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BOOK REVIEW: Meditations on Violence by Rory Miller

Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World ViolenceMeditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence by Rory Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I’ve long realized that all martial arts are models. Models are simplifications; they inevitably leave elements out—sometimes because those elements don’t seem relevant and sometimes because they can’t realistically (re: sanely) be included. Those of us trained as social scientists say two things about models. 1.) All models are wrong, and 2.) All models lie. The question is whether your martial art is the least wrong, i.e. tells the most acceptable lie, for your purposes. Rory Miller’s work illuminates the most crucial part of what martial arts leave aside, violence and the context in which it takes place in the modern world. I say the most crucial part because it’s not excluded because it’s irrelevant; it’s left out because it’s impossible to shun safety / encourage violence without the practice devolving into a last man standing competition. (FYI: If you’re saying, “Man, the martial art I study is completely street realistic,” then you need this book more than anyone.)

While it’s important to have safety in a training environment and, therefore, true violence must be prohibited (simulated, but not carried out), it’s important to understand violence so that one can prepare one’s mind for it and train oneself to recognize various types of violence so that one knows the best approach to avoid a bad outcome. One doesn’t want to end up wondering “how could this happen” as one is bleeding out on the ground as martial artists from a range of styles have experienced. I’m not saying martial arts aren’t valuable, and I don’t think Miller is either (he’s long practiced them, as have I.) While martial arts may not prepare one perfectly for a violent conflict, they move one in the right direction. The only real downside is if one allows oneself to be deluded into thinking one is going to roll through waves of enemies without a scratch like Jet Li or Steven Seagal on the silver screen. That’s why it’s important not only to read such a book as this, but to give serious thought to changing the narrative that plays out in one’s mind about the nature of violence so as to move it away from movie / sport fighting towards an approach that is most likely to get one and one’s loved ones out alive.

The book consists of seven chapters, plus front and back matter. The first chapter introduces two matrices as ways to frame one’s thoughts on the conflict. The first, the tactical matrix, looks at different types of attacks one might experience (eg. surprise ambush through preemptive attack) relative to allowable use of force (can one legitimately injure or kill one’s opponent?) The second, the strategic matrix, considers the various types of combative endeavors (e.g. self-defense, duel, sport, combat/military operations) and there goals, approaches, and dangers.

Chapter two is entitled, “How to Think,” and the emphasis is on “to think.” The central lesson is to not take ideas on faith, particularly ideas about the nature of violence from people who haven’t experienced it—particularly when those ideas seem to run counter to reality. Because violence is such a rarity, it is a subject for which there is a great disconnect between expertise and experience. (i.e. Chances are your plumber has unclogged tens to thousands of drains, but also that the person teaching you knife disarms has never been in a single knife fight.) The chapter considers the various fallacies and how they can be resistant to destruction. Emphasis is given to understanding your goals, making them realistic, and having a pragmatic path to achieving them. The take-away quote is, “Do not let yourself be crippled by something that only exists in your mind.” The chapter ends by looking at decision-making at the speed of a fight, which is pretty quick.

Chapter three gets to the heart of the subject, violence. It differentiates various types of violence, and considers the context (setting, timing, and the nature of the interaction) in which violent interactions take place. Much of the discussion revolves around what Miller calls the “monkey dance” -an attempt to exert dominance that often escalates into a fight. This is differentiated from predatory violence that demands a different approach. This section also addresses the neurochemical cocktail that gets shot into one’s system and the effects that it typically has—which is a leading cause of events unfolding differently than expected.

Chapter four describes the various types of individuals with whom one might find oneself engaged in a violent altercation. This is an important topic because the path to a best outcome varies depending upon the nature of the criminal, and so one’s ability to differentiate types of predator and to know how to best deal with each is as essential a skill as knowing the technical nuances of a punch or choke.

The fifth chapter examines training approaches, and how the typical martial arts education leaves one with blind-spots and built-in flaws. The chapter begins by looking at the many ways in which martial arts make modifications from realistic conditions in order to be safe. Most martial artists realize that they are training techniques or drilled responses into their subconscious so that their bodies can respond automatically–without the need for [slow] conscious thought–during a conflict. However, there’s a further assumption that the unrealistic parts of that movement (e.g. slowness or avoiding vulnerable targets) will go away under real life conditions. In an earlier chapter, there was a discussion of the fact that attacks are usually faster, harder, at closer range, and more surprising than expected (Miller calls it the four basic truths), and this chapter considers some ways that one can prepare for those realities.

The sixth chapter considers how one can make self-defense work. It should be pointed out that this isn’t just about how to engage in the fight, but also how to stay out of a fight or get away from it as quickly as is possible. There’s also a discussion of set rules for determining when one must fight. This is the type of notion that one must think about ahead of time, because one can’t expect to think clearly once the adrenaline has been dumped into one’s system. The remainder of the chapter explores how one is most likely to get out of an altercation alive once the fight has become inevitable.

The final chapter delves into the question of what comes after the violent encounter. This is also a subject on which many martial artists have unrealistic notions. If one survives in an unheroic / ungraceful way, one may have guilt or dismay about how imperfectly events unfolded. On the other hand, say everything works out for one, but one kills the predator. Most people seem to think that this won’t be troubling, because it was justified. This misses the fact that there are many traumatized soldiers who were also completely justified, but if you aren’t a hardcore psychopath, you aren’t wired for killing.

I found a lot of valuable food for thought in this book. The author includes many stories (sometimes funny and sometimes disturbing) that help to make the lessons memorable and poignant. Tables, charts, and the occasional photograph are used to illustrate points as well.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who’s concerned about violent altercations. If you’re a martial artist who has no such concerns because you think you have a lock on it, then you probably doubly need this book.

View all my reviews


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