Systema: Principles of the Russian System

Posted by James Williams on

If someone had told me a few years ago that out of a western Christian tradition would come a martial art as deep, sophisticated and evolved as the best of the oriental arts I would not have believed them. Yet there is such an art coming out of the ancient Russian culture with deep roots in the Russian Orthodox monasteries.

At its root in the present day is an exceptional man, Mikhail Ryabko. Trained by one of Stalin’s Falcons from the age of five and beginning his operational career in the Russian Spetsnaz (Special Forces) at the age of 15, Mikhail Ryabko was not only given the secrets of this ancient art, he was put in the position of repeatedly applying both the art and its principles in life and death combat on, what for much of his early life, was a day-to-day basis. This System, taught by Mikhail Ryabko, is not a shadow of what once was, it is a living practical art that even now is being applied by warriors in combat.

When working with Mikhail and his foremost student, Vladimir Vasiliev, one is struck by the calm depth of these men. Enormous knowledge and ability taught with calm, deep conviction Direct the eyes at a particular point in relation to your opponent (in many Koryu, you look at the distant mountain). If you need to pick up more information in another direction don’t move your eyes move your head. A small movement of your head will increase your field of vision much more effectively than moving your eyes around will. Moving your eyes from side to side to see different things in the moment can be compared to taking a picture in one direction, then turning and taking a picture in another direction. When you return to the first picture it has changed and there is no continuity for the mind to follow.

This leads to increasing the number of variables that the mind has to collate without continuity and it easily becomes overwhelmed by events. Defocus your vision. While your eyes must be directed somewhere your vision is most effective in a chaotic situation when it is defocused. Focusing, in the sense of fixating, causes several problems; the first one is that it limits the field of information flow. This is a bad thing in combat as your survival depends upon your ability to perceive as much as possible in every possible direction. Focusing places its emphasis on the cones to the neglect of the rods; our ability to use the rods effectively is core to our survival. Focusing is also conscious mind dependent. The conscious mind is not very efficient under duress, it can handle 7 variables plus or minus two. The chaos of conflict quickly overwhelms the conscious mind. You can see this clearly in the eyes of someone who is in this state of consciousness. Focusing under combat conditions is a fear-based response.

The person is trying exert some control over the events in order to bring them to a “safe” state of order. This is not possible. It is not given to us as humans to “control” events in this manner with combat being the pinnacle of chaos, so to speak. We need to accept what is happening and not try to control what is happening. Accepting allows us to ride the waves of chaos and merge with the larger patterns, it is just like surfing.

Focusing places its emphasis on the cones to the neglect of the rods; our ability to use the rods effectively is core to our survival.

Focusing also diminishes the body’s ability to fully access the other senses that are vital to perception. Our tactile ability, hearing, smell, and taste are compromised when we focus our vision. In addition we lose our psychic ability to perceive those things that cannot be seen. Giving up control and defocusing allows the mind and body to adapt fluidly and spontaneously to whatever is happening. Giving up control also brings us into the moment of now. There is no anticipation, expectation, assumption, and judgment; these are the four horsemen of the Apocalypse in Nami ryu. We don’t know what we are going to do in response to a threat; indeed we don’t want to know. To know is to no longer be in the moment of “Now.” We are no longer immediately present in the moment of reality; we are in our own reality to one degree or another. The Ancients understood this and trained themselves to let go and accept; indeed faith is at the core of this practice and this is the core of Mushin.

I travel and teach most of the time and do so to a wide range of people involved in a variety of activities from military special operators involved in lethal force engagements to civilians wanting to live a more full life without the constant constraints of fear. I am often asked what I would do in this situation or that when faced with a particular threat. My response is “I don’t know”. When pressed for a response I tell them, “I don’t want to know”. To know is to limit your potential to adapt and solve the problem. To need to know is to give in to your fear.

The need to know means that you are not willing to accept what is as it is. Every problem presented in the Universe has, inherent in it, the solution. What we want to do is to “remove” ourselves so that we can recognize and implement the solution that is inherent in the problem that we are faced with solving. There is an old Chinese axiom, “If the only tool that you have is a hammer, then all of your problems begin to look like nails.” This acceptance is foundational in Nami ryu. It is the basis for everything that we do in our art and our life.We have an energy response cycle in Nami ryu. It is expressed in a linear manner, however, it is not linear in function and there is spontaneous adaptation in every part of the cycle.

The cycle begins with Perception. We will only respond to that which we are aware of. Perception is much more than sight. The second phase of the cycle is Acceptance, if we do not completely accept what we see, our Perception is of little or no value to us. Indeed it is in this aspect of the cycle that panic lives. The fear based inability to accept what we perceive leads to cognitive dissonance, reality lag, and ensuing panic. This is not the survival response of a predator with binocular vision; it is the response of prey, eyes wide, running for their life, we become sheep.

Most people live in a would be, should be, could be world. This focus on opinion and fear based belief prevents us from accepting the world and in fact the Universe as it is. This immediately removes us from Harmony with Universe law; we are no longer present in the moment of Now. We are in a false world of our own creation. In day in day out life we can make it through the day in a country like the United States where we are safe and protected by others. This mindset and belief system, however, immediately breaks down when faced with the violent reality of an attack or other type of violent circumstance or disaster, for the warrior this is unacceptable.

The third phase of the cycle is to allow our body to shape in relation to whatever force vector is threatening us. A force vector is the path of travel of any force that could harm us. A stick, a stone, a fist, a sword or a bullet are just some of the things that qualify as force vectors. This shaping needs to be spontaneous and intuitive. You cannot depend solely upon your vision as you might not “see” the force. In fact, classical bujutsu movement is designed to deceive the opponent by fooling the eyes. This movement is part of what has been lost in modern Japanese martial arts and indeed in many that have link and lineage to the past.

The returning or shaping of energy is a natural consequence of non-resistance to it and this is the fourth phase of the cycle. We don’t know what that returning or shaping of energy is going to look like and it is not necessary to know. Nature abhors a vacuum and if you completely allow and accept the opening that your opponent leaves, it will be filled. When we are in the proper mind-body relationship, our Transition Coefficient, the time that it takes to adapt to change, is at its most effective.

Our ability to respond to pressures and threats by spontaneous adaptations seems phenomenal to those who have not allowed themselves to accept what is, Universe Reality, with faith. This is what “Soft” in an ancient warrior art means. Soft is an acceptance of what is and by allowing what is to be and letting our mind-body blend with what is, we become in Harmony with Universe Law and this is truly being alive. Soft has nothing to do with how we feel, indeed our feelings immediately remove us from harmony with Universe law. The Universe is not about us and what we think or feel. To become in harmony, it is necessary to give up expectation, assumption, anticipation, and judgment.The methodology in Nami ryu, coming from the teachings of the ancient Samurai, accesses our operating system in a different way. It maximizes human performance in life and death situations instead of minimizing it. This allows us to fulfill our potential as human beings. It takes the warrior to higher level of function.

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