Friday, May 21, 2010

Basics in Silat Sera - Mental Aspects

More from Todd and Tiel:


Everyone who does martial arts or combative sports for even a little while has more physical technique than he or she will ever need. If the basics are practiced and practiced until they are ingrained and the student can perform them under stress in response to a wide variety of situations not much else is needed. The important arena for training at this point is the practitioner's mind.

There are several things to be concerned about. Will the student be able to perform under stress? Will he or she be emotionally prepared to deal with hostility in a productive and efficient manner? Will the effects of combat be psychologically harmful or will they foster personal growth? Colonel Grossman's excellent book "On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill" addresses these in great detail as does his companion set of tapes "The Bulletproof Mind".

Historically many cultures have turned to religion to provide the training needed to deal with these stresses. The traditional Japanese bujutsu have close ties to esoteric Buddhism. The high art of Spanish swordsmanship used techniques from Hermetic philosophy to develop mental discipline and emotional detachment in its exponents. In Indonesia a variety of Animist, Hindu and Muslim practices have been associated with the practice of different schools of Pencak Silat. The Navaho and Apache nations have a variety of rituals which allow a warrior to leave normal society to practice war and then to reintegrate and leave behind the terrible things he may have had to do in combat.

Serak in this country is, as we have said, strongly bound up with the history of the de Thouars family. The de Vries and de Thouars families were and remain Christians. Animist and Muslim exercises were not appropriate to their religious faith, so they have not been transmitted. A variety of techniques and guiding principles have been included in the training methods which have the effect of helping the student develop the proper attitudes and mental attributes.
Progression from Tyro to Pendekar

Many martial arts, whether or not they have named ranks and certification, recognize that beginning students are different than intermediate students. Further, once a student has completed the art's formal curriculum there are broad classes into which the practitioner falls. Guru Plinck sometimes divides it up into five major phases:
The beginning student can't perform the techniques that make up the system. If he can fight it is because of what he brought with him.
Next, a student develops the ability to move according to the curriculum and principles of the art. He can't make it work yet and hasn't developed the mental attributes. He can't fight but can get hurt.
A practitioner who has developed the physical portion of the art and internalized it can fight if she has been well trained and will have good, strong intention. A knowledgeable observer will recognize her as an exponent of the style. This is the stage where someone with the inclination becomes a teacher.
With increased understanding and maturity the physical form starts to dissolve away. The practitioner doesn't show form any more but demonstrates intention.
At the higher levels intention and form disappear. Movement and technique become whatever is called for by the situation. Set attitudes and patterned movement have served their purpose as training aids and are no longer required. In Indonesia this is about the time that one is called a Pendekar (literally "Skilled Mind").
Needless to say these build upon one another. There is no way around the hard and sometimes boring work of practicing form and drills until they become automatic. And there is no short cut through the harder work of developing mental toughness and focus.
Create a Little Self That Does the Fighting so the Rest of You Can Be Quiet

Practice outside of class time is essential to advancement or even to keeping one's skills. We have been advised to do something every day and that practicing the djurus in combination with our langkas is the best single exercise.

How this is done is at least as important as what we are to practice. Small sessions spread through the day in one's regular clothes and without excessive warmup is best. That way Silat is something that isn't done in a special place, with special clothes or equipment. It is a small but constant part of our consciousness at all times. In case of an emergency it becomes easy to switch over from normal ways of thinking to trained responses.

In time it becomes easy to move from whatever one is doing to complete attention on Silat and back without wasting any time or effort on the transition. It is as if a small piece of the mind is constantly doing Serak in the back of one's mind. When called on it handles the fight and then returns control to the part of the mind which handles normal concerns.

Straight to the point - Intention

Silat teachers are full of short pithy sayings that illustrate important ideas. One of the best comes from Todd's first guru, Brandt Bollers "Attitude without technique beats technique without attitude." The will and strength of character needed to assess a situation, step right in, and end it without malice or hesitation is the heart of Serak. The curriculum is just an efficient means to that end.

The first sort of footwork new students learn is langka jalur - the straight line. The first djurus teach the student how to enter efficiently and seize the initiative. This begins to change the way the student views the world. When in fear or doubt she learns to move forward with a goal in mind and without hesitation. Even when evasion is taught the smallest possible displacement is used, and only if it puts the student in a stronger tactical position.

As we have discussed elsewhere students learn to cover entire lines and planes and to hit in a manner which closes off the opponent's attack rather than blocking and then countering. Through these training progressions a goal-oriented mindset is encouraged.

"You are the director. He is the directee." "If you're not in control you're out of control." These are some of the slogans that get reinforced time and again in Serak training. All of the technique and curriculum we have seen so far has been designed to put the practitioner further in control of the situation with every action.

This is not to say that one has a plan for how each encounter will go. A fight is a chaotic, unpredictable affair where anything can happen. There is no faster way to go wrong than to assume that everyone else will do exactly what you want.

The art stresses gaining control first of oneself, then of the other people involved in the confrontation. Developing proper structure ensures that you can make the best use of your own physical resources. Understanding of position, timing and distance allows you to choose the time and order in which things happen. Physical techniques which increase your options while decreasing the number of things that the opponents can do give you more freedom and them less. Forcing the opponents to react to you rather than the other way around gives you more power to decide what will happen next.
Soft Focus

In combat what you don't notice can kill you. Obsessive attention on one thing - one opponent, one direction, one technique, one of anything - can lead to a variety of bad consequences. So students are taught to use a soft focus or their peripheral vision. Techniques for this include looking down so that other peoples' movement is seen only with peripheral vision, using the senses of touch and balance to address closer opponents and the eyes for further ones, and constantly moving the gaze around so that it doesn't rest on just one thing.

In a similar vein students may have to perform with distractions. Doing broken rhythm timing while music with a strong beat is playing in the background. Sparring in an area with obstructions and uneven footing. Djuru Sempok - an exercise which develops kicking and footwork skills - mixes several langkas. Sometimes the upper and lower bodies are done on different platforms.
Deception Without Faking

Sera is known as the decoy system, and many of the training methods develop the ability to trick or deceive opponents. But the principle of no wasted motion is also obeyed. Sera training tries to satisfy these two demands by teaching deception that does not involve fakes.

A student might alter the timing between parts of an attack so that the second part is on the way before it should be. Or lines might be left open in order to goad an attack. Body and foot placement can be altered to make an opponent think that the distance and time are different than they actually are.

A classic introductory technique involves letting the opponent apply angle and leverage on himself in a throw. The practitioner directs the defender's hand to a weak portion of the defender's tiga and lets go of it. For just an instant the defender is off balance even though nobody is actually keeping him there - time enough for the attacker to complete a sweep from an angle that shouldn't be possible.

Detachment With Complete Attention

Becoming a good Serak player is a balancing act.

Skill, understanding, and knowledge have to be at about the same level. Obsessive attention or too-tight focus can blind you to what is going on around you, and making assumptions can be fatal. On the other hand, in a serious violent encounter you can not afford to let your attention wander even for an instant.

A fighter who is careless or doesn't take the situation seriously is already in trouble. But letting emotions rule you is just as dangerous and makes you easy to manipulate.

The ideal in this system is to develop complete attention to the matter at hand while cultivating emotional detachment from the situation. This is one of the things that a student really needs a guru for as it is very hard to learn on one's own. A thousand little adjustments have to be made to develop the right habits of thought and reaction through slight changes in the drills and exercises and their effect on the student.
The Mind Controls the Body, but the Body Trains the Mind

We heard this saying from three different people at about the same time. One was Guru Plinck talking about martial arts. The second was a good friend who is active in traditional Sufi spiritual training. The third was Tiel's grandfather who has spent much of his time since retirement working at a Chinese Buddhist monastery. It's an important lesson which we have become more aware of as we have done more Silat.

There are many ways to develop a person's capabilities. The good ones tend to exercise everything - the body, the mind, the emotions, intution, everything. The quickest way to develop this is through the body. Things that are associated with repeated physical action are learned most thoroughly. This includes the emotional states and habits of thought that are so important in activities like military training or martial arts education.

And it's the most honest. There is nothing so effective as an elbow to the head to tell you that your attention has wandered. We lie to ourselves all the time with words. It is much harder to lie with actions.

In Serak the training methods reinforce the ways of thinking and reacting that the student is supposed to develop. The simple physical act of getting in close and taking control right away and cutting off the lines of attack while hitting the opponent force the student to think differently from the first day. To think and act more like a Sera player.

A natural reaction to having someone closer than a normal conversational distance is to back up. Crowding a victim is often the first aggressive act a criminal performs to test for weakness or to intimidate. The physical actions a beginning Serak student performs again and again change her reaction to this stimulus. "He's too close. I'm afraid," becomse "He's close enough to hit. Now I'll make him do what I want."


Rules and conventions are a sticky area in serious combatives. In a teaching situation there have to be rules for safety and a certain amount of predicatability so that students can concentrate on absorbing the lesson. In confrontations where the aim is anything other than killing the other person as quickly as possible there are conventions, seldom stated but always there. A person who wants to live in society has to understand and follow certain rules of behaviour.

For example, there are rules surrounding self defense. Even if you know someone wants to hurt you you can't lie in wait and stab him in the back, poison his food, or offer him a beautiful book and strike him down when he goes to pick it up. All of these are techniques which exist in traditional martial arts in Indonesia, China, and Japan. These would all be more effective than waiting until he presents "an immediate and otherwise unavoidable threat of death or serious bodily injury". Violating these conventions pushes you beyond the pale of civilized people, and you are treated as a thug.

A similar dynamic applies in the practice of Serak. A skilled fighter (and the assumption is always that the opponent is skilled) can tell what the most efficient action is in any situation. If you always do the predictable thing the enemy will always know what you are doing - a situation to be avoided.

On the other hand, someone who is completely unpredictable will put himself in danger and miss opportunities to gain an advantage. So there has to be a level of discipline and regularity, especially at the lower levels of training. A player who never uses deception can be read easily. But a player who uses it too much will find that others won't believe him. In short, Serak teaches how to use rules by following them and by breaking them. The skill lies in knowing when and how to do each.

It has become a bit of a joke in Silat circles that the highest compliment that you can pay a pesilat is to say "You can't do that! That's not fair!" Those who want further instruction are invited to sample the teachings of Guru Newman and Guru Redford in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid". Pay particular attention to the scene where someone challenges Cassidy for leadership of the gang…

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