One of my favorite books is Autumn Lightening by Dave Lowry. He describes his life as a young teen in the 1960s Midwest, learning traditional swordfighting from his Japanese sensei. What makes this book truly engaging is how Lowry distills the basic lessons behind his experiences, interspersing similar lessons from Japanese feudal history and contrasting them with contemporary American life.
Early on he talks about the emergence and spread of self-defense classes in that turbulent Vietnam era. He described such classes as “a clever assortment of joint locks, strikes, and throws that were practiced until they could be recalled at a moment’s notice by the student who then went on his way, secure in the knowledge that he was safe from any threats short of a full-scale Soviet invasion.”
Lowry’s first lesson in the Japanese sword was very different from what he expected. He was not handed a sword. As he knelt for meditation (the beginning of any traditional Japanese martial arts class), his teacher unexpectedly struck him with a wooden practice sword. He was taken off guard. They repeated this drill until he became aware of the initial movement and trajectory of the weapon, and could successfully evade its impact.
Back to self-defense classes, Lowry notes that some unfortunate students found two flaws in the instruction they’d been given. First, assailants do not feel bound to attack only in ways covered in class. Second, while many martial arts techniques are flashy, work great in the gym, and are fun to practice, they lose effectiveness when the target is preoccupied with ordinary tasks such as a shopping list or waiting for a light to change, or giving the benefit of the doubt to an acquaintance beginning to make out-of-place comments and moving too close.
He further observed that while a number of those self-defense students would have been physically able to defend themselves, the critical reason they did not was because they were unprepared mentally. Back to traditional swordsmen, all the technical skill would be of no use if he were caught off guard.
This is as true today as it was in the days of the samurai: in any form of defense, the first and most crucial strategy is to develop awareness, and make it a continuing practice.
from Strategic Living News & views, January 2005