Heaven and Hell on the Night Train

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Good dramatic title, isn’t it?

One of my favourite zen tales is the story of the badass samurai looking for a little wisdom. He came across a priest, and asked this priest about heaven and hell. The priest started to swear at the warrior, belittling him. The warrior grew angry, and reached for his sword. The priest looked that the warrior as the sword started to come out of the scabbard, and said “Now you enter the gates of hell.” The warrior froze up, realization dawning. He slid the sword back into the scabbard. “And now you enter the gates of heaven.” Good wisdom there, and a deeper lesson than you think for martial artists.

Class last night was one of those rare and special moments. We’ve wrapped up two lengthy training phases, and as such the week had been designated for rest. No formal class plans, no workout. The only rule for class was to do things different than usual for a night. It was in my mind to take the opportunity to do some scenario work.

Scenario work is something unfortunately rare in martial arts circles, and for good reason. It’s extremely difficult to do well. It takes a serious bit of training to set up and monitor what’s happening, and even more training to deal with the consequences of the experience. It’s not for amateurs. I was fortunate to have been trained to teach this way by Frank Evans at Saint Paul’s Hospital, when I was hired to teach his program for hospital Emergency Response Teams.

We have access to proper simulation suits, but I elected not to use them last night. I wanted my students to go through some of the mental rigours of the scenarios I had in mind, but I wasn’t concerned with correct physical performance and thus had less safety worries.

I split the class into two groups, cops and robbers. Each group got instructions on how to act. The bad guys were given roles to act out, and certain cues to do certain things. The good guys were given a task they had to accomplish, and some severely limited rules of engagement. In the first case, I gave them task of being security guards dealing with shoplifters. The second task, bouncers having to remove a violent boyfriend. I told them they only had the lowest level of security licensing certification, and were thus limited by not being able to use any strikes or submission holds…only verbal intervention and come-along holds.

Those of you who’ve worked in the field can guess how it went. We followed up with a half hour debrief, and I let everyone talk out the adrenaline. We talked about the difficulties in giving yourself permission to act. About how hard it is to lead, and how strange and hollow it is when you find yourself taking lead and actually acting.

We talked about how it felt to be a trained martial artist with a wealth of technique you can use at will in training, sparring or fighting, but when put into a “real world” situation, suddenly feeling that bucket empty. We talked about why police and military train with a very limited set of techniques, and have to undergo so much more training everytime they need to add even one more tool or technique.

I talked about the value of getting therapy or counselling to find your own personal hang-ups, your own triggers or barriers. I still think the most valuable tool for self-defense anyone can get is some very, very good counselling.

Mostly, though, I talked about how people escalate from calm to violent in the five stages Frank Evans taught me. From Calm, to Anxious, to Angry, to Aggressive, to Violent/Assaultive. I talked about how the goal of intervention was to reduce a person by one step at a time. At all stages except the last, it was a verbal intervention. I didn’t teach the specific tools to intervene at each level, because a Justice Institute instructor borrowed my handbook with all my notes a few years ago and never returned it. Sigh.

It was a good class, and I walked away being very impressed with everyone. They handled themselves well in a difficult situation. Everyone found shortcomings in themselves, and confronted that head on. I’ve got some plans for future training, perhaps some advanced version of the 5×5 drill. Good class. Then we head home.

The synchronicity of the universe can sometimes make you just shake your head in wonder.

My wife and her sister, both students in the class, are sitting in a seat on the train. I’m standing in the aisle, talking to them about class. Someone bumps into my backpack. It’s not much, but it’s enough to wake up the lizard in the back of my head.  Something is a bit wrong. I keep talking, but I watch the new couple on the train move up to the end of the car.

Their movement is off, in the way that I recognize. Drug or alcohol substance abuse seems to cause a bit of disassociation with ones own body and surroundings, at a certain stage of chronic use. I flag them for attention, but not as threats. Just a bit of background that’s worthy of more notice than others. I make eye contact with my wife and sister in law, to see and communicate that we should be a bit more aware than normal. I’m not worried at this point.

That doesn’t last. I’m not sure what happened. Some small interaction goes wrong. The subvocal anxiety of the couple becomes open as she starts to try to interact with another passenger. A passenger who tries to ignore her. At this point, I start to think about pushing the yellow “Assistance needed” strip on the train, because all my alarms are going off now. It’s clearly a volatile situation. For the moment, it’s just cruising along, and can go any direction.

Yes, I’m skipping a lot of details. Suffice to say, to my unbelieving eyes, I am watching the very pattern I described unfold in front of my eyes. The woman goes from anxiety to anger, yelling and upset, but general and not focused. Very clear signs that she’s started on an emotional spiral, and not able to control herself. I can’t get to the yellow strip. No one else moves.

She goes from anger to aggression. Now she’s swearing at the passenger, and leaning in. There is a threat. Clear as a bell, I see what will happen next. Violence is imminent. I duck past the other passengers and push the red emergency intercom button. I now know I have backup. I have my wife and sister in law to watch my back. I take one more assessment and see that the woman is about to strike…

And I whistle. I yell for her attention. I make sure all that attention is now focused on me and not the other passenger. “Come here.” I say. She starts to come at me, angry…very angry…but I make eye contact. I’m able to judge what I see. Anger and the need to lash out, but it’s driven by a lot of fear. I can deal with this. I’m tense and ready to react. She’s a small woman and not in good condition. Physically she can’t hurt me, but a life of fear often means weapons, and as my students tell me all the time, I can be physically intimidating.

I’m physically and mentally prepared to protect myself, so now I can intervene even farther. As she comes into striking range, full of anger, I say, very quietly “It’s just a really bad night, isn’t it?” She’s confused, but still angry. She’s leaning forward, shoulders hunched, and I can see her eyes flicking back and forth. Fight or flight. She can’t run, but she’s not sure whether or not she should strike me. I use the confusion, and reach out and gently touch her arm. Boom. Just like that I can see her notch down. We start to talk. I commiserate with her. Yes, the passenger is a rude jerk, and how dare they treat you like that. She calms right down. She’s at anger now.

The train stops. Like a flash, her co-dependent boyfriend hauls her off the train as the skytrain attendant comes on. I can hear her yelling all the way down the stairs and she leaves the station. Things wrap up and we move on.

It’s hard not to laugh. You describe a situation and how to react to it, and then it happens in real life right after? Crazy.

It was a powerful reminder for me. I’ve avoided teaching self-defense for a long time, as I really feel most self-defense training is just such crap. So many self-important idiots rattling on about “the Street!” and their neat little solutions and handy techniques. So many people teaching with so much self-professed knowledge about something they’ve never experienced. There does seem to be an expectation that self-defense classes should be short and simple, as well. Lots of problems in the field. It’s left a bad taste in my mouth.

I suppose it’s time I started to put some work in, and see what I can come up with.

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