Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Force vs. Flow

The best classes are those where insight is gained towards resolving blocks to improving our skills. Often we have the information all along but in pieces; insight is making the integrative connections resulting in new perspectives that deepen our understanding.

Recently I had one of those days where I felt particularly attuned in class, able to analyze vividly what both my student and I were doing in sparring. Teaching is like uncovering a mystery, peeling back layers to get to deeper truths in oneself and in others. To share insight one must find the key to another’s understanding. A good teacher has many tools, but as any mechanic knows, it’s having the right tool at the right time that makes a job go smoothly. Being in the flow leads us to our solutions by allowing the unconscious to produce insights.

During sparring I was consistently finding openings to my student’s centerline with a variety of tactics, but always with the strategy of what I call “falling in the gopher hole”. This is based on Bruce Lee’s theories of slight forward pressure to create springy energy. When the opponent creates an opening, we are already there at the threshold; the pressure is released and we automatically fill the gap without time consuming thought. Pressing the opponent’s centerline while guarding ours keeps this energy direct and balanced.

Our conscious awareness being much slower than the unconscious mind, we perceive through our senses what is already done. If we think first how to act, it is two stages, thought then action, the latter most likely inhibited by the weight of processing the former.

Awareness without thought: Our minds should be aware of the dynamics of the fight without excessive micromanagement over movement. Our strategy is our goal; tactics need be executed with instinctive reactions. We do this every day in ordinary life while walking, driving or feeding ourselves. The more stress we can handle in this ordinary manner, the greater the internal resources available for other purposes.

Sometimes we go unconscious in action, our conscious mind simply unable to keep up with the flow of action. At such times we may perform things seemingly beyond our abilities, but evidently not beyond our capacity to imagine. Our unconscious mind of course remembers every detail of the experience, and through methods such as NLP, hypnosis, meditation etc. we can later recall much of this information through accessing our multiple sensory memories. All states of awareness are constructs, hence hypnotic, since we build these on more subtle beliefs that direct our thought. What we cannot rationalize is expressed through emotion, the domain of the unconscious, and revealed in the gross and subtle actions of our physical bodies.

Here’s an example of the mind going unconscious in action. Three decades ago I knew an acquaintance of my older brother, a bear of a man with Aikido and Kendo training. This man fought his way to the kingship of the Society for Creative Anachronisms several times in their rough-and-tumble early days. In his most memorable fight, he felt he had been fouled grievously towards the end of a round and was extremely angry. During the break he centered himself and when he came out for the next and decisive round he knocked out his opponent. All he remembered was how blue the sky was that day, which he described as a Zen-like state of bliss which enabled him to bypass his judgmental conscious mind, giving him complete freedom of action.

Verbal expression is a way to hone in and clarify our thoughts; to get from theory to practice, I needed to communicate my own intuitive impressions. An axiom in hypnotherapy is that in order to create a state within a client, one must access it first within oneself so as to lead another person there. In martial arts, as in NLP, we can do this through mirroring and matching. I was using this on him; my goal was to transmit this skill too, leveling our playing field.

To begin with I could see my student’s movements were too wide and blocky, creating openings and losing timing. He was swinging from the shoulder, using muscular energy rather than finding a more natural internal rhythm. This was isolating the dynamics of his arm motion from the rest of his body, resulting in discordant footwork and poor body alignment. Correcting this one thing would unblock an entire cascade of improvements to his overall technique.

My first step was to get him to pay attention to how he was handling his weapon, changing his technique to make it tighter and smoother. A supple wrist is important to be able to control balance of the weapon. Every weapon has its balance point. We can try to impose our desired movement regardless of this, or we can let the weapon follow its natural trajectory. This lets us guide it by controlling its center of balance, a much more fluid relationship.

Identifying a physical point of resistance was the leverage to understanding its effect in our sparring dynamic, which is where we both were able to see a deeper picture. By using his arm in a muscular way he was relying on force, which by its nature, using the concept of equal and opposite reaction, creates the resistance that it encounters. Most of us have had experiences of struggling to make something happen and getting nowhere, only to stop fighting and suddenly achieve a breakthrough.

In terms of our sparring, his desire to force the action made him stiff because he was overthinking each move, which in turn telegraphed his intention. As long as he projected an attachment to a particular outcome, I could easily see what he was trying to do before he did it, a clear example of how the body responds to the conditions of the mind. Escrima is an art with a lot of deception. It takes fluidity and adaptability to hide one’s intentions.

Connecting his sense of power to the need to force an outcome exposed a rigid dynamic between thought and action. Changing his physical rhythm created a new mental pattern as well, allowing him to experience the process itself rather than the need to focus on a specific tactical goal.

Let me restate that. If force is required for a particular result, then flow is allowing the process to find its own path. This could be the path of least resistance, or it could be the path of greatest understanding, but either way it should give us what we need.

The effect on his sparring was immediate and dramatic, raising it to a level I’d never seen in him before. As soon as he began to flow, the old familiar gaps in his technique were gone. For the first time I felt him nullifying my attacks effortlessly.

I’ll finish with a brief story that illustrates a difference between force and flow. In 1189 King Richard I (Lionheart) met Saladin during the Third Crusade. To demonstrate the strength of his sword and sword arm, he hacked through a bar of iron. Saladin then demonstrated the keenness of his sword by dropping a piece of silk across the edge, slicing the fabric in half by its own weight. Both ways can achieve results, but one requires great effort and the other almost none.

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