Non-Prescriptive – Rory Miller



The survival class with Toby Cowern was, as usual, pretty damn cool. Good people, a nice place, self-selected new challenges…

At one point, while listening in on the introductory fire-starting class, one of the relative beginners started asking “What if?” questions.

Toby replied, “I don’t want to be prescriptive.” Given the vagaries of humidity and wind and available fuel, there are no primitive fire starting techniques that always work. Anything he told the student and the student memorized would be wrong in certain conditions. His goal and teaching method is to explain the principles that underlie fire: Fuel, air and heat; Heat moves upward; greater surface area for weight is easier to ignite, all else equal; small lights large; fuel and especially tinder quality…”

Sound familiar?

There are limits, but survival is survival. Whether under sudden assault or soaked by a sneaker wave in a cool climate miles from help or warmth, survival only comes up where the normal expectations have already failed. If this situation was a normal social conflict where normal social tactics worked, it wouldn’t be a rape or murder attempt. The fact that you are in an extreme situation pretty much dictates that the rules of the non-extreme world have failed or, at least, are in abeyance.

Techniques are prescriptive, and so they often fail. Sometimes they work spectacularly, but whether they work or fail is usually a matter of luck. Your prescripted technique works when it happens to hit the right problem. But we don’t get to choose what kind of bad things will happen to us.

If you understand the principles, you can adapt. And the principles for much of violence, from how and why it happens to the physics of knocking someone down, are things we have dealt with on some level all of our lives. Sometimes it seems that training deliberately divorces what we do every day, our natural movement, from what we do in training. It implies that movement in a fight must in some way be ‘special’ and that almost always reads as ‘unnatural’ and often in practice is stilted, stiff, weak and jerky.

Even when prescriptions work, like in medicine (arguably…sometimes) they are based on diagnostics. If you can’t understand the problem, you are unlikely to make the right choices. Survival, again- hypothermia is loss of heat. Fire, food and warm liquids generate heat. Conduction, convection, radiation, evaporation, respiration and elimination lose heat. When you know the problem and recognize you are in the situation, you can derive what to do.

Assault survival- if you recognize the situation, especially early, you have options… but if you misjudge the type of assault, especially the social/asocial distinction, your choices will backfire. And if you don’t know the principles of assault dynamics, you put a 50% element of luck on top of whatever built-in possibilities of failure your solution has.

Non-prescriptive. Thanks, Toby. It’s a nice way to think about it. Every so often things get clearer for what I am teaching. Diagnostics and principles are the core.

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