Pursuing the outcome you want, not fighting the one you don’t

Self-protection programming—even those programs derived from a martial arts background—need not focus on learning to be violent. Let’s talk about violence for a bit, watch a couple of short videos of conflicts, ask what good martial artists (and ninjas) train to do, and discuss the way that Elemental accomplishes those goals.

The Japanese term “budo” is often crudely translated as “martial arts,” and is an umbrella term for a wide array of practice systems: karate-do, judo, kendo, iaido, etc. To-shin Do, the ninjutsu-based art from which Elemental is strongly derived, is one of these systems. When most people think of these arts, they think of violence and war—which is understandable, given the common translation. A better translation of budo, however, might be “way to end violence.” Ways to stop violent situations vary by time and circumstance; some are not inherently “right” or “wrong,” but might be better or worse for a given context, or simply different. Solutions need not always involve escalation and further violence, which can be inefficient and increase the risk of outcomes that are contrary to our goals—which might include peace, order, and compassion.

Let’s compare a couple of examples of how violence might be stopped. Imagine a fight taking place inside of an enclosed space with lots of bystanders—say, inside of a subway or light rail car. Imagine that you want to stop the fight. Which of the following examples would be closer to what you would choose? Why? (Warning, videos contain strong language. Also note that this is meant as a heuristic exercise in resolving violence; the initial fights themselves are by no means equivalent to each other.)

Example #1

Example #2

The ninja way includes keeping your ultimate goal in mind and making sure that all of your actions are ideally congruent with that goal. Threats are often not confronted directly; after all, why block a violent act—like a punch—when there are so many “safe spaces” to create and to occupy that will allow the attack to fail? Why not choose a subtle approach if a subtle approach is better? Why focus on beating an attacker when the real goal is to win?

In the case of Elemental, the analogous threat is sexual (or gender-based) violence. We must recognize the availability and importance of all of the desirable outcomes that do not constitute sexual violence, and the different paths that can lead us there. Those are our safe spaces. Given the circumstances, what are our goals? To get to lights and people in a public space? To bring in a bystander? To meet people and be friendly, but not physically intimate? To preserve a friendship or other relationship? To defuse an awkward situation and still feel good about how things went the next day? To stop the manipulative pressure that someone is applying? To have a particular kind of consensual sexual encounter?

All of these constitute different kinds of “safe spaces,” many of which can be reached with the right attention, timing, positioning, and words. Many may never require a knee strike or a palm-heel to the nose. Elemental focuses on training in the former while acknowledging that, for some people in some circumstances, the latter may be the best option. All can be effective; peer-reviewed evidence for our own program and others suggests so. However, we are far more interested in what can be gained through approaches like eating chips (well, other than additional pounds) than by drawing a katana in a crowded rail car.

That is one path to ending violence—and that is good budo. We aren’t fighting the threat. We are achieving our own goals. Rather than making knee-jerk destructive reactions, we make choices that get us to safe space. That is the difference between creating weapons and empowering champions.

~The Directors


Our Namesake’s Roots in a Flexible, Unorthodox Art

If you have wondered why our program is named “Elemental” and what that means, you are not alone. Many of you who read these posts have a background in martial arts from the east Asian traditions, and, although you may know how elements play into understanding of problem-solving strategies, may wonder why it would be important for a sexual assault protection program to carry that title. In contrast, those who have interest and expertise in the science of sexual assault understanding and prevention may wonder what “elements” are and why we have found the model useful.

Different philosophical traditions—particularly those that are tied to ways of truth-seeking that predate modern scientific methods—have modeled the irreducibly fundamental components of the universe in different ways. For example, in the traditions of the ninja warriors of the Iga region of Japan, the energies of the universe could be conceptualized as five basic elements: earth, water, fire, wind, and “ku” (the last being a “great emptiness” from which the others are derived). For our purposes, each of these elements is associated with a different attitude and motion that is used in the course of solving a problem. If one is operating from the earth element, one is confident, commanding, and holds one’s ground. In contrast, if one is surprised, perhaps a bit unsure of oneself, and needs time to step back and strategize to respond to a problem, one is operating in water. If one is engaged, can see where things are headed, and knows what will happen next so well that moving forward and consuming space allows oneself to “snuff out” the problem before it grows, then one is operating in fire. If one is so compassionate that one is willing to abandon space in order to achieve one’s goals, then one is operating in wind. It is important to be able to pick the best solution to the problem based not only on one’s own feelings, but on the characteristics of the threat. After all, holding one’s ground (even if one’s usual, most comfortable operating mode is earth) would be a terrible idea when faced with a swinging wrecking ball or a speeding truck. Regardless of which element is chosen, the way in which that element is manifested need not be violent. The path to the ultimate goal may not require brutality, and, as such, focusing on the best way to attain that goal becomes most important. This makes right-mindedness—rather than physical technique—most critical.

One of the many things that we find fascinating about this is that, when it comes to teaching self-protection from sexual assault, we understand that students have different attitudes and the situations that they encounter have different requirements. Some students are confident, others need time to think and react, others are very engaged and are apt to recognize and shut down a problem early, and others just want to vanish in the breeze when trouble comes. An element-based art recognizes that all of these responses are valid and potentially effective. As such, both in word and in action, we feel that students are more apt to find parts of the curriculum that resonate with them (and with the needs of the situations that they face) when they are afforded flexibility and choice in response mode instead of being told that they must do defense “B” when faced with situation “A.” Moreover, because we focus on giving students the tools to accomplish their own ultimate objectives using nonviolent response options, they are empowered to try things that they are more likely to use. Moreover, they develop the sensitivity to deploy tactics earlier in interactions in order to avoid escalation to emergency levels. The goal, after all, is to empower students to find consent in their relationships and, when that is not possible, still return home happy, healthy, and safe.

~The Directors