White, Yellow, Orange, Red
When I was 16, I was mugged. I was taking a shortcut home from a friends house. It was winter, and dark, and I passed by a man in an alley way. He asked me the time. As I looked down to my wrist, he punched me once on the side of the face, he then tried to get my wallet from my pocket. It was a horrible experience, but at least he only used his fists. It could’ve been worse, as I told myself over and over again during the following months.
From that time until about ten years ago now, I taught, and practiced Martial Arts. Specifically: freestyle karate, kick boxing and capoeira. Since then I’ve done a fair amount of other fighting styles and systems; from boxing to MMA. I’m not training at the moment, but may well return to it. In all honestly, martial art thinking (not necessarily practice) is such a part of my life now, I don’t think I’ll ever give it up.
Throughout my time teaching, I’d been involved in several self-defence courses: both in university and in the work place. Central to our teaching back then was not necessarily the tools or techniques to effectively punch someone in the face, but to give people a deeper understanding of their own awareness.
We used a system of colour codes to describe awareness that was derived from John Dean Cooper’s ‘The Cooper Color Code’. The system does away with the notion that the best way to survive a lethal confrontation is to be a superior practitioner (in his case, a rifleman), or have better weaponry. Instead, the primary tool is that of the combat mindset. Cooper describes each state of awareness as colours starting with White:
White - Unaware and unprepared. If attacked in Condition White, the only thing that may save you is the inadequacy or ineptitude of your attacker. When confronted by something nasty, your reaction will probably be “Oh my God! This can’t be happening to me.”
Most people walk around in a pre-occupied fog for most of the day. Their mind is elsewhere: the errand they’re running, what they did last night, speaking on the phone, checking Twitter… Humans are great at giving our tasks just enough attention. The rest – looking, watching, observing, walking, breathing – is all done automatically. We also respond automatically to certain cues, questions, thoughts and external stimuli. Such as checking your watch when someone asks you the time. Don’t be in this state.
Yellow - Relaxed alert. No specific threat situation. Your mindset is that “today could be the day I may have to defend myself”. You are simply aware that the world is a potentially unfriendly place and that you are prepared to defend yourself, if necessary. You use your eyes and ears, and realize that “I may have to shoot today”. You don’t have to be armed in this state, but if you are armed you should be in Condition Yellow. You should always be in Yellow whenever you are in unfamiliar surroundings or among people you don’t know. You can remain in Yellow for long periods, as long as you are able to “Watch your six.” (In aviation 12 o’clock refers to the direction in front of the aircraft’s nose. Six o’clock is the blind spot behind the pilot). In Yellow, you are “taking in” surrounding information in a relaxed but alert manner, like a continuous 360 degree radar sweep. As Cooper put it, “I might have to shoot.”
This is about knowing what is going on around you. Engaged in your surroundings rather than dreamily ambling along checking your phone.
Orange - Specific alert. Something is not quite right and has your attention. Your radar has picked up a specific alert. You shift your primary focus to determine if there is a threat (but you do not drop your six). Your mindset shifts to “I may have to shoot that person today”, focusing on the specific target which has caused the escalation in alert status. In Condition Orange, you set a mental trigger: “If that person does “X”, I will need to stop them”. Your pistol usually remains holstered in this state. Staying in Orange can be a bit of a mental strain, but you can stay in it for as long as you need to. If the threat proves to be nothing, you shift back to Condition Yellow.
This is an elevated state. There is a specific threat – such as a small group of threatening men walking on your side of the road, coming towards you, and it’s dark. of course, this elevated state can happen in conversation, or a business meeting, or on Twitter too. Whatever can be perceived as a threat, the state you find yourself in is one where you’ve established what that threat is, and are acting upon it.
Red - Condition Red is fight. Your mental trigger (established back in Condition Orange) has been tripped. “If “X” happens I will shoot that person”.
This is the decision to engage in the threat. Either verbally or physically.
For the past fifteen years or so, I’ve been going about my day to day activities in the Yellow state. Normally I don’t recognise I’m doing it, until I’m in a new situation. This weekend was one of those.
This summer I started cycling. On the road, not mountains or footpaths. I bought a nice little bike, and we’re lucky to live in a great place to get out and explore the countryside. On Saturday, as I like to do most weekends, I wanted to get some miles in and it was an unseasonably beautiful day here in Wales. I’d been out for about an hour and was heading downhill on a main road in a residential area. As I was concentrating on the road (in my ‘Yellow’ state), suddenly a car reversed straight out into the main road without stopping for me. After slamming on the brakes I barely missed the bonnet of the car as I screeched to a halt. The driver had still not seen me. The driver was in ‘White’. And it’s my experience over the past few months, many are.
My overall point is this: be aware. Be aware of your surroundings. People around you - especially vulnerable people. Don’t think, walk – or drive – in White. It’s dangerous for you and for those around you. It’s a thoughtless state of mind.