Training and the Milgram Experiment

The fist about to smash my chest was traveling close to the speed of sound. I sent it past me and it disappeared. I had done it a thousand times. I was barely able to do it this time. But I did it. Then I did it again. And again. The fist was my training partner’s. Sometimes it was his hand. Sometimes a foot or knee or arm, flying toward my body, appearing out of nowhere, crashing or grabbing or disappearing. 

For part of the class that night we worked on cat stance. Cat stance works as a pass-through position, as a moment in a continuous flow of movement. It does not function as a static posture. With the exception of naihanchi, no stance does. Cat stance, like all stances, is designed to form a stable body architecture at the moment of contact. A structure not subject to disruption. Not by a push – an incoming strike, shove or kick. And not by a pull – a grab, takedown, lock or throw. The posture will transform into another well-defined posture in response to the dynamics of the encounter, but it is designed not to destabilize. 

When you get a feel for how to use the stance it works great. But it takes work to get it. Getting the feel for coordinating the helical motion that starts at the waist, screws the weight down from the center of the body into the rear heel, and simultaneously propels power out from your center to the point of contact with the opponent – connecting root and center and waza at once – takes a little practice. But anyone can learn it. It’s not magic. It’s just skill.

After a long training, all of us soaked in sweat, legs already heavy with fatigue, we started kumite. We dug deep and kept on going. Our trainers seemed to know where our limit was, and how far we could push beyond it. Stinging, straining, rocked back or locked out, we went on. It was nothing we couldn’t recover from in a few minutes, or a day, or two. 

In our deep flow state the hours of training passed before we knew it. When we were done, we all felt elevated, relaxed and sharp. We knew the cycle: pressure, release, elation and peace.

In a few more minutes we were out on the street. The noise that rattled the day was gone like a thief in the night. Somewhere up above was an owl, calling out. The moon looked down. 

The day-long din of voices disturbing our peace and demanding our attention, the throb and grind of collapsing culture – desperate, charming, threatening, needy, greedy, recruiting one and all to its vast Milgram experiment* – vanished into the ocean of the night. 

The conspiracy to obliterate the still small voice in our hearts was losing its grip. We found its limit and broke its hold. In the moonlight we could hear that voice again.

We are free. We held the power that matters: to know what’s right and to do it.  

We could feel if not see that greed and hate fuel the engines of decay. They consume what they touch. Deception and force are their modes of operation.  Our neighbors who turn the wheels of power value these so highly, and use them so reflexively, they seem to be nothing more or less than the way of the world. Smart, sophisticated, necessary, real. The only way. 

When you are well-trained, when your mind is bright and clear, and the dust settles, and the spell is broken, it is easy to see they are not. 

Refining our spirit in the heat and pressure of training means purifying our senses, unifying our body and mind, and purpose. It is not aesthetic refinement. It is not self-satisfied. It is not limited to one small corner of the world. It is not self-congratulation for being special, or different, or better. It is not withdrawal into indolence or intoxication. It is a way to exchange the pursuit of pleasure and status and grievance for a purposeful life.

Refining our spirit means putting a sharp edge on the sword of our own natural wisdom, and putting our skill to work in the service of people who need it. 

Sure, we can train just to enjoy training – it feels good to be strong and alive. We can train for personal defense, and for victory. We can train to be healthy, confident and worthy of the trust our friends and neighbors and families place in us. 

We can train to preserve and protect the seeds of wisdom from harm until the time of renewal, when conditions will be right for them to take root and flower again. 

We can approach the threshold of liberation, tonight.


Post Copyright © 2021 Jeffrey M. Brooks, author of The Good Fight – The Virtues and Values of the Martial Arts.

Photo by Thao Le Hoan via Unsplash; detail


The Milgram experiment(s) on obedience to authority figures was a series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. They measured the willingness of study participants, men from a diverse range of occupations with varying levels of education, to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. Participants were led to believe that they were assisting an unrelated experiment, in which they had to administer electric shocks to a “learner”. These fake electric shocks gradually increased to levels that would have been fatal had they been real.[2]

The experiment found, unexpectedly, that a very high proportion of subjects would fully obey the instructions, albeit reluctantly. Milgram first described his research in a 1963 article in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology[1] and later discussed his findings in greater depth in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.[3]

The experiment was repeated many times around the globe, with fairly consistent results.[6]

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