You have heard: be aware of your surroundings. And, instinctively, you agree. Of course, it’s good to know what’s going on around you—it’s not only a self-defense skill, it’s your primary defense against falling off cliffs and being pancaked by city busses.
But when it comes to personal protection—evading human predators—there is a problem: most of us don’t know what to look for or how to look for it.
Those who have lived in dangerous, inner-city areas come by this skill naturally. They know what a setup looks like. They spot the hustler on the approach and sense when he is on the verge of physical violence. How? Experience. They’ve seen it happen before. Managing this environment daily sharpens one’s powers of observation and avoidance to a point where one walks the streets in relative safety – no further self-defense skill is required.
But how can you get street-smart without growing up on the street?
Like all self-defense skills, awareness takes practice.
The first step is to recognize that being aware of your surroundings is an active endeavor. You must make a concerted, consistent effort to be observant. One may think this means actively looking for something wrong, but I do not believe that to be the case. Instead, look for what’s right. (You know, like zen.) Just be in the moment.
Doing so turns active observation from borderline paranoia to a satisfying, joyful experience. You become aware of blooming flowers, smiling faces, new restaurants and other small pleasures that can escape when you aren’t fully engaged. In doing this, you build what psychologists refer to as a mental model.
The Mental Model
While the term “mental model” can be used to describe a number of the mind’s functions, it is, for our purposes, helpful to think of it as a mental picture of everything right and in order.
Have you ever had a builder come into your home, glance around, and immediately identify an unseen problem? “I think you have some foundation issues.” Or, have you ever had a doctor look at you and decide to run some tests, tests which turn out to confirm her suspicions you had something unseen wrong?
These are likely functions of a mental model—years of experience give a professional an image of how a healthy person or home should look. This mental model is so strong that when things don’t match the model, they instinctively tipped off to an unseen issue. They may not even know what tipped them off and describe a “gut feeling” something was amiss.
Well, it’s the same for you. Your continued, concerted effort to observe your environment builds your mental model. You may one day notice something does not fit within your model—a car parked where it shouldn’t be, a person standing where people only walk, a door ajar. The passive observations then turn into deliberate inspections. Looking closer at these abnormalities may reveal danger brewing.
Not just a self-defense skill, but a happier way to be.
Many books have been written about observing non-verbal human communication, some specifically directed toward pre-assault indicators. If you are dedicated to your self-defense skills, this should be an area of study for you.
In the meantime, the practices we describe here can provide an excellent starting point for martial artists and self-defense aficionados looking to gain a sixth sense for potential danger. Plus, wouldn’t it be nice to take the time to smell those roses?
Wondering if taekwondo will give you self-defense skills? Read our complete guide to all things taekwondo.