Jeet Kune Do’s Combat Philosophy
How to Apply the Time-Tested Teachings to Any Art! By Harinder Singh Sabharwal
Jeet kune do, or “way of the intercepting fist,” is Bruce Lee’s gift to the martial arts world. It’s always been my opinion, however, that to fully grasp its concepts, philosophies and fighting methods, one already must possess advanced skills. Recall that most of Lee’s original students were experienced in karate, taekwondo, boxing and kenpo.
To intercept an opponent’s movements, thoughts and emotions as taught in JKD is a high-level concept. It requires great control of your body and an ability to read that person’s movements with the intent to deceive. You must be able to empty your mind and become formless. There is precious little time to think. A skilled JKD practitioner is a master strategist who always seeks out the opponent’s weaknesses while avoiding his strengths.
I wrote this article to demystify one small portion of the vast system we know as jeet kune do. I will share three philosophical combat concepts — self-knowledge, perception and strategy — in a way that will enable you to elevate your practice, regardless of your art.
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote, “Know yourself and know your enemy, and you are sure to succeed.” He knew that the martial arts were about much more than fighting. They’re about self-discovery. They’re designed to guide us on a journey that promises to reveal the cause of our ignorance, a journey that can help us answer the age-old question, Who am I?
To understand who you are, you need to continually reflect on your experiences. You have to study your victories and defeats, then develop an understanding of the conditions, emotions, environments and opponents you’ve faced. You must ask questions like, What are my strengths and weaknesses? When did I win? When did I lose? What were the internal and external circumstances that precipitated that result? How did I deal with opportunities and threats?
The answers will play a vital role in acquiring a comprehensive understanding of how you act and react in various situations. As Miyamoto Musashi reminded us, “All knowledge is ultimately self-knowledge.”
Next, you need to dive deep into “knowing the enemy.” The enemy is both internal and external. For most of us, the greatest enemy is the enemy within, the voice that tells us what we can and cannot do. We have to intercept this negative voice in our head, choke it out and replace it with a positive one. As my tai chi instructor likes to say, “What you think about, comes about.”
You also have to understand your external enemy, aka your opponent. By baiting your opponent and giving him false information, you can assess his skills and responses. Only when you know who you truly are can you honestly express yourself in the martial arts. Only when you truly know your enemies can you attack their weaknesses, avoid their strengths and take advantage of their habits. Before delving into tools, tactics and strategies, you must cultivate attention and awareness because they’re the keys to understanding yourself and your enemy. The best way to cultivate attention and awareness is through the practice of stillness.
Often, martial artists spend too much time fine-tuning their techniques and not enough time developing the ability to pull off those techniques. As Lee reminded us, the individual is far more important than any style or system. In reality, there is no superior style. There are just superior practitioners who have superior attributes like speed, strength, stamina, sensitivity, timing, footwork and distancing. The most undertrained yet most powerful attribute of all is perception.
Your performance in combat is directly related to your perception, and your perception is directly related to the amount of energy you have stored. If you’re rushing, tense, anxious or gassed, your ability to perceive that which is in front of you suffers. If you’re afraid of being hit, of losing or of finding out what others think, you create tension, and tension robs you of energy — which, in turn, robs you of the moment. Your ability to let go of your fears, let go of the results and be wholly in the moment can spell the difference between victory and defeat.
When you’re calm, cool and collected, you don’t care about the result. Furthermore, you perceive time passing more slowly because you’re not depleting your energy reserves by feeding your fears. The energy you preserve then can be redirected into the fight. Your ability to perceive can be cultivated through the practice of stillness.
Stillness is a state of mind and body in which there is no thought, only a heightened state of awareness — which is when time appears to slow. Athletes and musicians refer to this phenomenon as being in the flow state. I like to call it being in the high-performance zone.
When you enter this state, three powers become available. The first is connectivity. This refers to your ability to connect with yourself, your opponent and the environment. When you’re still, you’re self-aware. You can feel what’s going on within your mind, body and emotions. You also can connect with your opponent and observe his motions and emotions. You’re vigilant and aware of your environment, which is the only way you can adapt to the ever-changing chaos of the fight.
The second power is adaptability. The master key to success in combat is your ability to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. Lee told us of the virtues of being like water so we can adapt to our opponent and our environment. “To change with change is the changeless state,” he wrote.
The third power is creativity, which refers to your ability to identify problems and find solutions while under duress. A strategist sees a fight as a problem that must be solved. To do that, you must creatively apply your tactics, tools and strategies to achieve the desired result.
Back to stillness: It manifests in three ways. The first is stillness in stillness. This is your ability to quiet your thoughts and make your mind focus on a singular point like your breath. Most meditation, chi kung and mindfulness practices fall into this category.
The second is stillness in movement. This is your ability to stay in the present and remain fully aware of your mind, body and breath while you’re moving. Many martial artists use shadowboxing and forms to hone this ability.
Finally, there is stillness in movement under chaos, or your ability to maintain that mind, body and breath connection while someone tries to disrupt what you’re doing. You can progressively build your resistance to the chaos factor with feeding drills, counter-for-counter drills, sparring drills — and all of the above with multiple opponents. Making yourself comfortable in uncomfortable situations is the master key to success in combat and in life.
JKD teaches that empty-hand combat spans five ranges. From longest to shortest, they are kicking, punching, trapping, stand-up grappling and ground fighting. Because you can’t know where a fight will take you, it’s essential to have the ability to adapt to different ranges. This doesn’t mean you must give up on your strengths. If you’re a striker, you’ll want to stay in striking range, but you must have an answer for a grappler who takes you down. That entails training with grapplers so you can understand their timing, angles and distancing and so you can have a plan to get back on your feet after a takedown. Not knowing what to do in such a situation will create tension and fear, which will make you more hesitant.
If you’re a striker and you encounter a better striker, you will likely need to use your ability to function in other ranges to prevail. Never fight your opponent where he’s strongest. Instead, attack his weaknesses. Don’t let your ego or your loyalty to your style blind you to the realities of where the fight can go.
Taking place within those five ranges are the five stages of a fight: preliminary analysis, potshotting (aka probing), the engagement, the rally and the follow-up/finish.
In the preliminary-analysis stage, you quickly assess your opponent’s size, stance and temperament. Does he have long arms? What are his posture and stance telling you? Is he crouched like a wrestler or standing upright like a boxer? Does he seem calm? Aggressive? Anxious? These details are crucial to gather before moving on to the next stage.
In potshotting, you probe your opponent to see how he reacts. A probe is a quick and efficient movement, sometimes called a “garbage hand.” The term refers to a rapid strike that’s not meant to land. Its sole purpose is to elicit a reaction, which can reveal how your opponent tends to respond. The data you collect will boost your chance of success in the next stage. You can use a lead-hand jab, a lead-leg kick or a level change.
Your mission is to read his reaction. Does he block? If so, with which hand? Does he retreat? Does he counterattack? Your awareness will increase your chance of success in the next stage.
In the engagement, the action hinges on one of two paths. In one, you attack first, and in the other, your opponent attacks first. When you initiate, it’s called primary attack strategy, and you have five ways to proceed. When the opponent initiates, it’s called secondary attack strategy, and you have five chances to counter.
The well-known five ways of attack that compose the primary attack strategy are single direct attack, attack by combination, hand-immobilization attack, progressive indirect attack and attack by drawing.
Single direct attack is a singular stroke normally done with your fastest tool using broken-rhythm footwork and cutting angles. Attack by combination involves multiple strokes and is normally done by varying depth of penetration and altering the rhythm. The combinations are designed to expose an opening, after which you follow up with multiple shots.
Hand-immobilization attack entails trapping the opponent’s limbs and hitting at the same time. Trapping allows you to attack his base and balance. If he’s moving backward and his limbs are momentarily motionless, he cannot use his art, which means you can steal that beat and attack with forward pressure.
Progressive indirect attack means deliberately faking or feinting the first line of attack, causing your opponent to respond. Then, during the next half-beat, you attack the line he’s left open. It’s important to advance as you fake or feint because you must use that movement to steal a step and get closer for the real hit.
Attack by drawing refers to purposefully leave an opening to draw in your opponent. That affords you an opportunity to intercept or counterattack, especially if you can time his movement.
In the secondary attack strategy, your opponent initiates first of his own accord or because you left an opening. You have five chances to intercept or counter him: You can counterattack any movement at its initiation, on its way out, when it arrives, on its way back or when it’s being re-chambered. For a better grasp of this concept, think about acting “before,” “during” or “after” his move.
The highest level of counterattack — and the hardest to attain — is the ability to sense what your opponent is thinking about before he takes action. That way, you can intercept him on his thought or intent.
JKD values interception and deception. Your perception precedes your ability to intercept or deceive. How quickly you can read your opponent, intercept his movements, adapt to his style, select your strategy and apply your tools will determine whether you succeed. Your ability to observe him and therefore shorten the reaction gap is proportional to the speed with which you can respond.
Your ability to deceive depends on your ability to fake, feint, draw, and set and break rhythms. By constantly setting traps and giving your opponent things to think about, you increase the number of stimuli he must deal with, which increases his processing time and slows his reactions. By reading his reactions, you manipulate him into doing what you want him to do. Like a chess master, you stay three moves ahead of him, which enables you to intercept his reactions.
Without cultivating stillness, you cannot expect to intercept anyone. The opposite of stillness is feeling stress, fear and anxiety. If you try to intercept a foe, you never will because you’re trying. Remember Lee’s quote: “I didn’t do it; it did it.”
The internal martial arts principle of unconditional yielding and structure is the yin-yang you’re after here. You must be able to let go of the result so you can truly be present and then execute in the moment. This is the only way to connect with your opponent, adapt to the situation and create opportunities.
The appropriate structure comes from mastering your posture and your body. It’s the ability to throw your techniques at will while acting and reacting naturally. For this to happen, your movements must be instinctual. Your only concerns are focusing on your breath, entering the moment and letting go of the result.
The purpose of the engagement stage is to enter past your opponent’s kicking and punching tools by causing momentary pain, either by attacking first or by counterattacking. This moment marks your opportunity to steal a beat in time and use forward pressure to pounce like a tiger. That forward pressure might be in the form of a straight blast from wing chun, a double-leg takedown from wrestling, a punching sequence from boxing, a barrage of kicks from taekwondo or a combination of all of the above. The purpose is to put your adversary in the “wounded-crane posture,” which has him flailing his arms, trying to cover and moving backward. At this point, he will have no base and no balance, and he won’t be able to mount an effective response.
When you’re at a longer range, you need to stay loose and relaxed — to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” as Muhammad Ali taught us. But as soon as you inflict a moment of pain or create a moment of weakness, you have to activate your killer instinct and move in like Mike Tyson. This is the rally.
The rally stage is also the most dangerous stage. Whenever you go for the kill, you too can be killed. The rally takes place in the overlapping ranges of boxing, trapping and wrestling. A move from any one of those ranges can counter a move from the others, and everything can happen in a flash. So, along with the attribute of killer instinct, you have to develop your sensitivity. In other words, you have to be able to feel what your opponent may do before he actually does it.
For that reason, your perception and/or tactile awareness must be razor sharp. You can’t just blindly rage forward. You must be aware of your opponent and able to feel what he’s about to do — and then instantly counter him. This is why sensitivity drills like chi sao, muay Thai clinching, pummeling and close-quarters boxing are used so often to develop the requisite reflexes and reactions.
In the follow-up/finish stage, you’re out to end the altercation. Your opponent is likely hurt, moving backward, and flailing and covering. Here, three levels of force need to be considered when selecting the appropriate tactics.
Level one: The person is no longer a threat, which means you can apply a lock or joint manipulation.
Level two: The person is still strong and very much in the fight. You need to restart the process described above and take another shot in an attempt to break him down and wear him out.
Level three: You’re in a life-or-death situation. Maybe you’re facing multiple opponents. Maybe you’re protecting your family. Maybe you’re a soldier in enemy territory. You need to escalate the level of violence so you can immediately eradicate the threat. Quickly trap and clinch, then shift to the heavy artillery: head butts to the face, knees to the groin, elbows to the temples, gouges to the eyes and so on.
It’s essential to have the presence of mind to initiate a cease-fire once the threat has been neutralized. If you’re blinded by rage, it’s easy to make mistakes. If you stop the threat and keep going, you might cause irreversible damage or death — and you’ll likely end up behind bars. This is why the dual cultivation of perception and compassion is mandatory.
Knowing who you are; mastering your mind, body, tools and strategies; and developing your perception are the keys to becoming a complete martial artist — and a complete human being. Only when you are in discomfort do you find out who you truly are. That is when you are forced to confront your fears, to make yourself comfortable in uncomfortable situations. It’s when you learn to thrive in chaos.
Clearly, the way of the warrior is about more than violence. As I said, it’s a lifelong voyage of self-discovery. There’s no limit to what you can do and what you can achieve.
Discover the cause of your ignorance, let go of the past, adapt to situations and circumstances, and learn to honestly express yourself. As a martial artist, you know there is no easy way, no quick fix, no certification, no title, no rank and no lineage that can save you. Only you can save yourself. Things don’t happen to you; you make things happen through you.
Harinder Singh Sabharwal teaches jeet kune do, wing chun, tai chi, savate, kali serrada, boxing, wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He’s the founder of the Jeet Kune Do Athletic Association. For more information, visit SifuSingh.com.
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