Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Blind Men And The Elephant

John Godfrey Saxe's (1816-1887) version of a famous Indian legend:

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach'd the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
'God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!'

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, - 'Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!'

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
'I see,' quoth he, 'the Elephant
Is very like a snake!'

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
'What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,' quoth he,
''Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!'

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: 'E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!'

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
'I see,' quoth he, 'the Elephant
Is very like a rope!'

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Does not this fable describe much of what is stated within the martial arts and combatives generally. Even those that have experienced combat have experienced only but a part of the combat elephant. For instance, Geoff Thompson's works are based on his experience doing security work, aka door work or bouncing, at pubs and clubs in London. I've heard his insights espoused such that they appear to have taken on the authority of commonly conceived wisdom. Is not he but one blind man attempting to describe an elephant by touching but one part of it? No offense Geoff.

Bruce Siddle is described as being an internationally recognised expert in the study of combat human factors, survival human factors and use of force training. He is the author of Sharpening the Warrior’s Edge which is described as being the first text to provide a scientific explanation into survival stress responses and why survival performance often deteriorates. So many refer to his ideas, although whether or not they acknowledge the source of their wisdom, or even know its source, is entirely another matter. Siddle and his disciples advocate technique selection and training for survival or combat purposes based on certain research. That research is the research conducted by the stress discipline which studies the responses to stress, aka perceived threats, and their effects on health and performance.

When I applied these ideas, these theories and concepts of the stress discipline, to two personal experiences where I was confronted by a knife-wielding opponent in close proximity, I could not reconcile them with my experience. I could not use them to explain my experiences.

Being an accountant, who is obviously dissatisfied with unreconciled states of affair, I went in search of an answer. This search unexpectedly led me to study work of the emotion discipline. The emotion discipline studies the same elephant, however, they study different parts of that elephant to that studied by the stress discipline. Unbelievably, to me at least, these two disciplines do not tend to reference each other's concepts and theories. Richard Lazarus, author of Stress and Emotion: A New Synthesis, refers to this separation of fields as an absurdity. Absurd it is. An absurdity that carries over to the martial arts/combative discipline.

The stress discipline and the emotion discipline appear to me to be two blind men attempting to describe an elephant by touching one part of it. The elephant being the evolved survival process of human beings. Surely, if you base your interventions on an understanding of this elephant based on the understanding of one of the blind men there are potential problems. At the very least, you may have overlooked certain answers to certain problems because of an incomplete understanding of the entire beast.

Siddle, in the last chapter in his book, the one that he describes as being the most important to him, explains:
This chapter attempted to establish a scientific basis for the need of values and belief systems in survival and combat training. The theoretical basis for this assertion is valid, but verifiable research to support this theory is yet to be documented. However, it is hard to argue that the presence of death does not have a profound effect on performance.
The verifiable research that Siddle suggests does not exist, does exist. He simply needs to reference another blind man studying the same elephant. The emotion discipline.

Survival is a process. If you don't understand that process, well ... There is an evolved process. A process we all have encoded into our DNA. Then there is a learned process, or learned elements of that process, that are designed to improve on nature. Improve on the evolved survival process. Siddle suggests that 'instructors have a moral and legal obligation to constantly research methods to enhance training and, ultimately, to assure the survival of their students.' He suggests that 'survival skill instructors have the responsibility to provide students with techniques and tactics that may save the student's life or the life of another. A responsibility of this magnitude that should not be taken lightly.' I agree. Does it not behove us to understand the entire elephant. We need to constantly question our assumptions. We need to take advantage of other's research, insights, and knowledge.

I've integrated the theories and concepts of the stress discipline and the emotion discipline in order to attempt to understand the entire elephant. Understanding the entire elephant enables us to better assess the advice provided by Siddle and others. It also provides the basis of assessing the teachings of all activities associated with dealing with physical violence. And, it provides the tantalising opportunity of providing a holistic solution to the problem.

PS: I recently saw a TV program which suggested an African problem where elephants appeared to be deliberately targeting humans was due to the elephants experiencing post traumatic stress resulting from their witnessing the slaughter of their own kind and family members. An understanding of this survival process offers the tantalising prospect of assisting in the management and recovery of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). As explained in my previous post, I've used this model to understand and manage my own 'burnout', and the apparent inexplicable anger manifested in a young man following his violent attack.

We, as martial arts instructors, are often on the front line when dealing with people with PTSD of various degrees. Does it not behove us to understand the mechanism that produces this condition? I wish I had the knowledge I have now when I was teaching certain individuals; teaching with an incomplete assurance that I knew what I was teaching. Of course now I'm having to apply this knowledge to aid in my own recover from burnout.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful post! It is well written, clear and concise.


Your comments make my work all the more relevant as I use them to direct my research and theorising. Thank you.