Thursday, December 16, 2004

Basics or Advanced; What's in a word?

A student wrote to me asking about a photo from a recent Dog Brothers' Gathering. It's the center photo, second row on page
Since we've spent some time lately on the centerline thrust, he was wondering about doing it from the inside position, as in this picture, compared to how we've practiced it from an outside position ("inside" refers to being in between your opponent's hands, in front of him; outside is off the shoulder so you've zoned away from the hand on the opposite side of his body. Outside is a bit safer for that reason, and inside is a bit trickier to learn to control).

There are several ways I can respond to a question like the one asked.

First, "you could do that." Angel used this phrase a lot, but depending on how nuanced it, he could mean "YOU could do that, (but I wouldn't!)" or it would be "you could do that" implying some doubt as to whether it was worth it. If he had a pretty flat inflection, it generally meant the idea passed muster and was worth thinking about as an alternative to whatever he usually had us practice. When Angel used this phrase, he was pretty much expressing an opinion but leaving it up to us whether to proceed further with it. Free will, if you want. Sometimes people would take it as approval, since he didn't say "no," but it was often short of a "yes."

Next, "we have that too". My friend Tom Meadows, a teammate of mine in Cebu at the 1st WEKAF World Championships (and Dan Inosanto's first World Champion student) laughs that this is the most common phrase in the Filipino martial arts. Anytime someone shows a technique, another practitioner will say "We have that too." Of course, there is so much generic similarity in the arts, it's probably true to some extent. In the end, however, it is the details that separate one style from another - little things like timing, ranging, angling. An average player will see the similarities; a good one will grasp the core connections and note the differentials, adding more flavor to his repertoire.

In Serrada, we learn the centerline thrust in a few different places. We have it in the cross block from our earliest set of techniques. There we have a right lead, opposite of the photo. However, in the basic flow pattern (what the IMB people call "the box pattern") that we learn when we begin sparring (it teaches directness) we pass a #4 strike and thrust using left foot lead, like the picture. One key difference is that our pass is low; in the photo the opponent's hand is high, a good position for him to counterstrike. Notice in the photo the opponent is pushing the head down, and can punyo (butt-end strike) to the back of the head or neck with his stick. A good option in Serrada would be to use the left check hand to do a high inward pass on the opponent's right arm, thus moving us to an outside position. Hey, this is where our basic variation would have been in the beginning!

This leads us to the next idea, that "when it comes to for real" (another Angel Cabales phrase), anything can happen. Serrada is the art of making adjustments, dealing with whatever happens (bahalana) using our ability to flow with it. I compare it to a freeway sometimes; we can get to wherever we need or want to go from wherever we are now. In a real situation, things won't be neat like in training, but by recognizing the key principles and practicing variety, we are able to think and react quickly and appropriately.

Finally, we come full circle. There are no advanced techniques in martial arts. There are only basics performed better, and in longer continuous sequences. A good martial artist can flow rapidly through a complicated sequence, but the individual moves are those basics he's been doing forever; block, punch, kick, etc. Sure, one can say there is what we know and what we don't know, and maybe toss in the idea that an advanced technique is in the latter category, but really, it's more a matter of understanding the details better and being more precise in using them. This is why I emphasize doing basics in classes. It isn't to bore students, though they may get restless. It's like Bruce Lee's commentary about eliminating the unessential (daily decrease). It takes time to polish a technique until it is smooth. Rough edges waste time and energy, affecting balance, speed, etc. We don't get faster with age, but we can be quicker by eliminating those elements that rob us of optimum performance.

So, yes, we can do anything we want in our martial art, as long as it is necessary, but it is from doing the basics that we know what works. We go through levels of understanding. We begin knowing nothing ("a punch is just a punch") and struggle to learn basics ("then a punch became more than just a punch"). This is a mechanical phase, where we are learning to implement what we are learning. Over time, we integrate this, until finally we can act without thought ("a punch once again is just a punch"). At this level, we are not thinking about how to do something, we are thinking about what we want to accomplish. I use the phrase "target oriented" to mean we think of hitting the target, rather than thinking about our own mechanics. It is important to get past being self-conscious!

To be target oriented, I tell people to "see target, hit target." It's like what I learned of Zen archery as a kid, that the archer, the bow and arrow, the target, all are one. Do not separate them; they are all part of the same experience. When I throw a punch, I don't think of how I do it, I simply connect the feeling in my body to the thought in my head. In my mind, the punch is already accomplished as soon as I perceive the opening to use it, and all I do is connect inner and outer experience.

Like I said, it takes time and experience to change one's feeling about these things. Years ago I met Jim Mather, who was famous for catching arrows, a stunt he performed several times on TV (David Letterman Show, That's Incredible). He had been a USA National Karate Team coach (recognized by the Olympic committee) and he stresses repetition. He said it takes roughly 100 reps to learn something, 1,000 reps to do it decently, 100,000 reps to do it at a black belt level, and 400,000+ reps to become world class. Now these numbers sound daunting, but if you were to do 1,000 repetitions of a move a day (not a lot when you break it down in smaller bites, say 10 sets of 100) you could have a world-class move in a year or so! Of course, that takes real commitment, but consider the old Chinese saying "Three years for a small success, ten years for a great success." Kung-fu means success through work over time; no overnight wonders here. This is why I'm encouraged when students say they are slow learners, or how hard they have to work at something. That usually tells me they'll get it. Those who blow in with a world of talent usually get bored because it's too easy and they leave too soon. Easy come, easy go. The ones who struggle to learn will value what they get, and those are the ones who become the next generation of masters.

No comments: