Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Perception and Reality

So, back to Consciousness 101. Whoa! You thought this was supposed to be an Escrima blog! Y’know, how many ways to do an inside block with a high pass to the outside then a takedown with a pizza. Oops, make that pizzazz.

Yup. At some point I’ll be doing that writing, but if you look at lots of my previous posts, I think understanding our mental processes is the key to fine tuning our physical ones.

A tip of the hat here to Portascat’s blog, which talks about Dick Cheney’s shooting incident in relation to gun safety practices. Real world events demonstrate points about the mind/body connection, so it’s all the Veep’s fault that you’re reading this! ;)


When the Indian monk Ta Mo began incorporating physical movement into the Shaolin monastery, it was from understanding how the mind and body interact. Discipline in movement allows discipline in stillness, controlled motion the flip side of the non-movement of sitting in meditation. Integration means the inner and outer focus become melded into a single unified expression of one’s self. The conscious mind pays attention to the unconscious mind, together performing more effectively when not struggling for control.

Currently I’m reading “Animals In Translation” by Temple Grandin, a highly regarded professor and consultant on animal behavior. She’s also autistic, and her research into how autistic people see the world has led her to insights about how both people and animals perceive the world. Animals tend to live through their senses. They see, hear, smell. People create schemas, which are thoughts about how the world should be, and so we frequently operate through assumptions. These can be valuable shortcuts created through heuristic learning processes in which we build expectations based on previous experience.

A classic example of a schema is a pencil dropped 99 times will be expected to also fall to the floor when dropped the 100th time. However, there are flaws when we get trapped in seeing the big picture without identifying the details.

In her work Grandin refers to the book “Inattentional Blindness”, the premise of which is that people do not consciously see something unless they are actively paying attention to it. She cites a NASA study where commercial airline pilots were asked to practice routine landings on a simulator. At some point another jetliner is placed across the landing runway, and 25% of the pilots failed to see it! Untrained people of course saw the plane, but the professionals were flying on autopilot, so to speak, even though they were in manual control of the plane, in touch with the control tower, etc.

In the real world, this has consequences, which returns us to the news. Cheney is an experienced hunter, but perhaps he got too complacent about reviewing basic rules. He neglected to get a bird stamp, which in itself is a small discrepancy but perhaps symptomatic of those sort of breeches of consciousness that allow error to seep in. It’s worse if it was a deliberate act of omission because that could invite further relaxation of attentiveness and oversight.

As a kid I read (and reread many times) “Fate Is The Hunter” about early aviation. Plane crashes attributable to pilot error usually don’t just happen randomly. There are often a series of errors accumulating to a tipping point. Responsibility asks a lot of us; hence the title of the book. Entropy can be defined as an “inevitable and steady deterioration of a system.” It takes energy to overcome entropy, the opposite of complacency. As my old Kenpo teacher used to say, “Things always change and so there is no standing still. You are either moving forward or slipping back.”

W.B. Yeats expressed this well in The Second Coming with the lines “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Martial arts are about mastering chaos. We control others from our own center. How can we shape an external reality except by ownership of what is inherently within our purview? If we do not control ourselves, then we are out of control, or within the control of another. Either way, it is not our best option.

As training expands our options, it deepens our perception into them. Simply put, we can see more. Too much information can cause paralysis – one attempts to make sense of an overwhelming amount of data. Heuristic learning organizes our material, but we need to constantly monitor data against the template of expectations. That way, at least we can see when there is a deviation, allowing us to kick into greater focus so that we can modify our response appropriately.

Like the saying says, “The difference between theory and practice is, in theory there is no difference.” Think about it.

I call Escrima “the art of making adjustments” because done well it flows relationally. Through sensitivity we can discern changes to basic patterns of movement, thereby adapting fresh responses. Going pattern to pattern is a lattice through which we weave, a template to engage our opponent, not rigid rules that constrain us.

An attack is a question: “Can you deal with this?” Our reaction is both an answer and a counter-question. Movement becomes dialog. Talking in clichés can be boring and repetitive, but when conversation flows, it can become illuminative, enlightening and entertaining. It is in the nature of unpredictability that we discover what is new, hence interesting. We can use common words (or movements) to create our expression.

So where do we find the balance between control and freedom, and how can it be possible for dialog, whether verbal or martial arts, to resolve this polarity? Like the old adage, one must know the rules to be able to break them. If you don’t know them, it is just anarchy. How can you take credit for doing what you don’t know? On the other hand, progress is rarely achieved without stepping into the unknown. Knowledge is just our base, what we’ve already covered and examined. It is the platform from which to jump into a sea of possibilities, and there to support us when we need to find our bearings again.

Examining this stuff is like layers of an onion, always something to peel off. It is not easy keeping the mind engaged on the bigger picture, which puts us in situations where things happen. When Cheney shot Whittington he didn’t see the forest for the trees, being so locked in on his sight picture that he lost track of the environment. Tunnel vision like this is also common under stress such as in a self-defense situation. In both cases it’s too much attention to the wrong thing, focus being placed on success in a single frame, forgetting the larger context.

Temple Grandin points out that it is our animal nature which perceives things as they are, directly through the senses. Use your mind to direct your actions well, but let the actions flow from that sense of awareness.

Sigh … and this was going to be a short post!

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