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Martial Mania

Defrag Yourself

By George Donahue

Just as we need to defragment our computer hard drives regularly to keep them effective, we need to defrag our mental hard drives to remain effective as students and teachers of martial ways.

Along with other routine maintenance, I clean and update my household’s computer hard drives—registries, files, security settings, and so forth—at least once a week. Whether on our several Windows or the Linux computers, this attention helps to keep the computers stable, lean, fast, efficient, and relatively safe. I’ve had three catastrophic drive failures in the last twenty years anyway, but it could have been worse.* Shikata ga nai. Just as my computers, with their different OS flavors, all need a similar maintenance regimen, so do my different flavors of martial training and technical knowledge each need frequent evaluation, review, and tuning, maybe not weekly but at least annually. I tend to tune my martial understanding with the change of the seasons, because the nature of my training changes with the seasons anyway, but I also make smaller adjustments as I go (and major adjustments whenever I see my teacher).

Some (too many) of us don’t do this at all when it comes to our computers, and some (too many) of us don’t do this at all when it comes to our martial training. We know what inevitably happens with a neglected computer. In regard to martial ways, those who neglect the maintenance are equally subject to dangerous obsolescence or the equivalent of disk failure. Their attitudes and perceptions are frozen in the past, at best. At worst, the operating or programming code of their thought patterns and knowledge begins to degrade—errors creep in without notice, just as computer data files can degrade over time—human files become fragmented or broken. To the outside observer, it shows clearly. From the inside, though, everything seems normal, sometimes until there is an extreme failure, because, of course, the “hard drive” is really the mind. If our brain has gotten clogged up with decrepit or static ideas, we can’t think straight enough to see what a mess those training ideas and fighting concepts have become. Even if they haven’t become a mess, they’ve invariably become slow and inefficient. So, it’s a difficult process to revamp our thinking when we’ve let it go for too long. A muddled mind can’t easily find its own way. Unfortunately, too many of those muddled minds belong to teachers, who pass along their distorted perceptions.

With computers, we have a lot of fixes at our disposal. We can download the latest programs to defragment and repair our files. We can back up our data and settings and totally replace hard drives that have worn out. We can upgrade just about any component, or buy a whole new computer and transfer our files. We can install new software to monitor and facilitate our activities while screening out damaging processes. We effectively sharpen our computers’ thinking and, thus, our own thinking.

With our own minds, however, things are more difficult. We can’t begin to upgrade ourselves physically and it’s almost impossible to make much of an upgrade to a long-fermented thought pattern. Our brains are wetware (unless we let them dry out) and when they degrade it’s hard to re-hydrate them. In addition, unlike software, each wetware program is unique to the individual host. A fix that would work perfectly well for one mind might be counterproductive for another. A fix that would have worked perfectly well if it had been timely won’t work at all when its time has passed.

It’s not hopeless, though. We’re lucky that our resources for both computer artificial intelligence and human brain maintenance have a crucial factor in common. That is, we’re not reliant solely on our own efforts for either; for both, there is community support. That is great for all of us, especially someone like me, who has not much computer talent and very little martial talent, either. I get all my knowledge and what little insight I have from the community. And the more I look to the community, either martial or computer, the more I find and the more I learn.

Although we can and should access the wisdom and observations of our own teachers and peers as frequently as possible, if we’re locked into proprietary thinking and are unable to accept feedback from outside our limited circle, we’re needlessly restricting our community to people who think very much like ourselves. At worst, we narrow ourselves so much we might as well just look into the mirror for our community feedback—we can console ourselves that there is very little disagreement in our community of one. Still, we can at least get feedback from students of our own tradition. The only time this might possibly be harmful—rather than just useless—is if a martial tradition is so regimented and homogenous that everyone has been trained to think alike. This situation is like some computer networks, in which the master server and slave workstations are in total harmony. This makes for smooth running of a business or a martial arts organization, but it definitely stifles development and innovation in the latter.

For martial knowledge, and most knowledge, a better way is to access the wisdom and observations of the wider community, to learn from people in other traditions how to improve our own. The traditions we consult need not be martial. For example, we can learn from psychology, from dance, from physical therapy, from physics (ever think of kata as fractals?). We can also learn by observation: from watching how squirrels—or even old people—cluster in parks, from noticing how people align the handles of their beer mugs when they belly up to the bar, from just about everything, if we care to look or ask.

Here is part of a checklist that I use to evaluate my own internal disk health and the state of my understanding of martial technique:

  • Is my understanding based on shaky assumptions? For example, am I counting on my attacker being even dumber than I am? Or weaker, or slower? Or clumsier? Or more inept?

  • Is my understanding based on obsolete circumstances? For example, am I imagining that I’m still as fast and agile as I was thirty years ago?

  • Is my understanding based on “facts” that have never been demonstrated in the real world to be true? For example, do I “know” that hitting with the tip of my index finger a certain spot (say Q7) at a 30-degree angle at a speed between 14 and 22 miles per hour—on a full moon—will result in my attacker immediately spewing blood and croaking from a massive cerebral hemorrhage? Because I read it in a book? Or saw it demonstrated on a DVD seminar?

  • Is my understanding based on faith in my own magic bullets? That is, do I count on techniques to have certain effects because I wish them to have those effects?

  • Is my understanding based on the unquestioned authority of a teacher or expert who hasn’t yet had the mercy to demonstrate the efficacy of the transmitted knowledge?

This list is not complete, because some of the items on my complete list are applicable only to me. Some items might be offensive to those who quickly or inevitably take offense. And some are just secret.** Your list will likely be different, but the important thing is to have a checklist grounded in reality and to use it often.


* The last drive collapse also cost me my backup drive. I should have known better than to have them in the same location, on the same circuit.

** That’s just a joke. There are no secrets in the martial ways. Or maybe it’s just that no one has ever entrusted me with any.

Copyright © 2008 by George Donahue &

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About The Author:

George Donahue has been on the board of since its inception. He is a freelance writer and editor, providing literary and consulting services to writers, literary agents, and publishers, as well to advertising agencies. He has worked in publishing for more than three decades, beginning as a journal and legal editor. Among his positions have been editorial stints at Random House; Tuttle Publishing, where he was the executive editor, martial arts editor, and Asian Studies editor; and Lyons Press, where he was the senior acquisitions editor and where he established a martial arts publishing program. He is a 6th dan student of karate and kobujutsu—as well as Yamane Ryu Bojutsu—of Shinzato Katsuhiko in Okinawa Karatedo Shorin Ryu Kishaba Juku. He was also a student of Kishaba Chokei and Nakamura Seigi until their deaths. He teaches Kishaba Juku in New York and Connecticut, as well as traveling to provide seminars and special training in karate, weapons, and self-defense. His early training was in judo and jujutsu, primarily with Ando Shunnosuke in Tokyo. He also studied kyujutsu (archery), sojutsu (spear), and kenjutsu (swordsmanship) in Japan as a youth. Following his move to the US, he continued to practice judo and jujutsu, as well as marksmanship with bow and gun, and began the study of Matsubayashi Ryu karate in his late teens. Subsequently, he has studied aikido and taiji and cross trained in ying jow pai kung fu.

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