Occupy Portland, Self Defense and Author Sam Harris

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Across the USA, the occupy movement is holding ground in protest of economic disparity, and the financial scandals that affected the entire globe. Regardless of where you stand politically on this issue, what can’t be ignored is that a growing body of people are feeling insecure about the future, their economic future, and their safety. Economic figures are tied into crime figures, and fear of an unknown future can lead to all sorts of things, both good and bad.

At SBG we are not experts on the economy, but we are experts on personal safety.

There is good reason for optimism, and every reason to believe that the odds of an individual being able to maintain better personal safety may in fact increase, rather than decrease in many parts of the planet, as the years go by. To support this we would recommend Steven Pinkers excellent new book, ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’; which details the rapid decline in violence over the decades.

However, even with that optimistic note, it is still prudent to be realistc as it relates to the potential for violence. And it is here that the recent article by the best selling author Sam Harris really hits home. Sam recently wrote what was for the most part, an excellent piece that everyone should read, located here:


What Sam missed however, was that the fact that despite wanting to avoid fights, despite wanting to escape if caught in a confrontation, and despite wanting to remain mobile and on your feet, the reason it is called an “attack” is because it occured without your consent; and as such, where you end up isn’t always up to you. Though you don’t want to be on the pavement, statistically, it is where many fights wind up. And the best way to ensure you get stuck there, is to have never trained in a functional, and most importantly ‘Alive’ delivery system, such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Said another way, there is no such thing as a “street” escape from a mounted position, or a “street” choke, or a “street” knee. These tools and skills, if not trained Alive, will not be functional when things turn physical, whether you train solely for ‘self-defense’, or “sport”. And this was the point SBG Head Coach Matt Thornton wanted to get across to Sam in his response, which is written below.

A credit to Sam, within a couple hours of sending the letter, Matt recieved several e-mails back from Sam (some of which are included below), thanking him for his points, and agreeing with the reasoning. Readers will be happy to know that Sam Harris amended his article, and also took his first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu lesson that day.

Sam Harris modeled the perfect attitude here, and one we at SBG like to hold true as a value. When the evidence points to something you miss, or somewhere you may have been wrong, you go with the evidence. That is, if what you are interested in is the ‘truth’, in the fact sense of that word.

Sam Harris walks his talk.

Matt’s reply:

“Let me start by saying that while I agree with 98% of what you stated regarding personal self-defense, the 1% I think you may be missing is huge; and I would like to make my case to you regarding what that huge gap is; because I, like you, think this is an important and potentially life saving topic.

Before I begin let me add that your writing has been a major, positive, influence in my life. You will find quotes from your work in many of my articles (links below), and having come from a fundamentalist background, I am proof positive that your message of reason works. I am evidence to that fact. This only reinforced my desire to write you on this topic, as I agree with most of your other positions,  I do not want to feel like you haven’t at least ‘heard’ the argument I am about to make;  and, I don’t think there is anyone more qualified to make that argument then I am.

I’ll be brief regards my bio, but I do feel I need to mention a few things just so I can establish my credentials.  My name is Matt Thornton, any YouTube or Google search will give you tons of videos, most all of which have been posted by others, on who I am, and what I do.  I received my black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu about ten years ago, and I have run a fulltime gym in Portland Oregon where we teach all aspects of ‘functional’ Martial Arts, self-defense and sports, including the sport of MMA, for the last twenty years.  I have also travelled across the world for the last fifteen years, teaching hundreds of seminars related to all aspects of functional training. My list of students and clients runs the spectrum, and has included people like UFC legend Randy Couture.

Here is a link to a recent newspaper article that had a brief bio on my career as a Martial Artists & skeptic:  http://www.sbgi-pdx.com/sbgi-core/coaching-staff/1-content-articles/92-willamette-week-best-of-portland-2011.html

In 1991 I met Rickson Gracie, who introduced me properly to what BJJ is all about. At that time I had already had years of boxing, as well as various forms of Martial Arts. It was my experiences in the boxing gym, with Rickson, and in actual physical conflicts,  that lead me to the realization that something immense was missing in the world of “Martial” Arts, and that ‘thing’ was not so much ‘what’ they trained, but rather ‘how’ they trained.

That difference I am talking about is what distinguishes something like Traditional Japanese Jiu-Jitsu, from something like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu; and the thing I want to emphasize so strongly in this letter to you,  is that the distinction remains, regardless of whether one claims that Japanese Jiu-Jitsu is for self-defense, or the “street”, and BJJ is for “sport”. The bottom line is this, regardless of environment, whether street or cage, when things go bad and the conflict turns physical, one works, and one will not. That is an empirical statement that can, and has been, tested outside the realm of simple anecdotal ‘evidence’. And understanding ‘why’ that is, why some delivery systems are functional against resisting people and some are not, is in my opinion the key to understanding fighting in all its forms.

I adopted the term ‘Aliveness’ as a one word meme about eighteen years ago, its spread, and it worked. A meme which could, when understood, allow the user to differentiate between Martial Arts which were simply fantasy based, (see religion), and delivery systems which are functional (see science), which, under the pressure of an attacker with sincerely bad intentions, work.

In short, the Aliveness principle, when understood, is a rock solid bullshit detector for physical training*, whether that training is for competitive sports, self-defense, or military and law enforcement application.  

*(I have friends in Academia who feel it has application in other fields as well, but that is a different letter)

Before describing exactly what Aliveness is, let me just add one more point of urgency to this letter. One of the many beneficial things about training with Aliveness is that you learn very quickly not just what you ‘can’ do, but just as importantly, what you cannot do. That is a point that is often overlooked in many Martial Arts and self-defense workshops; which sadly, often breed delusion, and promote a very dangerous sense of pseudo-ability.  That is a problem which can be fatal once that delusion of false ability is struck in the face by the physical reality of an angry, non-compliant attacker.

Speaking bluntly, this list of fantasy based delivery systems includes the vast majority of Martial Arts, many of which label themselves as RBSD, self-defense, or “street” orientated.

I realize your article was targeted specifically at life threatening self-defense situations, not combat athletics. But I believe that by the time you finish this letter I will have made the case to you that regardless of circumstance, of assaults versus matches, of street versus sport, the incorporation of the training principle I am about to lay out remains the key component for success,  once it all turns physical.

Let me offer a practical example.

Someone is harassed in a grocery store parking lot; wisely, the try and de-escalate the situation and walk away. Before they get a chance to run, or get help, the attacker grabs them, and they fall to the ground. Now granted, the defender wants to escape; they don’t want to be on the ground. But one of the reasons a fight is a fight is the fact that you don’t always get to control that. Statistically most encounters do end up on the pavement, and this attack put the defender there before they could escape. Grant me for our hypothetical that this can, and does, occur.

Option #1: Now the attacker, finding themselves on top, does what even school kids do when suddenly finding themselves there. They sit up on the rib cage, what we in BJJ call the “mount” position, and begin dropping punches into the defenders face. It would be natural to panic here, not knowing what to do the average human will try and strike back, which doesn’t usually work from this position due to the lack of leverage, or worse, they will roll belly down to protect their face, and end up exposing their neck. That is a natural and potentially fatal error. Assuming the aggressor has watched an MMA fight at some point in his life, he ‘may’ know how to apply a proper blood choke. This will effectively put the life of the defender in the attacker’s hands. Obviously none of these options are good.

Option #2: Let’s change the scenario slightly, and let’s say that the defender is a woman. And let’s say for sake of argument that woman also has about two years or so of Alive training in the delivery system of BJJ; a delivery system that is based solely on what works, on function, rather than tradition or dogma. She finds herself mounted, experiences the adrenalin dump just like the above mentioned defender does, but because she ‘is’ used to working against ‘resisting’ opponents on the ground, her body starts reacting automatically, she applies an “elbow escape”, a move which is often very hard for someone not proficient in BJJ to stop. As she does this she ends up with her legs between her and the attacker, she can use her feet to kick, to create space, and finally to get to her feet safely, without getting clocked on her way up. A fundamental skill all good BJJ gyms teach, and one you will see used daily in the cage or ring by skilled MMA fighters. As she is able to get to put up a fight, and get to her feet, she escapes.

Three points here. First, when someone is sitting on your chest (mount position), there are only about three fundamental movements which will work to escape. Those three core movements, what we at SBG call the ‘delivery system’, do not suddenly change when the fight moves from the mat in the gym, to the parking lot of the grocery store. Said another way, there is no special “street” escape from mount. And that fact doesn’t change, regardless of what position a person may suddenly find themselves in when assaulted. Circumstances will dictate tactics, but the core body mechanics, which as I said are as much a science as anything is, and which are based on how we as human beings are built, remain the same.

Point two, when attacked, both defends will likely ‘feel’ the same things. As we both know the adrenalin dump is simply a natural evolved trait. The difference is, our female ‘athlete’ is used to contact, after several years of training she will have performed that movement countless times against fully resisting opponents. Not in a kata, a pre-arranged form, or a repeated series of movements; but against fully resisting opponents who are trying to make her fail, who are trying to beat her. And what is trained that way, what is trained ‘Alive’, is what the body will fall back to when the adrenalin dump occurs.

This is an important point, it isn’t the amount of repetitions that make that functional reaction ability happen, rather, it is the amount of hours spent rolling against resisting opponents that make that happen. Said another way, you could take those exact same ‘moves’, which as I have stated have proven themselves to be functional, and then train them as you would say Aikido, or most Japanese Jiu-Jitsu, and despite the function of the movements, and despite the hours of “dead” repetitions, the practitioner will still find themselves lacking the skill to ‘apply’ those movements.  And that is the difference between BJJ, Boxing, Wrestling, Muay Thai, Judo, and all “functional” Martial Arts, and things like Aikido, traditional Karate, or as I stated 99% of what is labeled as Martial Arts. Once you remove Aliveness, what you have left is fantasy, not function.

Sadly, one of the many excuses, and believe me I have heard them all, for not training in an Alive manner that one often hears, is that the system that is being taught is for the “street”, rather than for “sport”, and therefore, too deadly to be trained with that kind of Alive methodology. Let me just say bluntly, that is always absolute bullshit. There is nothing, and I do mean nothing, that cannot be trained in a safe, functional, Alive way. The Coaches just have to understand how to do it, and most do not. As a result, regardless of how functional the movements may appear to be, the people training them will find themselves unable to apply it, if they haven’t been training in an Alive way.

All combat sports tend to train in an Alive way, due to the simple fact that they compete. But here again is the point, if the Iowa State wrestling team trained all the same movements they do know, but they used the training methods you would commonly see in an Aikido Gym, I promise you they would quickly find themselves unable to perform the sport. And that is the wild thing about Aliveness. Athletes have known it and used it forever, but for various reasons, the vast majority of the Martial Arts world simply forgot about it. It has only been with the advent of MMA, thanks to the early efforts of the Gracie family, which have started to wake ‘some’ of the public up to these truths.

 The last point to make about that scenario relates to escaping. Yes, you want to run away from fights. Yes, we do not want to find ourselves on the ground. But, the best way to ensure you will ‘not’ be able to do that is to never train in a functional delivery system on the ground, i.e. BJJ.

I have a female student named Amada Loewen at my gym, she regularly competes in BJJ tournaments against men her size or bigger. Athletic men who also know BJJ, and are ranked at the same skill level as her; men who are trying as hard as they can to control her, to beat her. And she wins (you can YouTube her matches). Now should she for some reason find herself having to fend off an attacker who has taken her down, and who isn’t equally skilled in BJJ, I think they would very quickly be in for a rude surprise. And nobody will be better at getting back to their feet and getting away then she is, because she fights from there every week against fully resisting people.

Anyone can train with Aliveness. I have men and women in their fifties at my gym. I have children at my gym. I have police officers interested solely in work application, and I have professors interested solely in self-defense application. I also have a few younger, pro athletes. The level of resistance will vary. Just as you don’t start someone bench pressing with 400lbs, you don’t have to risk injury to train Alive. You dial that resistance up progressively. You train smart, meaning injury free. But you never take out Aliveness. It is the one key factor that makes everything work. We have adopted specific methods for working with all manner of people, for drilling in an Alive, functional manner. These include what we call the “I” method, which is the basic three phase coaching model we use for everything, whether it is military application, personal self-defense, or an MMA bout.

Finally, let me conclude with one last point, and one which in terms of numbers is probably even more important.

Having done this as a fulltime career for the last twenty years, and having travelled literally all over the world to teach, I can tell you that of all the various Martial Arts paradigms, I only find one to be ‘healthy’ for the overall wellbeing of humans  over the long term.

What I can tell you is that by and large, and yes I am painting with a broad brush, the RBSD movement is filled with a lot of fear, paranoia, and out of shape human beings. The Traditional Martial Arts culture is filled with delusion. And the Martial Arts in general are infested with superstition.  Pete is a philosopher who specializes in critical thinking. One of his classes in on the Martial Arts, and each semester I am the guest speaker there. We start by showing some videos of various Martial Arts lunacy, things like no-touch knockouts, chi power, pressure points, etc. Then I talk about Aliveness. But here is my broader point. Let’s take you out of the equation for a moment. Imagine that instead of a well-adjusted, rational, professional adult, the student we are talking about is an adolescent male. Maybe they are a bit geeky, picked on, etc. Many kids who gravitate towards Martial Arts early will find themselves in that demographic. For that person, traditional Martial Arts can be a horror show. They give a false sense of security, without offering anything by way of function.

The RBSD arts, things like Krav Maga, etc, will appeal to that demographic because it’s all advertised as “street” effective. And knowing this, they exploit these kids by promising what they want to hear. But over the long run it will take a kid like the one described above, who is scared and socially awkward, and make them paranoid, delusional, and even more awkward. By the way, when people get ready to take the “instructors” tests in these arts, which usually involve some form of full contact fighting, they come to places like my gym to train for it. They will have had years of training in these systems, and wind up being demolished standing, in the clinch, on the ground, and in every scenario they attempt by students with less than 6 months of Alive, functional training. The difference in skill level is dramatic. Which always makes me wonder why they bother with it in the first place?

But back to our kid, give me that kid for a year. I will teach them nothing more than “sport”, whether that is BJJ, MMA, Judo, etc. And then see the change. They become more confident. They learn what they can do, and what they cannot do. They have actual, functional skill, should they ever find themselves attacked. And they will be far less likely to engage in street fighting in the first place simply because combat athletics has filled that evolutionary niche for them. Said simply, they become happier. It is better for everyone’s wellbeing.

So to re-cap:

Yes, you were absolutely right about everything you stated regarding avoidance.

But, if that conflict turns physical, then it will be Alive training in functional delivery systems that work against an aggressive, fully resisting attacker. And Alive delivery systems are also “sports”.

You can train BJJ solely for self-defense, or solely for BJJ competition, or solely for application in the MMA arena. However, the root movements of that delivery systems, such as the escapes from mount mentioned above, do NOT change simply because the environment changes. Circumstances will dictate tactics, but the mechanics of the delivery system remain the same. And anyone interested in training in some form of ‘functional’ Martial Arts really need to understand that.

And finally, sports are healthy for people. Much of what you will find, and I think with some more research on your part we would agree on this, within the world known as ‘Reality Based Self Defense’ training, RBSD, is unhealthy, and non-functional, i.e. they use the same dead pattern training model found in traditional martial arts. And if that is the training model, then the “move” regardless of how functional it ‘could’ be, won’t matter much when things turn physical.

Yes, all combat sports require lots of effort, sweat, to learn. But there is no such thing as a “street” punch, or a “street” knee, or a “street” choke. Those skills come from the functional delivery systems, and your ability to apply those skills will be based on the amount of hours you have invested in Alive training.

I hope I have made my case Sam. Again, nothing you said was wrong. I agree with 99%. But just as you’ve mastered answering the same old arguments that are put forward for religious superstition, I have, after decades of promoting this style of training, mastered answering the same old fallacies related to training with Aliveness. And one of the most widely used, which I am sure you probably didn’t even know, is the “well that is for sport, and we train for the street” fallacy. And that is what I wanted to make sure you didn’t fall for.”

–          Matt Thornton

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Sam’s reply:

Many thanks for this, Matt. As you might imagine, I got a little pushback from BJJ practitioners about that endnote. I have since added an amendment.

Everything you say here makes perfect sense. And you might be amused to know that I got my first lesson at the Gracie Academy this morning…”


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