Am I Dead Yet Sgt. Miller?

2255612Saturday morning I crossed the bridge to the bad part of Oakland.  The workshop took place in the clubhouse of the notorious East Bay Rats Motorcycle Gang Club.  It’s a block from a small park, which is an open drug market for addicts.  (My Mom lives nearby!)  The clubhouse is a little bigger than my living room, with a bar and a roll-up door to a small yard, but my living room doesn’t have a dirty concrete floor, a motorcycle in the middle of the room, or sharp edges and protruding things everywhere.  And my living room certainly doesn’t have  a motor-ski-plow-sculpture!  The yard had a lot of beer cans, dirt, some broken glass, trash cans, things for grilling meat, tools, and a beat-up all-weather boxing ring.  Twenty men and women showed up for the two day workshop.  Objectively speaking, there was enough room in there to teach Tai Chi to 4 people.  The stage was set for Sgt. Rory Miller's workshop.  (I reviewed his wonderful book Meditations on Violence here.)

Back in the days when I led adventure ropes courses, we would try to create a feeling of maximum risk with minimum actual risk.  At Rory's workshop, right from the get go everything felt risky.  He started off with a safety talk and then had us work with partners doing action exchange drills.  This is a slow motion practice in which one person begins an attack and the other fights back, but the moment of initiative consciously switches back and forth between the two fighters so that if one of them stops, all action stops.

The fact that the space felt so risky helped keep us non-competitive, which was essential for what he was trying to teach.
Sgt. Rory MillerSgt. Rory Miller

You know you are dealing with a great teacher if you experience the stuff you practice everyday failing, and yet you leave feeling elated!  My fighting system is based on not stopping at all, I try to fight like a waterfall.  So it’s not surprising that everything I do can fail if it is squeezed into an action exchange drill.  It was a great way to practice because it forced us to release more efficient whole-body violence into shorter and shorter periods of time.  It also allowed people with very little martial arts experience an opportunity to recover against people with a lot.  The exercise is also designed to insure that no one gets injured, while insuring that everyone feels pain, discomfort, disorientation and emotional boundary violations.  I got my nuts squeezed about twenty times.  I had people's fingers on my eyeballs over a hundred times.  We gradually built a lot of trust.

I’m so full of energy today it’s hard to write.  Hormone surges all day long especially during the scenario role-plays on the second day have left me a bit wired-up.  While I really enjoyed my failures, I left feeling that my training is superb.  My stuff transferred well to fighting in confined space and rolling on the concrete. The BJJ-Mixed Martial Arts people, by the way, had a lot of un-training to do.

2307392553_2882869aa9Back in my twenties I did a lot of two person forearm and shin conditioning.  After a while it became really addictive, I just craved that rough contact, it was getting me high.  This morning when I went to do my practice I was craving that rough contact again.  I never realized this before now, but I think this type of conditioning training is really a way to practice bringing on and dealing with the hormone surge.  My morning classes for the last 3 or 4 years have had about 5 minutes of gentle external arm and leg conditioning.  But I think my internal practice is giving me another kind of really effective conditioning.  My body is primed to instantly pump up when I get the hormone surge.  Today I have that Arnold Schwarzenegger feeling in my body.  Not stiff--just pumped.  I’m sure it will go away in a day or two if I don’t feed it.  But it’s an important lesson about how the body works.

The familiarity with real violence that Rory brings is chilling.  One thing I realized is that George Xu trained me in vigilante violence, which in a dark kind of way is great because it includes many different types of violence-- Self-defense, domination, monkey dance, group monkey dance, police work, and surprise attack. Rory demands that we refocus our training on what is legal and ethical.  He also recommends that we stop training things which may be ethical but would be too much of an emotional identity destroying act for us to pull off (I guess some people have a problem with blood and guts).  What’s legal and ethical is usually clear in retrospect (not always), but rarely easy to act on in the moment.  Which is why training scenarios are essential.  Deciding what acts would be identity destroying is very personal.  I'm not sure where my limits are, all the encounters with violence I can remember have had at least some identity destroying power.

Reflecting on my training with George Xu I see that legitimate self-defense has always been a component of it, but it was part of a larger subject of vigilantism.  For instance I remember getting in George Xu’s head and practicing scenarios in which I was the aggressor with a knife fighting against another aggressor with a knife in which the goal was to incapacitate but not kill (terratorial dueling?).  Rory’s workshop brought up a lot of weird stuff like that.  For everyone I think.  But my somewhat rambling point here is that in order to make what I do fit the self-defense model I have to make a slight mental-emotional adjustment.  It’s an adjustment I made intellectually long ago, but I hadn’t fully considered how imperative it is that I actually change the way I train.

Because boxing is designed purely as a display of dominance it has very little resemblance to asocial surprise attacks or self-defense.  A boxer would have to make big adjustments to actually train for self-defense.  What I do most of the time is close to what Rory is teaching, but I do sometimes think in terms of dominance.  I'll imagine a monkey dance in which I approach a fight eye to eye, attacking straight-on like a rutting buck in order to assert dominance.  This is what he is training us not to do.  Fortunately I'm quite talented at a more Rory-esque self-defense style of training like getting behind someone and throwing them head first into a wall with pictures of guys with tattoos on it.

Readers are probably mocking me, "Ah what a fine ethical distinction."

Rory had us play so many cool scenarios.  He was wearing full body armor and a helmet.  The climax for me was when he came in from the back shooting his gun.  I looked up to see that he had already shot me and I froze as he shot me again and then shot the person next to me.  People near the door, after fumbling with the lock, opened it and started to run, but Rory entered and fired into the space the way a person experienced in killing everyone would do it.  I must have been one of the first to break my freeze because I remember beginning to run the five paces towards him and then the next thing I remember I had him pinned with my hand wrapped around his larynx, one knee on his xiphoid process, the other knee on his arm, and my left hand holding his gun hand flat on the ground.  During the debrief he said I was the hero who took a lot of lead (bullets).  The day before we were talking about how police assess whether people are lying or not, and he said he doesn’t believe it when people say they don’t remember what happened.  But between the time I started running and the moment I was on top of him positioning my knee on his xiphoid process-- I don’t remember what happened.  It is particularly interesting because I’m really good at recreating detailed two person movement sequences that happen spontaneously with my students in class.

He told me later that I scared him.  That coming from Rory felt a little like I accidentally won a gold medal at the Olympics or something.

My biggest criticism is that there were no undead in the scenarios.  Zombies next time!
The biggest surprise was how totally awesome the other people at the workshop were.  It was really fun hanging out talking afterwards.  New friends!  New ideas!  New inspiration! (More to come.)