Awareness: The Key to Karate for Self-Protection
In this article we'll be looking at awareness and its role in both traditional karate and self-protection. When discussing self-protection, it should be thoroughly understood that physical techniques are of no value without training in awareness and a healthy attitude to personal safety. If your karate training focuses solely on physical techniques for fighting, then it is not addressing the needs of self-protection. Self-protection is not the same as fighting.
If we find ourselves in a fight then several aspects of our self-protection strategy have failed. We need to be able to fight effectively if it should come to that; however, we also need to ensure our training covers how to avoid getting involved in a 'fight' in the first place.
In the classic text 'The Art of War', Sun-Tzu states, ' Achieving victory in every battle is not absolute perfection; neutralising an adversary's forces without battle is absolute perfection .' This is sound guidance. If we can avoid a situation completely, we also completely avoid the risk of physical harm and the inevitable legal and psychological aftermath. Self-protection is not about winning fights, it's about ensuring we come to no harm. And the best way to ensure we come to no harm is to avoid dangerous situations altogether.
Whenever we find ourselves engaged in a physical exchange we are running the risk of serious physical harm. Even if we 'win', we will still be worse off than when we started; even if it's just bruised knuckles. Let's also not forget the possible legal consequences.
A close friend of mine once stumbled across a burglary taking place at a property to the rear of his house. Having startled the burglars, one of them ran away and my friend ended up fighting with the other one. My friend is very strong and managed to subdue the burglar and detain him until the police arrived. During the struggle the burglar suffered some injuries and insisted the police take him to hospital. The very next day the burglar filed an assault charge against my friend! The charge came to nothing, but it was still a hassle my friend could have done without. Legal repercussions are always a possibility whenever we become involved in a physical confrontation; even when we 'win', and even when we are 'in the right'.
A real life fight is not like a sparring match or a 'school yard scrap'. By engaging in physical confrontations we face the risk of severe physical injury, perhaps even death. From within my own family and friends there are people who've been hospitalised, who've had ears bitten off, a couple who have been stabbed (one with a flattened piece of copper pipe), one who has lost a testicle (crushed by a kick), and one who was killed (by a single punch).
Whilst I thoroughly enjoy a good fight in the dojo, a live fight outside the training hall is not my idea of fun. There is always far too much at stake and absolutely nothing to be gained. Obviously there are times when we have no option but to fight, but in the majority of situations, physical confrontation is avoidable if we are sufficiently aware. For karate training to address self-protection needs, awareness and personal safety need to be a part of training. Training which focuses solely on physical technique will be found wanting when it comes to effective self-protection. Whereas there is a current trend to overemphasise physical technique when it comes to self-protection, the past masters strongly emphasised the need for constant awareness and good personal safety as a key part of karate training.
In 'Karate-Do Kyohan', Gichin Funakoshi (founder of Shotokan Karate) wrote, 'The secret principle of martial arts is not vanquishing the attacker, but resolving to avoid an encounter before its occurrence. To become an object of an attack is an indication that there was an opening in one's guard, and the important thing is to be on guard at all times.' Funakoshi goes on to discuss the importance of avoiding dangerous neighbourhoods and situations. Funakoshi also states that running away and shouting for help are the best forms of self-defence. Here we can see one of modern karate's founders emphasising awareness, avoidance and escape over physical technique.
In 'Wado-Ryu Karate', Hironori Otsuka (founder of the Wado-Ryu) wrote, 'There is an old saying: "Leave one's yard and find seven enemies." No matter how skilled one is in the martial arts, he will find himself unprepared if encountered off-guard. Ideally, then, one should constantly be in a state of preparedness.' Otsuka then goes on to give numerous examples of actions that will reduce the risk of attack and other physical dangers. Again, we see the importance of awareness being emphasised.
There are many other examples besides the two given above. We can see that constant awareness was always regarded to be a fundamental part of karate training. In much of modern training, the only mention of 'awareness' is in relation to things like not dropping your guard after scoring a point, not taking your eyes of your opponent etc. However, awareness (zanshin) is a much broader concept.
Zanshin refers to a constant state of readiness, awareness and alertness. If we are constantly in a state of zanshin, we will be aware when a dangerous situation begins to develop. Because we are aware of the situation we are then in a position to evaluate the nature of that situation. Having made that evaluation, we can then take steps to avoid that situation.
Awareness is the foundation upon which effective self-protection is built. If you're not aware, a dangerous situation could take you by surprise, and by then it will be too late to take any action. Regardless of how strong a punch you may have, if your awareness is lacking you leave yourself wide open to attack and in all probability you won't even get the opportunity to use any of your techniques! It's worth remembering that most assailants don't want a 'fight'. If they can take you by surprise then so much the better.
Awareness can also prevent dangerous situations from actually occurring. It is vital that none of your actions place you in danger or mark you out as a potential target. You need to be aware of the potential risks that can be caused by your actions and omissions. To give a few examples, if you withdraw a large amount of money from a cash-point and then walk away whilst counting it, you may attract the attention of any prospective muggers. If you keep a bag or purse on the back seat of your car with the doors unlocked, there is the potential for someone to open the back door and take those items when you are in slow moving or stationary traffic. If you get drunk, your awareness will be very limited and therefore you are a much more attractive target. Being alone or in isolated areas reduces the risk of any attackers being spotted and they are therefore more likely to attack you. If you are aware that certain actions may increase your risk of being attacked, you can ensure that you don't act in such a way and hence increase your personal safety.
Another advantage of being aware is that the 'professional criminal' will generally be looking for the easiest victim they can find. If you're oblivious to their activities, you're an easy target. If it is obvious to them you're fully switched on, and are therefore alert to their activities and intent, there is a strong possibility that they will leave you alone and look for an easier victim. When it comes to protecting ourselves, awareness is far more effective that any 'fighting technique'.
To be constantly aware can be very difficult as our minds have a tendency to wander when engaged in day-to-day activities. We need to train our subconscious to act as 'a lookout' so that when a potentially dangerous situation arises, our subconscious will alert our conscious mind to the danger. A good way to develop awareness is to spend a few weeks engaging in a conscious internal dialogue when going about your day-to-day business. What you do is keep a running mental commentary about the dangers and potential dangers as you go about your business for a little while each day. As an example, let's run trough a fictitious trip to the post office. An internal commentary for that journey would be along the following lines:
'I have some packages to take to the post office. They are not valuable, but they look as if they could be. I'll pop them in a supermarket carrier bag as they are less likely to attract attention that way . I'm posting them in the middle of the day and there will be plenty of people around, which will reduce the risk of my being attacked . I'm walking along the street and see nothing of any concern . a car has just pulled up in front of me and opened the passenger side door. I'll walk further in from the curb so I can't be pulled in to the car . Up ahead there is a gang of people involved in a heated argument. They look very aggressive and agitated so I'll cross the street to avoid them . etc'.
After you've engaged in internal commentary for a little while, the process will start to become internalised and you'll be much more aware of your surroundings. You'll no longer be actively conscious of the process, but it will be going on regardless. I think it's important to state at this point that it's not 'paranoia' we're hoping to develop, but a healthy attitude to our own personal safety. To quote Otsuka once again, 'preparation of one's mind is necessary at all times. Not to the extent of paranoia; but as a course of habit.' It is this 'habit of preparation' that we should adopt.
One final thing I'd like to cover in this article is the need to trust our instincts. Sometimes we can find ourselves in situations in which we feel uneasy, but are unable to ascertain exactly why we feel uneasy. You are evolved from a long line of individuals who all survived at least long enough to have children. You're a thoroughbred survivor! And therefore you have a finely developed survival instinct (when it's allowed to operate). If we find ourselves in an unnerving situation it's important that we believe our instincts and never second guess them. If something feels 'wrong', then it probably is. If a person or situation is setting off your alarm bells, then make your excuses and get away. If we develop our day-to-day awareness and learn to listen to our instincts, we will be able to effectively avoid the vast majority of dangerous situations.
In summary, the physical techniques of karate are of no value without training in awareness and a healthy attitude to personal safety. The past masters encouraged us to be aware at all times and therefore increase our ability to avoid dangerous situations altogether. Without adequate awareness, we will find ourselves in situations that could have been avoided and we give any potential attacker the element of surprise. If we are not aware, all our physical skills are rendered useless. However, it can be difficult to be maintain a constant state of conscious awareness, so we need to develop a kind of 'subconscious lookout' that will alert us to any dangers. A good way to train this subconscious lookout is through engaging in internal commentary.
If we are to practise karate as an effective self-protection system, we need to ensure that awareness and personal safety are emphasised in our training. If we concentrate solely on the physical techniques needed for 'a fight', and the concepts of threat awareness, threat assessment, and threat avoidance are never discussed, then our training is falling well short of the mark when it comes to realistic self-protection. To ensure karate is an effective self-protection system, we need to practise the art as its founders intended. We need to adhere to the advice of Funakoshi and Otsuka and ensure that the key principles of awareness and avoidance are strongly emphasised in training. In this way the vast majority of situations can be completely avoided.