Meditations on Violence Book Review
I used to think about violence often. I was young and went out all the time. Walking home in some terrible states from pubs and clubs, I pondered what I would do in a bad situation. Yet I never saw any real violence, and never got into a fight. Meditations on Violence makes me glad that I didn’t.
The closest I came was when a drunk pushed my friend against a shop window. Don’t hold it against the drunk, it was 3 AM and we were well lubricated too. My first thought was to whack him in the back of the head with something hard. Not a good choice, that’s a quick way to manslaughter. So I ran to get help instead. Ben didn’t need it. When I came back, he had talked the dude down, his verbal jiu-jitsu was strong.
The encounter left me with a feeling of helplessness that I didn’t like. Later I started training in Kung Fu, it was great fun, made me feel fitter and stronger and got me to give up smoking. Awesome. But it also made me wonder if any of this stuff would work.
My instructor was a tough old bird. A bouncer for twenty years to supplement his real life as a sculptor and martial artist. He had used his Kung Fu plenty and was full of tales of bar fights and violent punters needing controlling.
But could I? When you become the Kung Fu guy, your friends know you train all the time. They assume if anything kicks off I’ll be high kicking people in the face.
I’ve always read. A lot. So I started reading about Kung Fu training and other martial arts. Most of it was esoteric mumbo jumbo. Fun to read but impossible to apply to training. But then I read two books in quick succession. A Fighter’s Heart, which I’ve already written about and this book Meditations on Violence.
The Author, Rory Miller is a lifelong martial artist and veteran corrections officer. He’s a smart guy who thinks deeply about violence. Not just his experiences, but other peoples and how they differ. He portrays violence as the Elephant as described by blind men. They each only talk about the piece they have touched and think that is the whole beast.
This book is fascinating. Rory mixes personal stories with research and statistics to explain violence and it’s causes. He breaks down the different ways that violence can occur. From the surprise attack, to being alert to something’s not right, to knowing it’s happening, to instigating it yourself.
He talks about the idea of the Monkey Dance. Where two males posture up and threaten to fight but it’s a play for social dominance not violence.
The explanation of social dynamics alone is worth the price of entry. He covers the different types of violence and this is where it gets scary. Talking about predatory violence is grim. But he covers ways to avoid it and why. Much of that is avoiding places where it can occur. Even if you get away from an encounter the fear from the event can haunt you for years afterward. Better for it not to happen at all. “Self defense is not having your lifestyle changed for you”.
Fear and it’s effects are big part of this book. Miller covers the chemical cocktail that floods the system during violent encounters and how it can freeze you. If you haven’t trained for that situation you will not be prepared for it.
Some of the facts are jaw dropping. There are studies on cops and criminals who have been shot and how far they have moved from the scene when injured. The criminals are found hundreds of meters away, the cops often curl into a ball.
Miller goes deep into the effects that a violent encounter can have. The different types of scenario and what the chemicals that flood your system will do. Untrained people will often fight better and trained people will often fight worse. Trained people won’t have access to their higher level motor skills while untrained people may get a boost by the adrenaline and fear.
Dude just goes through debunking myths. Like the idea of speed and reaction and the myth of the ‘fastest gun’. Action beats reaction, who moves first has the advantage. You won’t be faster and better and more skilled. You’ll likely be punched many times before you complete your first action.
Much of the book talks about aspects before and after violence. If you aren’t in the wrong place then the wrong things won’t happen. If you are, leave as soon as you think things might turn ugly.
Many of the ideas are useful in other facets of life. Skilled technique degrades under stress, so use simple techniques in high pressure situations.
Rory Miller has a mindset and worldview that I’m glad I don’t share. He works in a world filled with men who have done terrible things. Much of what he covers is uncomfortable to consider.
In the world of martial arts where there is so much wastage masked as wisdom he is refreshing. He talks about the ‘flaw in the drill’, the way that technique changes so that you don’t injure your training partners. Pulling punches, not striking certain areas, all can come back and get you in trouble.
My world is not a violent place. I am a peaceful man living a quiet life and wouldn’t wish it otherwise. Australia where I live and New Zealand where I am from are peaceful. We have low gun crime and don’t live in fear. But to pretend that violence is not a part of the human makeup is I think, a mistake. A willful one. We have fought and bled as a species to get this far and those parts of us are still there.
More than anything this book made me try and clarify my thinking. What you think is not always what is. What you have trained for might not be what happens.
Meditations on Violence changed my life in two concrete and ongoing ways. First it made me reassess what I was doing and why. I started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. It’s a ground based art that is one of the fundamental components of Mixed Martial Arts. Like wrestling but with added chokes and limb submissions. What’s surprising is how much fun it is. And I’m aware that it’s sport, I’m not training for self defence or the streets.
The second change was in the bibliography. I’ve loved to read my whole life but I read fiction. Non-fiction reading was rare and only on topics I loved. I always defaulted back to fiction.
In the bibliography, Rory lists all the books that helped him write Meditations. He says to read lots and read wide. And then he says. ‘Read more non-fiction than fiction, the world is a wild and amazing place and what you find in history and science is as crazy as anything ever made up’. And it’s true. This resonated with me. I had a feeling that I could make better use of my reading time.
So now I read non-fiction. For the last five years I have focused on books about real people and real events and I feel all the better for it. My website, Harder To Destroy is about the non-fiction books that people can read to become better.