As a martial artist, and a Kenpo practitioner in particular, I have understood from the moment my training commenced that fighting is wrong. Humans were never meant to be pitted against each other: robbing and cheating, hurting and humiliating, striking out at one another until bruises form and blood pools. Killing each other...it goes against humanity - or at least the quality of being humane; which I equate with being human.
Fighting is wrong. But sometimes, it’s necessary.
It’s necessary because, despite the fact that we shouldn’t hurt each other, we do. Children shouldn’t be kidnapped. Women shouldn’t be raped. Men shouldn’t be drafted to die in wars that shouldn’t be happening in the first place. But they are.
Fighting is wrong, but sometimes it is necessary, and if I need to fight, I’m going to do it well. I’m going to fight as instinctively as I blink, as competently as I walk, as confidently as I know my name. I’m going to study and practice and learn, and, in doing so, I’m going to know how to avoid the fight in the first place. (The Creed of the Kenpo School, n.d.)
As a student of FILKENJUTSU, I pledge to fight “only if attacked or provoked by what I recognize to be a real threat,” but I hope to resolve every confrontation in a non-violent way and only after I’ve exhausted every effort to avoid the confrontation in the first place (Corrigan, B., n.d.). Kenpo is not a weapon - it’s a secret. And winning is not my goal - peace is (The Kenpo Creed, n.d.). But at the end of the day, “survival is my main objective,” and I will do whatever is necessary to protect myself and my family (Corrigan, B., n.d.).
When faced with a potentially dangerous confrontation, avoiding violence would obviously be the best case scenario, but how do we do that? The man who brought Kenpo to the United States, Grandmaster James Mitose, laid out some steps for us to follow in his book, What is Self Defense? (Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu).
When discussing Go Shinjutsu (the art of self-defense), Mitose advised practitioners to steer clear of trouble, to examine conscience before acting out of anger, to decide never to use fists in public unless it’s inescapable, and, in those cases, “exert every effort to defend yourself and others.” (Mitose, 1981)
So how can we steer clear of trouble?
In my opinion, this is a two-part answer: through awareness AND by walking the fine line that blends confidence with humility.
I shouldn’t have to worry about walking home alone at night or accepting a drink from a friendly acquaintance at a bar, but the reality of the world I live in is that, at the very least, I will have to ignore cat callers on that walk home and dump that free drink into the potted Ficus in the corner because it might be laced with a date rape drug.
Before I continue, let me state this very clearly: it is never a woman’s fault when she is attacked. I don’t care how short her dress is or how friendly her smile is - at the end of the day, men should and do have the ability to NOT rape women. But since one in five women will be raped in their lifetime (CDC, 2012), I follow a few easy, and non-violent, tips to proactively protect myself - or steer clear of trouble.
In In Search of Kenpo (1984), Mitose writes that “awareness is the essence of Kenpo,” and I believe it is also the essence of self-defense. So my first step in trying to avoid a fight is to be aware - of my surroundings, of the people around me, of any circumstance that could affect me.
I pay attention to where I am. Am I inside or outside? How is the lighting? Is it public or sheltered? What is the fastest route to safety in the event of an emergency or altercation?
I pay attention to people in the area. Is that person following me? Why is that person approaching me? Why did that person park their van next to my car in an otherwise empty lot? That person is acting erratic - be cautious. That person has been drinking - be mindful of that.
I also pay attention to what I’m doing. I don’t want to appear to be an easy target. When I’m walking to my car, I make sure I already have my keys in hand so I don’t appear distracted by digging for them in my purse and so I can get into my car quickly. It’s also a good idea to keep your finger on the panic button. In the event you are attacked, the alarm will draw attention to you - and attention is something criminals want to avoid.
The last thing I’m conscious of is what I’m wearing. Hear me out before you get offended - I stand by what I said earlier. It should never matter what a woman chooses to wear; clothing is not consent, but if I’m unable to avoid the fight, I like to know that my footwear won’t impede me from surviving. Obviously, wearing close-toed shoes with a thick sole would allow for a more damaging kick should I need to use them as a tool to defend myself, but my biggest concern is making sure I feel confident running in whatever I have on my feet. When it comes to fight or flight, flight is the best option!
Speaking of confidence, that’s the final piece of attire I don. I never want to appear timid to passersby. I make eye contact with people as they pass or approach so there can be no doubt in their minds that I see them. I make my boundaries clear. If someone is approaching, and I feel unsafe in any way, I tell them plainly to stop. If they need directions, I can help them from a comfortable distance - the worse case in that scenario is that I feel embarrassed because they think I’m weird. If they have darker intentions, I’m already drawing attention to myself and signaling to my would-be attacker that I won’t be an easy mark. Never be ashamed to establish boundaries - whether with an acquaintance or a stranger. Like Sun Tzu (5th century BC/1910) said, “Invincibility lies in the defense.”
I’ve been speaking about awareness from a woman’s perspective, but it’s important for everyone - including children; confidence equally so. Carrying yourself with confidence is key, not only in identifying yourself as a poor choice for a victim but also in shutting down bullies. And shutting down bullies is an essential part of steering clear of trouble and avoiding a fight.
In Zen in the Martial Arts (1979), Joe Hyams describes a real-life situation he faced when he nearly caused a traffic accident, and the other driver was overcome with a case of road rage:
Accidents happen. They’re just a part of life. But when our accidents affect the lives of others, things can get tricky. We have the power to control how we react to “spilled milk,” but we can’t always control the reaction of the person we spilled the milk on.
The scenario above and the angry man’s reaction is quite common, especially among men. Whether over a fender bender or a perceived verbal slight, men often respond by posturing.
Sometimes posturing is a defense mechanism. The man wants to appear big, loud, and intimidating to ensure he maintains the upper hand in the situation. Other times, posturing is a form of bullying or a means to escalate trouble for the thrill of it.
Whatever the case, it is important to respond to posturing - and bullies - both cautiously and confidently, as Joe Hyams did. He addressed the man calmly, never allowing his tone to encourage the man’s rage. Though it was clear that Joe didn’t want the confrontation to end in a fight, he prepared for the need to defend himself from a physical altercation by putting space and an obstacle between him and his would-be attacker and staying guarded in his stance.
His stance not only prepared him to deflect or intercept an attack, but it also telegraphed to his opponent that he was prepared to fight if need be which gave the other man pause and took the edge off of his anger. It made the angry man question his next step. Did he really want to “teach Joe a lesson” if Joe wasn’t going to be a cowed target?
The other step Joe took to diffuse the situation was to accept responsibility for his mistake and apologize for it. It took a couple of tries, but eventually Joe’s humble acceptance of fault and his refusal to be argumentative took the wind out of the angry man’s sails.
Ed Parker once said (as cited in Hyams, 1979, p.132-3), “The only reason men fight is because they are insecure; one man needs to prove that he is better or stronger than another.” Joe’s expression of: ‘It was my fault. I’m sorry. I don’t want to fight you, but I will if you force it,’ defused the other man’s aggression. He, “balked the enemies power,” and “forced him to reveal himself (Tzu, 5th century BC/1910).” The angry man had nothing to prove after Joe accepted the blame.
It can be hard to humble yourself during emotionally charged or potentially dangerous situations, but sometimes it is necessary in order to avoid the fight or even just to survive it. Your pride is not worth your life. If all it takes is a simple apology to get out of a threatening situation, then by all means, apologize. If someone points a weapon at me and demands my wallet or purse, or even the shoes on my feet, you better believe I’m giving it to them. And by doing so, I’ll be steering clear of trouble - or at least not fanning the flames.
In a situation like that, depending on whether my mugger is armed and what his weapon of choice is, I might be capable of winning the physical confrontation and keeping my purse. Maybe he doesn’t appear to be armed, and I become so angry with him for having the audacity to take what’s mine, that I decide to fight back.
Maybe I overpower my attacker, subduing him and watching him get carted off to jail. Or maybe my attacker pulls out a gun from his waistband and shoots me. If the latter, I not only lost my purse, I lost my life.
Anger can be one of the hardest emotions to control. It makes us impulsive, almost unstable at times. We can’t think through problems the way we normally would, and as a result, it’s easy to end up doing something we regret. That’s why, during conflict, it’s important never to act violently in response to anger, only danger. With only a letter difference, how do we learn to identify the difference between anger and danger in regards to hostility? (Corrigan, D., personal communication, 2017)
Let’s look at an example:
If someone bumps into me in a crowded aisle of a grocery store, and I respond by shoving them back, did I act in response to anger or danger? I let my annoyance of the situation get the better of me. Instead of showing the stranger grace and striving for peace, I let the frustration of the noisy crowd and my exhaustion from shopping at the end of a long day guide my senses. I let an accidental or even an intentional, careless push be the straw that broke the camel’s back and I pushed back.
Now, if I had been the original pusher, and the person I shoved responded by pinning me up against the wall of canned beans and screaming at me, we’d be looking at a different situation. My reaction now would be in response to danger. I am being threatened and have a right and a desire to defend myself. The person’s angry response led us into dangerous territory.
So when facing an angry opponent, how do we avoid the battle? If possible, resort back to your posturing steps and try to diffuse the other man’s anger and make a safe exit. If, however, the situation continues to escalate and a physical altercation is eminent, the use of force is necessary. If avoidance is no longer possible, as per the rules of FILKENJUTSU (Corrigan, B., n.d.), “I will employ 100% force, commitment, attention, and single-minded purpose to defend myself, my family, and those in my charge.”
Pay attention to yourself and your opponent. Are they angry and posturing or have they become a danger to you or those with you? Is your response motivated by your temper or a threat? Avoidance is always our goal, but if the fight is unavoidable, it is imperative that you defend your life. “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight (Tzu, 5th century BC/1910).”
In order to examine a conflict clearly and to determine if fighting or avoidance is the best response, just like anger, you have to be able to see around your fear. Fear is not always a bad thing. In fact, it’s usually a response to something we perceive to be dangerous; our brains analyze the situation and tell our bodies we need to stay alive. Fear can increase your endurance, physical strength, and adrenaline - all in the name of survival. It’s a tool that helps keep us alive, but problems arise when we stop using fear as a tool and let it overtake us completely. As I mentioned earlier, when attempting to diffuse potentially violent situations, we have to remain calm. We cannot cower away from bullies.
My instructors often say, “Fear is False Evidence Appearing Real.” When we’re still in the avoidance phase of a confrontation, this idea is more important than ever. We aren’t in danger yet, and any fear we feel is in response to the perception or anticipation of danger. We’re balanced on the point of a knife. If we’re able to resolve the battle non-violently, we’ll fall back to the side of safety, but if the battle escalates into a fight, we tip over the edge into danger. We have a better chance of landing the outcome we hope for if we stay centered in the present moment, focused on dispersing tension instead of dwelling on what hazards could come if we fail.
So how do we learn to control our fear before it overtakes us? By making a friend of it. This concept, once again, leads us back to confidence. We have to develop confidence in our ability to handle our fears by growing familiar with them. This could be as simple as visualizing what scares us most or as heart racing as facing our fears in person. (Hyams, 1979)
And if our fear is that we will be physically attacked and forced to defend ourselves or loved ones, face it head on. Decide now that you are willing to fight for your life if it comes down to it. Think about what is important to you and what you are willing to do to protect it. I know that if I am threatened, not only will I be fighting for myself, I will be fighting to make it back to my family because they need me.
Fear has no place in a battle for survival - there’s no room for it. In a life or death situation, take advice from Bruce Lee, “Forget about winning and losing; forget about pride and pain. Let your opponent graze your skin and you smash into his flesh; let him smash into your flesh and you fracture his bones; let him fracture your bones and you take his life! Do not be concerned with escaping safely - lay your life before him!” I am willing to walk away from an attack bloody and broken as long as I walk away alive.
Luckily, it probably won’t come down to that! Our minds usually blow scenarios out of proportion. By visualizing our fears and how we plan to react to them, we can shrink them back to their proper size. Things are not usually as bad as we first imagine them to be. As our confidence in our abilities to overcome our fears grows, the possible outcomes - real or imagined - become easier to manage. (Hyams, 1979)
But what if, during the moment, we lose our control and negative thoughts, images, or fears fill our minds? Visualization can be as instrumental in getting us back on track here as it was in helping us overcome the thoughts in the first place. I like to imagine myself grabbing the stressful thoughts and clenching them in my fist until they’re ground into dust. Then I take a deep, fortifying breath, and as I exhale, I imagine blowing the dust away. If you find your mind filling with negative thoughts and “what-ifs” during a confrontation, seize them and destroy them before they have a chance to take hold. (Hyams, 1979)
Bottom line, you’ve heard the age old adage, “There’s nothing to fear, but fear itself.” As cliche as it sounds, it’s still very true. Don’t let fear hold you back. Don’t let it control you. Don’t let it make the decisions in your life. One of my favorite quotes about fear came in a commencement speech at Tulane University given by actress Dame Helen Mirren (2017). She said, “Don't be afraid of fear. Throw caution to the winds. Look fear straight in its ugly face and barge forward. And when you get past it, turn around and give it a good, swift kick in the ass."
My last piece of armor in avoiding the fight is what I have affectionately named “The 3 Itys.” Flexibility. Adaptability. And Ingenuity.
Be flexible and opportunistic. Being trained in the martial arts, I have equipped myself with the tools necessary to overcome an opponent both violently and non-violently, but often times the actual opportunity for success is provided by the opponent. I have to be prepared to alter my game plan to capitalize on my opponent’s weaknesses. “The opportunity to secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself (Tzu, 5th century BC/1910).”
Adaptability goes hand in hand with flexibility. One of Bruce Lee’s most famous quotes is about water and it’s ability to adapt to whatever container you put it into. It adjusts its game plan to deal with whatever environment it finds itself in, and wholly examines that space. It lets go of expectations to live in the present, and forgets the past immediately when it finds itself in a new and different space.
In our lives, we will face numerous conflicts. You can try to be hard and unmoving, determined to hammer at your problems until something breaks - them or you. Or, you can try to be like water. Go with the flow. When you encounter an obstacle, slip through it’s cracks and take possession. Just don’t forget, if you come across a situation where it is necessary to use force, water can crash too. Bottom line, don’t try to make your environment or problems adapt to you - adapt to, and overcome, them.
The final, and my personal favorite, “ity,” ingenuity, is all about outsmarting your opponent. Perhaps the best description of this comes from one of Bruce Lee’s better known movies, Enter the Dragon. In one particularly memorable scenes, Bruce Lee is on a ship out to sea when he’s approached by an arrogant martial arts practitioner that tauntingly asks what system Bruce Lee trains in. His response, “the art of fighting without fighting,” is met with disbelief, and the arrogant man demands Bruce Lee show him some of his art.
When Bruce Lee refuses and tries to peacefully leave, the arrogant man blocks his exit, posturing. Lee seemingly relents. He agrees to show the man if they take a small boat to an island close by as there isn’t enough room on the ship they’re on. The man agrees and proceeds to climb into a rickety, wooden dinghy at the side of the boat. Once he’s on it, Bruce Lee takes the line securing the dinghy to the ship and casts the man out to sea giving the line to another passenger with instructions for him to drop the line if the man tries to reel himself back in.
Bruce Lee eliminated the threat without violence - the best outcome you can hope for from a confrontation. That is the art of fighting without fighting.
So how do you break an enemy without fighting? First and foremost, it is my belief that you should study and train some form of martial arts. Knowledge is power, and the knowledge and skills I have acquired through my martial arts journey have instilled in me a physical and mental ability to defend myself and others, first by using my mind to avoid the battle, and finally, by using my physical ability to end a fight if avoidance alludes me.
The practice of Kenpo and Jiu Jitsu has also grown my confidence and self-esteem immeasurably, traits this paper has discussed in depth as contributing factors in the avoidance of battle.
Apart from the actual study of self-defense, you should learn how to steer clear of trouble by being aware of your surroundings and the possible threats you may find there. You should build both your confidence and ability to stand up to bullies and your manifestation of genuine humility when the situations warrants it. Never let your ego dictate your actions - your life is not worth your pride.
Learn to differentiate between a person’s inconsequential anger and the threat of danger as well as how to respond to both situations. Know how to control your own anger and the reactions it impulsively encourages.
Make a friend out of your fear. Get to know it. Get comfortable with it. Then barge through it and give it a kick in the ass on your way by.
Be flexible - change your game plan when necessary. Be adaptable - adjust to your environment. Be ingenious - outsmart your attacker.
Know when to walk away from a fight, and be happy to do so. Know when it is necessary to fight, and commit your entire self into surviving.
Know yourself and recognize that it is okay, wonderful even, to win by losing.
On a final note, I was reminded recently that even my masters have masters (Hyams, 1979). My chief instructor, SiFu David Corrigan, though an accomplished practitioner Jiu Jitsu, believes he pales in comparison to the legacy of his late teacher Professor Pedro Brandao Lacerda.
My stand up system, FILKENJUTSU, wouldn’t even exist if the founder, SiJo Bruce Corrigan, had not started his Kenpo journey under the tutelage of the late Professor Nick Cerio who left a gift behind in his quote, “To win the fight without fighting, that is the true goal of a martial artist.”
And I know from following the example of my masters and the masters who came before them that I want to be a true martial artist too.
Cerio, N. (n.d.). Personal Communication.
Corrigan, B. R. H. (n.d.). The FILKENJUTSU Manual.
Corrigan, D. R. (2017). Personal Communication.
Hyams, J. (1979). Zen In The Martial Arts. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
Lee, B. (1975). Tao of Jeet Kun Do. Santa Clarita, CA: Ohara Publications, Incorporated.
Mirren, H. (2017). Commencement Speech. New Orleans, LA: Tulane University.
Mitose, J. M. (1981). What is Self Defense? (Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu). Sacramento, CA: Kosho-Shorei Publishing Company.
Mitose, J. M. (1984). In Search of Kenpo. Sacramento, CA: Kosho-Shorei Publishing Company.
National Center for Injury Prevention and Control - Division of Violence Center. (2012) Sexual Violence: Facts at a Glance. Atlanta, GA: Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tzu, S. (1910). The Art of War. (L. Giles, Trans.). London, UK: British Museum. (Original work published 5th century BC)
Weintraub, F., Heller, P., Chow, R. (Producers), & Clouse, R. (Director). (1973). Enter the Dragon [Motion Picture]. China/United States of America: Warner Bros.
The Kenpo Creed. (n.d.)
The Creed of the Kenpo School. (n.d.)