Thought Experiment: Minimal Sensory Input in 4 Confrontations

Imagine that every night for five nights you go to sleep and find yourself in a very similar dream each night.

In your dream, you are knocked unconscious and wake to find that you are  in a physical confrontation, but your memory of what led to the accident is gone, your vision is blurry so you cannot see, your ears are ringing so you cannot hear, and the only contextual clues you receive are physical experiences during the confrontation, and your feelings about them.

On the first night you wince under heavy and large blows. Your opponent’s movement is jerky and imprecise. Every bone aches, teeth bleed. Your opponent shake you, pushes, grabs, rips and tears. You feel tense fingers, with grating nails pull on your ears until they feel they might tear.

How do you respond?

How do you feel?

On the second night you feel light movement, you wince momentarily as someone tugs on your hair, then grabs at your cheeks and eyes, small hands hold on tightly, but then they let go. You wince again as something pounces on your stomach, bounces lightly, then jumps off. Skinny arms curl around your neck as if to take you down to the floor, but they find no support and you are unaffected.

How do you respond?

How do you feel?

On the third night you are squeezed and pulled in tightly, you try to move away but the body slides around to your back andshoves your head repeatedly down to the floor. Light arms move around your neck and constrict. The body of your opponent, that was once mobile and loose, tightens and shakes. Pressure rises and you feel yourself going slack.

How do you respond?

How do you feel?

On the fourth night every blow feels heavy and tired. You seem to walk right into them. You reach out to grab hold of something but nothing is there. Something grabs you instead, it is firm and confident, but it never stays in one place for long.You feel fingers and fists touching you momentarily, guiding you to the floor. 

How do you respond?

How do you feel?

Get out a pen and paper. Each dream included a confrontation from a different person. Write down a description of what each person looks like.

Now return momentarily to your visualization. Imagine that on the fifth night you fall to sleep and wake in the same dream, only this time you catch a glimpse of what happened that led to the confrontation. You are in the dojo. Four new students come into class. Is one of them too young to be here? The instructor asks each one to introduce themself to you, and explains that you will work with each one before class ends. How do they introduce themselves, write down their introductions individually. As you write, think back to your dreams; recall your responses, feelings, and the words you used to describe the  appearance of the new students.

This exercise illustrates how easy it is for most of us to “imagine” a physical description or even a character based on feelings that we get while working with someone. If you are comfortable, compare your responses with a friend. Are the similar? I suspect that most people answer very similarly. Recognize that your partner or opponent will react to your work and the feelings that come up just as you have! So if you imagine the first confrontation to be a violent criminal, there is a good chance that the violent criminal would imagine you the same way if you worked violently in return.

Typically, you don’t get such a clear example of how your relationships affect your work because more often confrontations happen the other way around; you communicate verbally and non-verbally, and only then interact physically. In this thought experiment we reversed the dynamic so you could examine your relationship with your partner after the work. Recognize that the relationship you foster with a partner or opponent, with what little time you have before the physical work starts, will in some part determine the nature of the work. Someone who is aggressive elicits aggression out of those present, someone who is timid welcomes help from others, a child can get away with force because it is innocent and uncontrolled, jovial interaction lightens the room, someone who is calm and slow has an easier time working with their partners because it is contagious.

I may see two students working aggressively with eachother, but when I call to change partners the tone in both students changes entirely because they are working with new people and they have a different relationship with them. Perhaps the atmosphere becomes jovial because they work with a friend, or perhaps they become timid because the person they are working with is superior, perhaps they will compete with one another because they are on the same level, or they will become vengeful because they perceive that the other is treating them ill. As long as you control your own emotional base, and you choose not to let your opponent’s emotional base control you, then you are in control of your opponent.

Everyday you manage your emotional base and you determine what you put into your body and mind that contributes to your character. These factors put you in control of the relationships that you develop with others. If you control this relationship you can control how people will respond to you. Perhaps you think that your own superiority is what will save you, but there is always someone with greater superiority, and always games you can’t win. Your opponent’s response to your character, the messages you are subconsciously sending him, may be the difference between success and failure. I am reminded of Goethe who said, “In the face of great superiority, there is no means of safety but love.”

Open Criticism and Why I Embrace a Variety of Drills

I often ask my students what the pros and cons are for a given drill, usually after performing the drill for at least five minutes. It may seem intimidating at first, but open criticism is mutually beneficial. It fosters deliberate practice, teaches the correct relationship between the student and the drill, replaces disillusionment with transparency, and finally, actually discourages unwanted criticism.

What kind of criticism is unwanted? The kind that comes out of negativity, left alone to fester in a student unexpressed and unresolved. At its worst, unwanted criticism may come in the form of class disruption, or simply negative discussions during or after class, an individual or individuals might leave or seek to draw others away. Unwanted criticism is also harmful to students because it will most definitely distract them from getting down to buisness. As a Systema instructor, my goal is to decrease tensions and  reduce anxieties or irrational fears. I want to produce healthy students. Healthy students may seek to promote class and help those that are struggling with classwork. I believe healthy students trust the instructor and the classwork.

The real key to open criticism is transparency. If your drills are adequately transparent, then perhaps students will not become disillusioned or obsess over a single drill. Students should know the differences between reality and training, they should understand that there are aspects that, irregardless of whether or not they should be crossed, cannot be crossed in a controlled environment. We can reduce error by committing to many different drills with different attributes that help complete the picture. Think of classwork like putting together a puzzle, it cannot be done all at once, but we can explore it piece by piece until we have a complete picture.

There are no perfect drills, no go-to techniques, no single drill that completes the picture. Teachers should be clear about the purpose of a drill, is it a strength or flexibility drill? Attribute drill? Role-play? Or simply exploration without jugement? Don’t let students become confused about what their relationship with a drill should be. More often than not, confusion sets in because they do not understand the function of the drill, therefore they do not focus on the principles that drill is trying to bring out.

Students tend to focus on “effectiveness in real life situations” during most classwork. As I listen to students explore drills with their partners they are mostly interested in “if this, then that” scenerios. This kind of exploration is good if you are opening new possibilities, exploring different angles, “tasting the soup” as it were, to see what is needed. This is the wrong if you are giving the drill more power than it deserves, or treating an attribute drill like it must replicate reality. Often people who criticize a single drill give it more power than it deserves, but they forget, every drill has pros and cons, one is too slow, one puts you into vulnerable or strategically poor positions, one lacks fear or pain. Remind students to accept a drill for what it is and nothing more. Take what you need and leave the rest behind. Move on to the next drill.

Diliberate practice is a much better option than “if this, then that” scenerios.  If students feel thay are lacking in certain areas or that they could use practice with additional complications, break down the drill to isolate areas that need work. Additionally, encourage students to evaluate their performance based on feelings or “taste,” they will find it much easier to perform a drill in the present moment, focusing on feelings rather than on technique and strategy. There is a place for technical evaluation, but mich less frequently.

Be careful not to spend more time talking about a drill or principle than practicing it. Discussion is important, but students may quickly become enchanted by philosophical or poetic rehtoric so much that the actual goal becomes unclear. You won’t reach your destination blindfolded; navigating drills and concepts without a goal is like setting off on a hunt without knowing what to look for. Take a little time as a group to answer questions honestly and allow students to talk, but only spend as much time as is reasonable. Every now and then a student will ask questions too early or want everything too fast, or heaven forbid, talk more than work. For these students, you should employ strategies to move away from “discussion” to “buisness”, which you may develop yourself through experimentation and research. 

In conclusion, encourage students to seek to understand your drills, identify a short term goal and purpose, and finally, determine whether or not their performance leads them closer to their long term goals or further from them. These questions should be answered through deliberate practice that focuses on feelings rather than technique. Pros and Cons may be discussed before or after a drill as a class or individually during the drill. I also encourage teachers to give students time to reflect on their goals. When students habitually self-evaluate they will constantly ask themselves whether or not their internal feelings are consistent with their goals.

How Far We’ve Come

Class Notes: Multiple Opponents

By lbeacon, at Systema SLC

Looking back, over the past few months we have studied the core principles of Systema.  We learned to recognize tension and how to release it.  We practiced strikes with “springy” fists and a relaxed body; we practiced receiving strikes comfortably.  We explored basics of grappling and ground work.  We studied with weapons: sticks, knives, guns.  And then we tried to do it all at once, with multiple opponents.

When we train one on one, our intellect has time to process what is happening and respond to it.  This is great for learning new principles or delving deeper into familiar ones.  But it is difficult to really test ourselves against a single partner without drastically increasing the speed and force of our movements.  To develop trust in our bodies and see where residual tension may be hiding, we need another approach.

Training with multiple opponents allows us to test ourselves and the things we have learned without increasing the intensity of our sparring.  It is a safe way to push our limits and locate our weaknesses.  This is because we are constantly acting and the situation is fluid, but no single opponent is particularly menacing.  By periodically returning to group work, we can examine how far we have come.  Other martial arts may utilize exams or tests to mark a student’s ability, we allow group work to mark our own.

“Systema can be thought of as a selfish art, do your work and let your opponents do theirs.”

– Mark Zamarin

Examples of stick and knife work with multiple opponents can be found here.


No Need for Heroes “Strikes: Soul Meets Body” Review

Vladimir Vasiliev’s new book “Strikes: Soul Meets Body” is the best text on Russian Systema out there. I write this with intense enthusiasm, because honestly, I was reluctant to put faith in it. I am the kind of reader who wants to hear it straight, and frankly “Let Every Breath,” by the same authors, left me with too many questions. I saw a book filled with interesting exercises, legends of Ryabko and Vladimir, testimonies of the power of breath, and little more. “Let Every Breath” has value as an introductory text, but failed to really get to the point-at best it was suggestive of something beyond itself. When I picked up “Strikes”, my reluctance disappeared. 

“Strikes” provides a complete and accurate overview of Russian Systema in all aspects; the material is about strikes only on the surface. Most importantly, however, the book gives demystifies its greatest teachers, Vladimir Vasiliev and Mikhail Ryabko.

Scott Meridith played a large role in this review, I believe, because he did a terrific job organizing the material. Scott knows what it is like to be a student seeking answers, striving to do what his instructors ask, and wondering about the masters; “Strikes” reflects that understanding. He supplies the right material at the right time and leaves the book feeling complete and satisfying. Never once, did I get the impression that I was missing something. I felt the same way reading his Tai Chi novel, “Juice”, which I now count as one of the greatest contributions to martial arts along side “Strikes”.

Scott gives it to you straight in “Strikes”, giving Vlad a steady platform to speak for himself. Vlad’s own words are honest about his experience and reveal the human nature of Systema, which is not only satisfying, but also necessary for readers like me. I love heroes, but I don’t think you should put your heart into them, as Mikhail might have said. Heroes have their place in myth and history, to teach us about hope, faith, and courage, they even define virtue for our culture. Perhaps we need heroes, since we seem to have an innate longing for them; but heroes are not helpful teachers…we need something more real to fulfill that role. I am reminded of a novel titled “Oman Ra” by Pelvin, a must read for students of Russian culture. In “Oman Ra” the protagonist prepares his whole life to become a hero, in the end when you learn that it was all for naught, you notice that his memories and past life only succeeded in perpetuating a myth. I often wonder why we do not have the same kind of heroes today as we did less than a hundred years ago. It is probably because people face higher scrutiny today, but also because not enough time has passed for generations to perpetuate the myth.

Scott is great, but his depiction of Mikhail and Vlad is often too grandiose. I cringe when I hear students and teachers talk about Vlad or Mikhail as if no one will ever reach their skill level, people often come to this conclusion after visiting them face-to-face, it is very tempting, but not useful. The truth is, the more we create legends out of Vlad and Mikhail, the harder it becomes to understand Systema. If we continue down that path, within a few generations we will be right where Aikido is today, left with a lot of fancy rehtoric and some good moves to show off…If you’ve been wondering how that happens to arts, this is how it happens. Vlad and Mikhail should teach us something about human potential, and “Strikes” does that without diminishing the awe and respect they deserve. 

The book ends with a common question, “can it be taught?” Yes, I think it is hopeful even for us average citizens without peculiar qualities or experience.

For more information or to purchase “Stikes: Soul Meets Body” visit Russian Martial Art