The New Martial Arts Mystique (Martial Arts Scepticism Series)

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

 Albert Einstein


A Martial Arts Blind Spot?


Violence is a serious business. Whether you face it in a full contact combat sport or in the form of an assault, the margins for error are often slim. Since the periodic demystification of the martial arts in the western world[i] whole subcultures supporting modern self-defence/combatives and mixed martial arts have formed. However, despite the efforts of certain revolutionary individuals[ii] from the turn of 20th century right up until the 1980s, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the martial arts world received one of its biggest shake-ups. This shake-up that saw the arrival of hugely successful reality-based self-defence teachers and the birth of the Ultimate Fighting Championship has promoted more critical thinking and less tolerance for wild claims of the efficiency of flamboyant, complicated or magical-looking techniques.


High and spinning kicks are rarely seen on the syllabus of a club or system that claims to focus on modern self-defence. Techniques that require fine motor skills are often questioned on their effectiveness under the pressures of real combat. Those who profess to be able to hit and throw people with invisible blasts of energy still claim a lot of support from gullible acolytes, but these teachers are having a harder time to convince those outside their cults and in the wider world of the martial arts community. However, many who now ridicule the old school mystics have little issue in cosmically ordering a parking space. Just as they laugh at the ritualization of traditional martial arts these same “realists” see no issue in repeating mantras or using debunked pseudoscientific methods to achieve success in their business and private life.

BEHOLD! Ninjas – Japan's medieval assassins for hire – teach you values and postivity!

A new philosophy has crept under the radar of martial arts culture. Finding supposed comparative values with the martial arts code of budo during the 20th century it has worked its way into the modern martial artist’s consciousness and taken a very firm root. Whether this broad and holistic philosophy is used as a marketing ploy to recruit new students or as a means to inspire instructors or as the guiding philosophy of the chief instructors themselves, it is becoming increasingly hard to find a martial artist who has not bought into most of its principles. It attaches itself to different individual religions – both eastern and western – and as a holistic doctrine that draws upon religion as a whole. The secular world is by no means immune to it either and as martial arts schools have adopted various corporate business practices so have they taken on board what salespeople, office workers, business managers and even CEOs have been sold on over the latter part of the 20th century. In fact, its entrenchment is so deep in the subculture of all martial arts – be it traditional, sport, self-defence or any hybrid combination of the above – that this is perhaps one of the most personally challenging pieces I have written. Welcome to the world of self-help and positive thinking.

Self-Help Needs Chuck Norris  


One day in 1993 I was looking through a display of second-hand books. This is perhaps one of my greatest indulgences. I love the romance of looking through second-hand books, no matter the condition of the editions – from beautifully preserved leather-bound hardbacks to the creased spines of thoroughly and excitedly read paperbacks. Second-hand collections often have a lucky dip appeal I find almost irresistible. Amidst the trashy airport fiction and the awful TV cash-ins that will never see a reprint, you find some odd, over-looked and forgotten gems. On this particular day I found a small paperback book entitled The Secret of Inner Strength[iii], which was the autobiography of the movie star and martial artist, Chuck Norris.


The book was a very entertaining read that I found hard to put down. It was very easy reading and being an eager teenage martial artist I was keen to read the thoughts and journey of a successful martial artist. As an autobiography the story was straightforward, full of drama and quite inspiring. However, what I noticed set it apart from other books in my rather eclectic martial arts collection was that the author was offering far more than recollections of training and fighting. This was not just a celebrity autobiography either. Inserted in the text – particularly at the end – was Norris’s own recipe for success. He felt that the life lessons he had learnt that had turned him into a world karate champion, a successful martial arts teacher and an action movie star could be used by anyone to achieve their ambitions. He laid out how to achieve personal goals by using something he called “positive imagery”, and also gave instruction on how to get along better with others and how to make a better life. I had just stumbled across my first martial arts self-help book.


East and West Cultural Changes 


As I explained in Martial Arts Scepticism: Philosophy and Ancient Wisdom, Sun Lu Tang is partly responsible for moulding our view of martial arts as a philosophical pursuit. His manuals and open door manner of teaching carefully intertwined Chinese philosophy, particularly Taoism, with martial arts techniques. The early part of the 20th century was a time of huge cultural change both for Chinese and Japanese martial arts. To this day the philosophical foundations of most eastern martial arts little resemble their roots in the military or in rebellions. Few people are taught these arts in order to fight in an army, against a rival family, to become a bodyguard[iv] or as part of an armed uprising against domestic or invading oppressors. They are mainly modern incarnations of an abrupt philosophical revamping – a paradigm shift to use the language of today’s self-help gurus – that occurred in China and Japan in the early part of the 20th century. So-called traditional martial arts became geared towards self-improvement rather than as a means for pragmatic combat efficiency. This all occurred before the mass-exportation of judo, karate-do and various styles of Chinese martial art. It expanded in the west as the self-help industry blossomed and it was only a matter of time before the two would intersect.  


The first modern self-help book was published in 1859 by the Scottish reformer, Samuel Smiles and was appropriately called Self-Help[v]. This was probably the first clearly defined different interpretation of the synonym, “self-help”. The term was originally coined to describe “a raft of [legal] situation-specific remedies available to a complainant directly – this is, without involving lawyers or even courts”.[vi] Smiles’ book was, appropriately enough, self-published[vii] and it elevated the man to celebrity status almost overnight. Smiles may have been first, but the 1930s saw the publication of two books that set the mould for the self-help philosophies of today. They were written by two friends who were selling faith and hope during The Great Depression. These books were Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich[viii] and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.[ix]


Hill’s work spelt out the self-helper’s mission to acquire wealth by having a positive mental attitude and eliminating negative thoughts. He outlined 13 principles or “steps” for an individual to achieve success in his chosen field. This “step” approach would become a mainstay of self-help, most famously shown in the “12 Step” rehabilitation programmes of Alcoholics Anonymous and its spin-offs.  Hill would also have a huge influence over motivation in the business world and even the world’s most famous martial artist, Bruce Lee.


However, Carnegie’s work might as well have been the self-help bible. Carnegie had a background as a highly successful salesman who made his way up from very humble farming beginnings. He left sales and then failed as an actor, losing everything, but forged his new niche as a self-improvement lecturer whilst living at a YMCA. His was the perfect rags to riches story with ups and downs that often makes up the autobiographies of modern day self-help gurus. Carnegie encouraged his audience to speak and knew how to build confidence, which was another trademark of the self-help approach. If you look at the vast majority of martial arts adverts today you will see that building or gaining confidence are listed as a key attributes. Many parents now take their children to martial arts classes for that reason alone.  


Carnegie was certainly an influential person. Not only did he encourage the aforementioned Napoleon Hill to write his book, but to this day his work is venerated by motivational speakers, life coaches and just about any of the newly created titles we can list under the self-help label. There would be other self-help books as well as motivational speakers and advisors, the most noteworthy work in the 1950s being Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking[x]. Peale gave a name to the most prominent driving force behind self-help philosophy and, as we will see, it gelled perfectly with the martial artist’s concept of winning inner-battles and self-belief. “Be strong and think positive” now seems like the least contentious piece of advice and it could be seen as an expression of the marriage of budo with Peale’s philosophy. Positive thinking has become a common mental weapon of the modern martial artist that he uses to conquer all his goals inside and out of the gym.


However, investigative reporter Steve Salerno notes that it wasn’t until the publication Thomas A. Harris’s I’m OK – You’re OK[xi] in 1967 that we saw the maturation of the self-help guru.  Arising from an era of New Age gurus, Harris used his background in psychiatry to set down his blueprint for living a happier life.[xii] As we saw with Chuck Norris’s book, the development of better relationships with others is considered to be a vital part of self-help and we can probably trace this concept back to Harris.


Harris described a problem that he felt prevented happiness – the belief that we are all damaged from an early age – and then presented his cure. Such a problem/unique solution framework is comparable to many religions and, indeed, the way many martial arts styles are sold. Just as Harris had the somewhat Freudian belief that we were psychologically damaged as infants, virtually all religions see humans being born into some sort of corruption that is preventing them from achieving their ultimate higher spiritual state. Likewise, martial arts programmes often make the assumption that nature and society have made most people weak, unfit, lacking in confidence and that you are at risk from life’s human predators. They then offer you their warrior’s way to solve these problems.

The Martial Arts Self-Help Prototype


The market for self-development through the martial arts was always going to be lucrative as trends emerged. My 1984 copy of The Book of Five Rings[xiii], first written in 1645 by the notorious samurai, Miyomoto Musashi, boasts the Time magazine quote “On Wall Street, when Musashi talks, people listen”. Perhaps linking in with the “holism” of self-help that would follow, the back cover blurb states that as well as being a guide to swordsmanship is “an exquisite distillation of the philosophies of Zen, Shinto and Confucius”. The book provides insight into warrior strategy, as Musashi saw it, and describes both his own approach and the approach of others.


Being principle-centred, it is very easy for the modern reader to see the samurai’s descriptions of the tactics of warfare as metaphors for methods to be used in the home or at work. Sun Tzu’s ancient Chinese military treatise, The Art of War, gets similar treatment. Both are remarkable works of literature, but I fear their context is often forgotten. Many are simply titillated by the idea that they are somehow tapping into a sacred source of incontestable wisdom. However, to the mind of the average avid martial artist, who is taught to revere and respect their art’s lineage without question, context can be a very subjective topic. To the 1980s Wallstreet stockbroker in the midst of the “greed is good” and “me generation” culture, the ruthlessness of such works would resonate well with the way they conducted business.


Just as mainstream self-help had mutated into the model we recognize today, martial arts took its first bold step into this emerging genre. Peter Urban was the founder of American goju ryu karate and was trained under Yamaguchi Gogen in Japan. In 1967, the same year as I’m Ok – You’re Ok emerged, Urban self-published The Karate Dojo. His work makes the bold step of taking the “do” or budo principles adopted by the Japanese and aligning them with western self-help. Like Sun Lu Tang he was also placed at a good time, as martial arts were already intersecting with the counterculture of the ‘60s.


Urban’s work was first highlighted to me by Ron Goin, who also saw a connection with its timing. Ron Goin is an American combatives and martial arts teacher with over four decades of experience, including serving and teaching in the armed forces. He has carefully observed the emergence of different martial arts trends. Being a part of the 1960s and ‘70s counterculture, Ron observed those who meshed the mystique of the martial arts with the supposed spirituality of the New Age movement.


I remember my traditional Japanese ju jutsu sensei, Giles Chamberlin, shaking his head in dismay when I gave my impression of aikido being just a wishy washy martial art with no practical application whatsoever. “Those Californian hippies have a lot to answer for” he told me. Ron finally provided me with a little insight to what Giles was talking about and also helped me understand why certain odd practices might be adopted by otherwise very down-to-Earth people:


“The concept of human potential, of integrating mind, body and spirit, appealed to the sensibilities of youth who pushed aside the conservative views and values of their parents and began to seek sources of wisdom from Eastern philosophy. George Leonard, an aikido practitioner, was involved with the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. Esalen was one of the centers [US sp.] for the emerging human potential movement, and such practices as aikido, yoga, and Zen and Taoist meditation. Alan Watts, Timothy Leary, Joseph Campbell, Abraham Maslow, and other people associated with the counterculture converged at Esalen.


“Their writings and their influence spread quickly as young people sought out new experiences, free from the confined religiosity of their parents. Leonard utilized aikido as a method of realizing meditation in action, and this concept began to spread. Leonard's aikido also appealed to Dan Millman, a gymnast from U.C. Berkeley, who went on to write the Peaceful Warrior. Eastern martial arts practices, including aikdio and tai chi, influenced Millman's approach. In the 1970s the U.S. military began to explore mind-body practices including Eastern martial arts. The Men Who Stare at Goats[xiv] explores some of this culture in which military and intelligence departments looked at meditation and consciousness expanding disciplines, experimented with remote viewing and telekinesis, and believed that soldiers could be trained as peaceful warriors.


“Around the same time Micheal Echanis taught hand-to-hand combat and weapons fighting skills from hwarang-do. He believed in using the mind to heal, to cloak movements, to sneak up on sentries or evade the enemy, to ward off pain and fatigue, and to strike with unbelievable power. Echanis, in some eyewitness' accounts, was the person who actually caused a goat to die or become unconscious by the power of his mind. These books and these personalities were not the creators of the self-help movement… but it was martial artists who found a way to merge mental and physical disciplines, the so-called mind-body intervention techniques which are at the core of CAM (complementary and alternative medicine).”[xv]

Touching upon positive visualization, Bruce Lee – a contemporary of the era Ron describes – once said "I am not easily discouraged. I readily visualize myself as overcoming obstacles, winning out over setbacks, achieving 'impossible' objectives." Lee is famous in the martial arts world for being a breaker of tradition and a pragmatist. So it is interesting to note that he was an early martial arts convert to self-help culture and its methods. A graduate of philosophy, Lee pooled from several sources to create his own philosophy, which he used to describe his approach to martial arts: jeet kune do.  In The Tao of Bruce Lee[xvi], Bruce Lee devotee, Davis Miller took a more critical look at his idol’s philosophy.


Miller explained that after taking a Napoleon Hill mail-order course, Lee wrote a letter to himself. It has all the qualities we find connected to the Law of Attraction, cosmic ordering and positive visualization that are common in today’s self-help: “I, Bruce Lee, will be the highest paid… superstar in the United States. In return, I will give the most exciting performances and render the best of quality in the capacity of an actor. Starting in 1970, I will achieve world fame and from then onward till the end of 1980, I will have in my possession $10,000,000. I will live the way I please and achieve inner harmony and happiness.”[xvii]


Barbara Ehrenreich describes Hill’s teachings as “the metaphysics of positive thinking”[xviii]. If Lee was following Hill’s advice closely, he will have been repeating that message to himself twice a day, every day – once before going to bed and once before arising in the morning. In his famous text, Think and Grow Rich[xix], Hill set out instructions he insisted needed to be followed to the letter to avoid failure. This included reading a single chapter from his book out loud every day. Motivational speaker, Jeffrey Gitomer, was instructed along with his colleagues in the marketing company Dare to be Great to obsessively read Think and Grow Rich. They each were instructed to produce a report on a chapter from the book every day. Consequently Gitomer read the entire book over 100 times in a year.[xx]


Lee was not the only famous martial artist of that era to follow Napoleon Hill’s philosophy. World heavyweight champion, Ken Norton, revealed after his jaw-breaking win over the legendary Muhammad Ali that he was a devotee of self-help and positive thinking.[xxi] In his autobiography, Going the Distance[xxii], Norton says "These words (from Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich) were the final inspiration in my victory over Ali: ‘Life's battles dont always go to the stronger or faster man, but sooner or later the man who wins is the man who thinks he can.’”


Norton’s motto was “What the mind can conceive, the body can achieve” and proving himself to be a true poster-boy for the movement he was the first African American to be awarded the Napoleon Hill Award for being an “outstanding positive thinker”. The award was given to him one day before his return bout with Ali, where he lost by judges’ decision. According to’s autobiography of Norton, the great boxer first came across Hill’s work after his first loss in his professional boxing career – an 8 round knockout by Jose Luis Garcia. The biography explains:   


“After the Garcia fight, Norton started to see Dr. Michael Dean, a hypnotist. Dr. Dean gave Norton a book that changed his life, Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich, which has been called the ‘Granddaddy of All Motivational Literature.’ Norton said, ‘I must have read that book 100 times while in training, and I became a stronger person for it.’”[xxiii]


Hill’s instructions were at least as strict as that of any traditional martial arts teacher. This type of constant repetition and discipline would have gelled well with the mind of the dedicated martial artist, particularly a fanatically driven one like Ken Norton or Bruce Lee. Martial artists have learnt that by constantly repeating correct movements they acquire a type of unconscious competence. In principle, this is a tested and proven method to acquire and develop skills. However, as my coach, Mo Teague, used to remind me, the adage “practise makes perfect” is not correct – “perfect practise makes perfect”. Lee understood this and that was why he was highly critical of the way many traditional martial artists trained. He understood that performing the movements alone wasn’t enough. The context had to be correct, and that meant live training involving impact pads and sparring partners. Lee would have seen Hill’s habit-forming methods and strict adherence to a routine to be in harmony with his own strict physical training regime. To a hard-working professional boxer like Norton, repeating mantras every morning would have been accepted in the same manner as an early morning run. Beating back negative thoughts with positive ones in everyday life in order to achieve what one wants seems to be no different that fighting the mental opponent that every athlete faces every time he pushes himself with physical training.


A final note here before we leave the 1970s. Bruce Lee has often been credited as a pioneer and debate rages on as to whether or not he was ahead of his time in the world of martial arts. As far as martial arts self-help is concerned, writing in 2000, Davis Miller has this to say:


“In the years since Lee’s death the notion that we can be whatever we want, that we can liberate ourselves, has become the stuff of corporate advertising, of the self-help genre of non-writing, of government-sanctioned propaganda, of half-hour infomercials. In the early 1970s the concept of self-actualization seemed shining and new”.[xxiv]   

Budo and Self-Help 


In 1982, as the young upwardly mobiles were getting excited about the medieval strategies of Myomoto Musashi, Joe Hyams published Zen in the Martial Arts[xxv]. This was probably the first martial arts/self-help merger since Urban’s book. In Hyams’ words, his martial message of Zen is to extol intuition. He said that real martial arts masters went beyond the physical violence of their styles to bring out their inner-self.


“…for the true master, karate, kung fu, aikido, wing-chun and all the other martial arts are essentially avenues through which they can achieve spiritual serenity, mental tranquillity [US sp.] and the deepest self-confidence”.[xxvi]


Again, he used the example of Japanese transition from “bujutsu” – systems for self-preservation – to “budo” – systems for self-realization – to reinforce the integrity of his message. He states that few martial arts books discuss Zen. The 1980s saw the image of martial arts in the west making a change that was very much in line with what had happened in early 20th century Japan and China. Two years after Hyams’s book, the box office hit, The Karate Kid, put over the message that martial arts could teach positive values beyond fighting. The film was written by veteran black belt Robert Kamen, who was obviously well-versed in the emerging self-help “budo” hybrid philosophy. This image worked well then, as it does today, to convince parents to sign up for their children to join martial arts lessons. Up until this point, martial arts in western cinema were represented by adults that looked like superheroes. Ralph Macchio’s vulnerable portrayal of Daniel LaRusso was a sympathetic hero to nearly every child who had felt bullied or intimidated.    


Today children make up the vast majority of martial arts students in the world. The western world did not have the advantage of a Kano or a Funakoshi to get martial arts recognized and established as part of mainstream education. Instead it was up to entrepreneurs like Jhoon Rhee, the father of American taekwon-do, to come up with a school-friendly programme in 1979 that marketed martial arts as a means for self-improvement. Rhee, a contemporary of Bruce Lee and one of taekwon-do founder General Choi’s representatives, won endorsements of several congressmen he had personally trained for these programmes.[xxvii]


Meanwhile the influence of self-help was growing stronger than ever over US education. Steve Salerno argued in 2005 that a campaign influenced by self-help philosophy undercut America’s grade school system’s “commitment to quality education”[xxviii]. Responding to Thomas A. Harris’s premise that most people are “not ok” and are psychologically damaged at childhood, “motivational experts” have focused on preventative measures by introducing “touchy feely” programmes. This has led to ungraded tests, “that is, when tests aren’t forgone entirely”, as well as the inflation of grades and the banning of a lot of competitive games.[xxix] The argument is that by raising self-esteem everything else will improve. So, therefore, any activities or practices that might serve to bring a student’s self-esteem down are frowned upon.


Case studies have shown us that raising self-esteem is very far from being a solve-all solution. Having low self-esteem is just one of many possible reasons why a child underperforms or misbehaves. In fact, it can have damaging results on some characters and those around them. Meanwhile, as pointed out in Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s Freakonomics[xxx], the No Child Left Behind law has forced more schools to lower their standards and many teachers to doctor the exam answers of their students. The repercussions of these activities might have a direct result on incompetent people being employed in the workplace, leading to many other problems.


According to Steve Salerno, the academic self-esteem movement’s philosophy can probably be traced straight back to Napoleon Hill and many of its ideas were fostered through the ‘60s counterculture’s desire for radical change. I am mindful of that old sceptical warning “correlation does not imply causation”, but it interesting to note that America’s “eighteen-year decline” in educational test scores started in 1963 as the counterculture movement started gaining momentum and the self-help philosophy began its upward surge of influence.


Looking at the way mainstream education is sometimes run and influenced it is small wonder why many martial arts are getting heavy criticism for awarding grades too freely. These “McDojos” and “Belt Factories”, as they are sometimes referred to, are discussed in detail in my article Taking out the McDojo. However, for the purposes of this piece it is worth mentioning that increased confidence and empowerment (the latter word is regularly used in the world of self-help) are a big part of a McDojo club’s advertising. We now live in an age where schools purporting to teach ninjutsu – the art of Japan’s most famous hired mercenaries – take in students as young as two and teach them “positive values”.

The Rise of the Modern Martial Arts Guru – Master of All


The 1980s saw the most rapid blossoming of the type of self-help guru Hill, Carnegie and Harris had foreshadowed. Not only did we see the rise in the evangelical mega-church and positive psychology gain respectability in universities, but this was the decade that gave us two very powerful forces in self-help indeed: The Oprah Winfrey Show and Anthony Robbins.


Oprah Winfrey’s chat show has exerted a huge amount of influence over the general public and many self-help gurus owe their success to being one of her guests. Oprah Winfrey is considered by many to be one of the most influential people in the past 40 years. In 2008 Brian Dunning’s science and critical thinking podcast, Skeptoid, nominated Oprah Winfrey the number one slot of Ten Most Wanted: Celebrities Who Promote Harmful Pseudoscience.[xxxi]  Because of her tremendous power over public opinion combined with her passion for promoting “life-improvement” literature and personalities, it is not difficult to see why self-help ideas have become integrated into modern government, education and our value system. If a reaction to The Great Depression provided the seeds and the ‘60s counterculture gave it growth then Winfrey nurtured it into the behemoth we see today.   


From this era sprung Anthony Robbins, whose style and methods provide us with the perfect template for the modern day self-appointed guru in martial arts. Anthony Robbins is a giant in the field of self-help and exploded onto the scene in 1987 with his book, Unlimited Power[xxxii]. Many martial arts teachers revere him and consider attending his seminars as being on a par with attending that of a grandmaster of their respective style. His approach to self-help has a very showing effect on modern day martial arts teaching.


Anthony Robbins is the physical embodiment of what many martial arts teachers admire and aspire towards. He stands as an alpha male, physically imposing and charismatic. Robbins tells his acolytes to choose someone they admire and to model themselves on that person. It seems that many martial arts teachers have chosen Robbins as their model or, at least, the image he presents. It is not a big leap really, as comparisons with his approach to teaching self-help and how martial arts business is run is very easy to make. Just as many martial arts clubs use their lessons to push the sale of their own training equipment as well as gradings and other products and services (see Taking out the McDojo), Robbins uses his extravagant seminar events to hawk his videos, other courses, nutritional supplements and various other products. He also uses some of the same Indian fakir tricks that many early 20th century Chinese martial artists used as a marketing gimmick to bring customers to their newly opened schools.[xxxiii]This includes smashing boards with his hands – a stunt now synonymous with martial arts – and walking over beds of hot coals with his bare feet. These and other stunts are taught to seminar attendees and used as physical representations of their new found powers of belief and mental strength. In short, if they can smash their bare hands through boards or walk across burning coals then they can achieve the seemingly impossible.


In truth both these tricks can be explained by simple physics and technique, and to this day martial artists wax philosophical in a way not far removed from Robbins’ explanations as they attempt to justify why they include performing tricks as part of their serious training. Growing up on a travelling circus and knowing many excellent professional fakirs, I have concluded that there is little connection between being able to achieve these feats and becoming a doyen of financial or spiritual success. They are tricks – often impressive and skilful tricks that require a degree of confidence – but are no measure of a person’s success outside of their performance.


Robbins was a dramatic mutation from the Thomas A. Harris mould. Far from looking at people as being victims of a society that had damaged them, Robbins and others, like Dr Phil McGraw and Dr Laura Schlessinger, were heavily into “empowerment”. They preached personal responsibility, berating their clients for any problems they had on the decisions they had made and how the power was in their hands to change everything. Their attitude speaks to the warrior spirit in the martial artist and their philosophy is certainly attractive to the more macho end of the martial arts world. Harris represented what Steve Salerno called the “victimization” side of self-help[xxxiv]. Peter Urban’s book came out when this type of self-help was en vogue and it was probably ahead of its time. Joe Hyans’s book, however, came out as the “empowerment” brand of self-help was coming into its own. His approach would not be nearly as aggressive as those who would follow, but it serves as an instructive prototype.


After Robbins’ arrival a new type of “holistic” martial arts teacher would rapidly bloom in front of our eyes. Like Robbins, these teachers would see their status as instant justification to advise their students on virtually every aspect of life – from relationships to nutrition to spirituality – as they boldly conquered everything. They were putting themselves over as the embodiments of what Ken Norton and Bruce Lee were trying to create in themselves – martial artists who could use their training methodology as a rule for life. Like Mr Miyagi from The Karate Kid these holistic teachers were more than people who taught us how to punch and kick, they were our life mentors.


However, the problem with having a “holistic” and know-all approach is that such a teacher is pretty much putting himself over as a god. This leaves such teachers open to all types of criticism, especially when they endorse methods or products that don’t really deliver what their consumers and clients are being led to believe. Not even genius-level polymaths can be expected to have an over-riding knowledge of everything. This claim is normally left to supernatural religious figures, which might just be the nub of what we are discussing. Salerno says that if we are to regard self-help as a religion then Robbins is its pope. Barbara Ehrenreich described in her book, Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World[xxxv],how some attendees of positive-thinking seminars reported a cult-like atmosphere. The religious connections and comparisons are of no surprise. Positive thinking arose from the American New Thought Movement and also gave birth to Religious and Christian Science. Christian mega-churches preach the familiar philosophy of positive thinking.[xxxvi]


Robbins readily refers to science and uses scientific phrases like “double-blind tests”, but critics note that there is little actual data to back up these claims[xxxvii]. He pushes his own diet – another obvious comparison with religion and covered in my You Art What You Eat? article – and his own range of supplements, as well as products from other companies such as the controversial Q-Link pendant. Another self-help guru, Deepak Chopra, also promotes this item of pseudoscience.[xxxviii] Hawkers of the device and its manufacture claim that it neutralizes the harmful effects of electromagnetic fields emitted by computers, mobile phones and other everyday electrical devices. Ben Goldacre of Bad Science has shown that the product is nothing more than a “new age crystal pendant”.[xxxix]


Robbins, like Carnegie, was a man who could use himself as an example of his teaching. He came from humble beginnings and referred to them to demonstrate how – by utilizing his methods – he was able to become the success he is today. This speaks to the fairy tale wish-fulfilment in culture. It’s all very Cinderella and very, very Rocky. Norris used it in the aforementioned The Secret of Inner Strength[xl] – a book he co-authored with Joe Hyams – and others would follow suit in the 1990s. The concept of rags to riches success story would have an appeal within another emerging literary trend. This unlikely bedfellow with both self-help and martial arts was the true crime autobiography.   

Hard-Hitting Self-Help

We’ve probably been fascinated by the stories of lawbreakers ever since society created rules. We need our demons and our villains. The Newgate Calendar[xli] is perhaps the first example of a collection of sensational stories depicting true crimes. Of course, some of it was complete fiction, such as the story of Sawny Beane and his cannibalistic family from Scotland. However, like urban legends, it had a strong ring of truth and also depicted many true events that titillated readers. The genre steadily grew and many books emerged containing scholarly academic studies into criminology, psychology and history. However, the more popular titles have always been those that read like horror or thriller stories.


The 20th century allowed the genre to explode and interviews with infamous criminals provided an extra attraction. After the testimonial of the German sadistic serial killer, Peter K?rten,[xlii] astounded readers across the world in the 1930s a whole new avenue was opened up for criminal confessions. The gangsters of the 1950s and ‘60s revealed a combination of truths and myths about their underworld culture at various public hearings, and the Truman Capote turned what Robert Lacey termed “pulp non-fiction”[xliii] into an art-form with his In Cold Blood.[xliv] By the 1990s a type of criminal chic had made its way into the mainstream. Musicians, like James Brown, had done prison time before then and rebellion was part and parcel of the Byronic image of rock ‘n roll, but rap music provided us with individuals who had backgrounds in violent gangs. Not since the legend of Robin Hood materialized had the outlaw life earned so much respectability.


The true crime autobiography became so popular it pretty much had its own subgenre. There were several early prototypes. Harry “Goodfellas” Hill from the US springs to mind. However, the UK had a rich rogue’s gallery that was more than willing to step forward and tell their story. After the Kray Twins had their autobiography published[xlv], the recollections of other members of their gang[xlvi] and their rival, Charlie Richardson[xlvii], made it into mainstream print. Then the Krays had their own individual autobiographies published[xlviii]. No British celebrity criminal used this medium as effectively as ex-gangster and enforcer, Dave Courtney, who produced several autobiographical books and cultivated a reputation as the British criminal chic. Journalist Kay Kray, who married Ronnie Kray when he was incarcerated, published interviews of a many criminals and respected fighters. After the unlicensed boxer Lenny McClean had his autobiography published[xlix], Kay Kray got the autobiography of his boxing rival, Roy Shaw[l], into print and others soon followed suit. “Hooli-Lit” gave us the stories and memoirs of football hooligans, which now started to push away the image of the “repentant” offender with many offering the Bugsy Siegal style “We only kill other” justification for their criminal actions.


The image of criminal chic was the perfect platform to launch another figure in the self-help industry, what Steve Salerno has labelled the contrapreneur. With former gang member and drug dealer, Joseph Jennings being the contrapreneur equivalent of Anthony Robbins in the lead, Salerno then lists Colombo crime family turncoat, Micheal Franzese, former “homeless double felon” turned Recovery speaker, Anne Kelly, former bank-robber, Troy Evans, former drug dealer, Steve Arrington, and former Ponzi scam artist, Ron Cohen in a chapter dedicated to this turn of the century mutation of the self-help guru.[li] I haven’t seen any direct influence from these particular individuals on the world of martial arts, but a type of convergent evolution was occurring.


The 1990s had seen a big shake-up in the martial arts world. The Ultimate Fighting Championship signalled the fast ascent of mixed martial arts and brought into question the effectiveness of many martial arts practices. It was a time when the black belt was losing its mystique in the west and more classes were opening their doors to other marital arts. At the same time Reality-Based Martial Arts had also arrived with systems like krav maga from Israel, systema from Russia, Tony Blauer’s S.P.E.A.R. (Spontaneous Protection Accelerated Response) System from the USA and Bruce Lee’s legacy of jeet kune do all growing in popularity. Many martial artists were making a decisive break away from traditional styles and marked themselves out as being modern. Mystical practices associated with the old systems were being exposed and debunked by this new generation of full-contact fighters and individuals who had backgrounds in handling real-world violence. It appeared to be a time for a changing of the guard for many.


However, the need to teach beyond violent actions was still strong in many modern system teachers. Making their fellow martial artists sit-up and take notice to what happens when individuals were placed under the pressure of ugly violence was one thing, but there was a question of training longevity and a wider appeal to consider. To the R.B.S.D. subculture, the scientific-sounding ways of the self-help movement must have seemed very attractive. As my article, The Pornography of Reality-Based Self-Defence, points out, it might have been less about a changing of the guard and more a case of same guard, different uniform. It might also be argued that many R.B.S.D. instructors, having firm backgrounds in traditional arts, were susceptible to other belief systems. Just as this new generation of martial arts instructors openly cross-trained in other disciplines and promoted its values, they “holistically” did the same with metaphysics, many seeing modern metaphysicians as the self-help gurus who happily cherry-picked what parts of religious texts and philosophies suited their message.        


Several years after I read Chuck Norris’s book I became focused on training in realistic modern combatives. I was – and still am – very much a supporter of martial arts cross-training and modern self-defence approaches. Years previously the works of Geoff Thompson had shook my martial arts beliefs to the very core. I had corresponded with the man and bought two of his books. His inspiration set me on a journey into full-contact combat sports. Years later and I was keen to train formally in self-protection and now, having access to the internet, I began tracking him down. His articles were up there and, true to form, the first article I came to contained hard-hitting stories about the gritty realities of violence. However, suddenly amidst the references to biting noses off and stamping on them so they couldn’t be reattached with surgery, was a new message. It was no longer just about being real with your training and not deluding yourself with the mysticism of the martial arts, now there was a new element involved: God.


It is fairly easy to see how his work took on this spiritual dimension. A key focus on Geoff’s work has been facing fear. As his works progressed and his writing improved he began probing deeper into the psychology of violence, and with it he found that the control of fear was a large deciding factor in combat. After his autobiography and a complete series of martial arts training manuals and videos covering all the physical aspects of his Real Combat System, Geoff shifted from external combat and gave us his first exploration into the internal battle: Fear: The Friend of Exceptional People[lii]. The book bridged the soft skills of self-defence, explaining the science behind “fear”, with the type of empowerment advice offered in Susan Jeffer’s 1987 book Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway[liii].


Fearstarted Geoff writing a lot on self-help. Books like The Elephant and the Twig[liv] put over a very pragmatic message regarding breaking bad habits and being wary of your circle of influence. The theme of fear was nearly always revisited and even broken up in books like Small Wars[lv]. Geoff’s main philosophy was based on pushing outside an individual’s comfort zone and working hard to progress up a pyramid of personally assigned goals. “There is no growth in comfort” became a regular motto of Geoff and his instructors. He was and remains a staunch advocate of positive thinking.


Geoff’s success had been built on the reputation he had forged through teaching the martial arts and this was where he had built his business. Despite short hiatuses where he pushed forward with his various writing projects, he came back to it to teach seminars and courses. However, as Geoff entered the 2000s, his message became less about exposing the realities of real world violence and more about using his very hard methods of training as a metaphor for winning the battle with the self. He added “Self-defence is the defence of the self” as another mantra. His three autobiographical books, Watch my Back[lvi], Bouncer[lvii] andOn the Door[lviii], were turned into a revised omnibus edition[lix] in the early 2000s. To Geoff’s credit he kept to the spirit of the time he wrote them in, but now there was a more reflective tone added and this also included his self-help message. He was also no longer wary about discussing God. His self-help road now had an established spiritual dimension. Later works, such as his audio book Live your Dreams and Shapeshifter, advised on diet and taught the idea of a reciprocal universe. The latter philosophical bent is a key belief of the New Thought Movement and its most famous teaching: The Law of Attraction.


Not long after Geoff began teaching self-help principles I noticed other British martial artists going in a similar direction. Jamie O’Keefe wrote a few articles in Combat magazine that dealt with issues that expanded outside his own gritty lessons in self-protection and looked towards building confidence. Many other reality-based instructors would follow suit. Today many a martial artist will use their background in violence to not only verify their fighting knowledge, but as means to show how they were able to climb from out of darkness and into a happy and successful life. We have seen this regular pattern with Carnegie and then later with Robbins and then later still with Salerno’s contrepreneur. Interestingly, the post-2000 martial arts self-help guru seems to have shifted away from the “do” idea Urban and Hyans fell back on. Their advertising and many of the methods they preach come directly from self-help. Classes, especially those made to appeal to children, are sold on installing “positive” values and “empowering” their students. Nowadays you will hear regular talk of positive thinking, the Law of Attraction, visualization and NLP. Plenty of other aspects

Being Positive and the Law of Attraction– The New Martial Way


In her book, Smile or Die[lx], Barbara Ehrenreich opens her chapter on positive thinking and the economy with the following passage:


“In the middle of the first decade of the 21st century positive thoughts were flowing out into the universe in unprecedented volumes, escaping the solar system, rippling through bodies of vast interstellar gas, dodging black holes, messing with the tides of distant planets. If anyone, deity or alien being, possessed the means of transforming these emanations into comprehensible form, they would have been overwhelmed with images of slimmer bodies, larger homes, quick promotions and sudden acquisitions of great wealth. But the universe refused to play its assigned role of as a big mail order department. In complete defiance of the Law of Attraction, long propounded by the gurus of positive thinking, things were getting worse not better…”[lxi]


Positive thinking and the Law of Attraction both have their roots in the New Thought movement that emerged in 19th century America. Ehrenreich traces this movement back to the harsh religion of Calvinist Christianity and its direct opponents. New Thought was a direct reaction to Calvinism. It is clear that the dour pessimism of the earlier faith is no longer reflective of the US “Have a Nice Day” attitude. Through such new religions as Christian Science and Religious Science, many came to believe that through thinking positive thoughts you could physically change matters. Science via William James seemed to support this idea, but a careful and perspective examination reveals that what it did was cure neurasthenia derived Calvinism’s gloody self-loathing philosophy.[lxii]


However, Ehrenreich observes that “If one of the best things you can say about positive thinking is that it articulated an alternative to Calvinism one of the worst is that it ended preserving some of Calvinism’s more toxic features: a harsh judgmentalism, echoing the old religion’s condemnation of sin, and an insistence on the constant interior labour of self-examination. The American alternative to Calvinism was not to be hedonism or even just an emphasis on emotional spontaneity. To the positive thinker emotions remained suspect and one’s inner-life must be subjected to relentless monitoring.”[lxiii]  

The most obvious overt promoter of positive thinking was the pastor, Norman Vincent Peale. His book, The Power of Positive Thinking[lxiv], was published in 1952 and was written to address a problem Peale believed was badly affecting the American psyche: an inferiority complex. Peale had suffered from this when he grew up. Peale had been a very successful preacher and worked alongside the psychoanalyst, Smiley Blanton at the American Foundation for Religion and Psychiatry.[lxv] Although they wrote books together, Peale had no mental health credentials and Blanton distanced himself from the pastor after The Power of Positive of Positive Thinking came under heavy criticism from the mental health community.[lxvi] Peale believed that positive thinking needed to be learned through constant repetition. This echoes Napoleon Hill’s approach and it has a lot in common with NLP’s programming.  


Positive thinking, as endorsed by Christian Science, holds that positive thoughts play an active role in combating all manner of physical ills. However, a specific religion is not required to hold onto to this belief. The creed of many cancer support groups, according to Ehrenreich, is positive thinking. Such a view is endorsed to the extent that many cancer “survivors” go as far as to say that cancer actually helped them to achieve their goals. Tour de France cycling champion, Lance Armstrong has long been held up as a poster boy for self-help. Overcoming testicular cancer battling against critics who accused him of taking performance enhancing medication, Armstrong declared that “Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me"[lxvii]. His image is less rosy these days given that he eventually confessed to using banned substances to help him win all seven of his Tour de France races.[lxviii]  Many books have put forward the pseudoscientific idea that cancer can be directly cured through positive thinking. Furthermore, that this is achieved through the mistaken belief that it can be done by strengthening the immune system. Not only is there no evidence that connects thinking positively with an increased immune system, but a strong immune system is no defence against cancer.[lxix]


Some of the hardest gyms in the country preach the value of positive thought. I remember being part of a class that was told to send positive thoughts to a recovering fighter or members of a team that were competing internationally. Mind you, otherworldly beliefs in a tough gym are not unusual. Traditional muay Thai, one of the world’s most fierce combat sports, is enshrined in superstitious beliefs, many of which can be seen in items of clothing Thai boxers wear to the ring and the rituals they indulge in prior to fighting. This is typical of the cognitive blind spots demonstrated by otherwise pragmatic combatants.   


The New Thought belief in the Law of Attraction dictates that any negativity is not merely a mental opponent but a physical one too. As Ehrenreich discovered, many positive thinkers believe that negativity can and does bring on cancers in the same way they believed positive thinking was an effective tumour-killing weapon. Like the business CEOs and managers who had their companies invest huge sums of money in positive thinking self-help gurus, martial arts instructors and their students became increasingly hostile to the presence of “negative people” around them.[lxx]


So entrenched are we in the belief that being positive is a good or, at worse, an innocuous concept that it seems counter-intuitive to question its effects. So, how effective is it really? Can it make us all happier? Can it be used to fight against threats to one’s health? Can its use through visualization exercises help us achieve our dreams as Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee and advocates of the Law of Attraction believe?


Scientific evidence currently supports the rather bad news that 50 per cent of our state of happiness is genetic. This would be what self-help guru Stephen R. Covey would criticize as “genetic determinism”. Nevertheless, it is a scientific fact. Studies[lxxi] recorded in psychologist, Professor Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot[lxxii] and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die[lxxiii] show that so long as an individual’s basic necessities are met their general level of happiness remains the same. Even victims of serious debilitating accidents return to their general demeanour once they have come to accept their new physical condition. There are habits that experiments have proven can make an individual happier, but positive thinking isn’t one of them. On the contrary, pushing out or suppressing negative thoughts only serves to increase the likelihood of one to dwell upon these thoughts.[lxxiv]


As discussed earlier, the emphasis on raising one’s self-esteem has become a cure-all answer to all our psychological problems. In truth, humans are not that simple. If our baseline of happiness is genetically determined then it makes sense that we all respond differently to being made to think positively. In their book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, Professors Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio and Barry L. Beyerstein debunk the idea that positive thinking and raising self-esteem is better for everyone. They state that “People with high levels of ‘defensive pessimism,’ for whom worrying is a coping strategy, tend to do worse on tasks when forced to think positively”.[lxxv]


Addressing the same issue that Steve Salerno and Barbara Ehrenreich had with the huge influence of self-help and positive thinking had on education, 50 Myths of Popular Psychology drew upon an exhaustive collective study by Roy Baumeister, Jennifer Campbell, Joachim Kruegar and Kathleen Vohs from 2003. Examining 15,000 studies “linking self-esteem to just about every conceivable psychological variable”, the evidence reveals “that low self esteem [sp.] isn’t strongly associated with poor mental health”. It revealed only a minimal relation to interpersonal success, no consistent relation to any form of substance abuse, only a moderate correlation with depression and that better school performance raises self-esteem rather than the other way around[lxxvi].     


However, the most disturbing revelation in 50 Myths of Popular Psychology comes from much of the incorrect conclusions drawn from the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, where two pupils shot dead 12 students and teacher, and further injured 24 students and three people trying to flee the school. The counselling prior to the incident and the psychological myths it reinforced afterwards possibly owe a lot to the belief that raising self-esteem is a vital part in improving a person’s mental health. Dave Cullen’s definitive book on the tragedy, Columbine, reveals that the killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were respectively a psychopath and a manic depressant. This was a posthumous examination by FBI agent Scott Fuselier. Prior to the two killers went through a series of counselling sessions after they had both been caught for a misdemeanour.


Eric Harris, who was the brains behind the failed bombing that was intended to kill more people than any that had gone before, acted like the perfect psychopath charming his interviewer and providing excellent results at school to please and therefore manipulate those around him. Back home he recorded a diary that revelled in the way he fooled those he secretly held in contempt. As we have seen, low self-esteem isn’t consistently linked to depression and this was certainly the case with the suicidal Klebold. Both had a high sense of self-worth and their murderous plot was a message to show the world their superiority over their fellow human beings.


Studies have shown that aggressive children are more likely than non-aggressive to “overestimate their popularity”.[lxxvii] Raising the self-esteem of a narcissistic and potentially dangerous psychopath only further inflates his opinion of himself and reinforces the reasoning behind any dramatic actions he might choose to take. This is a particularly worrying finding when one considers that not only are self-esteem programmes a popular part of education, but they have been especially implemented for at-risk teenagers and as part of prisoner rehabilitation programmes. Concluding their chapter on self-esteem myths, Lillienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio and Beyerstein leave us with this chilling thought:


“The research we’ve described suggests that these programmes [self-esteem programmes] could produce negative consequences, especially among participants at high risk for aggression. The one thing that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold didn’t need was higher self-esteem”.[lxxviii]



Self-help gurus, sports coaches and martial artists often teach visualization as part of their goal-setting procedure. I recall using karate kata champion, Jean Frenette’s chapter on concentration and visualization in his Beyond Kicking[lxxix] to help prepare me for a taekwondo competition once and I even used it in preparation for my driving test. This type of visualization is a mental rehearsal, designed to keep the student focused on the job in hand and free from distractions. Needless to say, visualization is a very popular method for mental preparation in the martial arts world. In many instances – and Frenette’s book is a prime example – it has come to define meditation for martial artists. However, self-help takes this process much further. Rather than going through rehearsals of undertaking a certain activity, it is common for many gurus to tell their clients to visualize a tranquil and easy road to success. They are told to see their perfect vision of success. This is the first of Norman Vincent Peale’s exercises in The Power of Positive Thinking.  Peale instructs:


“Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Your mind will seek to develop this picture.”[lxxx]


 Chuck Norris puts this as his first Principle of Inner Strength. He says:


“Use positive imagery. The first thing to do if want to improve any area of your life is to establish the goal in your mind and form and a mental picture of it. Visualize yourself achieving the goal, and always keep that mental image. Determination and persistence will usually overcome all obstacles in your way if you train and mentally prepare yourself properly”.


Richard Wiseman disputes this dictum. The visualization exercise might make you feel happy, but experiments and studies have shown it to be largely unproductive. Wiseman cites a study conducted at the University of California whereby one group of students were told to visualize for a few minutes a positive image of themselves achieving a high grade in a mid-term exam and how great it would feel. A control group also going in for the same exam did not do the visualization exercise. Records were kept on the amount of studying group did leading up to the exam. The result was that the first group studied less and achieved lower marks than the control group.[lxxxi]Similar studies were made with other groups whereby it was discovered that those who used positive visualization were less likely to act upon their fantasies or achieve their desired goal. [lxxxii]Wiseman advocates a carefully measured step-by-step plan to achieve one’s goal as a far more effective and efficient means to progress to a long term goal.  




The ‘90s saw a series of articles in Combat magazine written by Guinness Book of Records holder, Ian Fox, on the power of the mind. Fox established his own martial arts business in 1994 and has created a franchise. A marketing graduate, Fox was no stranger to the strong interest being shown in personal development programmes that were spreading rapidly out of the USA. Having an impressive level of flexibility in the era when Jean-Claude Van Damme was making the box splits look macho, Fox was a good ambassador for motivational ideas. He also possessed something else that was permeating its way into the professional combat zone, the corporate market and would soon become another must-have string to the bow of the self-defence instructor of the 2000s: he was an NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming) master teacher[lxxxiii].


In his autobiography, Working with Warriors, Dennis Martin[lxxxiv] explains that he first heard about the use of NLP when he was working with the South African police. Today it is very common to see it linked both to self-help and modern martial arts training. Since the turn of the 20th century the list of martial artists who are also NLP teachers or “masters” is large and growing. You have only to enter “NLP martial arts” into an internet search engine and you will see what I mean. Just as treatments using NLP can only last one session, NLP train the trainer courses are also very short. One might ask whether there is a coincidence with the proliferation of fast-track martial arts instructor programmes in recent years. Many of my martial arts colleagues and friends have attended courses, and now proudly list this skill alongside their black belts. I have also met people outside the world of martial arts and self-help who use this skill to help various authorities, including one 25 year NLP veteran who has been involved in various police interrogations. Anthony Robbins is NLP’s most famous and probably successful graduate. He has claimed to be “the nation’s foremost authority on the psychology of peak performance and personal, professional and organizational turnaround”.[lxxxv]


However, NLP’s reputation is less well-received in the scientific community. In 2010 a scientific paper published in the Journal of Addiction listed NLP as one of the top ten most discredited interventions.[lxxxvi] The same year the Polish Psychological Bulletin revealed in its special 35th anniversary of NLP research that the core principles of the discipline were that of a pseudoscience[lxxxvii]. These were, by no means, a revelation to the wider scientific community. Many academic studies have been made into NLP by various scientists involved in psychology and psychiatry.


At face value, and to the laymen, NLP first appears to be scientific and related to several respectable disciplines such as behavioural science, psychology and neurololinguistics. I have to admit that it all sounded sensible enough to me. I am a supporter of Desmond Morris’s work and a lot of good quality RBSD information grounds its assertions on human fighting behaviour in his The Naked Ape[lxxxviii] and Manwatching[lxxxix]. Having no prior knowledge of NLP and being a keen “people-watcher” I was interested in hearing about what seemed like further scientific research into reading the actions of my fellow human beings. Like positive thinking, NLP’s influence has filtered down into the mainstream consciousness with certain interpretations of body language often becoming accepted “truths”. Many of these general assumptions regarding body language are not supported by scientific evidence.[xc]Desmond Morris’s research certainly shows us a lot of characteristics humans have in common as a species across the world, but he also acknowledges the “striking superficial differences between human cultures”[xci]


I first started having my suspicions when I noticed the vague definition of NLP, which is normally a pseudoscientific “red flag”. Then I noticed the responses given by its supporters when challenged on some of its claims. They often used an appeal to the subconscious argument when a person denied the NLP practitioner’s interpretation of a body signal. This cannot be disproved and therefore is not science. The Skeptic’s Dictionary[xcii] says that NLP practitioners are probably using cold reading in much the same way as spiritual mediums and psychics do. Other defences could be boiled down to an appeal to belief, which is also a non-scientific argument. These are the sort of defences I had come to expect from someone trying to defend a supernatural belief or their personal faith, not a “paradigm shift” in scientific thinking as has been required when the likes of Newton, Darwin and Einstein put forward their theories.      


A closer examination of NLP’s marketing reveals why it is a perfect tool of self-help and what we have seen with the “self-realization” brand of martial arts practices. It makes cure-all claims and its uses are applied to a broad range of psychological and mental problems as well as a method to improve teaching, become more efficient in business, be happier, be more successful, find love and enhance athletic performance. These are just some examples. NLP appears to have something for everyone and fits in perfectly with the “holistic” approach we have touched upon earlier. It also aligns itself perfectly with the self-help philosophy that you can do anything and be anything, asserting that “If someone can do something anyone can learn it”.[xciii]


NLP’s roots are no less eclectic. Its creators were the linguist, Richard Bandler and the mathematician, John Grinder. They shared interests in “successful people, psychology, language, and computer programming”.[xciv]The language and ideas of NLP are clearly influenced by these interests. Robert Todd Caroll’s description of the therapists that Bandler first modelled his ideas on The Skeptic’s Dictionary provides a clearer picture of NLP and why it ties up so well with self-help and not science:


 “These were therapists who liked expressions such as ‘self-esteem’, ‘validate’, transformation’, ‘harmony’, ‘growth’, ‘ecology’, ‘self-realization’, ‘unconscious mind’, ‘nonverbal communication’, ‘achieving one’s highest potential’, – expressions that serve as beacons to New Age transformation psychology. No neuroscientist or anyone who has studied the brain is mentioned as having had any influence on NLP”.[xcv]    


Refuting the models and structures of mainstream science is not a problem for many traditional marital artists. Often their chauvinism for everything directly related to their art, its culture, heritage and general superiority is absolute. Many classical martial arts systems have their beliefs intertwined with what is commonly called alternative medicine, be it Chinese acupuncture, Japanese reiki or any number of other pre-scientific practices. But it would appear that many RBSD instructors whose backgrounds come from these classical arts still possess the same cognitive blind spots to modern New Age methods as their classicist counterparts do for traditional medicine. Whereas classical martial artists, who support traditional pre-scientific medicine, argue the appeal to tradition or antiquity, the modern (or should I say postmodern?) martial artists go in for the appeal to novelty (see my article Martial Appeals).


Like most self-help gurus, the latter type of martial artist is content with the idea that they are ahead of the times and mainstream science will have to catch up. Barbara Ehrenreich discovered this argument to be put over by positive psychologists.[xcvi] The idea of a “paradigm shift” is found in a lot in self-help and particularly by the likes John Grinder and the motivational guru, Stephen R. Covey. Whether such a stubborn refusal to take a step back and take a dispassionately critical view of these ideas is in institutionalized in martial arts – a practice that has a history of enforced secrecy – or just common human trait is a matter for future debate.   

My Self-Help Journey – A Digression


I began my formal study of modern self-defence systems when the self-help influence on the British martial arts scene was obvious. It was a recent decision for me to take a sceptical look at self-help, making this piece particularly difficult to write. Many people I consider to be friends and possessing more knowledge and wisdom than me wholeheartedly endorse much of the self-help model. Why shouldn’t they? We can see its huge influence over western culture and particularly martial arts. The same could be said of me in the mid-2000s and I am not completely opposed to self-help today. A good number of my articles contain the words “proactive” and “empowering”, especially those written during that period. I watched many martial arts teachers evolve into life coaches, stepping out of a world where they trained people how to fight and defend themselves and into a larger place where people from all manner of backgrounds sought their advice and guidance.


When I joined National Educational Systems for Training to manage my class’s payment collection and for business advice I was given three CDs as part of my start-up package. Two of the CDs, The Seven Secrets of Highly Successful People[xcvii] and Principle Centred Leadership[xcviii] were by Stephen R. Covey, and the other one, Leadership from the Inside Out[xcix] was an interview with Anthony Robbins. I was an avid cross-trainer at the time, gaining my instructorships in different systems, and getting to know many of the larger names on the UK martial arts scene. Wherever I went I seemed to be met by people extolling the virtues of positive thinking and discussing the secrets to holistic success. As I trained with these people, read the material and listened to the CDs, I found my martial education completely enmeshed in the ideas of self-help. Negativity became the enemy and I even wrote about its rejection in my club’s oath. 


My need for balance only really began to surface when I started to see regular examples of self-delusion. I started to receive manuscripts from martial artists who were barely literate and were unwilling to go through a thorough rewriting of their work when I offered them constructive criticism. Furthermore, I was witnessing the birth of two types of martial artist. First of all there were those who wanted to proverbially fly before they could properly stand and were clearly aggressive of any critique they faced. Criticism became synonymous with negativity and therefore was considered to be bad. I really had a problem with that attitude. Good critiques of work help develop quality. I had had more than my fair share of battles against nay-sayers, including what my friend Iain Aberenethy called “friendly fire” in his Mental Strength[c] book.


The self-help community love to push forward the many examples of successful people that proved their critics wrong. This is all good and inspiring stuff, but they often fail to discuss even larger number of deluded losers who refused to take on board valuable advice. Furthermore, they don’t see how even the most egotistical giants of their profession owe a lot of their success to those who were willing to offer constructive criticism. Alfred Hitchcock might have proven his detractors wrong by risking everything on his movie, Psycho, but only recently have people acknowledged it was the firm criticism and advice of his wife, Almer that allowed the movie to become the masterpiece we know today.


By the later part of the 20th century it seemed as if everyone was obsessed with building self-esteem. Such an obsession would mean that the Zen battle against the ego would largely be ignored – except when offered obligatory lip service – on the martial artist’s journey to success.


I recall arguing with one martial arts business advisor over my decision to teach self-defence. I argued that self-defence was the most common reason why most people took up martial arts. Later a survey conducted by his business would prove this to be true. He and his colleague said that it scared people away, and by saying your school taught confidence or self-esteem you were teaching self-defence anyway. This is nonsense. Confidence needs to match competence.  


There are definite contradictions between positive thinking and self-defence. Violence is a negative subject. I do not believe for a second that any of the martial artists who have legitimate backgrounds in dealing with real-world violence and now preach the self-help message thought positively about those that they fought. To assume the best of a person who has the means, intent and opportunity to inflict serious harm on you is a folly. 


There are plenty of instances where positive thinking just does not apply in the execution of a task. For example, try writing a risk assessment from a positive thinking perspective. To prepare for the realities of interpersonal violence, negative thinking has to be employed. The student has to assume and prepare for the worst and then scale down their responses accordingly. It has been argued that pessimism presents us with an evolutionary advantage. For example, the person who suspected the worst of an unknown venomous animal lived to breed. 


Karen A. Cerulo argues in Never Saw it Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst[ci] that what she calls “optimistic bias” undermined America’s preparedness for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. By 2001 a culture of “yes people” had been built up around all different places of business and authority, going straight to the higher echelons of Government. People could be sacked for having a “negative attitude”. This came from the corporate downsizing of the 1990s when positive-thinking gurus and various motivational products were used by companies to help appease both those who were fired from their jobs and the remaining staff who feared for their future employment.[cii] Barbara Ehrenreich puts it that the subprime mortgage crisis that resulted in history’s longest recession in 2008 was a direct result of an over-optimistic delusion shared by all participants involved.[ciii] In the world of self-help the nay-sayer is the enemy.


The second type of person I was seeing was the dependant martial artist. Many martial artists, including me, claim to be perpetual students. We are constantly learning and feel that there is something we can take from another’s experience, no matter how humble their life seems. However, I have met several martial artists who just seem unable to move on. They invest hundreds of pounds on seminars and even plane tickets and accommodation to train under their heroes, but they seem to be doing what they always have done. They have the same miserable jobs, are persecuted by the same bullies and many do not make any long term changes to their health.


I wouldn’t be so concerned if these people admitted that this was their hobby and they had no aspirations beyond training, but they are clearly sold on the success ideal of their self-help martial arts teacher. This is an observation critics of Anthony Robbins, NLP and several other self-help related services have put forward. A good amount of the riches amassed by self-help gurus come from repeat bookings. Of course, the human need for self-justification is as strong as ever and most attendees who have parted with substantial amounts of their hard-earned money are keen to deliver positive testimonials. And yet the regular re-attendance of these individuals often demonstrates their lack of success. Because of the huge natural high people get from these seminars they can easily become a type of addiction.


When I first met UK jeet kune do instructor, Mick Tully, he came across as an ardent acolyte of the self-help movement, but over time his views somewhat altered. I reminded him that he had once drunk heartily from the proverbial Kool-Aid, as I had, and he reasoned that, “I was thirsty and the Kool-Aid tasted good”. When asked what made him reassess self-help in the martial arts he replied, “I've always thought actions more than words, I've always known great men are just men, and sometimes it’s what they don't do that defines them. Also being told to achieve more when I already have a pretty good life was getting me down too”.[civ]

Self-Help under Attack


The backlash for the multi-billion dollar self-help industry has got progressively stronger over the past decade. Scientific sceptics have been quick to pick up on the New Age mystical claims made by many self-help gurus. Psychologists and psychiatrists who haven’t bought into “positive psychology” have also begun to speak out against much of the unverified mental techniques put forward by the movement.


We are entering in a time when a lot more scepticism is being levelled at the motivators, the life coaches and the whole self-help movement. During my time researching the impact of self-help on culture, I became aware of various different films and television programmes that took a sardonic swipe at self-help. They are in a minority, as the film industry is as susceptible to the various self-help messages as any other business culture. Anthony Robbins, Deepak Chopra and various other high end gurus have made cameos in feature films playing themselves. However, I recalled a scene that was cut from the Oliver Stone film, Natural Born Killers, made way back in 1994 that featured two celebrity bodybuilders that clearly showed the cognitive dissonance extreme positive thinking encourages.


Long before Barbara Ehrenreich unearthed and exposed the odd culture of celebrating life-changing events such as being diagnosed with cancer or being fired from a job, scriptwriter Robert Avery had the Hun Brothers (played by real-life bodybuilders, the Paul Brothers) in a TV interview explaining how they were thankful for the debilitating injuries inflicted on them by the film’s main protagonists, Mickey and Mallory Knox.[cv] A flashback sequence reveals that both brothers were attacked by the murderous Knoxes, but during the process of chain sawing their legs off, Malory recognized them and, being a fan, tells Mickey to spare them. The brothers explain that they were inspired by the Knoxes who made them work harder as amputee bodybuilders to be “whole again”. Cynical TV journalist, Wayne Gale, replies “No offence, mate, but you will never be whole again”.  


The darkly humorous TV drama series, Dexter, featured a serial killer-by-proxy called Jordan Chase who was also a successful self-help guru. Chase was a master manipulator who revelled in the power he held over those used to commit rape, torture and murder, and over the fates of their victims. He pushed a motivational philosophy derived from Plato’s “Seizing your Desires” from his Symposium and used it in a mantra, “Take it”, and for the title of his best-selling work Take it Now. The character was a clear satirical comment on the motivational self-help gurus of today. As a side-note, the world’s most famous manipulative killer-by-proxy, Charles Manson read How to Win Friends and Influence People[cvi] prior to his release from prison and the subsequent creation of his murderous “Family” cult.


A more sympathetic character can be found in Ryan Bingham of the 2001 novel and 2009 film, Up in the Air. Unlike Chase, this man is not wholly selfish and not an obvious manipulator. However, his motivational speaking is a side-line to his main work, the firing and counselling of employees. He is the type of independently contracted “downsizer” that swiftly informs employees of their redundancy and then gives them a motivational package that Barbara Ehrenreich talks about in Smile or Die[cvii]. Bingham’s self-help philosophy is summed up in the statement “What’s in your backpack?” Like the martial arts self-help guru, he uses his main job as an analogy for being successful in life. However, his life is a very lonely existence, resembling the transitional nature of his work, as he constantly flies from place to place accumulating air miles. He is a divorcee who now can only have superficial and transient relationships and he shares his home with his sister, who is forever embarking on disastrous relationships. Bingham’s main ambition is to enter a ten million frequent flyer air miles club. His work and existence is representative of the superficial quick-fix solutions many self-help critics believe are the only real service provided by positive thinking.     


We have even seen the rise of anti-self-help books like philosopher and psychiatrist Neel Burton’s The Art of Failure[cviii]. Oprah Winfrey, the world’s biggest self-help promoter, has not been slow in extolling the virtues of “defensive pessimism” and has championed Julie Norem’s The Power of Negative Thinking[cix]. Norem isn’t the only one to claim this clear rebuttal of Normal Vincent Peale’s influential work. Following the tradition of sports coaches who have become motivational speakers, basketball coach Bob Knight also released a book bearing the same time title.[cx] I fear that, although an opposite view on approaching this subject is interesting and valid, these examples may be a case of drinking from a different brand of Kool Aid. This would explain why someone like Oprah Winfrey, who has done so much to promote self-help, could so readily accept these “new” ideas and promote them alongside the other self-help gurus. Oscar Wilde once made this definition of a pessimist. "Pessimist: One who, when he has the choice of two evils, chooses both." Negative thinking can be just as removed from reality as its polar opposite. 


As scepticism grows we are also beginning to see a large number of motivational works and motivators becoming critical of certain aspects of self-help or the industry as a whole. Fitness and motivational coach, and unashamed marketer, Chris McCombs, took a solid swipe at the Law of Attraction and the best-selling The Secret in his article How The Flaw of Attraction Nearly Killed My Friend and How to REALLY Get What You Want.[cxi] However, McCombs doesn’t seem to be anti-positive visualization, he is more concerned about the extreme end whereby people think and don’t act.


Like McCombs, Mike Mahler takes an approach that is designed to appeal to male machismo in the weight-lifting, martial arts or general fitness mode. This seems to address the balance with Steve Salerno’s assertion that the self-help movement is “inherently feminizing”. He says the following about his book, Live Life Aggressively! What Self-help Gurus Should Be Telling You:


“To be honest, I think self-help books are garbage, and this book is definitely not a self-help book. Most, if not all self-help books are overly complicated compilations of nonsense, which fail to offer anything that you can use to improve your life. Will saying daily affirmations help you improve your life? Probably not. Will faking it till you make it help you get to the Promised Land? Lets [sp.] ask the ladies, how many of you actually enjoy faking it? Don’t raise your hands all at once. Will books that encourage men to act like women, and women to act like men, really help either sex? Absolutely not, and the current wussification of America is all too evident of that. Will books that tell you to write down your five, ten, or twenty goals really help you? No, because they distract you from being fully present in the moment and this moment is all you have. The past is dead, and the future is not here.  As if we don’t have enough to worry about now, we have to worry about where we will be in the future as well. Americans worry too much as it is. Being fully in the moment is the best thing you can do for a bright future. No one knows what the future has in store. As the saying goes, want to make God laugh? Tell God your plans.


“Self-help books are so focused on making you feel good about yourself, that they fail to help you be honest with yourself. Without brutal honesty you will never move forward. Without a strong sense of purpose, and passion, you will never persevere through the inevitable plethora of hard times that are coming your way in life.”[cxii]


This does seem to counteract much of what we have learnt about the self-help approach and provide solutions in line with Wiseman’s studies as well as ask for a much needed acceptance of the struggles we will all face in our futures. However, criticism of the book seems to imply that it is no more than another self-help book – consisting of a series of article – that spends half its time ranting about self-help gurus and the other half providing advice on training or running a fitness business.  

Real Self-Help


All is not lost for self-help. Richard Wiseman has had success from experiments and a wide range of extensive case studies that prove a few habits can increase one’s happiness. Although discussing a problem with untrained people may yield bad results, expressing these thoughts in a structured way through writing has proven to be effective in raising one’s self-esteem and psychological wellbeing. Despite positive visualization of a goal having a detrimental effect on its achievement, the act of reliving past happy moments and thinking of a bright future certainly makes people happier. I guess it is case of separating the dreams, which make us happy, from the pragmatic step-by-step methods that are more likely to yield tangible results and allowing them both to co-exist.[cxiii] This latter method for achieving progressive goals is very similar to Geoff Thompson’s Fear Pyramid.[cxiv]


It is worth mentioning that awareness of wishy washy thinking is nothing new in self-help. Stephen R. Covey berates the impracticality of applying a “positive mental attitude” without having a sense of direction in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.[cxv] Neither of his best works, the aforementioned one and Principle Centred Leadership,[cxvi] pushes positive visualization. Seven Habits of Highly Effective People tells us to “begin with the end in mind”, but this is to do with direction. Asking what do we want to be remembered for in all aspects of one’s life and thinking about one’s legacy is a lot different from focusing on an ideal goal and wishing for it to come to you.  

Just as the methods and concepts of Sigmund Freud are largely discredited today by mainstream science, most psychologists and psychiatrists who know their history give him at least a begrudging amount of credit, and I hope we can say the same about some aspects of self-help. I possibly wouldn’t be reaching the audience I have today without the kind assistance, support and inspiration of my friend, Geoff Thompson. He graciously asked me to write a forward to his book of collected articles Everything that Happens to me is Fantastic.[cxvii] In my introduction I quoted self-help guru Zig Zigglar, which Geoff had referenced in his admission of still making mistakes: “I am still learning this stuff”.


Geoff has often been there when I just needed a friend to give me support and has offered me several opportunities that helped me build my martial arts profile. All of his instructors have been helpful to me beyond the call of their role as my martial arts teacher and I count a few of them as friends. Tony Somers is probably the most obvious example of endorsing the self-help approach. He has gone as far as to open a full-time centre dedicated to “empowerment”. A qualified counsellor, I have Tony to thank for helping make an important decision to teach at a large martial arts event.


My dear friend Iain Abernethy – who I would consider to have strong scientific sceptical leanings – wrote Mental Strength[cxviii], which is a self-help book with pretty sound advice. The book is devoid of any spiritual content and does not dwell on positive thinking. Defence against negative thinking does appear, but it is in a valid context, such as when it might undermine your self-belief when you have worked hard for and are committed to a task. Iain, I hasten to add, is the first person to graciously take on board constructive criticism and his humility can be very inspiring.


Barbara Ehrenreich and Dr Barbara Held might put themselves in opposition to the culture of positive thinking, but both champion what they deem to be practical alternatives. Ehrenreich’s concluding chapter of Smile or Die[cxix] is a lot more encouraging than Salerno’s work. In fact, as useful a book as SHAM[cxx] was for my research and despite the validity of its criticisms its one large failing is the author’s seeming refusal to acknowledge the need for guidance and motivation. I agree, as he does, that a stoic acceptance of the bad things in life is a time-honoured method of getting on with living. However, to just have a “suck it up, Princess” style attitude is really not a million miles away from what Ehrenreich argues positive thinking has often been used to do, especially when it came to firing employees.


A practical bolt-on to hardening up can be found in Barbara Held’s Stop Smiling and Start Kvetching[cxxi]. Held’s book is undeniably a self-help manual and it even has its own five steps. However, rather than just internally monitoring feelings, Held teaches the middle ground of assertiveness as opposed to aggression or passivity. She has little time for the idea that bad situations or circumstances are a result of your own attitude or the idea that if you use positive thinking your problems will go away. If there is another person directly responsible, Held believes you should address them and hold them accountable. Her book does not profess to have a holistic view on life. It has a designated purpose: to teach people how to complain. There are obvious psychological and sociological benefits to developing this skill, but Held does not pretend her work will make you an all-round success.      


There is a time for positive thinking and optimism, a time for negative thinking and pessimism, and an over-riding need for unashamed realism. Ehrenreich champions all three and particularly the latter in her evaluating conclusion.[cxxii] Just as “realism” became a by-word for integrity in modern self-defence teaching, by contrast it became a dirty word in the martial arts self-help world. Most martial artists are urged to follow the sentiment of Les Brown’s quote, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars”. However, even this can be idealistic and, as we can see with positive visualization, damaging for the individual.


This is not to say that normal people cannot realize their dreams or achieve greatness from humble beginnings. Although I urge a wariness of training metaphors, there is a lot to be said for Iain Abernethy’s weight training analogy. Geoff Thompson’s “no growth in comfort” is also relevant here. Progressive resistance is the way most skills are developed and how a lot of learning is done. Having said this, there are very real limitations when it comes to lifting weights. Like it or not, genetics plays a huge role and few people, no matter how hard they train, will ever lift at the level of competitors on the international scene. The same applies to intelligence and other areas of physical fitness. Putting it simply, only a very few of us can ever hope to be genuine astronauts. Self-improvement is a worthy endeavour, but being unrealistic about one’s aspirations is confusing ambition for delusion. As Carl Sagan famously put it, “They laughed at Galileo. They laughed at Newton. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown”.


I have plenty of experiences in disproving my detractors and also facing the realities of my goals. At school I never had much of an interest in ball sports and, not having any natural ability, I subsequently wasn’t very good. Being a dreamer, I did my own positive visualization and saw myself scoring goals, batting balls and landing baskets, but to no physical avail except the odd bit of dumb luck. My well-meaning but rather patronizing physical education teacher wrote on my end of year report that “James will never be an outstanding athlete, but he tries very hard”. A year later we had a new teacher and I not only had got to the county track trials, but I had won several martial arts tournaments.


Many years later and I received a reality-check from a writer of positive thinking. At this time my writings were getting published in martial arts magazines. I had also begun training in Brazilian jiu jitsu and I was set to compete for the first time. I was training regularly and with enthusiasm, but I was a novice. My problem was that the tournament was being held at the country’s largest martial arts exhibition and I feared the respect I was beginning to garner would be dashed at my public defeat. Prior to taking part in an intensive private lesson with grappling coach, Matty Evans, I went to see my friend, Geoff Thompson, to have a heart-to-heart over the whole issue.


He provided me with an encouraging anecdote how he tried to take his judo black belt grading as discreetly as possible, but ended up having to spar with judoka who had brought copies of his book to sign. Keeping my ego balanced, he told me that less people than I realized would see me at the tournament and those that did would more than likely have respect for me stepping out as a novice to be tested in another martial art. However, all of this was prefaced with an honest appraisal of the situation. Knowing I only had a month left before the tournament, he told me that there was going to be little I could do now to increase my chances of winning my weight division. By knowing this, I trained hard and won my first fight. When I later lost on a very dodgy decision – a claim that I tapped by my opponent and his team when I didn’t – I stoically accepted my experience and looked forward to competing again.   


I am an optimistic person most of the time and I see nothing wrong in Stephen R. Covey’s first habit: be proactive.[cxxiii] Covey’s works turned me onto Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.[cxxiv] Both men certainly have flaws in their all-encompassing philosophies, but there is scant evidence to provide a decent argument against their strategy of taking control of bad situations the best they can. I do not believe Frankl’s undeniably strong mental approach saved his life, but it certainly helped him cope with the terrible situation he faced in a Nazi concentration camp. My only real issue regarding being proactive is when self-help gurus take it too far by telling us to embrace bad situations or, at worst, make us feel guilty about feeling anger or sadness. Putting it simply, you cannot fake happiness. Trying to suppress certain feelings for prolonged periods of time is not only ineffective but also counter-productive. Looking on the bright side of a situation is all well and good, but to continually force yourself to be joyful only increases stress levels.


I am also a motivator and I have a genuine interest in helping people achieve their goals. I say that with a small “m”, as I have no accredited qualifications to show a proven background in understanding the psychological science behind motivation. This doesn’t stop me from researching the subject or finding what is genuinely helpful and also to use extensive case studies and experiments to show me what has proven to be ineffective or detrimental. Whether you are training for self-defence, competition or to improve your health you need self-belief. If you wish to improve you do have to push outside the much clichéd comfort zone. I have written plenty about my passion for progress – the controversial nature of this piece you are reading is part of that progress – but what we are addressing here is some honest evaluation of the larger picture.


If you all you do is try to better yourself you are in danger of becoming nothing more than Sisyphus from Greek mythology who was destined to endlessly push a boulder up the side of a mountain. This is no more than the Calvinist doctrine Ehrenreich described in her book, where the mortal soul only found solace in labour. The labour in this respect is to constantly desire for more and to fight an internal struggle. However, a lot of time can be wasted and excessive stress caused fighting this battle. Once in a while, we need to stop and assess where we are on our life journey and what are our real goals. When you are on a journey it is important to remember to admire the scenery.

Budo Today


As far as martial artists are concerned, I think we need to look back to budo and its equivalents for a re-evaluation. After all, it is here where so many have made a decision to embrace self-help. Discipline, philosophy, physical fitness, a sense of spirituality, culture, community spirit and just about every other non-combative attribute associated with martial arts can be attained, often to a higher level, from non-martial arts activities. The inescapable truth is that martial arts were created for violence and that is their unique quality.[cxxv] This quality alone has come under much criticism, leading to the creation of splinter groups of martial artists and the rise of whole new systems. Therefore it follows we should question the non-combative aspects. When one questions a martial art’s effectiveness we often refer to the time and context of the system or style that was created. The same should be said about the paradigm shift – to use a favourite self-help phrase – that occurred from the turn of the 20th century to the mid-20th century.


The Taoism that has become associated with Chinese martial arts via Sun Lu Tang seems to be cosmetic a lot of the time. Rather than flowing and seeking balance, the empowerment self-help movement more closely resembles Confucianism in its desire to manipulate life to serve their own ends.  


Japan’s transition from bushido to budo occurred during the Meiji period. This eventually led to Japanese nationalism and imperialism, and budo martial arts such as judo and kendo became a part of the Japanese education system. Likewise Chinese martial arts schools did a lot to appease their autocratic rulers at the turn of the century. After the Second World War it was the turn of Korean martial arts, many of which were based on the budo arts of their recent Japanese occupiers. Even more so than the Japanese, these systems took on a strong nationalistic ethos.  


These contexts need to be considered when he extoll the supposedly true virtues of the martial arts. Different martial arts were created for different reasons and their philosophical bent was influenced by the quirks and views of certain individuals. Unquestioning loyalty to a China of the early 20th century, an Imperialistic Japan or an autocratic Korea might not be exactly what you consider to be virtuous or at the heart of your martial arts ethos. It strikes me that today’s martial artist often suffers something an identity crisis that can be traced back to these times of cultural change. In order to survive, the teaching of various war and self-defence arts needed to be justified. Today the overt oppression might be gone, but the need to justify hasn’t. Modern teachers face an external battle to recruit more students in order for a business to survive and they also face battle with themselves as to why they invest so much time and effort into something that has little relevance to their everyday life.  


What is the relevance of budo today? That is a genuine question, as I feel martial arts have a lot to offer beyond their fighting aspects. However, I challenge that just as what works in the gym is not always transferrable to what works in a real fight, it is just as naïve to think that the strategy for handling obstacles and opponents in physical training is not always applicable to relationships, business or dealing with a serious illness. Likewise, becoming an instructor, or even a grandmaster, in a martial arts system does not automatically mean you are an expert in handling the many complexities of life.


Just as martial artists adopted a new approach in order for their schools to survive and thrive under dramatic cultural changes, so martial artists have adopted self-help as a type of modern extension of this philosophy. Seeing the contextual flaws of the former and many of the scientific flaws of the latter, I contend that we need to make further philosophical moves forward in martial arts training. I already made this point before in Martial Arts Scepticism: A Manifesto with the adoption of critical thinking in our study. However, this is but one tool. A sentence from an unlikely source about selecting a martial arts school has kept with me since I first read it, but only recently have I thought about the sobering sentiment. It was written by US ninjutsu instructor Stephen K. Hayes just as the mystique of his chosen art was all the rage and the holistic self-help guru set to take the world by storm:


“Beware of schools claiming to provide a little of everything. The wise consumer would probably shy away from buying a car promoted as having all the combined features of a sports racer, a pickup truck, a formal limousine, an armoured personnel carrier, and economy gas-saver. It is equally impossible to combine training in sports competition, cultural tradition and pragmatic self-protection”.  


I think we need a post-holistic approach to marital arts training. Having a broad knowledge of different methods and concepts is great, but a clear understanding of objectives is important along with an honest appraisal over our abilities as teachers. We are placed in positions of responsibility and need to be careful about how far we exert our influence, especially if it falls outside our scope of expertise. Be confident that you are teaching something that is moving forward and is open to criticism. Appreciate that it isn’t a solve-all method, but work towards making it a proven success with testable results. 


If you lack justification for your prolonged training in something that has no immediate practical value – be it an archaic fighting method, a sport you will never win at or a self-defence system you are highly unlikely to use – consider the following humble piece of encouragement. Iain Abernethy pointed out in his Biggest Martial Arts Secret podcast one big thing martial arts has to offer is fun. Simple and straightforward enjoyment is the clear reason why British people partake in the ancient pagan custom of Morris Dancing or indulge in historical battle re-enactments or play a favourite sport. Do we always need a profound or practical reason for this indulgence? My answer is “no” and admitting that can be quite empowering.  


[i] The noted revolutionary and historian Tang Hao was among a minority of Chinese martial artists that were already decrying the practical ineffectiveness of what was being taught in many mainstream martial arts schools in the 1920s. Hao is also known for his debunking of the myth that the Shaolin Temple was ever the hub of martial arts training in China. Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey, Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo, 2008, Blue Snake Books

[ii] E.Barton Wright, the founder of the eclectic system of bartitsu is one notable, but there were others in the early 1900s who promoted the mixing of different martial disciplines in both the west and the east and others, like William Fairbairn  and Erik A. Sykes from Britain, Jon Bluming in Holland, the iconic Bruce Lee and the pioneering Dennis Martin, that continued to do so up until the paradigm shift of the late 20th century.  

[iii] The Secret of Inner Strength, Chuck Norris and Joe Hyams, Little Brown & Co (T),1987

[iv] However, it should be noted that there is perhaps a more distinct link between training in martial arts in China and Korea to employment as a bodyguard in those particular countries. Likewise, the Japanese police force uses an intensive year-long black belt course in Yoshikan aikido as an ordeal for cadets who wish to be a part of their anti-riot units.  Whether or not this training is more a tradition used for conditioning, comparable to the way “milling” in the British army, to develop mental hardiness rather than as a means for learning anything that has a practical application in the students’ chosen profession is open for debate.

[v] Self-Help, Samuel Smiles, 1859

[vi] SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, Steve Salerno, 2005, Three Rivers Press

[vii] Self-publishing is very common amongst self-help writers unless they can land a lucrative contract with Simon and Shuster, perhaps the world’s largest publisher or self-help books.

[viii] Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill, 1937, The Ralston Society

[ix] How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie, 1936, Simon and Schuster. This publishing firm became the world’s most famous publisher of self-help books. Leon Shimkin, who worked for the firm, had taken a 14 day course with Carnegie and convinced the man to allow a stenographer take note of the course and convert it into a single publication.

[x] The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale, 1952, Prentice-Hall, Inc.

[xi] I’m OK – You’re OK, Thomas Anthony Harris, 1967, Harper and Row

[xii] Cult-like gurus connected to psychiatry were nothing new. Many argue that Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis now offers very little to the world of modern psychology and psychiatry. Over a decade before Harris’s book, science fiction writer, L. Ron Hubbard, created Dianetics, which laid the foundation philosophy for his Church of Scientology. Hubbard claimed Freud’s writings as a large influence. His work and practices oppose mainstream psychology and psychiatry, and are regarded as a pseudoscience.

[xiii] The Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi (first  written 1645), translated by Victor Harris in 1974 via Allison and Busby Ltd, my edition published in 1984 by Flamingo, an imprint  of Harper Collins

[xiv] The Men Who Stare at Goats, Jon Ronson, 2004, Picador/Simon and Schuster

[xv] Martial Arts and the Mastery of Self–Part 1 (early draft), Ron Goin, 2013

[xvi] The Tao of Bruce Lee, Davis Miller, 2000, Vintage

[xvii] Ibid

[xviii] Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, Barbara Ehrenreich, 2010, Granta Books

[xix] Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill, 1937, The Ralston Society

[xx] Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, Barbara Ehrenreich, 2010, Granta Books

[xxi] Lewiston Morning TribuneNorton Has Philosophy of Success, Jul 28, 1973

[xxii] Going the Distance : The Ken Norton Story, Ken Norton and Marshall Terill, 2000, Sports Publishing LLC

[xxiv] The Tao of Bruce Lee, Davis Miller, 2000, Vintage

[xxv] Zen in the Martial Arts, Joe Hyams, 1982, Bantam

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] The Martial Arts Companion, John Corocoran, 1992, Michael Friedman Publishing Group, Inc

[xxviii] SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, Steve Salerno, 2005, Three Rivers Press

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, 2006, Penguin

[xxxi] Skeptoid # 125, Brian Dunning, 28 October 2008. The transcript describes Oprah Winfrey’s entry as follows: “The only person who can sit at the top of this pyramid is the one widely considered the most influential woman in the world and who promotes every pseudoscience: Oprah Winfrey. To her estimated total audience of 100 million, many of whom uncritically accept every word the world's wealthiest celebrity says, she promotes the paranormal, psychic powers, new age spiritualism, conspiracy theories, quack celebrity diets, past life regression, angels, ghosts, alternative therapies like acupuncture and homeopathy, anti-vaccination, detoxification, vitamin megadosing, and virtually everything that will distract a human being from making useful progress and informed decisions in life. Although much of what she promotes is not directly harmful, she offers no distinction between the two, leaving the gullible public increasingly and incrementally injured with virtually every episode.”

[xxxii] Unlimited Power, Anthony Robbins, 1987, Balantine Books

[xxxiii] Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey, Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo, 2008, Blue Snake Books

[xxxiv] SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, Steve Salerno, 2005, Three Rivers Press

[xxxv] Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, Barbara Ehrenreich, 2010, Granta Books

[xxxvi] Ibid.

[xxxvii] SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, Steve Salerno, 2005, Three Rivers Press

[xxxviii] Kun Lun Traditional Chinese Medicine Practice

[xxxix] The Amazing Q-Link Science Pendant, Bad Science, The Guardian, Ben Goldacre, 19 May 2007

[xl] The Secret of Inner Strength, Chuck Norris and Joe Hyams, Little Brown & Co (T),1987

[xli] The New Newgate CalendarThe Malefactors' Bloody Register, 1824 and 1826, collected edition that most modern reprints are based on was published byAndrew Knapp and William Baldwin. Prior to this the title, The Newgate Calendar, was used as a title for a monthly bulletin on lists of executions and then by various publishers to print stories of legendary criminals like Dick Turpin and mythical killers like Sawney Beane.

[xlii] Der Sadist, Karl Berg, 1938, Acorn Press (English edition)

[xliii] Little Man, Robert Lacey, 1991, Random House

[xliv] In Cold Blood, Truman Capote, 1966, Random House

[xlv] Our Story, Ron and Reg Kray, 1988, Sidgwick and Jackson

[xlvi] Inside the Firm: The Untold Story of the Krays' Reign of Terror, Tony Lambrianou,1991, Smyth Gryphon Ltd

Escape from the Kray Madness, Chris Lambrianaou, 1995, Sidgwick and Jackson

[xlvii] My Manor, Charlie Richardson, 1991, Sidgwick and Jackson

[xlviii] Born Fighter, Reg Kray, 1991, Arrow Books and My Story, Ron Kray, 1993, Sidgwick and Jackson                

[xlix] The Guv’nor, Lenny McLean, 1998, John Blake Publishing

[l] Pretty Boy, Roy Shaw/Kate Kray, 2003, John Blake Publishing

[li] SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, Steve Salerno, 2005, Three Rivers Press

[lii] Fear: The Friend of Exceptional People, Geoff Thompson, 1995, Summersdale

[liii] Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, Susan Jeffers, 1987, Hutchinson Ltd

[liv] The Elephant and the Twig: The Art of Positive Thinking, Geoff Thompson, 2000, Summersdale

[lv][lv] Later republished as A Book for the Seriously Stressed and, as a paperback, as Stressbuster

[lvi] Watch My Back: A Bouncer’s Story, Geoff Thompson, 1992, Summersdale

[lvii] Bouncer, Geoff Thompson, 1994, Summersdale

[lviii] On the Door: The Continuing Adventures of a Nightclub Bouncer, Geoff Thompson, 1996, Summersdale

[lix] Watch my Back, Geoff Thompson, 2001, Summersdale

[lx] Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, Barbara Ehrenreich, 2010, Granta Books

[lxi] Ibid.

[lxii] Ibid.

[lxiii] Ibid.

[lxiv] The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale, 1952, Prentice-Hall, Inc.

[lxv] The Positive Thinkers., Donald Meyer, Pantheon Books, 1965

[lxvi] ibid

[lxvii] Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, Barbara Ehrenreich, 2010, Granta Books

[lxix] Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, Barbara Ehrenreich, 2010, Granta Books

[lxx] Ibid.

[lxxi] Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change – Review of General Psychology, 9, S. Lyubomirsky, K.M. Sheldon and D. , 2005

[lxxii] 59 Seconds, Richard Wiseman, 2009, Macmillan Publishing

[lxxiii] Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, Barbara Ehrenreich, 2010, Granta Books

[lxxiv] Suppression of Negative Self-Referential Thoughts: A Field Study – Self and Identity, 5, J.L.S. Borton and E.C. Casey, 2006

[lxxv] 50 Myths of Popular Psychology reporting the findings of Barry, Frick and Killian in 2003 and Emler in 2001

[lxxvi][lxxvi] Ibid.

[lxxvii] Ibid.

[lxxviii] Ibid.

[lxxix] Beyond Kicking, Jean Frenette, 1991, Unique Publications

[lxxx] The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale, 1952, Prentice-Hall, Inc.

[lxxxi] From Thought to Action: Effects of Process Versus Outcome-Based Mental Simulations on Performance – Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, L.B. Pham and S.E. Taylor, 1999

[lxxxii] 59 Seconds, Richard Wiseman, 2009, Macmillan Publishing

[lxxxiii] Ian Fox’s services include NLP, hypnosis, spiritual coaching, and reiki

[lxxxiv] Dennis Martin has a strong reputation, but few realize that he was ahead of both realistic modern combatives in the UK and self-help. He was publishing articles on the realities violence on a regular basis in Terry O’Neil’s Fighting Arts magazine almost a decade before the RBSD movement started challenging the old traditional martial arts guard in the early 1990s. His connection with NLP perhaps suggests the direction a lot of the training would go. 

[lxxxv] Anthony Robbins’ website

[lxxxvi] What Does Not Work? Expert Consensus on Discredited Treatments in the Addictions-Journal of Addiction Medicine , 4,  Norcross, John C.; Koocher, Gerald P.; Fala, Natalie C.; Wexler, Harry K, 2010

[lxxxvii] Thirty-Five Years of Research on Neuro-Linguistic Programming. NLP Research Data Base. State of the Art or Pseudoscientific Decoration?Polish Psychological Bulletin 41, Tomasz Witkowski, 2010

[lxxxviii] The Naked Ape, Desmond Morris, 1967, Dell Publishing Co., Inc.

[lxxxix] Manwatching, Desmond Morris, 1978, Triad/Panther Books

[xc]Although in its entry on NLP, The Skeptic’s Dictionary states “there is solid research (Eckman and Friesen 1975; Eckman and Rosenberg 1997) supporting the claim that certain identifiable facial expressions generally imply particular emotions…” – Robert Todd Carroll, John Wiley and Sons, Inc. publishing, 2003.

[xci] Manwatching, Desmond Morris, 1978, Triad/Panther Books.

[xcii] The Skeptic’s Dictionary, Robert Todd Carroll, 2003, John Wiley and Sons, Inc. publishing

[xciii] Ibid.

[xciv] Ibid.

[xcv] Ibid.

[xcvi] Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, Barbara Ehrenreich, 2010, Granta Books

[xcvii] The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey, 2004, Franklin Covey Co./Simon and Schuster Ltd.

[xcviii] Principle Centred Leadership, 1992, Simon and Schuster Ltd.

[xcix] Interview: Leadership from the Inside Out, Anthony Robbins via NAPMA/NEST, Sounds of Success CD

[c] Mental Strength, Iain Abernethy,2005, NETH Publishing in association with Summersdale Publishing Ltd. 

[ci] Never Saw it Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst, Karen A. Cerulo 2005,  University Of Chicago Press

[cii] Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, Barbara Ehrenreich, 2010, Granta Books

[ciii] Ibid.

[civ] Online discussion with Mick Tully, 2013

[cv] Quentin Tarantino wrote Natural Born Killers, but he asked Roger Avery to write this scene due to the reason why the Paul Brothers were included. The two wealthy bodybuilders had allegedly funded Tarantino’s script on the condition they were featured in a scene from the film.

[cvi] How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie, 1936, Simon and Schuster

[cvii] Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, Barbara Ehrenreich, 2010, Granta Books

[cviii] The Art of Failure: The Anti-Self-Help Guide, Neel Burton, 2010, Acheron Press

[cix] The Power of Negative Thinking, Julie K. Norem, 2002, Basic Books

[cx] The Power of Negative Thinking: An Unconventional Approach to Achieving Positive Results, Bob Knight and Bob Hammel

[cxi] How The Flaw of Attraction Nearly Killed My Friend and How to REALLY Get What You Want, Chris McCombs, 6 August 2013.

[cxii] Live Life Aggressively!: What Self Help Gurus Should Be Telling You, Mike R. Mahler, 2011, Mahler’s Aggressive Strength LLC

[cxiii] 59 Seconds, Richard Wiseman, 2009, Macmillan Publishing

[cxiv] Fear: The Friend of Exceptional People, Geoff Thompson, 1995, Summersdale

[cxv] The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey, 2004, Franklin Covey Co./Simon and Schuster Ltd.

[cxvi] Principle Centred Leadership, Stephen R. Covey, 1990, Simon and Schuster

[cxvii] Everything that Happens to me is Fantastic, Geoff Thompson, 2009, Summersdale Publishing Ltd.

[cxviii] Mental Strength, Iain Abernethy, 2005, NETH Publishing in association with Summersdale Publishing Ltd. 

[cxix] Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, Barbara Ehrenreich, 2010, Granta Books

[cxx] SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, Steve Salerno, 2005, Three Rivers Press

[cxxi] Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching: A 5-Step Guide to Creative Complaining, Barbara Held, 2001, St. Martin’s Press

[cxxii] Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, Barbara Ehrenreich, 2010, Granta Books

[cxxiii] The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey, 2004, Franklin Covey Co./Simon and Schuster Ltd.

[cxxiv] Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, 1946, Verlag für Jugend und Volk and 1959, Beacon Press

[cxxv] That is unless you are convinced by Nathan J. Johnson’s Barefoot Zen, (2000, Weiser), which puts forward the argument that karate was derived from Shaolin martial arts as means for conquering fear rather than as a system of combat.