Emotional Control


Karate-do is known to help personal development in many facets of life.  The discipline required transfers into every other aspect of life without failure.  In career counseling this is known as a transferable skill.  That s “what skills do you possess that are directly transferable into another field or job?”  How does this happen?  The answer is operant learning.  We practice the physical move mindfully, with critique and self-awareness we are taught the most efficient and effective ways to move.  We refine these movements over time and continue to learn and redefine the same moves.  We are challenged every step of the way to continue to improve and refine.  Soon, through the muscle memory learned the movement becomes a natural part of us and how we move.  It becomes reflex, or response without thought. Automatic! Many will state that we cannot learn or modify reflex.  I believe that we can, not only can modify innate reflex, but include mindfulness adding the element of emotional control.

The discipline required to continue the pursuit of perfection becomes a control of emotion; controlling those feelings to quit because it’s easier than to overcome.  There are other aspects of Karate that teach us methods beating the urge to succumb to the easy path.  Included in the teachings are meditation, focus and mental stability.  O’Sensei Nishiyama states in his ‘Coaches Manual’; the recognition of power derived from the mechanism of total body muscular contraction and expansion, the most important source of power is mental.  He goes further to break down mental control into three components: 1) Stable emotions, 2) a calm physical state, and 3) Control of Ki defined as ones mental energy.[i]  Many will state that we cannot learn or modify reflex.  To believe this also states that we are only a bundle of “survival mechanisms” designed only to kill or be killed,   designed only to survive.  This is a very primitive view of the humanity; we are much more than that.  We are spiritual beings as well.

To understand the depth of learning let’s look at a few definitions of terms that are associated as we explore movement, reaction, and what drives the innate survival components of life.


  • Science: neurology, physiology) A reflected action or movement, the sum total of any particular involuntary activity. An automatic instinctive unlearned reaction to a stimulus. [ii]
  • A reflected action or movement; the sum total of any particular automatic response mediated by the nervous system.

We react to stimuli when we go to the doctor and the doctor performs test.  An example is when the doctor hits just below the knee in an area called patellar tendon with a small rubber hammer.  This tendon is the one that connects the top of the shinbone to the bottom of the kneecap. This knee jerk is the most commonly tested reflex.  It is a spinal reflex, meaning that the neural circuit only goes up to the spinal cord, not the brain.   There are sensory receptors in your muscles that detect when they are being stretched (smacking the tendon provides a nice, sharp little stretch).  These receptors trigger nerve impulses which travel up the sensory neuron to the spinal cord.  This involuntary response is reflex, no brain activity required! 

How about when the stimuli are not physical, but threaten your physical wellness?  When you walk by a baseball game at the park and you sense a ball may hit you, you will react. You may cower, cover your head and hope you don’t get hit.  Is this a reflex?  Does it take training to perform this?  The stimuli do not always need to make contact in order to create a response.  Now, envision a baseball pitcher throws a 90 MPH fastball and the batter connects and drives a line drive directly at the pitcher coming up to 105 MPH.  He responds not by cowering or ducking, he raises his glove and catches it.  Is that reflex? Is this a learned reflex? I say yes.    


  • Any action or change of condition evoked by a stimulus. [iv]

How we respond to a threat depends on the type of threat.  We may experience a threat of livelihood at the work place, or one of relations in a social situation.  When we first step into a dojo, the threat we are seeking a preparation for is physical type of threat; one that endangers our physical self.  We are born with innate survival responses to physical threats.    We naturally will sacrifice the arms to protect the more vital parts of our body like our organs and head. We will do this without thought.  We have hormones that are released when threatened.

The most well-known hormone is called adrenaline or Epinephrine. Epinephrine is involved in the fight or flight response in humans.  The fight or flight response occurs when a person is subject to a threat. This causes a signaling process to occur, which causes the body to react to the potential danger.  Specifically, once a threat is perceived, a signal is sent to the brain. The brain then sends nerve impulses to the adrenal gland in the adrenal gland, releases epinephrine.  Epinephrine then enters the bloodstream. It is thus carried around the body to cells in various locations, where it initiates several responses.   Despite initiating several different responses, epinephrine’s effects have a collective purpose – to provide energy so that the major muscles of the body can respond to the perceived threat like an increase to the lungs, heart, and leg muscles.  Additionally, constricting blood flow to the upper extremities to prevent bleed out in the event of injury, and unfortunately the frontal lobe where executive functioning occurs.  So, we see the release of epinephrine as a survival hormone, why would the blood supply to the origin of our most powerful asset exist?  Is it to provide the ability to perform super human task without thinking?  I believe we have all heard of examples of superhuman feats performed in the midst of an emergency; a woman lifting a car to save her baby, or a man running into a burning structure to retrieve their family.  How do we control this instinct of survival when faced with an perceived threat?


  • A largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason [v] 

Essentially, what you do naturally without thought.  Instinct can also be that sick feeling you have when you believe something has gone or is about go wrong but you have no concrete proof.  I like to use the term hard wiring meaning reactions that we are born with.  So, can we alter these instinctual precepts?   One example is the fact that humans are instinctively turned off by bitter foods. Sugary foods typically supply energy, while many toxic plants have a bitter taste. If you feed a baby some sweet banana mash, she'll probably eat it up. If you give her some mushy rhubarb, she'll most likely spit it out. While rhubarb isn't dangerous, it's bitter, and our natural hard-wired instinct tells us to spit it out because it could be toxic.[vi]

So since we are hardwired for survival and one of the circuits tells us not to eat bitter foods due to possible poisonous content, how is it we develop taste for bitter foods later in life?  Does this simply quit working, or do we override this instinct a developing brain and reason?


The purposes of human emotions are about the life, specifically the body.  Their role is to assist in maintaining life…emotions are biologically determined processes, depending upon hard set brain devices, laid down by long evolutionary history…The devices that produce emotions…are part of a set of structures that both regulate and represent body states…All devices can be engaged automatically, without conscious deliberation…[vii]

The biological function of emotions is to produce an automatic action in certain situations and to regulate the internal processes so that the creature is able to support the action dictated by the situation. The biological purpose of emotions are clear, they are not a luxury but a necessity for survival.  “Emotions are inseparable from the idea of reward and punishment, pleasure or pain, of approach or withdrawal, of personal advantage or disadvantage. Inevitably, emotions are inseparable from the idea of good and evil.”

Emotions result from stimulation of the senses from outside the body sources and also from stimulations from remembered situations. Evolution has provided us with emotional responses from certain types of inducers put these innate responses are often modified by our culture.

“It is through feelings, which are inwardly directed and private, that emotions, which are outwardly directed and public, begin their impact on the mind; but the full and lasting impact of feelings requires consciousness, because only along with the advent of a sense of self do feelings become known to the individual having them.

Last but not least our emotions are a communication devise to others regarding what we are feeling.  Remember that human communication is at least 70% non-verbal.  It may be useful and rewarding to communicate feelings of warmth and happiness to loved ones to share.  In addition, when grieving a great loss, the sadness we emanate non-verbally may facilitate a hug from caring friend which aid the process of healing.  Without some control, we essentially communicate our most inner feeling to other sensitive individuals, many times when it is not appropriate.  We may communicate fear to a possible assailant, prompting them to act on your fear seeing that you are vulnerable.

Controlled Response

There are concepts designed to outline a reasonable response to any threat, in this instance the term reasonable refers to an equal appropriate response.  One of the more well-known ideas is called the “Ladder of Force” [viii] Developed by Jim Wagner.   Where does this thought relate to any of the above mentioned terms like instinct and/or reflex?  What determines the measure of reasonable?  Whether we have a guideline on what is reasonable there remains judgment.  As you look at this illustration there are several visual interpretations that articulate the environment of such an encounter.  The width of the ladder at the base is substantially wider and therefore more stable than that of the top of the ladder.  This translates directly to level of danger as move higher.  In addition, the level of emotions follows the same path, intensity and risk flow together.  In addition, at the base of the ladder there are many options, at the top there are limited.

Another area of training we are exposed to it the set of “Lock Flow” developed by Sensei Aponte.  This set of manipulation locks are arraigned in a sequence that follows this same concept regarding the ladder of force.   This series of wrist, arm and choke holds begin with the manipulation of wrist, fingers and hands, then moves to arm and shoulder manipulations.  Finally the series ends in chokes; in this way following the same level of force escalation beginning from non-lethal finishing with lethal.   The concept of appropriate force is again instilled.

There is no book of absolutes, even if there was how would we employ it in the middle of a life threatening event? It is a conceptual framework to convey concepts, but in my opinion it is not an absolute.  The fragility of the human body can collapse when impacted by external forces in an instant.  The best defense is therefore not to engage unless the threat is imminent.

Why would to control our response to danger?  California Law 3470. Right to Self-Defense or Defense of Another.  The defendant is not guilty of (that/those crime[s]) if (he/she) used force against the other person in lawful (self-defense/ [or] defense of another). The defendant acted in lawful (self-defense/ [or] defense of another) if:

  1. The defendant reasonably believed that (he/she/ [or] someone else/ [or] <insert name of third party>) was in imminent danger of suffering bodily injury [or was in imminent danger of being touched unlawfully];
  2. The defendant reasonably believed that the immediate use of force was necessary to defend against that danger;
  3. The defendant used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against that danger.

The defendant must have believed there was imminent danger of violence to (himself/herself/ [or] someone else).  Defendant’s belief must have been reasonable and (he/she) must have acted because of that belief.  The defendant is only entitled to use that amount of force that a reasonable person would believe is necessary in the same situation. If the defendant used more force than was reasonable, the defendant did not act in lawful (self-defense/ [or] defense of another).

The truth is that in the event of a life threatening situation, the response we utilize will be scrutinized at some point, maybe by a jury of 12?  Our survival instincts must be layered as we live in a society that requires us to function with multilayered responsibilities.  We may experience a verbally challenging employer and instinctually wish to defend our honor with a punch in the nose.  We may think to do so, but stop short because the reaction to this would likely be termination of employment and possibly jail.  We also know that we have bills to pay and a family to feed; we must survive the responsibilities of modern society.


We are born with innate skills for survival.  Because these survival instincts are primitive in many ways; they may be violent and possibly digital.  In other words, kill or be killed, ON/OFF.  Our world if far too complex for such limited instincts, and because these are DNA driven and programmed, the evolutionary clock is far too slow to keep up with the changes to our social construct of the last 2000 years.  Add to this the complexities of law may allow us to survive a physical threat only to lose the legal battle and lose our freedom. 

Karate teaches us to control the instinctual responses from a digital (all or nothing) to a controlled response.  It does this through constant skill development, to familiarity of performing under pressure fueled with adrenalin.  The meditative aspects of “emptiness of the mind” shows us a path of focus on the here and now utilizing what executive functioning that remains when the adrenalin is flowing.  Adapting a “cower of protection” into a catch to block/strike through repetition is as surely learned as catching a 105 MPH line drive.  The knowledge of the body gained during the study of Karate also gives us an advantage of controlling through pain and not injury.  Constant scenario practice invokes an automatic manipulation rather than full assault unnecessarily.

The ability to control our emotional face and not show fear, but reveal an easiness and awareness of your surrounding will likely prompt a possible assailant to think twice before attacking, after all he is acting on instinct as well; the instinct of a predator. This communication is as real as speaking any words, of which may get you into more trouble.  This is noted on the ladder of force referred to as “Confident Demeanor.”  I personally have begun to make changes in my mindset.  It is a very difficult task; my mindset shift is to prepare for the attack by seeing it as a “gift!”  My use of this term is not intended in an arrogant or flippant way.  What I mean is a level of focus that accepts the attack as an extension of vulnerability from the assailant.  A vulnerability that is both physical and mental.  He has lost emotional control.  He is in ‘Kyo.”  My mindset is to utilize what I now can do with this extension and manipulate it and control them.  It is not a welcome gift, but the first physical move of aggression. 

The famous seen in Enter the dragon; the late Bruce Lee says this;

“ Kick me. … What was that? An exhibition? We need emotional content. Try again. … I said emotional content. NOT ANGER. Now try again. With meaning. … That’s it. How did it feel to you? … Don’t think, feeeeeeel. It is like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that Heavenly glory. Do you understand? … Never take your eyes off your opponent, even when you bow. … That’s it.”[ix] 

My interpretation of this scene is that it relates to the subject of emotional content and focus.  The emotional content expected is the intent of the kick, not aimed.  The second kick the student showed anger, therefore no emotional control.  Anger results when outside forces control you, not your mind.  To me the next statement of looking at the finger and missing the heavens is the most profound.   My thought is that it illustrates a focus with balance.  In this example, focusing on the finger is an example of “hyper-focus.”    Hyper-focus happens when all you see is the item of your focus, everything else ceases to exist.  In self-defense, this means looking for a punch and getting kicked.  My explanation of optimum focus with meditative construct is to put everything in the peripheral.  This way all of the possible weapons carry equal attention and all are in view for their actions.  This is “Yoi.” This requires the ability to not over react to any one movement, but to view all movement together.  This is meditative focus, the here and now.     

O’Sensei Nishiyama identifies the mind as the origin of power that is most important.  He uses the term “Mental Stability” which I interpret as emotional control as being the first and foremost.  Without this control or stability, all that we are as karate-ka is lost. 

Robert J. Nunez
Nidan Candidate
December 2013

[i] Tradition Karate Caches Manual, by Hidetaka Nishiyama

[ii] http://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/Reflex

[iii] http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/reflex

[iv] http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/reflex

[v] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/instinct

[vi] http://adventure.howstuffworks.com/survival/wilderness/wired-for-survival2.htm

[vii] http://www.sciforums.com/First-is-emotion-then-feeling-then-consciousness-of-feeling-t-64721.html

[viii] http://www.usadojo.com/articles/jim-wagner/use-force-poster.htm

[ix] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QU9SsTwY5nU