Category Archives: Critical Thinking, Reason, & Skepticism

The Finger & The Moon – how JKD lost its way.

* (The following is a short section excerpted from a larger work set for release next year)

If you’re familiar with my work, or SBG pedagogy in general, than you know that we don’t usually talk about arts like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, or Muay Thai, as “styles”; instead, We refer to the fundamentals of those arts as “delivery systems”.

This isn’t just a semantic difference. It goes to the heart of the entire process.

A delivery system, is a series of fundamentals that define skill within a given range. In the case of hand-to-hand combat, that means stand up, clinch, and ground.

Those fundamentals, being not what’s most basic, but rather, what’s most important, will, by definition, transcend:

1- culture (history, tradition)
2- bodies (gender, age, size)
3- geography (location, environment)
4- venue (rule set, stakes)
5- time (decade, century, epoch)

These are the universal truths of combat, which all functional Martial Arts will contain.

There is a trite, often heard fallacy within the JKD world that goes something like this – “All arts have something good to offer”. Or the ever popular: “There are no superior arts, just some that are better in a given environment than others.”‭

Neither of those statements is factually true.

Some arts will make you worse, not better. Ask any coach who’s tried to correct someone’s screwed up body mechanics, and they’ll verify that fact for you. And yes, of course, some arts are absolutely better, more valuable and useful, while others will only teach you what not to do. But even the premise of the question itself, resting on the house of cards that is JKD Concepts relativist philosophy, is misguided. It isn’t about individual styles, Hung Gar versus Wing Chun, or Aikido versus Judo. It’s about delivery systems – the mechanics of a proper punch or throw, which transcend style, culture, and location.

I want you to think of style in a different way.

“Style”, as Bruce Lee rightly pointed out, is completely individual. No two Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belts roll the same way. Each has different rhythms, patterns, techniques they prefer, paces, strengths, weaknesses, and routes. If they are good at Jiu-Jitsu, then by definition they will be good at the fundamentals of Jiu-Jitsu, and they will share those as a common denominator. But the application of those fundamentals, the application of that delivery system, that common denominator – that’s as individual as personality.

I call this: The Fighting Style Principle:

Aliveness is the method. The core fundamentals of the delivery system are the material. And style is what you evolves within you when you combine both. It will be as different as every individual, and it will be yours alone.

If you’re a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu teacher, should you teach Roger Gracie Style or Andre Galvao Style or Ryron Gracie Style or Marcelo Garcia Style?

The SBG answer is, none of the above.

Instead you should teach the fundamentals of the delivery system, in this case the ground, create a safe environment for the students to train those fundamentals with Aliveness, and allow each student the time needed to develop into his or her own “style”.

Remember, if you can see the fundamentals that drive the delivery system, you can learn anything.

If you know how to train those fundamentals with Aliveness, you can get good at anything.

What are the fundamentals?

Not what’s most basic, but rather, what’s most important.

How do you find them?

By asking what can be removed and what cannot. Where you find necessity you find a fundamental.

A superior boxer or kickboxer can throw pretty much any particular strike, kick, punch, or knee, and potentially make it work. They can make it work because they have ingrained the core skills, the root movements of the functional delivery system. Just as a Jiu-Jitsu black belt can probably make even the most inefficient joint lock work on someone who has no real skill on the ground. That isn’t a testament to that particular movement, but rather the delivery system, the positional dominance, transitions and timing that make up the fundamentals of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. And that delivery system is not bound to any culture, any style, or any system. Why? Because any functional thing like that, something that is based in factual truth, transcends culture and geography. Just as there is no such thing as “Canadian geometry”, but there is geometry. We call it “Brazilian” Jiu-Jitsu now, to give credit where credit is due, and to acknowledge the teachings and innovations of men like Rickson Gracie, but the truth is all functional wrestling shares the same principles. And it has been that way throughout the ages.

“I grew up with an impatience with the anti-scientific. So I’m a bit miffed with our current love affair with all things Eastern. If I sneeze on the set, 40 people hand me echinacea. But I’d no sooner take that than eat a pencil. Maybe that’s why I took up boxing. It’s my response to men in white pajamas feeling each other’s chi.” – Hugh Laurie

In a functional Martial Art, form will always follow function. The form the movements take within a given delivery system evolved that way, under the pressure of competition. This is, of course, how evolution works.

Ultimately, what we should be engaged in, assuming we’re looking to reach our potential in effectiveness, is a journey towards efficiency. Since form follows function – the most technical answer will be, by definition, the most effective answer. And the most effective answer will be, by definition, the most efficient answer. To understand Jiu-Jitsu as it is taught by a man like Rickson Gracie, is to understand that there is no distinction to be made between the most effective, most efficient, and most technical movement. The terms become interchangeable. Form follows function.

Evolution requires heritable traits, and three additional things: replication, variation, and selection. Provided all three things are present, natural selection makes use of the design space, and evolution occurs. In evolution by natural selection, the delivery system (plant or animal) serves as a vehicle to pass on the gene. Replication occurs. Variation arises through that process, and through random mutation, and the environment and all that’s arises and occurs within it provides selection pressures.

With functional Martial Arts, the process is much the same. The delivery system, instead of carrying the gene, carries the core fundamentals of animal (in this case homosapian) combat. The variation is the different bodies, temperaments, minds, which use that delivery system. And the selection pressure is the roll, fight, competition process, and theater of operations itself.

#1 Replication: gene – meme- delivery system
#2 Variation: bodies, temperaments, minds
#3 Selection: environmental pressures, the “roll”, the fight

A good BJJ teacher passes down the fundamentals of the delivery system to a room full of people. Let’s call them a “variety”. That variety then competes against each other, and that process forces adaptations. The same choke is used, but each player finds, over time, the best way to apply it individually. If you have a room full of 30 people, you will, given enough time, have 30 different “styles”. Same delivery system, in this case BJJ, but they will all be as different as Roger Gracie is from Marcelo Garcia – each great, each highly skilled in the same core movements, shrimps, hip motions, weight distribution, chokes, etc; and each very different from the other.

That’s how functional Martial Arts work – like evolution – through competition, eventually, creating a variety of species/”styles”.

By contrasting the delivery systems of martial arts with the evolutionary process, we can better understand why certain arts developed the way they have. Alive-functional delivery systems will evolve under the selection pressure the environment provides, so even a minor change in the rules of something like MMA, could have a profound affect if it remained a rule for long enough. In addition, a large cultural change, such as the one that occurred in post WW2 Japan, can also have lasting effects on the way a delivery system is used. That doesn’t mean the core of the delivery system changed, remember, a true delivery system is based on movements and principles which transcend culture and venue – no, what it means is that certain parts of that delivery system will become more dominant, while others may go unused, and over time become lost.

An example is the headbutt. If it were allowed back into the sport of modern MMA it would not mean that Aikido, Silat, Systema, or (insert fantasy based martial art here) all of the sudden became “functional”. We would still see the same core delivery systems of kickboxing, wrestling, and BJJ. It also wouldn’t make a position like the guard (where you control the person on top using your legs) go away. What it would do is change how athletes who compete regularly in that environment played from the guard. That change would remain so long as the environment allowed that selection pressure of ‘headbutts’, something that UFC fighters currently don’t have to contend with.

Another good example of this process is Judo. Remember, it was a Judoka who initially taught the Gracies Jiu-Jitsu. However, Kano, Judo’s founder, was known to favor the throwing aspect of the delivery system to the ground fighting (newaza). That favoritism was reflected in the sport. Time allowed on the ground was limited. And perfect throws could gain you an instant victory. The result? The Judoka developed a great deal of skill in the takedown portion of the art, and in comparison with their Brazilian cousins, limited skill on the ground. Does that mean the art of a well-placed choke on the ground, or a well-timed hip throw standing, changed? Of course not, what it means instead was that a competitive Judo player is more likely to be skilled at throwing someone to the ground, and a competitive BJJ player is more likely to be skilled at choking someone once it hits the ground. Same delivery system, different emphasis and specialty developed, based on the selection pressures (rules), of their respective competitive environments.

Once you see how the evolution of functional Martial Arts works, the reality that the entire curriculum, whether it is for stand up, clinch, or ground, needs to revolve around the fundamentals of the delivery system, becomes self-evident.

Something else about the process also starts to come to light. You’ll realize that when each individual athlete is given the freedom needed to develop his or her own style, they will, over time, come up with one that is optimum for their own body, mind, and temperament, in a way otherwise unachievable if you were attempt to do with a conscious, human choice. In other words, the process is always smarter than you are.

I’ve spent more than 25 years teaching these arts fulltime, and yet, I still have no idea what a Jiu-Jitsu white belt will end up looking like, ten or twelve years later, when they achieve a black belt. I might assume a particular “style” of play based on their size or athleticism, but, more often than not, I’ll be surprised. I’ve seen short stocky people who became phenomenal guard players, and tall skinny people who ended up wrestling and playing for top; the evolution like process that occurs from the selection pressures that arise on the mat with alive training and rolling is always smarter than I am. Never let a coach tell you how you “should” play – learn it all, and let the your opponents on the mat, over time, teach you your body how it plays best.

The reverse is also true. When a coach begins to teach his or her own personal “style”, rather than sticking to the core fundamentals of the delivery system itself, it is akin to inbreeding within biology.

This is the mistake the “Original” JKD people made. They were trying to fight the way a 130lb man who died in 1973 fought – trying to replicate Bruce Lee. If Bruce Lee could fight well, then, like all modern MMA fighters alive today, he would have had a unique individualized style that made use of functional delivery systems – and it’s the delivery systems, and their pedagogy for training, Aliveness, that the Original JKD teachers should have focused on, not one individuals application of them. Said plainly, they missed all the glory of the heavenly bodies because they were too busy staring at a finger.

This brings us back to our JKD endorsed fallacy: In that case, isn’t it all just up to the individual? There are no superior delivery systems are there?

I hope you can see the flaw in their reasoning now. There is a proper way to perform a rear naked choke that will allow you to achieve the desired results as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is simply a reality. Likewise, there is a proper (best) way to throw a right cross. There may be many variations in how it is thrown. This is ‘style’ specific, and every boxer will have his own, but the fundamental body mechanics, the rotation of the hips, the transmission of power from the ground through the body into the target, that’s based on the laws of physics, and that is the delivery system. Whether people choose to acknowledge that reality does not change the truism. Everyone who teaches functional ground fighting these days, meaning every MMA coach on Earth, is incorporating the guard, the mount, etc. They may call it Submission Wrestling, but it’s the same delivery system. Since the Brazilians brought that delivery system to prominence, and since so much of it was perfected by men like Rickson, I feel it’s important to give them credit. But, ultimately, the name is not what matters most; the reality that the delivery system is backed by principles of leverage and timing, and works against resisting opponents; that is what matters.

Delivery systems can be tested. And that testing has been done.

At this stage it’s obvious what works and what does not. MMA has proven the boxing, wrestling, and BJJ delivery systems to be of great value. So that’s what all skilled MMA fighters choose to do. Someone trained in Silat, or Wing Chun, or Aikido, or Systema, without that background in the functional delivery systems mentioned above (kickboxing, wrestling, BJJ), would be unable to compete in MMA. They cannot defend themselves against modern MMA fighters. Instead of a sport, it would become a beating.

However, as we’ve seen, that doesn’t mean all MMA fighters look and fight the same way. Spend some time watching the UFC. Of course, you’ll see many common threads in their movement – again, that’s the delivery systems at work. But you’ll also see tremendous variation – that’s their individual style in action.

Each fighter naturally develops that style, as they practice, drill, spar, and fight.

Take away that opponent process, and you also remove that ‘style creating process’. You’ll be back to a sclerotic tradition – a dead pattern.

Why?

Because it is not a matter of taking different pieces from different arts, (the JKD Concepts method), or learning an imitating someone else’s style, (the Original method); rather, it is a matter of learning the fundamentals of the delivery systems, and then training alive.

That process is the real JKD.

A style IS: an individual’s personal method of application of a given set of delivery systems, as developed, over time, through the opponent process.

A style IS NOT: a fixed series of patterns or beliefs, passed down from Guru to pupil.

There is no shortcut. No hack. No secret words, obscure forms, or magical Gurus that can bypass the work, sweat, and effort.

You have to EARN your style.

Helping people earn their style is what JKD should have been – and what SBG is.

Three Suicides

It was my mother in laws birthday. She took her own life just a few weeks before my wife was set to move to the states with me. And it reminded me of another, much older event.

When I was 15 years old I made a phone call. The summer had come and gone, and my loyal and trusted friend, Vernon King, had not yet returned. He had gone off to camp for the summer, and should have been home weeks earlier. I’d yet to hear from him. School was about to start. Still no word, I called his mom to check up. His sister answered. She was older and had already graduated.

“Is Vernon there”, I asked.

“Vernon’s dead”, she said.

Shamefully, idiotically, I did not believe her. In anger, I hung up.

She called back sometime later, and explained.

This was more than 34 years ago. I don’t remember my words, but I don’t believe I cried. Some days later I remember struggling to carry his coffin. The other pallbearers, all shorter, had me holding one corner of the casket higher than the rest. The dead are heavy.

We laid the coffin to rest, and his extensive family, filled with aunts and grandmothers, began screaming, wailing, and clawing at the open grave. I chose that moment to wander off. Up a hill at the center of the cemetery, I found an office where I called my father for a ride home.

Weeks past. I went back to school. I found myself on the receiving end of a lot of people’s sympathy. I still felt numb, and at no point did I cry. As I watched the reactions of others I began to question myself. Why wasn’t I responding that way?

One evening, after more time had passed, I was busy in my room ignoring whatever it was my father had asked me to do. Mad at my indifference, or the fact that I was probably smarting off (I don’t remember which), he came barging in. Angry, I lashed out, yelling something stupid and insulting. I remember him looking at me from the doorway, first with impatience, and then with something else. I was frozen motionless, sitting on the bed.

He sat down next to me, and hugged me. And at that moment I broke down. I cried for a long time.

I haven’t seen anywhere near the amount of death some have. But I’ve seen enough to know that people react differently to it. For me, there is no rational space for judgment when it comes to the variety of ways human beings grieve. Death is one of the ultimate shocks.

Last month I sat at one of my favorite outdoor restaurants in Portland. It was a beautiful, warm day. Summer had shown its face. It was also my deceased mother in law’s birthday. I met her once, when visiting my wife to be, Salome, in Iceland. I liked her. A few months later, just weeks before Salome’s ticketed date for arrival in the United States, she took her own life.

I was an intimate observer as to the effect that decision had on the woman I love. I know that like Vernon, that day he set about walking the Golden Gate bridge, looking for his spot to jump – rationality had nothing to do with it. But that knowledge doesn’t change the consequences of the action.

It’s misleading to say brain chemistry is a powerful thing. It’s closer to say brain chemistry is perhaps the most powerful thing. Brain chemistry can bring the strongest man to his knees in an instant. It can render anyone out of control. And even for those who hold onto a world view where individual free-will remains a thing, one solid dose of hallucinogenic helps elucidate the absolute power brain chemistry and its associated functions have, on the world we see ourselves inhabiting.

Over the last decade, as her mother’s birthdays have arrived, we’ve tried to turn them into something better. Salome’s sought to use those days as a time to celebrate her mother’s life, and to let our daughters in on a little bit of the goodness that her mother surely owned. That was our goal on this last birthday, as we sat outside at one of our favorite people watching restaurants, with our youngest daughter, Una. We were hoping to let a little darkness out, and bring a little light in, all the while making new, good, happy memories for our four year old.

As we sat there, seeing the sights, I noticed someone walking frantically across the street. This someone was in fact, my oldest friend. I’ve known him for decades. He was a best man at my wedding. He was the first person to ever give me a hallucinogenic. He is a good man. It took a fraction of a second more to realize he was in distress. Moving rapidly, he stopped directly across from us. After a heated conversation with someone else, he turned and looked in our direction. He began jay walking across the very busy four-lane road, demanding cars stop for him with the use of a defiant outstretched arm, as some do when they are either unbalanced, stupid, or have just been in an accident.

On most days I would have rushed across the street to greet him. On most days I would have engaged him. But that day was my wife’s mother’s birthday. That day I was with my 4 year old. That day I was trying to keep it all okay. That day I watched.

He reached the sidewalk on our side, just a few feet from where we sat, but he didn’t see us. He turned and began walking away. Out of instinct and concern, my wife called out his name.

My old friend, now realizing we were there, walked back and stood next to our table. No words left his mouth, no “hi”, no pleasant exchanges. It took me longer than it should have to realize he was in shock.

“Sit down”, I said. “Tell me what’s going on.”

I’ve known the man for a very long time, but I’ve never seen him look the way he did in that moment.

“I just found her”, he said.

He began to explain how, just a couple hours before, he discovered his girlfriend, the love of his life, the woman he had planned to propose to, dead, in the house they shared. She had taken her own life. He found her hanging. He cut her down. He called 911. He attempted CPR. But she had been dead for too long.

I had nothing to offer. No words came to me. As I was searching for something, anything to say, he stood up and left with the person he’d been in conversation with across the street. “I have to go get my things”, he said.

What are the odds? His girlfriend’s manner of death that morning wasn’t similar to my mother in laws. It was identical. I know that what some call synchronicity is more often than not one form or another of selection bias. We are pattern-seeking mammals. And I too find myself tuning out, and throwing up in my mouth, every time someone spouts the ever trite – everything happens for a reason. Tell that to the parents of a child dying of cancer, I think, as I immediately attempt to remove myself from said person’s range of communication. But, of all the days to run into my friend, that one, of all the places to run into my friend, that one, of all the ways people die – that one?

As he walked away, I turned my attention to my wife.

The statistical rarity of the event provided a buffer for Salome, who is every bit the skeptic and realist that I am. How could she, like me, not wonder, at least for a moment, at the coincidence of events? I watched her mind turn from her own loss, to our friends, whom she’d also known since she had moved to Portland ten years previously.

It’s been almost two months now, and I talk to my friend frequently, always through text, never in person. His choice. He says he’s embarrassed to see anyone who knows him. He blames himself for her death. Her family, her children, blame him too. He was in the house when it happened. In another room, ignoring her after an argument.

There is of course the suicide of those terminally ill; people in pain, slowly dying, people who choose their own time. It’s impossible to judge someone like that, if you’ve seen what a disease can do. But there is also the suicide of Vernon, of my friend’s girlfriend, and of my mother in law. That kind of suicide is never rational. That kind of suicide is always insane. I tell myself that no one able to see past a temporary moment would choose a permanent conclusion; that no one capable of seeing the pain suicide creates in those still living, would ‘choose’ to end their own life. Yet it happens.

Heartache. Irrational thought. Confusion. Depression. Mental illness. Brain chemistry. We can describe the symptom or we can describe the cause, but what we cannot do is blame someone else for the kind of suicide Vernon chose.

Human beings find uncertainty uncomfortable. X caused Y, brings comfort. Y happens and we don’t know why, anxiety. But we must resist the urge to judge those still living for the actions of those now dead. Because something is comforting doesn’t mean it is correct. And there is no time where we are more apt to draw inaccurate conclusions, and engage in hurtful, unproductive behavior, than when we are angry and in pain – no time.

There’s been more suicide recently – some unmentioned in this essay. More death. More blame. I’ve been disappointed by the blame. I too am far too quick to judge. It’s a habit I previously did mindlessly, habitually, and without much self-awareness. It’s a habit I’ve fought against by taking the path recommended by Marcus Aurelius. Be lenient with others and strict with yourself, he said. Easier said than done, so I remind myself daily. I have to.

There are still places where judgment is essential. When people continue to display the same abusive behaviors, those behaviors, brain chemistry driven or not, and in the end it’s all brain chemistry driven, become something we call ‘character’ – and only a degenerate or a fool allows people with low moral character around themselves, or those they love. Add to that the dangerous, the abusive, those who demean or emotionally target the weak, those who exploit children, those without shame and therefore without dignity, and the kind of parents who tear down rather than build up their own offspring – and there is still plenty for me to keep away from those I am charged with protecting. But suicide – with all the pain it inflicts on those still alive, suicide, in almost every case, is something we can only blame on those who perform it. And even then, we find ourselves left denouncing only the dead. In time we realize that the dead too, were not in right mind when they ‘choose’ death – and then, who is left to condemn?

I have no solution. I hug my children everyday. I hold my wife. I call and write my close friends. I want them to know I am here. I want them to know they can talk to me. But that’s all I’ve got. Because suicide happens, and blame after the fact just isn’t rational. We need to love and help the living. It’s all any of us have.