'Receiving' intent: the art of flipping the script

Here is an excerpt of part of my interview (from around the 59:33 min mark) with Ken Gullette on his podcast. This excerpt deals specifically with the use of "uke" - ie. "receiving", not only in the sense of receiving techniques, but also in the sense of a wider meaning of "receiving intent" in order to diffuse conflict.


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On receiving generally - "I win if I don't get hit"

KG: I encourage everyone to read your blog. Just Google The Way of Least Resistance and you have excellent articles on there. And one of your blog posts recently about the Ronda Rousey fight actually triggered some practices of my own with my students where we were practicing basic slipping of a punch. Bobbing and weaving leaning and things like that for just basic boxing technique. One of my goals as a fighter, if I have been in a fight (and I haven't since I was eighteen), is I don't want to get hurt. I want to avoid getting head.

DD: Yes. Which is the main goal of civilian defence. Don't get hit. It's not "hitting" - it's  just not getting hit.

KG: Yeah sure. I want to hit him or get him off balance. But the post you did on the Ronda Rousey fight was outstanding. And so receiving punches or attacks does not mean getting hit by them. Isn't that right?

DD: Yeah. The Japanese have a term which encapsulates it very well. "Uke". "Ukereu" is the verb "to receive". "Uke" is a receipt of something. And it doesn't really make sense in English: a "reception" would be the term I guess. And it doesn't doesn't make sense - because what does that mean?

Well it kind of means "to receive something": to have it come your way and take it without it hurting you. And that could mean slipping it, it could mean deflecting it or parrying it. It could be jamming at its source: because you've received it alright but it didn't go very far - you "caught" it early. It could be so many things.

"Ukeru" or "uke" is in all of the taiji movements - if you think of "fan through back" or "fair lady works at shuttles" and so on - wherever you have  a rising arm. And increasingly in the karate world people are interpreting those sorts of "receipt" or "receiving" movements as strikes. Everything has to be a strike or a lock or an arm break or a pin or a hold or some form of attack. And I'm thinking, well what's wrong with defence, you know?

I mean, the first thing we want to do is not get hit. I am very passionate about this because to my mind that's our objective. I win if I don't get hit in a civilian context. In fact I win if he doesn't even throw a punch. And how you "receive" things extends right through to before they've even thrown the punch - how you receive their intent. So to me it [receiving] is the key to civilian defense.

A video showing how a trained MMA fighter diffuses a confrontation without violence

"Receiving intent" - flipping the script

I had someone knock on the door just a week and a half ago.

It was about 9:30 at night and I foolishly opened the door. I don't know why: I thought it was my father-in-law coming back from a church meeting, which he sometimes - very rarely - does. But it was something about my little toy poodle's bark that made me think: "Oh - that's just him."

And I opened the door. I'm holding my girls' toys poodle in my right hand my left hand is holding the door, and I see a young man, shirtless, bristling with muscle, and his right hand is just behind his right thigh - he's leading with his left.

I realized the mistake - the enormity of the mistake - as I did this because I knew he had a knife. He was going to rush me.

I at least had the foresight to not switch on the outside light, especially once I saw what I was looking at, so he was squinting and couldn't see: I was silhouetted.

And he said: "Turn on the outside light."

That was the point that I had so many options as to how I could receive this. I could jam him: I could stop him because I could see where he was. I'd have to drop Timmy or use Timmy as a shield (our little dog!) and really, that did cross my mind. But I was able to gauge... luckily I was able to "receive" his intent.

In this particular case I did it without any blow being thrown, because he said "Turn on the outside light" - and I started a rather banal conversation: "Well you know, that's the problem with this outside light. It's meant to be automatic. You know the sensor? It just doesn't come on." And I waved my free hand at the sensor. "Damn thing won't come on. It's always the way isn't it, you know?"

And he's standing there squinting at a silhouette he wasn't quite unable to gauge so he wasn't really sure what to rush at. So I'd "flipped the script" on him, which I've always found a useful device. We were talking about mentalism before. And that's what I did. He was expecting me to, I guess, respond: "What do you want?" or whatever. Here I was talking about you outside light.

So in the end I said to him: "How can I help you mate? It's quite a warm evening isn't it?"
He goes: "Uh... yeah. I'd like a blanket." I mean a blanket?! The guy didn't have a shirt on! It was so hot he was sweating! A blanket just didn't make sense. I think he was just kind of disoriented: the scripted had been flipped and he didn't know what to do.
So I said: "Yeah - I think we have one. We normally give everything away to charity that we don't need but I'm pretty sure we still have a spare blanket somewhere so you just hang about and I'll come back in a second."

Then I was able to close the door, put the dog down and I did go and look for a blanket. I reassured my wife and my elder daughter (who was still up) and I said: "Don't worry, it's just a homeless guy." (No - it wasn't.)

I looked through the peephole the second time once I got the blanket - I made sure. And I noticed I'd won: I mean, he'd backed right off. He was no longer standing at the door. He was sitting with his back to the door on the steps about two or three meters away with his back to me. So I opened the door and I had this blanket in a plastic container as a sort of "shield" in case he tried to rush me. People, I noticed from my prosecution days, tend to rush you with the left hand, control you and then they stab you with the right which is hidden - that's precisely what he had.

But I saw through the peephole that he had his back to me. I knew I'd won the day without having to do anything. So wu-wei: do nothing and everything gets done. It is just the luck of draw really - and a little bit of mentalism on my part.

I opened the door and I said: "Oh here we go - I've got this for you."
He said to me: "I'm going to be honest: I was going to come in and I was gonna nick something - I was going to rob you. You've been so nice and you've given me this blanket and I just can't do it now." And he had tears in his eyes.

You know that, I think, is the spirit of "uke": receiving. It needn't actually be physical. In fact you want to do as little as possible. The less impact you have the less... [can go wrong]. People always want to interpret every [martial] movement as an offensive movement. And I think just fundamentally wrong. I think it's fundamentally at odds with what taijiquan - grand ultimate fist - is all about. It might be the shape of a fist, but let's not forget it's a hand - and it's the symbol of humanity. I like that. That's why "karate" means "empty hand" or "Chinese hand". Originally karate meant "Chinese hand" and the character was changed to "empty" as in "empty as the sky" - infinite. And again hand, being a symbol of humanity. I like that. Baguazhang - eight trigram palm. Xingyiquan - mind/form fist.

And I know the fist means "boxing". But I think you can take that whole thing out because, as I say, these arts have developed a long way from their origins. After weaponry had made all kinds of boxing redundant [for warfare], the only thing it could be used for was self-improvement [part of which is civilian defence].

So that was a case of "receiving". Now that was quite a recent occurrence. I've had quite a few [like it] in the last five or six years - I'm just kind of too too old to be fighting people [laughs].

Doing as little as possible

KG: As a prosecutor, what do you tell your students to watch for legally if they're in a self-defense situation? Because even if you are defending yourself you can still go to jail. And I know it can vary from country to country and even in the United States from state to state. But what guidelines do you give your students? 

DD: As little guideline as possible. It's precisely because I don't think that there is any way that you can reliably give a formula. I got very annoyed when I saw that there was this seminar somebody was holding here in Perth where they promised to go through the legal things and "what you can do".

The truth is that in almost all the American, UK and Commonwealth - including Australian - jurisdictions, the common law applies. And the basic common law principle is that your actions have to be reasonable and proportionate. Everything else is just finessing that.

They used to say in criminal law when I was studying: "If somebody pulls a knife you can pretty much kill them". That's not actually true. It's just that in many cases you can get away with it. It would be wrong to advise listeners that this is a "golden rule".

If some 16 year old kid (which happened to my brother-in-law - he's a pharmacist) pulls a knife on you... [I'd say] "Now don't be stupid."

He [my brother-in-law] grabbed the guy's hand pulled the knife out, threw it away and held him until the cops arrived. The guy wasn't a threat. He was a silly kid who couldn't even hold a knife properly. He's a kid, it's all caught on tape... you're going to go to jail [if you do something stupid]. Everything has to be proportionate and reasonable.

It's actually wu-wei enshrined in the law: "do nothing", literally but it means "do only that which you need to".

You can't advise people: every case is going to be different.

A bit of kindness

KG: And I know that some people will get in a fight and you hit someone in the face. It may be a proportional response but then he falls hits his head on concrete and dies. So what happens then? I don't think people understand how serious it is. When you're an adult and get hit with that kind of force... there can be serious ramifications.

DD: Very much so. And that's actually the best case scenario. Sometimes that's the best case because the other alternative is they hit you and you crack your head and die. You have to limit that entanglement.

The most recent case, other than the guy at the door, was when I was coming back from a physiotherapy appointment. And because it was after work it was quite late. Our train station gets very quiet after the business hours - after the peak hour - and I was at the bus station next to the central train station. There was no one else around.

I'm walking along. I hear this guy behind me say: "Give me your money." So I turned around and I had to look up. This guy was at least a foot - probably a foot and a half - taller and he had a little tear-drop tattoo on his eye - the side of his eye - which shows that he's a ex-con, you know? Just come out of prison. A big Maori chap. He said: "I need your money." That gave me something to work with.

Again, you have to flip the script - at least that's how I work it. So when he said: "I need your money," I said: "Why? Whatever is the matter?"
He wasn't prepared for that. He just went: "Ah, ah... well it's... I don't have... Well they don't... I just got let out of prison and don't get paid Social Security until next Tuesday."
And I went: "Oh man... that's tough. Tell you what: why don't you come with me. We'll go down to that kiosk over there and I don't have any change so I'll be able to break a note and you can tell me all about it."

So I sort of put my hand on his back and guided him and he walked with me. It was like suddenly the whole script had been flipped.

We went down there and I was talking to him. He was telling me about how his girlfriend was with somebody else, and his brother wanted to borrow money from him and he'd just come out of prison. He had a whole lot of problems.

Anyway we walked on and I listened patiently and sympathetically. Well, I wasn't really listening because I was quite nervous. I brought him an iced tea, which he didn't ask for, and I had some change and two $10 notes. So I said: "How's this: $10 - that'll get you bus fare won't it?" And he said: "Yeah well thanks!" and shook my hand with both of his. And off he went.

The thing is he was going to mug me. He was he was in the process of mugging me. But I was so sore and this guy was so much bigger and tougher. Look, honestly, if I'd got in one good punch that would have been lucky. The rest would have been mayhem. This guy would have slaughtered me. I think if I had managed to get some kind of really good punch in, the best scenario is that I would have gone home with a whole lot of bruising and injury. As my friend said the next day: "Your wife wouldn't have thanked you."

A lot of people especially in the U.S. would probably be armed in that situation and they would go: "Whoa! This guy is scary!" And he was scary: not just big, but muscly. These guys have nothing to do in prison but push weights. He was a man-mountain [compared to me] - he was at least about 6' 4" and I'm 5' 9". I'm just a suburban martial arts guy. There's no way I'm going to win.

No formula

Okay, so had I been armed I could have dealt with the whole situation with a firearm. What do you do - I mean is that on? I can't tell people: "This [my approach] is going to work for you." Because I have a kooky way of speaking and "Why? Whatever is the matter?" comes out quite okay with me. From other people it would have sounded quite disingenuous and kind of fake. It's got to be whatever works for you.

KG: So yeah I think this is one of the best things we've discussed in the whole podcast. I think it's a great lesson for people: flipping the script.

And it's it's not something where I can give you a formula. I know people like Derren Brown do it well. I read [about Derren] subsequently to that particular occurrence. Somebody tried to mug him. He was walking along and the guy said some something like "Give me your money." He [Derren] said [something like]: "My garden wall is not really quite as tall as my neighbour's," And the guy who was mugging him burst into tears, he said, because he didn't know how to process this. The script was flipped so badly.

I hadn't thought about it in terms of "flipping the script" until that story, and so this is way after that particular occurrence and a bunch of others.

One of my other favorite stories is when I was walking back from a St. Patrick's Day event with my wife. We had been watching this band up on the stage. They were playing a kind of folk music - a bush band - and they were great. But these two young guys - big strapping young lads - were drunk (well kind of drunk, not fully) and were jumping on the stage and wrecked the whole gig. One thing I noticed is that one of the guys with curly hair reminded me of my brother-in-law Jed. Just a little bit. I noted that, but it was of no significance.

We're walking back to our car and I hear this guy shouting - and he's probably 10 meters away - and he's making derogatory remarks about my wife. I thought "What do I do? Do I ignore him?" If I'd ignored him, then he would have felt the need to come and challenge me. Already his mate had started laughing because it sounded like I hadn't heard.

So he repeated the insult. It was something quite awful. My tendency is to get upset and say something like: "How dare you say this!" And we're going back about 10 years now. So I was younger and stronger. But I still wasn't game to tackle this 25 - or 22 or whatever - year old man.

So I smiled. He was walking towards me as he was saying this, challenging me. I said: "You know what? You look just like my brother-in-law."
And he went: "What?"
I said: "Seriously: you could be brothers. I mean, I just can't believe it!"
And he goes: "What's his name."
I said: "Well it's Handmer, but that's his adopted father's name. His real name is McPherson." (That was his biological father's name.)
"I'm a Scot too!".
"Yeah, well there you go. Probably have the same genes. You might even be related."
He goes: "Really?"

And two or three minutes later we were swapping mobile numbers. Of course, when we rounded the corner I just deleted his from my phone.

The point was that he was gearing up for a fight. And again I never thought about it in terms of "flipping the script" or whatever. I just knew that I was out-matched.

I've walked away from those sorts of things with a smile. But this is the thing, people say: "That won't always work." Well I'm not getting people formulae. I'm not saying: "This is going to work for you."  You can't give any kind of guarantee. It's just: "This is how I got away with it that time."

KG: In his book Meditations on Violence Rory Miller talks about how a guy looked at him and says: "What are you looking at?" And he looked at the guy and said: "Oh I'm sorry - I was zoning out for minute. How are you doing?" And sort of disarmed the guy a little and nothing happened.

I tell you what, that exact thing happened to me. I was at the train station - the same station - and I was staring in the distance. This guy said to me: "What's the matter? Am I not good enough for you to talk to?" I suddenly realized that he had said something to me and I hadn't noticed. I said: "I'm sorry. I'm a thousand miles away. How are you today?"
And he goes: "Yeah, I'm alright."

And I realized he wasn't looking for a fight. He'd obviously said hello and there's this "Mr Businessman" (cause I'm in my work suit) who must've looked like an arrogant prat. It wasn't a dangerous situation but I was able to defuse it just being decent. I don't think he was going to fight me, but it turned out he was an ex-con as well, cause we got to chatting on the train! [laughs]

Better be judged by 12 than carried by six?

We were talking earlier on about legal things. Do the the least you can. And that may involve violence. And I can't tell you: "I'd rather be careful. It's better to be judged by 12 than carried by six."

Rory Miller in one of his blogs or writings said how much he hates that expression. I think I hate any kind of some simplistic analysis like that. I think so many people out there - bloggers especially - want to give a formula. There is no formula. As you know Ken, there just isn't. So when people ask me for one (with my legal background), I just scoff and I say: "Hey you have to do what's reasonable in the circumstances." What is that? I don't know until a circumstance comes along. And what's reasonable for me is going to be different for somebody else.

You know the guy who came to my front door with a knife... maybe 10 years ago, 15 years ago, I might have seen the knife or realized he was holding one, and I might have done something very, very violent. I might have tried to do something like jam him, smash him.

But it's funny: you get older and frailer, you get slower and you realise you can't get away with it. So necessity required me to do something else. I've also had experience in talking to people and reading people and reading situations.

If I'd had a good feeling he was going to rush me anyway, I would have had to hit him. But I guess it's life experience. I could read him. And I mean I can't tell you I'd read it every time. But I was confident. Well, I wasn't 100% sure but I was kind of 80%. The other 20% was... I'd have had to sacrifice Timmy! [laughs]

Copyright © 2017 Dejan Djurdjevic


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