It’s Aliveness – Still


Twenty-five years ago I started talking about Aliveness. Five years later I filmed a set of videos explaining Aliveness. And as much as I’d like to move on to different topics, I’ve been reminded all too often over the last two decades that it’s still about – Aliveness.

Recently some baffled Jiu-Jitsu students sent me a video.

I invite you to watch it in its entirety before reading the rest of this essay below.

Note: within a few hours of this essay being published, the video in question was removed. However, this one features the same Instructor. 

The athletes who sent me this weren’t perplexed by the absurdity of the demonstration – Martial Arts make believe has been around as long as Martial Arts have. This kind of stuff is easy to find. No, what had these guys confused, were a few, well known, well-respected Martial Artists, who were endorsing the guy you see demonstrating in this video, a “Systema” instructor named Martin Wheeler.

Systema, which means, “the system”, is a current fad in Martial Arts woo-woo. It has all the flash needed to attract magic bullet seekers, levers, pressure points, and the kind of back-story that nourishes wish thinking – in Systema’s case, secret methods developed by Russian Special Forces “Spetsnaz”. If you add in some tactical pants and a little bit of new age quackery, you have everything you need to capitalize on the credulous.

None of this is remotely surprising. What seemed surprising to some, is who we now see endorsing it.

To begin with, we have Dan Inosanto, who is training with Martin Wheeler.

There are three common reactions I’ve heard when people see a man like Dan Inosanto, endorsing a method like Systema.

The first is that Dan must be onto something. The second is both the most common, as well as the most cynical option I’ve run into – that it’s all about money. And the third is that anyone who falls for this sort of thing just can’t be that bright. If what we are after is the truth, we must hold open the possibility that any of those options, and maybe a few we haven’t thought of yet, might be accurate.

I’ll address each.

Do I think Martin Wheeler, in the footage we see above of Systema on the ground, might be onto something functional for hand-to-hand combat?

No, of course not.

That no, is based on more than the self-evident bullshit we witness in that video. Always remember that fighting, and by extension, fighting methods/training epistemologies, are empirically testable things. Any competent blue belt who wasn’t a cooperating stooge, but instead acting as the one thing every functional system needs as a correcting mechanism – a resisting opponent – would prove, repeatedly, that what you’re witnessing in the video above was little more than delusion made physical. And repeated experiments of many different sorts could verify these conclusions.

You don’t have to beat up someone to prove something doesn’t work. If a boxer knocks out a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu practicioner, does that mean Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is nonsense? Of course not, a sample of one says little, and different delivery systems have different areas of expertise. However, those areas of claimed proficiency can be tested, and those tests can be repeated, safely, humanely, and without anyone getting seriously hurt (beyond perhaps, their pride).

So if we settle on the fact that we are looking at the Martial Arts equivalent of Scientology, then it must just be about the money, right? Why else would a man like Dan Inosanto, who trained with Bruce Lee, studied boxing and Muay Thai, and has a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu through the Machados (Rigan Machado has also given an endorsement to Wheeler), recommend this sort of thing?

While always possible, I find this view way too cynical, and like most knee-jerk cynicism, also a bit naive. I don’t think Dan Inosanto is taking lessons with the man because he’s making money endorsing him. If anything, the money is likely flowing the other way. People paid L. Ron Hubbard for the secrets to the universe, he didn’t pay them.

Which leaves us with what seems to be the obvious, final option – people who buy into this sort of Martial Arts superstition, like people who spend tens of thousands on Scientology, must be a bit dim. But that proposition, that superstition requires stupidity, is little more than faulty logic.

I don’t think Mitt Romney is stupid. In fact, I think he’s an extremely intelligent man. However, as a Mormon (and we have every reason to believe he’s sincere in his faith), Mitt Romney also believes in a creator God who lives on a planet (or near a star) named Kolob.

Uri Geller was very obviously, a shitty con man and magician. Yet he had physicists, research institutes, and heads of state believing he had “psychic powers”. That is, until he was exposed by the people qualified to expose him, other magicians (the Amazing Randi), on the Johnny Carson show.

Is it so hard to think that someone could have years of experience with functional Martial Arts, and still be taken in by some well-spoken huckster who uses the Martial Arts equivalent of carnival tricks?

One of the reasons I continue to talk about Aliveness is because you don’t have to be dumb to fall for Martial Arts delusion; you just have to have one or more of the two following afflictions – a lack of understanding as to what Aliveness actually is, and or, a desire to believe. The first I can help fix. The second I cannot.

Some people really want a magic bullet. Like a combination of Don Quixote and Ponce de Leon, they engage in a quixotic pursuit that by its very nature ensures them endless adventures in the art of imaginary dragon battling.

The creation of a magic bullet is also, pretty simple. Simple enough for any L Ron Hubbard type to whip a new one up every few years or so. Does it look a lot like what we know works, you know boxing, wrestling, Judo, Muay Thai, Jiu-Jitsu, MMA? Because if it does, it wont attract the magic bullet seekers. It has to look different. It has to look like a part of the map that was some how hidden when Google earth set about cataloging the ground the fountain of youth was said to rest on. This is why, inevitably, whether it’s Aikido, Pentjak Silat, or Systema, it only works when the demonstration dummy pretends to attack, using movement that is less reminiscent of a Mixed Martial Arts athlete, and more reminiscent of a baby deer perpetually tripping over itself as it takes its first steps. Blend in a few old tropes about using your enemies force against them, the motion of waves, misunderstood physics, internal energy, and above all else a little new age pseudo-philosophy that’s never any less obfuscated than your usual bigfoot photo, and you have everything you need to waste an athletes time.

I once listened to a lecture given by a mentalist. A mentalist is a type of magician that specializes in appearing “psychic”. The good ones can be impressive. The bad ones look a lot like Uri Geller. But the difference between an ethical one and an asshole is simple. The ethical ones let you know it’s a trick – they don’t pretend to actually be psychic. It’s in the pretending, the lying, that the immorality of the whole thing creeps in.

He began the talk by doing an impressive demonstration of mind reading on some audience members. Once he had a few folks wondering whether he actually had some paranormal powers, he revealed his trick; a beautiful public service, helping the more gullible in the group gain some tools for better critical thinking.

The more interesting part for me, was when he made a point of explaining that the method he revealed, the way he taught the audience to perform the trick (or con, depending on the integrity of the performer), was only one of many-many ways. But, he would only ever show the audience – one way. That, he explained, was very important to remember. Why? Because if he showed three methods of performing this “psychic feat”, members of the audience might think they actually know all the ways the trick could be done. Should they run across a performer who uses a 4th way, a way they hadn’t yet been taught, they might be arrogant enough to believe that actor must actually have magical powers. After all, they know how to fake it, and none of those methods were used.

There are some profound lessons there. Lessons all of us need to remember. If you want to be believe you can always be fooled. If you want a magic bullet there will always be someone who will sell you one. And if you’re arrogant enough to believe that your failure of imagination is an insight into necessity – then you too may end up falling for the absurd. Hubris and nescience frequently come as a team.

When people find themselves duped by the kind of fantasy based Martial Arts we see on display in the Systema video, I don’t assume they’re greedy, or stupid. I assume I haven’t done my job well enough yet. I haven’t explained Aliveness clearly enough yet. And I try again.

Aliveness is Timing – Energy – Motion.

It takes all three, timing, energy, and motion, for a drill to be Alive.

Remember that – all three.

There was a comment on a thread where this video was being discussed that said:

“If it is always slow motion it’s sad. If it’s fast and chaotic, it’s okay”

That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of Aliveness. Similar to when I hear some Instructors say “Aliveness is just sparring” – I know they still don’t get it.

My response was:

It’s not about the speed of the movement. It’s about the Alive opponent. Bullshit sped up, is still bullshit.

Anyone whose ever had a slow roll in BJJ, knows that training Alive, and training hard and or fast, are not necessarily synonymous. Again, it’s timing, energy, and motion.

A choreographed assault followed by a planned fall, such as you see in Aikido, lacks timing, energy and motion. The assault is predictable. A realistic energy, as in a resistance, is non-existent, and the movement is, like the rest, contrived. Aikido is the art of make believe – which is why, while it promises to deliver on the kinds of things proper Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training can give you, leverage to overcome strength, technique to overcome power, timing to overcome speed – it can never deliver on those promises. It can only pretend to – thereby ensuring they are never achieved.

Kali/Escrima is also filled with dead patterns. The choreographed and memorized two-partner dance eliminates timing. The energy is often contrived, with the attacker stopping his swing mid-stroke to accommodate his partner, and the movement, the footwork, that too is often silly.

When I began JKD training in the very early 90’s, the Martial Arts woo-woo that was all the rage was Pentjak Silat. Lauded by Dan Inosanto as one of the worlds most “dangerous” arts, magic-bullet-seekers everywhere began wearing sarongs and practicing katas (in Silat katas are called “djurus”) that made the most rigid of karate forms seems realistic by comparison. While the mentally and physically stronger students gravitated towards the recently introduced art of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, and later, its offshoot, Mixed Martial Arts – the more frail and gullible members of the JKD world (in other words the ones who needed Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and MMA the most), were still wasting time clicking sticks together and practicing Djurus in the mirror.

All these arts have something essential to their operation in common. They require cooperating dummies to work. And cooperating dummies are always, by definition, missing at least one of three qualities – timing, energy (resistance), or motion.

Pentjak Silat operated on the simplest of Fantasy Based platforms – the step forward lunge punch and freeze system. Make a fist, lunge forward, freeze in place, and then let the defender do some snappy looking strike followed by some neat little foot sweep. And if you’re really going all out, add in a pretend joint break and angry face at the end, just for good measure.

Dan Inosanto came to my school many years ago. One of my friends, John Daniels, hosted a seminar for him, and I allowed John to use my facility. I like Dan, I always have. But when it comes to Martial Arts, my allegiance has been, and always will be, to the truth. This isn’t about criticizing people, this is about improving methods. Those taken in by bullshit Martial Arts tend to be the ones who need functional Martial Arts the most. If we want to help those people, we have to be honest.

When Dan came to teach the seminar, I had one very large sign placed on the wall behind where he demonstrated. It said simply:

Watch the feeder, not the demonstrator.”

Sometimes that’s enough.

Systema ‘appears’ at first glance anyway, to have taken out the dead pattern. Part of its shtick, is that it’s “spontaneous”. But remember, you need all three qualities for something to be Alive – timing, energy, and motion. Dancing can have spontaneous timing and motion, but it isn’t fighting. The energy/resistance of a credible attack, isn’t there. And that’s part of why what you see in the Systema video above is nonsense. Does anyone really believe that if Chris Haueter was asked to grab Martin Wheeler, or attempt to hold him down, he’d stumble over himself and fall the way Martin’s partner does in that video?

Please don’t get me wrong the reason Chris would avoid tripping over himself like that is not because he’s so good at Jiu-Jitsu, though that’s certainly true – he wouldn’t be tripping over himself like that because he has too much integrity.

So what’s the harm, folks say. Doesn’t something like Systema at least get people exercising, moving, what’s wrong with that? And yes, if the only option in life were a binary choice of couch potato slothdom – or movement, then they’d have a point. But life doesn’t work that way. Life is short. Time is precious. And truth always matters.

So why do I care? I care because at their worst, fantasy based Martial Arts like Systema are dangerous. And at their best fantasy based Martial Arts like Systema are impoverishing. Dangerous because they pretend to teach people how to deal with things like guns, knives, and violent attackers. And impoverishing because they waste peoples time giving them make believe answers where proven solutions exist.

Who are they most dangerous and most impoverishing for? Those who need help the most – the weak. I’m not worried that the Jocko Willinks of the world will be taken in by Martin Wheeler’s Systema secrets. But that chubby guy who keeps falling over himself as he haplessly pretends to get a grip on Wheeler, he will be.

And that’s why the message is Aliveness – still.

Women in BJJ – May 2017’s Video Podcast

Taken as a whole, women are more coachable than men. And in what we do and in how we do it, more coachable means better – faster. 

I’ve taught BJJ full time for 25 years now. I’ve been a black belt for 16. I’ve been privileged to award 15 of my own black belts, many of whom who’ve gone on to accomplish some pretty spectacular things within our sport. I feel pretty comfortable saying I know what I’m doing. And when I hear the occasional disparaging comment, or read the occasional poorly written diatribe regarding women in our art, I know immediately that the person speaking doesn’t really understand Jiu-Jitsu.

I’ve written before about keeping our daughters safe – The ABC’s of Keeping Our Daughters Safe (part 1), (part 2)  and (part 3) – but the benefits of BJJ for women of all ages extends way beyond personal safety. That’s why it’s so important for of us, as coaches, to remove any barriers to participation that we can.

It is easy to make strong people stronger. People who are strong mentally, emotionally, and physically, regardless of gender, are not hard to help. And, by definition, they are also the people who need our art the least.

To take folks who may not be strong, who may have never perceived of themselves as strong, who, for their whole life thus far, have never known what it means to walk the earth and feel strong – and to help them realize their strength – that, more than anything else I’ve done as a coach, feels good.

To bring our art to those who need it the most should be one our most important mandates.

There are women who can walk into a co-ed class and stick through all the hard lessons required for mastery in Jiu-Jitsu. But there are also a lot of really good women who don’t yet realize that they too could do such a thing. Having smart, kind coaches, and women’s only classes, helps open a door to those women. I want as many of those doors open as possible.

I’ve written about the importance of community – The Necessity of Tribe. And that extraordinary side effect of Jiu-Jitsu, the joy of connection we feel as social primates, is just as important for women as it is for men. That’s something my wife, Salome, noticed. And that’s one of reasons she decided to start the yearly, SBG women’s camp. To gather, learn, socialize, connect, grow – it is a beautiful thing we should all support.

With that said, our next ladies camp will be June 9th, 10th & 11th. You’ll find the poster and sign up info located just under this month’s video.

It’s open to all women, SBG or otherwise. And I promise, you’ll have a great time.

When I think about my daughters future, one of the things that brings me a lot of joy is knowing how many Strong, Brave, and Genuine women they will have around as examples; many of whom our featured here, in our SBG video podcast of the month.

The Women of BJJ. 

Warriors and role models, one and all – SBG

To Register for Ladies Camp, click HERE