“What would you do if

This is where all the questions get centered around when I tell people I do Systema. The fact that it is an uncommon martial art and doesn’t claim to have any techniques draw out in people a curiosity about our response when something happens. They like to ask us all these “What if” questions if I may.

There are two inflection points in any combative situation. Let’s zoom out a little bit from the first illustration: You will notice there are two points on this line – these are the two points of inflection in a combative situation.

The point of the left is the perceptive point – it is the first instance at which you observe that something is going to happen to you. The second point to the right is the event point. At this point is where the action eventuates.

You will notice that there is a gap between them. The gap is a representation of the space we have between the point at which we perceive something and the point at which it directly affects us – the space being a sum of “time, physical distance, mental and emotional preparation, etc”. A lot of things can happen in between these two points. It is a given that any change to the left of the event point be it in your opponent’s lead up or of your own perception in detecting that point (you might not, after all be able to catch when it truly begins) will absolutely change the event and thus your course of action – remember those “What if”questions?

While fixed patterns of training in the form of techniques or katas have some value, they are largely centered around answering the “what if” question only from the point of the event onwards. By assuming that all punches to the face or kicks to the groin are the same, one could come up with standardized answers to them. Unfortunately, this is not what real life is like and that is why techniques are never executed in perfection under stressful situations.

There is a bit of a caveat here and that is that in many violent encounters, the space between the beginning of the attack and the point at which it occurs to you is extremely short. In cases like these, one could argue that being able to quickly respond with well-rehearsed gross motor patterns is useful. I have no doubt about that. I just think there is more than one way to get to the point of having good gross motor movements aside from repeating fixed techniques – that could be a theme to explore in a different article.

Let’s talk about the left point for now.

Training in Systema is meant to help you be more perceptive to your surroundings as well as the intent of others. In other words, Systema training pushes the first point further to the left:

In other words, it expands the space between the two points, giving you more space to do something in preparation of the event. A calm psyche here is what gives you the space to have a greater perception. This is primarily done via breathwork. At the same time, we speak a lot about movement which pushes the event point further out:

This gives you even more space to act. Breathing and movement. Who knew! At the same time, aside from these very tangible expressions of breathing and movement, Systema provides each practitioner with the tools by which we can be in a better state in which to act. I like to call this “inclining” as it does not imply that we will definitely get the result we want. Instead, we do what we can to incline ourselves towards a favourable outcome and leave the rest to God. This inclining of ourselves towards a favourable outcome is what we call internal work. It is the work that is barely visible to the naked eye that makes all the difference – our internal tensions, our psyches, our focus, awareness, mental fortitude and willingness to act, etc… these all can be activated in the work of inclining ourselves towards the favourable outcome.

All this points towards something which Vladimir Zaikovsky once said: “Everything ends on contact. All the work is done before that.” By the time someone has hit you, you should have ideally already ended the fight. Not because you are the better fighter, but because you have chosen not to fight at all. The fight didn’t start once you were first hit. You didn’t respond to getting hit. Instead, you perceived a threat before it occurred and immediately inclined yourself towards ending the fight before it starts. Below is an excerpt from an account of the fight between the legendary Miyamoto Musashi and the skillful samurai Sasaki Kojiro and how Musashi inclined himself to victory. It demonstrates this point (albeit in a slightly unideal way) very well and I recommend reading the whole account (linked after the excerpt):

“The blood drained from Kojiro’s face as Musashi slowly stood up in the boat. The insolence, it was unheard of. This was no way for a Samurai to behave! To arrive so late was bad enough, but to arrive like this… Unshaven, filthy, in dishevelled clothing and with no retinue but a beggarly old fisherman; Kojiro felt the insult to his honour most keenly, and the wrath that had been slowly building all morning boiled over. He trembled with rage and held out one hand to the sword bearer who rushed up to present him with his great no-dachi.

The huge sword flashed in the sun as Kojiro charged down the beach toward his opponent. He focussed his anger to a fine point, which ran through his arms and hands and settled at the cruel tip of the blade. In his mind, where a moment ago there had been great anger, now there was silence. But what was this? Musashi leapt into the surf and dashed to the left, but he drew no blade; his only weapon was a wooden bokken, similar in size and reach to Kojiro’s sword. Kojiro faltered for a split second.

What could this mean? The arrogance of the man who would challenge the great Kojiro with a wooden practice sword was incomprehensible. He turned to follow Musashi and dived in with a great sweep of his blade. The insolent man ducked just in time to avoid the blow. The no-dachi swept only centimetres above his head. A little cloud of black hair floated in the still air.

Then Musashi was in underneath his guard. The bokken was rising, but the huge no-dachi was in the hands of a master, and Kojiro did not back away. He brought his sword whistling down upon his opponent… but Musashi was gone. He had stepped step to the right, and his bokken hit flesh. Kojiro’s breath went out of him, and his next blow went wild.

The wooden sword dealt him a stunning blow on the side of the head and in the moment that he staggered, his enemy’s weapon smashed into his left side with incredible force. He felt his ribs crack, followed by a terrible, sharp pain deep inside his chest. He couldn’t breathe, and the world swam before his eyes.

The officials, staff and servants watched in horror as Sasaki Kojiro toppled forward onto the sand. The engagement had been over in seconds”

Taken from: https://www.warhistoryonline.com/ancient-history/turning-point-samurai-musashi.html

If one continues to read the account after this excerpt, one would find the conclusion very odd. Despite his victory over his skilled opponent, Musashi goes away feeling essentially empty and never again kills another opponent in a duel. The perceptive ones would notice that just as the line in the first illustration actually extends towards the left of the event point to reveal the perceptive point, so too does it extend beyond that even.

The first point of note (the event point) and the second point (the perceptive point) actually sit very far down the line. Depending on whether somebody punching you in the face is a present threat or not, the line represents what we have done or can do leading up to that event. Some areas in the line prior to your perceiving an attack is your training which I have highlighted in blue. Training, as it should, gives you a way to more quickly perceive and handle a threat. But what about the points on the line that are not your training time? That is the rest of your life and how you live. If perceiving an attack earlier is meant to give you more time to incline yourself towards a favourable outcome, then how you train and by extension how you live is meant to incline yourself away from such threats in the first place if your goal is not to die. My old instructor had a brilliant response for people who asked ridiculous “What if”s:

“What happens when someone is shooting at you with a sniper rifle from a mile away?”

“You die.”

But seriously, as he would elaborate, what have you been doing up to that point of time in your life that someone would want to shoot you with a sniper rifle?

Granted, there are events that we can never predict and there are events in which it is ridiculous to spend your life avoiding which means that we will come face to face with situations such as those above (not directly above, but above above). The questions then would still remain: What have we been doing to ensure that when we find ourselves perceiving a threat we can incline ourselves most fully to the most favourable outcome possible? Have we trained well? Have we lived in a way to most effectively bolster that chance? Most importantly, are we living in a way that both maximizes our chance of success in such a situation that coheres with the kind of action that we need to take should such a situation arise? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then we have missed the point of martial arts training which is to live a better life.

And that’s fine – the line to the right still extends. We have a chance to change things from now on.