.

With the exception of the combat sports dojos (i.e. Judo), these places also tended to be filled with dead patterns, dysfunctional delivery systems, contrived hierarchy, and a whole lot of bullshit.

“Training” consisted of pattern memorization, surrounded by net of insulating ritual.

Older more “experienced” members tended to consider advanced training to be a sharing of these patterns amongst each other, while having a cup of coffee and talking. The idea of training the way wrestlers did, training the way many MMA and BJJ gyms do now, was so foreign at the time that it may as well have come from an alien planet.

Keep in mind that as backwards as these training method and philosophies were, and sadly for much of the JKD community still are, they were still light years ahead of what the rest of the martial arts world was like at the time. And believe me, that's saying something.

With the exception of a brief stint in classical karate as a child, my background was boxing, and I was initially attracted to JKD for two reasons. The first was Bruce Lee’s idea that one needed to train at all ranges of combat, which simply made sense. And the other, was that according to all the articles and the few VHS tapes I had seen, JKD Concepts used boxing as a delivery system, and that too simply made sense.

What I found out, was that due to the lack of understanding as it relates to Alive training, the JKD community had as whole evolved into something which could best be classified as yet another traditional martial art; in other words, it too was dysfunctional.

I produced a DVD set for Burton Richardson many years ago where he discussed his journey through martial arts. He gave an interview you can watch on those DVDs which was actually pretty stunning. In it Burton said the following, after devoting the better part of twelve years training in JKD concepts fulltime, Burt had earned “Full Instructor” ranking from his coach. Yet, the first time he sparred full contact with a good kick boxer he was smashed. The first time he trained with a proper Greco Roman wrestler, he realized he had little to no functional skill in the clinch. The first time he rolled on the ground with a good BJJ player he realized he knew nothing about fighting on the ground. And finally, the first time he sparred full contact with real sticks, he realized he couldn’t yet fight with a stick.

So he was left asking, what exactly was he certified in again?

Critics of Burton and apologists for poor training methods will be quick to blame Burt for the failures in his performance, rather than his actual training. But ask yourself this question, if a BJJ black belt awards a black belt to a BJJ student, and when that student goes to actually roll, they discover they have no idea how to roll, is that completely the fault of the student, or might that BJJ Instructor have a problem with his understanding of what it means to evaluate others?

I’ve yet to award a belt to a student that could not defend against others the same level in live, aggressive matches; and I’ve awarded hundreds of belts. So why again is that other martial artist cannot do the same?

I’ve yet to meet a student, who if coachable, I couldn’t help reach a level of functional performance. And having known and worked with Burton at that time I can assure you he was both extremely coachable, and highly athletic; so what was the problem again?

One of the rampant myths in the JKD community at the time was the following, “some people are fighters, and some are not.” As someone who has trained and worked with some of the best fighters on the planet I assure you, that is absolute nonsense.

Anyone coachable can become a “fighter”. Tough isn’t how you are born, tough is how you perform; and how you perform is a result of scientific training, not simply a genetic throw of the dice.

I for one have never accepted the rationalization of it being solely a problem with the student, as opposed to the teacher himself. It reminds me very much of the pseudo branch of knowledge known as “theology”. As I’ve written previously as it relates to my experience with an Aikido instructor, there is something extremely pernicious about those who attempt to make excuses for this lack of function in their teaching.

Here is that story:

About sixteen years ago I spent an afternoon with a friend who happened to have been a lifelong practitioner of Aikido. I was at the time a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and fairly competent on the mat. The day started off with some sparring, and after a few rapid taps by the Aikido player, it became pretty clear that nothing that could be construed as ‘functional’ was really being displayed from Aikido. His insistence that I pretend to attack him by chopping him on the top of his head quickly fell by the wayside, and every other form of grab, hold, strike, or movement, resulted in predictable outcomes.

Fortunately for me I also happened to have a blue belt with me, who was much smaller (maybe 150lbs), and who was able to do everything I did to the Aikido player, though the Aikido player was easily 220+ lbs. This helped magnify the reality of the situation.

To anyone knowledgeable in Alive arts, BJJ, or MMA, these results are absolutely no surprise, and certainly nothing to gloat over. They are a repeatable and easy to replicate experiment. Any decent purple or even blue belt would likely be able to perform the same feat, as the Gracies proved time and time again when they first came to the States. There is a very valid reason why the traditional martial arts are not part of the MMA arena; they simply cannot compete against functional arts. Instead of a sport, it becomes a beating, a spectacle.

What is interesting isn’t this rather obvious fact, but rather the conversation that followed this encounter.

The battered ego of the Aikido player could no longer rationalize the practical use of the movements, though a few attempts were made to state that some ‘master’ somewhere would likely have fended off the attack, upon sincere reflection it became pretty clear that this also, was nothing more than a pipe dream. This man had spent more than a decade faithfully learning Aikido from many of its top proponents. There was simply no place left to hide for an argument based on the arts actual use against a resisting attacker.

And this is when the conversation turned from it works, to, it’s useful.

This brings me to why I needed to describe the results of the physical performance of the art first. Only after being faced with the truth of the situation, did the practitioner then move on to this second form of argument; and that's telling on a number of levels.

The Aikido player began to try and describe the other benefits of the art, starting with increased self-esteem, and confidence. I was tempted to ask how his confidence felt now after the thrashing he just experienced, but my sense of empathy got the better of me. I figured he was already having a hard enough time wrestling with those results, considering he seemed to believe sincerely at the start of the morning, after having invested more than a decade of his life, that he had some useable skill; and now that it was lunchtime, that had all been suddenly and dramatically shown to be otherwise.

Instead of rubbing that in, I asked him this, what benefits as they relate to increased self-esteem, or personal confidence could one gain from an art like Aikido, that one could not gain in even more abundance from an art like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, especially considering the fact that BJJ has one huge advantage, in the actuality that it also happens to be true? It is real; having skill in BJJ means something functional, in the same sense that having skill at playing basketball, speaking Spanish, or being good at tennis means something functional. It is a testable skill that can be demonstrated under fully resisting circumstances, against non-compliant opponents.

At this point I did bring up the mornings events as an example. Surely the confidence of my 150 lb. blue belt friend had been bolstered a bit, due to the fact that he had easily, gently, and totally dominated a much larger man who was resisting to the best of his ability. While, at the same time, surely my Aikido practitioner friend must be feeling at least some sense of loss as it relates to confidence, based on the fact that he started the morning quite sure he was capable of something, directly because of his Aikido skills, and ended the morning having to face the fact that he couldn’t do that same something, despite all his Aikido skills.

There was a lot to ponder there, and after some awkward silence the rationalizations resumed, “well” he stated, “Aikido is a healthy form of exercise, and I have met many friends through it. It is a great social network.“

And here I don’t disagree, except to say that having observed his Aikido class, it was pretty obvious that a BJJ class, or any Alive art, provided a better workout. And, that this social network certainly exists in Alive arts as well. In fact, in many ways it’s magnified. You may find police officers, doctors, lawyers, construction workers, and students, all rolling competitively with each other, against each other, on the same mat. It’s quite remarkable in some ways, and it would be hard for me to imagine more of a social meritocracy then can exist in a well-run BJJ school.
And, I added, all this has the additional benefit of also being done in the name of skill set that is actually functional, that has the added benefit of being true.

And this is where my Aikido friend left the ‘it’s useful’ argument, and ventured into the last pseudo argument possible, and usually the last one used, the attack the messenger technique.

The conversation usually goes something like this, “Aikido teaches humility! And you guys are all jocks, the values of humility, and respect found in traditional martial arts are just absent in what you do. All you guys care about is being able to beat people up.”

I would like to note here, that this is an argument I do take seriously. There are many things far more important than being able to fight well. And if learning that skill set also came with, by proxy, bad social habits, poor attitude, or an overall vulgar effect on human decency, then it wouldn’t be of interest to me.

It reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a world class MMA coach and friend. He was discussing his dislike of a certain BJJ world champion, due to the attitude the guy displayed when he talked to people. To quote my friend:

Being good at Jiu Jitsu doesn’t make you better than anyone else, and he just hasn’t figured that out yet.”

That’s well said.

Having been involved with martial arts all my adult life, and having been involved with the combat sports prior to the inception of MMA, I know full well, based on experience, that Alive training and respect for other human beings and yourself, are never mutually exclusive things. In fact, I would take this one step further. Done correctly, Alive training is vastly superior to anything found within traditional martial arts as it relates to positive effects on peoples characters and lives.

Watching my friends Aikido class that evening, I noticed a few things. Besides the plethora of Birkenstock sandals found outside the door, there was a pretty intense, almost palpable air of self-righteous arrogance. It’s the kind of atmosphere I had experienced in many a traditional martial arts school. There was a tremendous amount of posturing, and the Instructors when demonstrating on their students, used unusually rough treatment. In fact, I couldn’t really imagine using that much force on a partner who isn’t resisting at all, but rather doing everything possible to play along with choreography (after all, it doesn’t work, if they don’t).

Forgive me for stealing a little wisdom from Bertrand Russell here, but I have always heard that traditional martial arts led to a certain sort of humility, but having been around many traditional martial artists, and traditional martial arts schools, I have to admit, I have never witnessed this effect.

I pointed out to my friend that despite the realities of the afternoons event, none of the Instructors on the mat seemed to be informing the students that what they were doing was actually just for exercise or ritual purposes, and had little to no benefit as it relates to actual self-defense. This, to me, seemed obviously duplicitous.

They (the students in this case) all know that.” he stated.

So I asked the following, how do they know that, when most have less experience with this art then you do, you have been practicing for over a decade, and until this morning you didn’t seem to know that?

At this point I had exhausted his patience as it relates to having his own dissonance placed in plain view, and his closing words to me were the following “Well everyone has to figure out the truth for themselves!

Sound familiar?

There you have it readers, that, in a nutshell, is how a ‘sophisticated’ clergy or 'guru' class is created. You will have a group of reasonably intelligent people, who upon receiving an education, realize that what they are teaching, preaching, or repeating, is anything but ‘true’, at least as it relates to the factual use of that word. And as a means of self-preservation for their position, they adopt a relativistic view, one that allows them to continue the deception, while at the same time blaming the parishioners, or in this case students themselves for being too ‘simple’, or not being born a "fighter".

I do believe they are half right, it is true that we shouldn’t be the ones to point out to their flocks, their students, that what they are learning isn’t true, or isn’t real. Not because it is wrong to do so; but because it is they themselves, the traditional martial arts masters who should be the ones doing this. And when those same ‘masters’ point their angry finger at us, in an attacker the messenger sense of the word, feel free to explain to them they have every right to point that finger of responsibility, and every right to be angry. It’s just that it’s pointed in the wrong direction.

I’ll relay a few final experiences from my JKD years in order to set the stage for the creation of the SBG philosophy which followed.

The first was with another, very famous high ranking JKD ‘Sifu’. He was known as a ‘kickboxing’ specialist, and after his seminar he told a story about going to the Gracie academy . Rorion’s article had come out in Playboy, and many Martial Artists were slowly venturing towards their doors in order to see what all the fuss was about. To paraphrase:

I went in, and they invited me to wrestle them. They said I could do anything I want. Next thing I know, they took me down and applied an armlock. After I tapped, we went again, and they did the exact same thing. Again I tried, and again they took me down and did the exact same armlock. In fact, all they did over and over again to me was the same armlock. Obviously these guys don’t have very many techniques, I wouldn’t bother training there.“

My jaw dropped open, he had the full experience of a proper BJJ humbling, yet, he drew the exact wrong conclusion from the result. Amazed at his inability to actually understand what fighting even meant, I looked around the table, and what I saw was something that I soon became accustomed too, and something which verified for me that this was not my tribe, a room full of people shaking their head in agreement with this guy’s fallacious reasoning. Nobody got the point, nobody.

By that time I had met Rickson Gracie. I had watched him tap out a room full of large, strong Judo black belts, without bothering to take his hands out of his belt. It was almost like magic, yet I knew there was nothing supernatural, or mystical about it. It was what Martial Arts were supposed to be. The fact that someone like the above mentioned instructor couldn’t figure that out, alludes to just how whacky the entire training paradigm, in fact the entire understanding of what “fighting” is, was within that community.

To be clear, not all within the JKD community at that time were clueless. Credit needs to go to Hal Faulkner, one of the original Kali academy guys who was able to understand the function of BJJ. Acknowledgement, also needs to go to Paul Vunak, who soon followed, and who was responsible in some part for my conversion to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as the years went by.

My second experience was with another famous JKD instructor, this one I actually do like personally, but like many of us at the time, he was a bit mislead by the nonsense that permeated that world. Over a meal post event he began telling stories of famous Martial Arts “masters”. Someone asked him about a Kali (Filipino Martial Arts) Instructor known as John Lacoste. He began to relay a story of how the bus Mr. Lacoste was on once got a flat, and upon discovering there was no jack to lift car, the 80 something year old, 100lb master said the holy prayer which was inscribed on his calf, and proceeded to lift the bus. At which point, I grabbed my tray and politely moved to the next table.

The final straw was at a meeting of various JKD instructors. The talk turned to gossip and politics about other instructors, which seemed to be a fulltime hobby for many of these guys, and one rather mousey looking Instructor from Canada announced proudly to the table that he had actually been keeping “files” on the instructors who were the topic of gossip. Amazed at the immense waste of time I was witnessing, I looked around the table at a room full of people who were once again nodding their head in approval of this insanity. It was then that I knew for certainty that these are not my people.

Shortly afterwards I left to open my first gym, the first SBG, a 500 square foot room.

It’s funny, when I’ve occasionally told the above story about a guy keeping “files” on other instructors to the people I find myself around now, they almost always laugh in disbelief. I assure them it’s true, but it’s hard to explain how far we’ve come to those who were never part of where we were.

In the next entry I will talk about those early years, and how the SBG methodology and mindset evolved as a counter to much of what you’ve just read.


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