Taking stock recently, I realized that I am probably not as well prepared as most of the followers of James’ SurvivalBlog.Com, certainly not in terms of infrastructure and stockpiles of materials and equipment. I don’t have a long-term supply of food, nor do I have a survival retreat prepared for when the big one hits. My bullion holdings are embarrassingly low. On the other hand, I am probably better prepared than most for any criminal or paramilitary attack on my person, my family, or my home, so I am not totally hopeless by the standards of most survivalists.
The thing is, the deficiencies in my preparedness don’t bother me. I know that no matter what happens, I can cut it. I have a number of skills developed over the years, but that is not what I am talking about. I am talking about that most important of all attributes: the survivor’s mind. This is what enables a person to apply skills to the resources at hand to overcome whatever is thrown at them, and turn those circumstances to their advantage such that surviving looks more like thriving.
A man or woman cannot overcome a substantial survival situation without a conditioned mind. You could parachute all of the necessary supplies right on top of a stranded person and they will fold up and die if not properly conditioned mentally. You could parachute a properly conditioned man or woman into the middle of nowhere with nothing but a knife and a piece of rope and they will come out okay, or at least make a hell of a good show of it.
I believe that not only is the survivor’s mind the most important thing in his arsenal, but that the specific attributes of his or her mind can and should be actively cultivated. The key elements of this capability seem easy to identify. Above all it consists of a consistent determination to be self reliant. When something happens, you are not likely to sit around waiting for someone to tell you what to do or take care of the problem for you. I suspect that anyone who is a regular on SurvivalBlog.Com has a good start on this one. Another key attribute is the ability to adapt and overcome changing circumstances, without an initial emotional breakdown. We have all seen friends, business associates or family members who will freak out when a flight is delayed, or they panic when the power goes out, or crumble into uncertainty when it rains unexpectedly. Those people really need to work on this one. Thirdly, you must be able to instantly size up a strategic situation, evaluate its potential lethality, and recognize a true survival matter when it arises. Part of this is recognizing threats when they arise, which requires awareness of your environment and how it can interact with you. Some people go through their entire life in Condition White, never knowing that they were at risk until they have already become a casualty. A fourth key element is just “guts” – the refusal to give up and accept defeat. As Aunt Eller said to Laurie in the musical Oklahoma: “There’s just one way: you gotta be hardy. You gotta be. You can’t deserve the sweet and tender in life unless’n you’re tough.” As Clint Eastwood’s character Josie said in The Outlaw Josey Wales: “When things look bad and it looks like you're not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean. 'Cause if you lose your head and you give up then you neither live nor win. That's just the way it is.”I have not used the word “courage” in this discussion for two reasons. First of all, it is such a subjective quality, as used in our society, that it is not useful for our purposes. It is often used interchangeably with the word “heroic.” People described as courageous often display one or more of the attributes described above, and I have seen people who are commonly known to be true “chicken-s#@&s” display many of those characteristics on occasion.
Secondly, a man or a woman who has mastered all of the attributes of the survivor’s mind will often choose a course of action that would be considered cowardly, if that is what the situation called for. The correct strategic decision from a survival point of view might not be heroic or courageous at all.
The man or woman who possesses the survivor’s mind may not look like a movie action hero or heroine, and may not act like one in the opinion of society at large. However, a survivor will do the right thing to ensure his or her survival or that of his family or group. When TSHTF, and you come out on top, and then they make a movie about you, maybe your part will be played by Michelle Rodriguez or Christian Bale. You will know that it was your head and not your good looks that got you through.
Where do the mental attributes of a survivor come from? How can you become hardy in a nation that is going through an era that history will probably call the Age of the Wimp?
The survivor’s mind may be the result of genetics, or it may arise from a family’s culture. Either way, it is clear that you have a tremendous head start if you were brought up properly. My father was a survivor. He came of age during the Great Depression, was a professional soldier in Central America before WWII, then spent WWII in Army going across the Burma Road and serving with General Stilwell in China. He came home from China to become a successful professional engineer and raise his family.
My father structured my education and training, and that of my older brother, to stress not only survival skills, but to promote the development of what he called the combat mindset. The training included horsemanship, woodsmanship, hunting, climbing, martial arts, wilderness travel, wilderness medicine, and general problem solving. In an act that would probably result in his being jailed if it happened today, both my brother and I spent a week on our own in the Mojave Desert when in our early teens, followed by several repeat performances in the Eastern Sierra and Mojave throughout our teen years.
We were encouraged to participate in sports, but my father demanded that we understand the limitations of team sports as a foundation for developing individual self-reliance. My father coached my brother’s little league and pony league teams, but he was never happier than when we were with him in the mountains or the desert hunting, climbing, or working through some survival situation that he had concocted.
I don’t think that it is necessary to be a survival expert to properly nurture a youngster so that they will be able to handle whatever is thrown at them. As described below, the training and experience for skill development is available for anyone to acquire if the desire is there. The minimum required of a parent is to teach the philosophy of personal responsibility and self-reliance, refrain from coddling the little darlings into becoming wimps, and support the acquisition of skill and knowledge as a lifelong endeavor.
We live in an age where teachers are not allowed to use red pens because it may make a child feel inadequate. Certain sports no longer keep score, or declare winners or losers, because of the severe risk of traumatic hurt feelings. In such a world, the gift of self-reliance, the determination to overcome adversity, and the commitment to continual self-improvement, are the greatest gifts that a parent can bestow upon a child.
Training and Practice
We live in a society that seems to do everything possible to prevent, if not reverse, the process of natural selection. Even so, our minds and bodies are the product of a long line of survivors, and we are hard-wired to learn and to creatively apply those lessons learned to a wide range of situations in ways that improve our survivability. All other things being equal, training will make the difference, and the more realistic the training the better.
In addition to specific skills, the proper training will foster the development of the survivor’s mind. In my experience, actively training in areas that are potentially dangerous is the best preparation for true emergencies and survival situations. A squirt of adrenaline can improve your memory significantly, and it will enhance your ability to react properly under pressure and in the face of danger. Let’s take a look at a few of the areas that you can work on, and how that fits into the theme of this article.
If your family is not the outdoors type, then general outdoors skills can be acquired through other means. Some of the programs, such as Outward Bound, also include survival training as part of a more general curriculum on climbing, mountaineering, canoeing/kayaking, or sailing. Grab any general outdoor magazine and peruse the advertisements and you will find many places to begin. James’ blog is another place to connect with entry-level skill-building programs.
If, on the other hand, you believe that the most likely TEOTWAWKI scenario will play out in an urban setting, then adjust your training schedule and list of desired skill sets accordingly. My experience has been primarily in the wilderness setting, so I need to confine this discussion to that set of circumstances.
An area of study that incorporates valuable skills as well as tremendous discipline and mental condition is the martial arts. I prefer the more combative martial arts for this purpose because real is better. The closer the training is to combat, the better the skill set that is conveyed, and the keener the mind that absorbs it. However, the most “sportified” versions have roots in fighting disciplines that were created to meet a survival need, and will provide a foundation for further training. Even in those martial arts that have been tamed to the point that they can become an Olympic sport still involve a high level of training discipline and athleticism, and ultimately involve two people facing off in a situation that results in a winner and a loser.
To me, the use of firearms is a martial art. I have spent a lot of time studying the progression from empty hands through various weapons to firearms and back again. That doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy firearms and shooting for its own sake, and valuable survival lessons can be derived from a pure shooting sports orientation and training. A basic introduction to shooting involves the study of safety issues, bringing the lethal nature of firearms and their use to the foreground. Legal issues relating to firearms ownership, couple with society’s sensitivity towards firearms, ensure that even the youngest trainees approach the subject with a serious mind – a mind closer to being that of the survivor.
If you have not been trained in the ownership, maintenance and use of firearms, then by all means obtain that training, become a firearms owner, and continue to advance your level of training in that area. Above all assert your rights, and acknowledge your obligations, as an armed citizen who has decided to take responsibility for his or her own safety and defense.
Shooting is a fun and challenging sport and a highly enjoyable activity for the family. Above all, safely acquiring skill at arms requires an awareness of deadly force. This awareness is central to conditioning and cultivating the mind of the survivor. This awareness becomes more pronounced when the training is for the purpose of self defense or hunting. This grounding in the reality of life or death is an extremely important element in developing the survivor’s mind.
Rock climbing can be another important classroom for the survivor. First of all, the skills involved in putting up anchors, belaying a fellow climber, and moving over rock, are all of great utility in certain survival situations, particularly rescues. More importantly, gravity does not take any time outs, so climbing requires a continuous discipline that is in many ways very similar to combat or combat training.
Even when a climber is being belayed, the danger from even a short fall is very real. Unless you are falling from rock that is overhanging, you are going to develop a very close personal relationship with the rock on the way down, and I can assure you that you will feel every single one of those caresses. I am a relatively old rock climber, and old climbers are invariably careful and serious minded climbers or they don’t make it that far. Climbing can be practiced nearly everywhere at some level, and is a very wholesome outdoor family activity. The safety training that comes with the art is an opportunity to teach your children how to learn something serious and important, which carries over into other areas.
Hunting is another way to continue upgrading your skills and tune your mind to survival situations. To successfully stalk and take game animals in the wilderness you must cultivate and integrate a wide range of skills, and competently apply them to the task at hand. You must also discipline your mind to the hunt, and to the ultimate reality of the life or death of your prey. If the game you are hunting is dangerous game, or if the meat you are hunting is essential for your survival, then you must also condition your mind to the fact that your own life or death depends on your ability to make the kill.
Another important philosophical aspect of hunting is that hunting is an absolute rejection of the growing tendency in our society to view nature as a spectator sport. To absorb the lessons of our ancestors and take your place in the natural order is to become one with nature in a way that others will never be able to appreciate. As you grow in the art, you can steadily remove the various tools and technological aids that you use, such that you deal on a more primitive level with your prey. As you do so you will also come even closer to being absolutely self-sufficient in the wilderness. Once again we speak of the development of certain skills, but it is the mind itself that is being honed.
Wilderness medicine is another opportunity for building the survivor’s mind. First of all, particularly if your family is joining you in your journey of discovery, you need to be prepared for the inevitable injuries, and accepting responsibility for dealing with those injuries is an important leap of self reliance. In addition to the skills themselves, this training further develops a seriously competent mind. A Wilderness First Aid certificate is the bare minimum level of training, but if you spend a lot of time in the bush you should invest in at least a Wilderness First Responder level of competence. This training usually results in your pack getting heavier and heavier as you become a walking ambulance, so it will also result in your getting in better shape.
Soldiers, particularly combat veterans, tend to be survivors. Military service can be the ultimate in organized training for survival situations. It includes training and experience in weapons and small unit tactics, the services of most nations also incorporate survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE) training. If military service involves combat, then the survivor will have an entire universe of useful experience to pass along to his family and community, and such men and women are an enormously valuable resource to our society. Every primitive society looks to its experienced warriors for leadership during times of crisis, and we would do well to do the same. If you did not have the opportunity to go through this experience, then you can pick and choose amongst a number of civilian training programs that will focus in a weekend or a week-long session various aspects of military training.
Conditioning and Health
The survivor’s mind resides in a fit and healthy body. The most resourceful and well trained survivor cannot execute a viable strategy if he is sick or out of condition. Conditioned bodies resist injury and sickness under survival situations better than bodies that are not in condition. You don’t have to be both a UFC cage fighter and a triathlete, but it wouldn’t hurt either.
Generally speaking, a moderately aggressive training schedule that might include a couple of rigorous martial arts workouts during the week, some running and cross-training, bag-work, and perhaps some weights, and then some time on the rocks or in the bush during the weekends, will keep you in great shape and keep you entertained as well. As a bare minimum you should be able to put in some calisthenics and some running (or even walking) during periods when work or other responsibilities keep you away from more rigorous training. Pay attention to your overall health as well: get the excess weight off and keep it off, turn down the alcohol and junk food to a minimum, don’t smoke, wear your seat belt – you know what to do.
You also need to listen to your body when it is telling you that there is something wrong. I once got on a plane heading for a month-long self-guided hunting trip in West Africa, and my back had been getting more and more painful, but I ignored it. I was two days hard hiking away from the nearest road when I finally had to admit that I had a very serious kidney stone problem. I was laid up for several days, treating my condition with palm wine and aspirin, and then managed to get back to civilization by easy marches while the stone worked its way south. We even managed to harvest enough kob and baboon to make the trip worthwhile to my crew - meat is part of their pay you see - and I came out of it without permanent damage. It was preventable and could have been much more serious.
Being able to respond because you are hardy and inured to the dangers and difficulties of emergencies is a major portion of the survivor’s mind. However, a mind that refuses to freeze or quit still needs a strategic groove to operate along in order to efficiently work through the problem at hand. There are a number of models that we can work with that have broad applicability.
Primarily viewed as a skilled and innovative martial artist, the great Bruce Lee was most importantly a philosopher who dealt with the ultimate reality of combat and survival. In my opinion, his work The Tao of Jeet Kune Do is one of the most important survival manuals, and should be on everyone’s bookshelf. My original martial arts training was in both Jeet Kune Do and Kali-Escrima; I have a heavily annotated copy of the original manuscript for Sifu Lee’s book, which was one of our training aides. One of his frequent sayings was that “Freedom of expression towards the ultimate reality of combat is the goal of all martial artists,” a statement that encompasses much of what goes into creating an effective survivor. Another of his sayings, on the subject of training and learning, was that a martial artist must “absorb what is useful, reject what is not, and add what is specifically your own.” A study of Bruce Lee’s works creates an excellent foundation, and provides useful guidance in even the most unusual circumstances.
The late Jeff Cooper was a guru of another martial art, the art of the self-reliant individual and his personal arms – the rifle and pistol. Although a number of individuals have taken this ball and run with it, it was Jeff Cooper who organized the art of the pistolero into the Modern Technique of the Pistol, and it was Colonel Cooper who fully articulated what it means to be a modern rifleman, both philosophically and technically. Colonel Cooper also modified the Marine Corps color coding and used it to teach the relative levels of readiness as part of the study of the combat mindset, obviously relevant to this discussion. Colonel Cooper’s published works are saturated with wisdom for the independent and self-reliant person, and a serious minded survivor’s education is incomplete if he has not included them in his library and studied them.
Another strategist that deserves your attention is John Boyd, the Air Force Colonel that developed the OODA Loop theory. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act, and defines the reaction and decision cycle that must be successfully negotiated to win a battle. Colonel Boyd was a fighter pilot, and he developed his theories in connection with dog-fighting. He found that agility and resourcefulness were decisive, in that the pilot that could “get inside of his opponents OODA Loop” would prevail. If you study Boyd, and think of any particular survival situation as your opponent, then you will begin to see the value of Boyd’s strategic theory as part of the repertoire of the well educated survivor.
There are others of course, and in your journey you will encounter great strategists and teachers who will light the way for you. These three are a good place to start, and provide a useful framework to start you on your way.
I have never been a religious person. I was raised in the Episcopal Church, but became increasingly rebellious towards the Church’s monopoly over my Sunday mornings, a time when I would prefer to be in the bush or on the rocks. As I grew older, I was able to escape that restraint when I discovered that my father felt the same way and would support that decision. I always considered the wilderness to be my church, and I have never felt more spiritually at peace than when I am in the mountains or desert, and as far away from the rest of my species as I can manage.
On the other hand, I have known highly religious men and women whose faith and devotion to their church was the very foundation of their personal strength. If that is the way your mind works, then you will not be as strong and self-reliant as you could be if you ignore your need for organized spiritual interaction. You may also find that your approach to the most likely survival emergencies is best organized around a group of like-minded people that happen to be members of the same church. Like many loners, I have always envied people who can easily associate in a close community in this manner, and as Bruce Lee would sometimes say, “If it scores, it is effective.”
Dealing with the unknown is more difficult than covering familiar ground. You may not have been trained on how to survive an airplane crash, but if you think it over and figure out a few basic dos and don’ts then you are way ahead of the guy sitting next to you. The planning process can and should be a family endeavor. Instead of a dinner table discussion of the latest episode of Breaking Bad - there are some interesting survival situations in that series – why not discuss some scenarios and what the best response would be? What if someone kicked in the front door and ran inside screaming obscenities and brandishing a machete, right now? What if we had an earthquake right now? When my kids were small, we used to play this game, and one time when the power went out it was the kids that suddenly appeared with the candles and the headlamps just as we had discussed.
In my view, successfully meeting a survival challenge is more about what you decide to do than what you can do. Of course you must have skill sets to execute a strategy, but it is still the strategy that wins the day. As discussed above, there is a vast body of knowledge relating to survival, and in fact the web site on which you are accessing this paper has descriptions of many thousands of articles on the technology of survival. As you pursue your training, and your accretion of survival assets, do not neglect that greatest of all tools, the one that sits on top of your shoulders. Make sure it is developed and educated, and you will be well served even if you find yourself without the other tools and trinkets that you have amassed to meet your needs.
William C. Prentice lives peacefully in California with his wife, and is engaged in the business of financing energy and technology firms, and is the acting CEO of a private military contracting firm. He is also devoted to the personal pursuits of rock climbing, martial arts, and hunting. Prentice is also the author of Feral, a novel with significant Libertarian overtones, and the short story Purgatory.