GW: Hello sword people this is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy, and I hope your 2021 is getting off to a better start than 2020. To help you with that, as you may already know, I have put together a collection of free courses on joint care – so how to look after your arms and legs, also breathing exercises, meditation and basic classes in longsword and rapier. So, if that sounds like your sort of thing, toddle along to go.guywindsor.net and you can get your free courses there.
Today’s interview is with Rory Miller, who is a self-defence expert and author. He wrote one of the best books on martial arts ever written, which is Meditations on Violence. We’ll get into that in the interview. But it is normal when running this kind of podcast that you have a bit of sort of pre-interview chat. And as is often the case with people like Rory, the pre-interview chat got into places where I just had to share it with you. So instead of having a normal introduction where I go on about what a wonderful person the person in that interview is, and then I start a formal interview, this kicks off with him literally just pouring coffee and talking about roosters and then gets into some stuff that I have absolutely no idea we were going to be talking about, but I thought it was too good not to share. So without further ado, please welcome Rory Miller and settle in for some roosters and catamarans. You’ll see.
RM: All right. I’m pouring coffee and there may be roosters.
GW: Oh, well, that just adds depth and interest to the soundtrack. So that’s great. Roosters are good. So how have you been? It has been ages.
RM: It has been ages. My big adventure last year sailing from South Africa to Florida.
GW: You’re kidding.
RM: Yeah. First sailing trip was transatlantic.
GW: OK, I’m going to have to put that into the interview. That’s just too weird. South Africa?
RM: Yeah, well, this is the joke. And it’s weird because when you tell the story the same way every time it’s like, you know the feeling when you find out that you have really rich friends? Because I knew they were doing well, I didn’t know that they were doing “having a custom catamaran commissioned in South Africa” well. And he called me up and asked if I was interested in crewing it back. And how can you get an opportunity like that and say no, you’d be kicking yourself. So I flew to South Africa and got on a catamaran. First time on a catamaran. First time sailing. I mean, I went out for an afternoon sailing when I was a kid 30 years ago, 40 years ago now. And it was amazing. And then I came back just as the coronavirus hit. So my state’s been pretty much locked down, which is not that different than the way I live most of the time – I’m a hermit up on my mountaintop – but no travelling, teaching. I think I’ve taught three seminars this year. I miss the travel.
GW: Oh God. Me too. Yeah. I was teaching at an event in Portugal the day before yesterday, but of course I was just in my study for two hours instead of actually being in Portugal interacting with Portuguese people and drinking Portuguese wine. I was just in my study. Not the same at all.
RM: So where are you in the world now?
GW: Me? I live in Ipswich, UK.
RM: OK, because last time I saw you, I think you were in Finland and you were thinking about moving, but I didn’t know if you’d actually done it yet. I don’t pay attention.
GW: Yeah, when we met in Belgium, I was still living in Finland. But by the time we had lunch in Seattle, I’d been moved to England for a year or two.
RM: And I probably asked at the time and just forgot it.
GW: I do the same because honestly, do you actually care where I live? Not unless you’re visiting.
RM: It’s not a huge effect on my life.
GW: Exactly. Yeah. It’s funny because I normally start these interviews with a question like whereabouts are you? And then you just threw it at me. Hang on, who’s interviewing who?
RM: Do you realise how many times in these interviews I’ve attempted to turn it into a counter interview just to practise?
GW: Well, you’re perfectly welcome to do so.
RM: I’ll be good. But it is hard not to practise.
GW: Indeed, that’s exactly it. It’s hard not to practise. Once you’ve really grokked the whole thing…
RM: When you look at it right and you’re thinking everything is practice, it’s like every way you move is the way you move. I was taken on a walk with one of my hosts in Scotland and I did not even realise I was doing it because I’m walking along a handrail doing the little strike you do with the little bone at the end of your wrist. I’m doing that on the handrails as we walk. And he goes he goes, if I’m doing the maths in my head, you’re getting about 6000 reps a day and you don’t even notice it.
GW: Exactly. Yeah. It’s like just walking upstairs. Or getting through a door is one of my favourites. If you open the door you have to turn the handle, you have to move the door, you have to get round the door, you have to close the door. And if you do the whole thing properly, there’s no resistance from the door and you don’t bang your face on the door and you don’t touch the door with your foot and whatever. And it is just so like the getting control of the weapon, moving round the back and going for the neck or whatever, the footwork is the same, a lot of what you’re doing with your hands is the same and you get that same kind of real world feedback as the door doesn’t know that it’s supposed to be cooperative.
RM: Yeah. And we do the same. One of the reasons I open doors for people is not necessarily that I’m polite, but if you open the door correctly, you get a 360 degree scan and no one notices you’re doing it.
GW: Right, exactly, as you know, there are a few people in the world who, if we’re in a restaurant, I am perfectly happy for them to take the chair facing the door, looking out into the room. And I am quite happy that my back’s to the room, because I know that that person is much better at checking out the environment than I am. You are one of those people, Rory.
RM: Oh, cool. And I almost never sit in that chair because if I was going to be a bad guy, that’s the person I’d shoot first. Just automatically.
GW: I noticed that when we were in that restaurant in Seattle, eating Ethiopian food, wasn’t it?
RM: Yeah, yeah.
GW: That was really good. But you were not sat in the paranoid place.
RM: Yeah. If you’re with someone you trust, you don’t have to because they’ll tell you everything that is going on. But even if you’re with a stranger, if there’s something going on, their face will change. You’ll know – you don’t need to see everything yourself. And I try to really push this with the tactical jerks. Anything that you think that you’re doing because it’s tactical, if you can do it and be invisible, it’s 10 times better. If I’m really paranoid with my wife – we went back to an environment that the running joke had been, I can’t go back there until more people have died. After 30 years, we did go back and my wife said I did not like your personality change. I do not like the person you are when you’re there. And I didn’t notice it until I just habitually (I hadn’t done this for years) threw my sunglasses on the table upside down, so I could use it to see what was behind me.
GW: That’s not the kind of place you really want to spend much time if you can avoid it.
RM: No, it was fun at the time that I was a 22 year old…erm, I was a 22 year old.
GW: Yes, the idiot part could just be left out. It’s understood. Well, you brought up your wife and the first thing I ever heard about your wife was in the back of Meditations on Violence. She says that it’s easy to understand Rory if you work from the assumption that he was raised by coyotes. I think I might have a very slight inkling as to what she’s talking about, but would you care to expand on that a bit?
RM: I guess. I was raised in the desert in eastern Oregon. It’s not a Gobi Desert. It’s like a cowboy desert with tumbleweeds in the sagebrush. And it was the seventies so everyone knew the world was going to end any minute. And my parents bought into that. And so they got 80 acres. And we spent the time basically homesteading, built our house that had contractors work on a lot of it, no running water, no electricity, grew our food, hunted. So the really formative early adolescent years, I was almost completely alone. We did have a school, we went to school, but I was not peopling well. I was pretty feral, let’s put it that way, and I think I learnt more. There’s one of the stories I told her: coyotes were a problem in the sense that they would kill baby calves and they would kill sheep. And so every so often the local ranchers would get together and they’d hire someone with a helicopter and someone else with a rifle, and the helicopter would go shoot coyotes. And I was spending a lot of time, just a lot of that adolescent energy, I would go out at night and I would just run through the desert in the moonlight. I would spend hours at night just trying to burn off energy. And I would listen. And if you listened, you’d hear the high-pitched yapping and howling from the coyotes and the deeper pitched noises. And it turned out that what appeared to be going on was that the male coyotes were leading the helicopters away from the dens so almost everyone they killed was a male and they were deliberately staying away from their families to keep them safe. And that taught me more about parenting and what a man’s job is than anything I ever learnt from humans up to that point. So I told her that story and she just started saying that it’s easier to understand me if you figure out that I was raised by the coyotes, than if I was raised by people.
GW: It is the tragedy of being a bloke in that kind of standard, gender normative culture, is I know perfectly well that if something bad happens at my house, it’s my job to slow things down so my wife can get the kids out the back. It’s baked in, somehow.
RM: Until we had seven billion people it made sense. Men are expendable. Genetically women are less expendable.
GW: So we seem to have accidentally started the interview without me actually doing the usual intro stuff. But that’s fine. I’ll add that in later. And you mentioned your sailing trip. That’s not something I was expecting to talk to you about today, but I can’t resist. So you’re on a catamaran going from South Africa to the States.
RM: Fort Lauderdale.
GW: That must have been a totally immersive learning experience.
RM: It was amazing because it was brand new to me. I had no clue what I was doing. I still don’t know the names of all the ropes and parts. It was a maiden voyage. So the number of things that broke down was shocking.
GW: It’s the shakedown voyage, right?
RM: Yeah. We ended up spending a week in St. Helena hoping a part would come in before we gave up and just went without it. St. Helena is one of the most remote places in the world. It is amazing, it’s this little British colony in the middle of the Atlantic. Just beautiful, tiny, the most diverse ecosystem I’ve ever seen in a place that small. Sailing itself, there are colours of blue that I had never imagined. The phosphorescence. I had seen phosphorescence in the wake in the Caribbean before, but never the little flashes of sparkles. I had not seen those before. I’d never seen waves crash and had the outline looked like a glowing green foam horse. It was epic and magical. One of the things I’m using or teaching now as an exercise, because I realise I used to do it: there’s a lot of things that you did and then you never realise you’re doing it because it’s so natural. But one of the things within any situational awareness class, they’ll tell you to set a baseline to look for any deviation from the baseline, but they almost never tell you how to set the baseline. And so one of the first things on night watch is sitting there and just really, really listening and realising that every single sound means something. And I would try to figure out what does this sound mean and that tunes you into what’s going on and we forget that everything means something. It doesn’t mean it’s important. But anything that touches your senses came from something. And that so that was incredible and yeah, we had some rough water, we set a speed record for that style of catamaran, it was just a super great trip.
GW: How many were you on the boat?
GW: OK, so I guess you knew each other really well by the end by the end of it?
RM: By the end of it we knew each other pretty good.
GW: So you sailed to Fort Lauderdale and then made your way home to somewhere in Oregon, is that correct?
RM: I say Oregon because several people have heard of Portland, Oregon, but no one’s heard of the little town I live in. So I’m twenty five miles from Portland, but I’m actually in Washington state.
GW: OK, I have friends in the liminal space between Oregon and Washington, closer to Portland, but still in Washington. So I understand you live out in the country with goats.
RM: Yeah, if this was a video interview, I would take to the computer outside now and show you the view, because it’s all green trees. The sun’s coming out, we’re on a slope facing south. And it’s just really gorgeous right now. We have a very heavy frost on the deck.
GW: So you chose the place because it’s beautiful and convenient? What brought you there?
RM: At the time I was working in the jail it was urban. Anyway, I wanted a place where I could go and not think about that. And the thing that actually sold us on this was the deck, because this is a perfect cigar and whisky deck.
GW: You know, I have an exercise called “Whisky and cigars”. You sit on the floor and your legs are up and you pretend you’re in a leather armchair with a whisky in one hand and a cigar in the other. And of course, keeping your legs up, resting on an imaginary silken footstool, you reach behind you for more whisky and you reach behind you for more cigars. Leading a class through this you just relax since it is the trick of it. You relax into it. It’s not actually very strenuous. Until you know the trick of it, it is really hard. So you get to kind of sit there and have this relaxed, amusing conversation, mostly with yourself. And the class is sweating and squealing and it’s super fun. But yes, whisky and cigars are so important they’re baked into my very training curriculum.
RM: Yeah. A nice static V-up.
GW: Exactly. And of course, there are variations where you tie an imaginary rope around your legs and you have to pull your legs up higher and it is super fun because visualisation is everything, right?
RM: Yeah, visualising. Weirdly, I don’t know if I wanna go down this track, but I can’t visualise the way I used to.
RM: Because I used to practise the visualisation, you know, trying to trying to get the look on the guy’s face, you know, the scars, the smell, I would try to get every single detail. And now when I visualise a problem, it just comes to me as vectors. It’s very abstract, it’s just energy moving in directions, and that’s what I’m doing for visualisation now. I don’t know exactly when it changed. Because I used to be heavily into visualisation and guided meditation.
GW: So what were you visualising, an assailant?
RM: Visualising an assailant or usually problem solving – if this happened, what would I do? So I’d try to imagine the situation as accurately as possible. But now it’s just energy and vectors.
GW: OK, well, that is that’s more generally applicable.
RM: I think. It’s just weird.
GW: Maybe you just got to a certain point where the specifics don’t really matter anymore.
RM: I think that is part of it because a lot of specifics don’t. The first several times the smell and the sounds and the details are part of the things that build up fear. And once you get a little bit more past that, they become less relevant. You realise the fear is actually the shiny thing coming at your stomach. I don’t give a shit if the guy has rotten teeth or not.
GW: OK, so you’re in Oregon on this lovely farm and you started out in the wilds being raised by coyotes. So what happened in between? How did you get from one to the other? I know you have a background in corrections.
RM: I went to college. I graduated when I was 16, I turned 17 that summer and started college, I thought I was going to be either a spy or a marine biologist, which is kind of typical for a 17 year old. I stayed in college as long as I could afford it. And then when I couldn’t, I would drop out and go get a job for a year or however long it took to get enough money to go back. During that time, I joined the National Guard. I met my wife. We’re still together 34 years.
GW: She must be a very patient woman.
RM: Yeah, that is the sterling quality, the ability to put up with us. And I’m just assuming that you chose as wisely as I did. So she has the same story.
GW: Well I’m only at 14 years and counting, but yes, no plans to change.
RM: Yeah. So. The corrections thing was during the Kuwaiti war, I was in the National Guard, we were a desert trained anti-tank unit. I was a Medic. And Kami and I decided to get married because if anything bad happened to me there would be no benefits, and then we didn’t get activated. The first air strike wiped out all his tanks, which is what we specialise in killing. And suddenly it’s like, oh, my God, I’m married. I need a real job. And so the corrections was the first job that came through.
GW: So you went and trained as a prison guard?
RM: I got hired as a corrections deputy. So in our system we have a difference between jail and prison. So jail would be what you call “remand” in the UK. So we get everyone fresh off the streets right after they’re booked, and that’s where the most of the fighting experience comes in is right after the arrest because they’re pissed off, they’re angry. They still have drugs in their system. If they do, they’re still drunk. They’re angry at the police. But the police had guns. And so the first person in uniform they’re going to see when the handcuffs come off are two unarmed corrections deputies. And that’s why so much experience concentrates in booking. However big your city is, the two guys working booking have about as much experience in hand-to-hand force instance, as your entire patrol district combined. I’ve been teaching one class with a friend in corrections and we were teaching an enforcement team and they had 120 years of experience between them and each of us alone had more uses of force than all of them combined.
GW: Wow. OK, so that’s where you picked up your emphasis on unarmed self-defence against various attacks.
RM: Well, that’s where I got the perspective.
GW: I know you’ve also trained martial arts. You’re known as the self-defence guy, I don’t think that’s a fair characterisation, but that’s what everybody who I’ve met and mentioned you to, that’s how they kind of pigeonhole you in their heads. One of the things that I’d like to do in this interview is broaden out that pigeonhole by several orders of magnitude. So you were working as a corrections officer training martial arts on the side.
RM: I trained as soon as I got to college. Where I lived was too small. There was no martial arts within one hundred miles. So as soon as I got to college and I needed to get my temper under control and I’d heard that that was a great way to do it. And again, this was just at the start of the eighties. So martial arts were coming up as the way to become a complete human being. So I signed up. I didn’t even know that there was much of a difference between the different types of martial arts. And I happened to luck into judo. And the coaches at the Oregon State team at the time were a former West German Olympic team member and former junior national champion in the US. So I lucked out into two extraordinary coaches
GW: That is pretty damn lucky.
RM: It was incredibly lucky because I probably would have become addicted to anything I started in, like most people, and they set a bar for what was acceptable instruction. And it was the thing that I loved about judo. It is just physics and physical conditioning. There’s no mysteries. There’s no bullshit. There is no way to say that you’re good. You’re going to be on the mat and you’re going to prove it every day. And I love that. I tried every other martial art I could find at the time and I played with all of them, I dabbled. But judo was my first love. And like a lot of obsessive martial artists that get hooked, sixteen, seventeen seems to be the sweet spot for people getting addicted to martial arts. I was obsessive, I did it all, it was my biggest hobby. There was one class I had to take three times because they kept scheduling it at the same time as the judo.
GW: It is easy to see which one is going to win out.
RM: So I was dropping into all the judo classes in the department in the morning and then working out with the club and the team at night and then taking every other martial art at the same time I could. So I took up judo and fencing in college and then when we moved up to Portland because I was looking for a job and Kami’s dad was really sick. I was looking for another judo club and I stumbled into a Jiu Jitsu club, which was again extraordinary. And I still think that Dave is probably the best fighter pound for pound I’ve ever met. And I’ve met some really good ones. I want to say he was a really good teacher, but turns out he was only a really good teacher for me. One of my friends who came up through the system with me at one point, I said, “He’s the best teacher,” and he said “No, he’s a terrible teacher. You’re the only one that understands a thing he says.”
GW: OK, would you like to give an example of that?
RM: I don’t know if I can, because it all made perfect sense to me.
GW: All right. Sure, You see that. I sometimes find it completely baffling that some instructors have any students, but those students clearly seem to be getting what they’re looking for out of someone who, to me, is speaking gibberish.
RM: Yeah. And Dave wasn’t speaking gibberish, he was just fun. And I think probably he was having so much fun that people had a hard time taking him seriously. He was like a kitten playing with ball of string every day. And someday you will be the ball of string and occasionally you got to be the kitten too.
GW: OK, so you were doing some classical Jiu Jitsu locks and throws and grappling and stuff.
GW: I imagine it would be a bit difficult to translate that to correction, because you’re not supposed to injure the inmates.
RM: Yeah, especially the classical stuff doesn’t have a lot of submissions. It’s the whole point. One of our sayings was “Samurai do not roll around on the floor like children”, but it actually comes from an environment where if you are that focussed on one person, you can get stabbed in the back because it was a battlefield. Battlefield systems are very different to duelling systems. So for emergencies, it was excellent. For handcuffing, it sucked. And I wound up studying Small Circle Jiu Jitsu, which I still think is the best thing I found for handcuffing. They are small joint specialists. And if you want to make a big guy put his hands behind his back with minimal injury, that’s the best thing I found.
GW: Small Circle Jiu Jitsu? I’ve not come across it.
RM: Wally J was a judo coach, he’s one of those guys like Custom Auto, who was never a champion himself, but he trained a shit ton of champions. And if you take a regular grip on a judo gi, one of the things he discovered was a lot of the things you want to do, you want to get the guy up on his toes. That’s where his balance is weakest. And it turns out instead of trying to lift or using the big muscle groups, if you just curl your little finger towards yourself you can make bigger people come up on their toes. If you think about a grip on a Japanese sword, it’s all that little finger. That ringing action, so he started using that as his symbol / idea. He was the first person I’ve ever seen that actually laid out a list of principles. A lot of people talk about principles-based teaching without laying out what their principles are. They have no clue. They’re just saying the word. And when he originally started Small Circle, he didn’t want a system. In classical Jiu Jitsu you can see this. There are no finger locks in this era because that one comes from a place where they were wearing gauntlets. So no finger locks. And then you get to this system which has a lot of finger locks because it was a wrestling control after the warring states period and then you lose them again when you get into sport because no matter how good you are, if you got two 200 pound guys grabbing fingers, something is going to break. So he wanted to basically make a package that you could put into any martial arts that you wanted and bring back the finger locks from your history. But it got so popular that people insisted on him making a system.
GW: I’ll have to look into that.
RM: Wally J, he was also just this really super fun person.
GW: OK, so Small Circle Jiu Jitsu, I’m making a note. The next time I see you, I shall make you dance on your toes with a judiciously applied finger lock.
RM: Have we done the lock flow drill and the finger dancing? I don’t think we’ve done those.
RM: Because I’ve not done this with you yet because it’s not a primary self-defence thing. So I tend not to do it at the self-defence based seminars. It’s more for professionals, but you can get actually really good at improvising locks under pressure very quickly if you play the right games.
GW: OK, well, I take that as a promise next time we meet, you can show me that stuff. Fantastic. You’ve written a lot about this and you brought it up earlier, the difference between what actually happens when you’re applying things and what happens within a martial art. And your book, Meditations on Violence, is really all about how a martial law is adapted for a particular context, and it may work in that context if you train it for that context, but it is not going to work somewhere else. You have a lot of experience of martial arts done in the dojo and actually dealing with seriously non-compliant people. So sparring is the closest we get in many martial arts to a truly non-compliant opponent. I’ve read pretty much everything you’ve written on this, but I’m guessing the listeners probably haven’t read all of it. So would you like to just go into the role of sparring in martial arts and how it relates to the real world?
RM: Yeah, OK, remember how you said the people peg me as a self-defence guy, not the martial arts guy? OK, so I’m going to hit into this a little bit. The only reason why this is even a question is because people want their martial arts to also be combat and fighting and self-defence and duelling. They want it to be all of these things. If you’re happy doing your martial art because it’s fun, that should be reason enough. It’s OK. And within that context, I think sparring is the most valuable part of martial arts because it’s the most fun. When you’re playing games, you ingrain movement patterns, you ingrain way better than you’ll ever ingrain it by trying to memorise it or figure out or take it too seriously. Having fun is essential learning, sparring is essential learning, sparring is essential playing. Where it gets weird is where people try to extrapolate that to other things that are not as related as they want them to be. So one analogy I’ve been using lately is, when you take high end sparring, when you take MMR or whatever, think of that as Formula One racing or rally racing. Self-defence is a lot more like four wheeling with a shitty car with engine trouble. We want the skills to be the same, but they don’t necessarily cross over. If you’re in the kind of shape that a professional fighter is in, what are the odds that someone is going to try to abduct you for a rape? It’s a different problem applied to different people. So I love sparring. It is fun, but throwing it into the sword world, which is way more your world than mine. And by the way, my wife is reading your book right now, the one on sword combat for writers. And so she actually wanted me to tell you it is fucking amazing.
GW: Thank you so much.
RM: So battlefield sword is different than duelling sword. It must be, there’s no place in the world where it’s the same. And so that’s also different than sword fighting for fun. She left the book out, so I was reading a passage out of it, but in your book, you point out that there are the two camps, when one says that sparring is super important, the other saying that sparring, unless there are dead bodies at the end of it, it’s not real, you don’t know if you’re learning anything. And so to that extent, even for duelling. Sparring and duelling are super closely related, the physical skills are the same. You’ve read Aldo Nadi’s book?
RM: OK, and his thing where he’s getting in that duel, his description of the, he doesn’t call it adrenaline, his description of that feeling of “Oh my God I’ve never done this for real,” he’s probably the best in the world.
GW: He was certainly the best in the world.
RM: And well, I don’t know if he was at the time as that was fairly early in his career.
GW: But, yeah, he was he was Olympic champion several times over. Yeah. He bled first.
RM: So it’s that doubt, right? And that’s the thing. But the skills were almost exactly the same, but he had to get over that mental thing and so duelling and sparring are super close. But the one thing that’s missing from sparring and one of the reasons why actually I’m probably the only one in the world that likes the “right of way” rule, is because the right of way rule is there to force you to act like the fear is there.
GW: What is the “right of way” rule?
RM: That you cannot counterattack someone after you’ve defended if they initiate the attack. One of my tests for a fencing instructor is if they can’t explain why the right of way rule makes it more realistic, not less realistic, then they don’t understand what’s going on. Because you only get one double kill in real life.
GW: And in sports epée, you know if you are one hit up and you can go for certain double hits, but it’s risky to go for a single hit, then the sensible thing to do is just go for doubles until you’ve got the required number of hits as well. So you win five four, but that’s nine bleeding wounds.
RM: And you’ve read Maija’s [Maija Soderholm] books, right? The Liar, the Cheat and the Thief, and The Hustler, and that’s what it’s all about, because between fencing and Japanese systems, she had to beat out of me the idea that a double kill was OK. As long as I touched her first, I was not caring if she touched me, she goes, “You can’t get away with that. You have to get in with enough skill and enough of an edge to also get out.” And that’s so freaking obvious. We would never plan a tactical mission without an exfiltration plan, without a way to get out, we’ve never considered that, it would be stupid. But I was doing it in sword sparring all the time.
GW: Wow. Yeah, that makes a certain kind of sense because, you know, like mountaineering, there’s no successful ascent without a successful descent, but everyone focuses on getting to the top of the hill.
RM: Yeah, and it’s not enough. It’s more important not to get cut than it is to cut the other person.
GW: Yeah, and the only reason you are trying to cut the other person in the first place is to stop them trying to cut you.
RM: Yeah, and especially in a world where an infection could kill you, you have to get out as much as possible unscathed. And going back to the other thing. This is a thing where we’re sparring in self-defence. And I’m not saying don’t spar when you’re thinking self-defence, but don’t take the assumptions or the expectations, because if we’re sparring, you’re going to be in front of me. We’ve agreed what to do or what’s allowed and what isn’t, we’ll have equivalent weapons or there might be weight classes, but we have all these variables under control. When it’s self-defence, generally, you aren’t having your best day, you’re injured, for some reason you’re distracted. The other guy has no interest in being fair. You mentioned full resistance and sparring is one place where we work against full resistance, and that’s one of the things that always glitches on me because generally in an attack, the person is not resisting their assaulting. And so the difference between someone trying to stop you from throwing them or locking them or hitting them, and someone who doesn’t give a shit because they’re pretty certain that if they hit you hard enough or fast enough you won’t be able to do anything is a huge qualitative difference that most people never experienced. And one of the things within training, anything that’s intense, feels more real – sparring at whatever level you do it is usually the most intense thing in your art. So you assume it’s more real. And when you get the notch beyond that, it’s actually not that closely related. So sparring is fun. It’s important. And the cross over to fighting if you want to get into bar brawls, yeah, that’s there. But for self-defence, you get to someone who outweighs you. One of my friends, she’s a woman, and her thing is my average appointment is twice my size, three times my strength. And he gets a first move from behind when I’m not ready.
GW: OK, so what is the best tool for the training that? Clearly not sparring.
RM: Well, probably the most effective is scenario training. You set it up, and scenario training has to be done super carefully, has to be done very well or not at all. They have to have enough clues to see it coming, if that’s what the bad guy would do. You know, if there’s an interview so that they can handle it at that stage. The bad guy has to be armoured to the point that you can unload all the way because otherwise you’re developing a habit of not unloading. You get to work those things from surprise and being stunned. And getting hit. So I think that’s the closest, but even that, everyone wants an answer. They want “This is the best way”, but it’s a lot like having kids. I don’t care how many classes you took or how many books you read, you are not ready for having kids the first time. And yeah, it’s the same no matter how hard you trained, your first time you get ambushed, you get assaulted, you get hit over the back of the head, it’s different and I think a lot of us who just have to accept it, but also accept that we’re animals, we’re good at this. And just because there’s no way to train for exactly doesn’t mean there’s no way to survive it, because we were we were surviving stuff like this for tens of thousands of years before training was even invented.
GW: That’s a fair point, and we have these inbuilt biological responses to things that allow us to be much stronger than usual and faster than usual, and we can run much, much longer, and much faster when we’re totally terrified.
RM: Yeah, we’re also more clumsy when we are terrified. So the part in the horror movies where the woman is running away and then she trips and falls, that is really realistic.
GW: On a course I was on, we did an exercise where you look at a point on the floor and spin round and round and round and round till you got really dizzy. And then work from that.
RM: That is like a concussion.
GW: Yeah. So you’re staggering about and it’s difficult and you still have to deal with the stuff that’s coming at you when your body isn’t working properly. Most of the listeners are sword people and you have mentioned fencing and so do you have any actual sword practise?
RM: Currently, when the weather’s nice, my wife and I go on the deck and grab a couple of cold steel wasters and smack at each other.
GW: That’s the way to stay married for 30 odd years, isn’t it?
RM: Yeah. Yeah, she’s still pretty frisky.
GW: Your Principles-Based Instruction is a fascinating book, basically about what you said earlier, that a lot of people who say that they are teaching principles actually can’t explicitly describe the principles they’re talking about. But what would you say the primary differences would be between teaching self-defence and maybe teaching a historical martial art?
RM: The primary difference is when you’re teaching self-defence, you’re teaching a student. When you’re teaching a historical martial art or any martial art, you’re teaching subject matter.
When I’m teaching Jiu Jitsu, there’s this information that’s been handed down for a very long time. It has to be handed down the same way because that’s what defines the art. When I’m teaching self-defence every student’s going to be targeted for different things. They have different resources that they bring to the table. And I have to do everything in my power to maximise their resources and get them to fit the situations that they’re likely to face.
GW: OK, now, I would so agree for the first while, but then there comes a point where, with the historical martial art, the student basically knows the material and understands where it comes from and knows that anything they do differently is sort of departing from the text. But still, once they get to a certain not-terribly-advanced level it is necessary to train them to fight, because what we’re really trying to do is recreate duellists.
RM: But again, it’s within the venue. Or another way to phrase it is teaching a martial art is teaching people to fight and win. Teaching self-defence is teaching people to cheat and survive.
GW: That’s a good way to put it. OK, Meditations on Violence is one of my absolute favourite books that without question, if I have a top 10 books every martial artist should read, it is in the top five of that top 10.
RM: What are your other four?
GW: Now, if you’re trying to turn it round on me… actually, we have a mutual friend called Kaja Sadowski, and her book, Fear is the Mind Killer, would certainly be in the top 10 as well.
RM: She’s on my list too.
GW: Yeah, so and also, listeners to the podcast, she’s episode five of this podcast, so, yes, you can go listen to that if you’re interested, as you should be.
RM: Or I could just call her.
GW: I was talking to the listeners. In Meditations on Violence at the beginning of the biography, you say, first off read a damn book. That’s actually fairly unusual advice from someone teaching something so super practical.
RM: Why would that be unusual advice?
GW: You can’t learn martial arts from reading a book can you?
RM: But that doesn’t mean you should not learn it.
GW: I know. I teach martial arts from books I’ve read. I mean, I’m the living embodiment.
RM: Do you? I’m disturbed by the number of people that think that they can learn by watching videos. And I’ve come to the conclusion that when someone says I’m a visual learner, what they’re really saying is I’m too lazy to work out. There is some stuff that’s kinaesthetic. You have to feel it to really get it.
GW: Absolutely. But for representing movement, it’s easier to teach a movement through video. I mean, I have books, I’ve written books, not just online courses and for reproducing a movement it is much easier for a student to reproduce it from seeing the video than from reading the book.
RM: Yeah, it’s really hard to describe movement in just words, but that’s absolutely true. But you should never stop learning, I mean, just full stop. You should never stop learning. And reading is one of the most information dense ways we can get there and most of what, for self defence in particular, by the time it goes physical, you’re so far behind the eight ball that your odds are pretty low. We did the design of crime in Belgium. And as none of you were actual professional criminals doing this for a living, this is the first time you would take somebody out. And how many people had a solution for the crimes that you came up with?
GW: Well, I played the victim for one group and I was a little old lady and they knocked on my door and I opened the door and that was that. It was really, really nasty.
RM: And so most of the stuff that actually is going to help you is going to come from being able to understand how criminals think, to being able to recognise a set up before it happens. So you can learn a lot of that by reading and listening to podcasts and talking to people. One of the ones that’s on my list, is a book called Inside the Criminal Mind. There are a whole bunch of psychologists that work in prisons and criminals practise manipulating them. They brag about this. They have contests about it. The author, Samenow, was one of the only ones I’ve ever known that realised he was being played. And that made him think about a lot of stuff and do a lot of research in ways, but he’s the best description of how high end criminals think. And so one of the reasons why I suggest that is there are a bunch of books written by criminals and you have to be careful because take Soledad Brother or George Jackson’s Prison Letters by George Jackson. He was a manipulative narcissist and a full blown antisocial personality disorder, but unless you realise that he wrote those to manipulate you, he wrote his books to manipulate you, the reader, you are the target. It’s really easy to fall for his bullshit. So that reading can really help you understand when you’re being played.
GW: Interesting. So why did you write Meditations on Violence?
RM: So 2002 was a really fucked up year. We delivered a baby in reception that was addicted to crack and heroin. My first body recovery with search and rescue. A friend committed suicide. And for the first time, things weren’t settling. I’ve always been really psychologically robust. I never took the fights home. There were horrible, horrible things we saw and they never affected me. For the first time, this stuff was not getting out of my head. It was staying there for the first time in my life. And I got tired of thinking about it internally. So I started writing it down and I just kind of vomited out all the stuff in my head because one of the other things is martial arts had always been the place I would go to get my attitude adjustment. I go there, I get slammed into the floor, get punched a lot, and I’d be happy.
GW: Every martial artist will understand exactly what you just said. And every non-martial artist is going, you what?
RM: Yeah. And so I was getting this, but it wasn’t for the first time, I was looking at (I hate using the word “brother” all the time) my martial arts brothers like, you have no clue what you’re fantasising about. You do not want this. I’m waiting for the lawsuit to come through. All the stuff that I assumed was going to mess up my life. So the place where I normally did my psychological healing wasn’t working for me. So I started writing. And originally I had no real intention to publish it. I figured when I actually raised a Jiu Jitsu student to blackbelt, I would give them that. And that would be all the stuff that you really can’t bring out in class. But when I got done with the first draft, I sent it to a couple of friends just to kind of get a check. And one of them was Chris Wilder and Chris sent it to the publisher. It was supposed to be a private little thing for me and Chris goes, yeah, I forwarded your email to my publisher, I just sent on to him. I hope you don’t mind.
GW: Wow. Yeah. That’s a really good friend or a really bad one either way.
RM: Yeah. It’s changed my life for better or worse. I don’t know.
GW: I know you’re big into books and reading and as a writer, obviously you have to absorb maybe 200 books for every one you produce, but you actually tried to get me to describe my top 10 books every martial arts should read earlier. And I went with Meditations on Violence and Kaja’s Fear is the Mind Killer. And of course, I have others, but I’d be very curious to hear what yours are.
RM: I thought about this and I don’t know if I can throw it out that way, because every different martial art has its own cannon, and there are some little gems, like for years and it still is my favourite book, was by a guy named Bartlett in the UK called Judo and Self-Defence. And it was basically set up as this hundred lessons to get to black belt, it was back when there was almost no organisation, it’s so old. It was basically a book on how to set up a club in the U.K. to become a judo guy, but even when I was on the team, whenever I was having trouble with the technique, I would look in there and he would have almost exactly whatever problem I was having. In the self-defence world in the US, at least, everyone should read Andrew Branca’s, Law of Self Defense. Kaja is on my list because it’s about how to teach students. There’s one conversation I want to have with her because one of her things is that fear is more limiting than rules, and most the people that I work with, fear is our primary motivator. It’s not an enemy, it’s a friend. It’s something that we use. So that’s a conversation, because one of the things she says in there that is super powerful is you have to change your students’ relationships with failure. Make failure a challenge where you learn stuff. I also feel that the second step is you have to change the relationship to fear.
GW: Yeah, it reminds me of Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear, which probably made my top 10.
RM: Yeah, I really like Gavin. I like everything except the last chapter. But if I saw my mom shot, I probably would have similar attitudes. So I have my list of four books everyone should read, martial artists or not. So that’s The Richest Man in Babylon. Like a lot of kids who are raised poor, I have this really fucked up relationship with money. That’s the best book I’ve seen on how money actually works and what it really is. Lakein’s How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life is the time management book that all other time management books are based on. How to Win Friends and Influence People, everyone should have read that.
GW: Yes, I have it on my shelf and I have read it, although it didn’t really chime with me, but maybe I just have no hope to win friends and influence anyone.
RM: Even if you don’t want to do it, it still shows the mechanism, you know, and it’s very, very powerful in the mechanism and the other one, really unfortunate title, but it’s called Think and Grow Rich. And that one, everyone that has followed the pattern in there has become incredibly successful.
GW: So I see there’s this quite a lot on that about time management and money. So if you don’t mind me asking about it, how do you actually make a living?
RM: Let’s see, for a while, I was making a living by being a jail guard. Then I was making a living by being a contractor in Iraq, and then I was doing it by seminars and books, and that was the weirdest because that’s the first time I’ve not been in sworn service in my adult life.
GW: That is a hard way to do it.
RM: It was scary. I was betting my family’s welfare on whether or not I can pull this off. And that worked. And, you know, I’ve had a pension waiting for me since I left the sheriff’s office and I decided to draw on it, started this year, which since covid would have sunk the seminar business, the timing was perfect. So I did 10 years on just writing and teaching. So I feel confident that I know how that works. And now it’s pension and writing.
GW: OK, so you’re actually making a living from your books. That’s excellent. So what is the next book?
RM: Almost. The one I’m in editing process – and you know how much I hate editing – the first draft of this has been done for almost two years now, but I’m calling it Glossary, a working title. It’s basically just a bunch of words and concepts that made life way easier to understand. They’re words, concepts, they’re also tools, like reframing. Once you realise that you don’t necessarily have to answer the question, if you can change the question. So reframe it. “Affordance” is one, so once I understood what affordance is, a whole bunch of things clicked into place. That my ability to do something with something is controlled by how I see it. If I can change how I see it, I can change my ability to use it. “Empiricism”, and in some of these I found the word after because one of my best professors at college said, I don’t care what you think, I don’t care what’s going on your head. If it’s not observable, it’s not real. I only measure behaviours. And that has been incredibly powerful for me.
GW: Yeah, particularly in the self-defence world that’s super important. The motivations of the person are important up to the moment that the fight begins because it helps you avoid it. But once it starts, you have to deal with the physical reality of their behaviour, not your idea about how they might behave.
RM: And even before the build-up, most of the time what people say is the reason that they’re mad is not the reason they’re mad. If you can discern the real reason they’re mad, you can solve that and they won’t even know it, and it’s a form of reframing.
GW: Now, we sort of stumbled onto the topic of the build up to violence and I have a Patreon that supports this podcast. And one of the patrons asked me to ask you about the effect of culture on the build up to violence and the exact form that the eventual violence may take.
RM: There’s a lot of cultural things that go into it, and one of models I use is social and asocial violence. In social violence they deal with you as a person, in asocial violence they are dealing with you as a resource or a toy. So one of the cultural things is if you’ve been raised that all people are people, your tendency is to be more social. Your violence when you do use it is for communication. You’re trying to teach them a lesson and control their behaviour. Actually the default for most of history, the idea that all people are people is fairly new, but if you’ve been raised that people that you aren’t related to aren’t real people, then you can use a much higher level of force with a lot less emotional repercussions and with lot less hesitation. One of the studies I ran into, said that the child soldiers don’t have PTSD because they aren’t killing people, they’re killing other members of tribes that don’t belong to them, but when they get adopted and resocialised, they get the PTSD retroactively. It’s horrific, but socially you can raise a kid to believe almost anything you can imagine about violence in a certain context. You can teach them that if it doesn’t have an element of violence, it’s not real love. And you see that all the time. So that’s part of it. The other part is that, and this is two ways, in a stable law and order society, we have expectations that violence is not going to happen. When that goes away, violence becomes a natural way to solve problems. It’s always been a natural way to solve problems. We don’t realise how artificial our society is. And artificial doesn’t mean bad in this context. Most the things we think of as good are unnatural because the natural default is lazy.
GW: Rape is natural, but it’s abhorrent. And it shouldn’t happen. But it’s natural. If we are not socialised not to do it we will end up doing it. And it is prevalent in every culture.
RM: One of the things in Kaja’s in book is consent is super important, but consent doesn’t exist in nature. It’s a human construct. And it’s a good human construct. I like it. So within that we have a tendency in this discourse into violence for writers, that idea we live in a very rarefied artificial bubble and it becomes really weird when we start extrapolating that to other cultures, other eras. So the social thing there is very, very cultural. There tend to be similar steps within the group because you don’t want to kill people within your own group. You don’t want to weaken them. And you don’t want to weaken your group and you don’t want them so pissed off that they leave. So there tends to be ritual combat within groups that’s not lethal, but there’s a huge argument that the reason for the lethal duelling in the 17th century and 18th century in Europe was because there were just too many sons to divide the land and they needed to kill off a lot of the nobility or else there’d be too many petty nobles running around.
GW: OK, that’s an interesting theory. Where did that come from?
RM: I’m trying to remember. I read a lot of books. I want to say it was Bayler’s book on the duel, which I don’t know if it’s any good or historically accurate, but it’s super fun. But I read a lot of books about the same time, about the same subject. I think 10 percent a year were dying, and that’s why I like it.
GW: Well, I mean, OK, the private duel has been illegal pretty much forever. The public judicial combat type duel was legal in most parts of Europe in some form or another until about the middle of the 16th century. And then even that became outlawed. And one of the reasons was the duellists were always of the upper classes. And although it was illegal, it was tolerated. And even the last duel fought in Scotland in the 19th century, the same judge who that morning had sent a little girl to Australia for, I think, seven years for shoplifting, pardoned or acquitted the surviving duellist because it was understood that it was a duel between gentlemen. And that’s OK, even though it’s technically murder. He got off. So it’s been illegal in most of Europe, but it’s always been sort of tolerated, and the consequences have been there, but not applied, sometimes it’s like, OK, you’re banished from the city for a year or whatever. But it’s a really strange social phenomenon.
RM: Is it strange or does it just look strange from our point of view?
GW: I mean, strangeness is a subjective value judgement, so from our point of view, certainly. Of course, if you’re in the middle of it, it feels natural or normal.
RM: I try to think from the historical perspective. Has there been duelling longer than there’s been not duelling?
GW: There has been duelling for a lot longer.
RM: So we’re the ones that are weird.
GW: OK, historically speaking, I suppose you’re right. This is a question I ask everyone and I’m very curious to see how you respond, so what is the best idea you haven’t acted on?
RM: I don’t know if it’s the best, but I get these ideas every so often. And one of those is, are you familiar with Snickers Bars?
GW: Of course.
RM: OK, so take out the peanuts, substitute coffee beans and sell them on college campuses.
GW: Oh, my God. You sir, are a genius.
RM: Yeah, I have no idea about how to act on that, but I think that would do great.
GW: I was not expecting that answer.
RM: Well, the other weird idea I had is I want an app called “I Sacrifice”. And so you get out your phone, you plug in the app, and then you type in what you want, like I want good traffic to go to work and then you decide what you’re going to sacrifice and how you’re going to do it. So it’s like, I want good traffic for work and I’m going to sacrifice a pigeon with a stone knife. And the app sacrifices a pigeon and plays mysterious music and says, the gods will grant your wish if that’s what they want.
RM: I think people would obsessively play with this app.
GW: I think they would and both of those are totally doable, right?
RM: I just don’t know how.
GW: OK, well, if anybody listening to this knows how, please to get in touch because we could make millions. So in the app there’s lots of different ways to sacrifice different things?
RM: So I thought, OK, well now a human sacrifice where you can sacrifice your own Facebook profile.
GW: Oh, wow. You know, I have been trying to get rid of my Facebook profile since forever, and every time I’m just about to delete it, some critical work thing comes up that I could only do with a Facebook profile. And I’m like, fuck, I was so close.
RM: I planned when I retired, which would be when I got back from the sailboat to throw a big party and delete it. But we now have the Chiron Training group on there and we do our chats and it’s like, well OK, yeah, we have it.
GW: We had a Facebook group for my online students and I’ve now started a Discord server thing instead. And I will actually go to that every day and chat to people or, you know, people ask questions about training or swords or whatever. And it’s fine because it isn’t Facebook, so it doesn’t have all of that stuff to suck you into ghastly times sucks and angst and misery.
RM: My attitude right now, and this has been really helpful, I’m now looking at Facebook as, oh, my God, this is monkeys flinging poo. Everything just shifts into perspective.
GW: In fact, the only thing I’m on Facebook for at the moment is, is Maija Soderholm has a private Facebook group discussing martial arts things, so I go to that. I bought a course to help me be better at my self-publishing side of things and their entire support structure is on Facebook. And to my mind, this is kind of lazy and unfair. If you sell somebody something, you should be there to help them solve problems with it if things don’t come out right. And one time some bit of the course wasn’t working properly. So I sent their support email a support request and was told, why don’t you ask it on the Facebook group? I didn’t want to know what other students and your customers think about solving this problem. I want you to solve this problem for me. Because I just paid you five hundred dollars. You know, I’m entitled to a little bit of actual support, I would have thought, but no, I just chuck it all on the Facebook and, you know, let the poo flinging monkeys help each other. That leaves a bad taste with this product.
RM: Everything about Facebook leaves a bad taste for me. It’s the number of my friends that evidently, if they’re hiding behind their keyboards are genocidal monsters. I don’t know.
GW: It’s scary isn’t it? Its founding DNA was created as an app for college boys to rate girls on their hotness and I think that has tainted its growth ever since.
RM: Yeah, maybe it’s just so much about people getting excited and angry and afraid right now, it’s just so emotional.
GW: Well, I mean, it’s the business model, they sell advertising, that’s how they make their money. And so getting you angry keeps your attention. If it makes you happy then you go away. There’s a wonderful book on it by Jaron Lanier called Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, which is well worth a look because it lays out the fundamental problems Facebook and Twitter might have. It is why I switched from YouTube to Vimeo because with YouTube it’s free and so I am providing content to suck people onto YouTube so that YouTube can serve up ads to sell people stuff. But on Vimeo, I pay Vimeo for the privilege of hosting my videos, so I am a customer and it doesn’t care whether I bring people onto my videos or not, because that’s not what they’re getting paid to do. They’re getting paid to provide a really good video hosting service. And that’s what they do. And with things like that I would much rather be the customer. OK, we are running a little over time. So let me just wrap things up by asking if there’s anything you’d like to suggest to or ask of the listeners.
RM: The same thing I always say, you know, get off your arse and actually do stuff. Go play. Play hard. Live hard. I think that’s my generic advice, except for, you know, shoot the one on the left, hit the one on the right and keep moving, which is my other.
GW: OK, get off your arse and actually do stuff. That’s an excellent place to finish. Thank you so much for talking with me today Rory. That was great.
RM: It’s good talking to you again, it’s been a long time.
GW: Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed my conversation today with Rory Miller. As you can tell from the tone of the interview, I certainly did. If you go along to guywindsor.net/podcast for the podcast, you get the episode show notes and also a chance to download a free copy of Sword Fighting for Writers, Game Designers and Martial Artists. And there is a Rory connection there, because in that book I reproduce with his permission an entire table of interesting things from his fantastic book, Meditations on Violence. That’s actually how we first properly interacted, is when I contacted him to get permission to use that table. By all means, go along to guywindsor.net/podcast for the show notes and that book. While I have you dashing about the Internet, you may also want to go along to go to go.guywindsor.net for your free courses on how to stay healthy and get started in swordsmanship. So joint care, breathing, meditation and longsword and rapier. Speaking of free, this podcast is of course entirely free, but it’s not cheap. So it costs quite a bit of money to produce it to the standard it’s at and I would like to put more money into getting it produced to a higher standard. I am working on getting some better recording equipment and getting some help with the editing. So if you’d like to help with that, please go to patreon.com/theswordguy and join our growing legion of avid Sword Guy fans. Patrons get basically first dibs on anything to do with the podcast, including suggesting questions for guests, asking follow-up questions for guests and asking me anything they want. And I record it and I stick it on the Patreon for them. So if that sounds like your sort of thing, patreon.com/theswordguy is the place to go. Thank you to all of my existing patrons. You are keeping the lights on and I really appreciate it. Tune in next week when I’ll be talking to Elena Muzurina. And we had a little chat at the beginning of the show before I recorded it. So I think I’ve got her surname more or less correctly pronounced. We have a very interesting chat about swordsmanship in Russia, and how she trains for tournaments. You may have heard of her because she’s won a bunch of stuff and we go into that in some depth and detail in our conversation next week. So to avoid missing out, by all means subscribe to this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. And while you’re there, if you would like to rate it or review it, that would be awesome. And without further ado, I will see you next week. Cheerio!