Progress in martial arts training is rarely a linear progression as growth comes in spurts. The fastest and steepest learning curve is at the beginning, when all seems new. Even then, everyone has their own rate of learning. Some absorb information like a sponge while others struggle to squeeze in each drop.
Ironically, it’s the latter who most often seem to rise to excellence. Knowledge that is hard fought to acquire has value. Those with great talent sadly seem rarely destined to achieve their potential. Taking their abilities for granted, it’s “easy come, easy go.” What is learned without effort seems of little value, another way of interpreting the phrase “you get what you pay for.”
I sometimes compare learning to building a dam on a river. As the dam rises, the water fills in the reservoir behind it. That filling in takes longer than building the dam. So it is with learning. Acquiring information is one thing; having the knowledge of how to use it is another. The dam represents the structure of your learning; the water is your experience.
The water level rises as it fills in behind the dam, quickly at first where the reservoir is narrowest at the bottom, more slowly as the surface area increases along with depth. When the reservoir has filled, one can then raise the dam, and once again it will take time to fill the volume behind that interface. Thus a new dam may need to be fairly tall, but successive levels might go up in smaller increments.
Similarly, with experience it becomes harder to learn new things because so much is already understood. Eventually any new nugget of information is like a precious jewel, adding some glow to what is already polished.
Our unconscious mind operates like water. We are only aware of what floats or is reflected on the surface, though we may intimate the ripple of currents below or surmise the contours of the bottom.
Knowing how to learn is its own skill set, related to but separate from the actual subject at hand. One’s internal perspective can either help or hinder the learning process. Meditation is helpful because it turns down the volume of self-talk, the dialog we carry on with ourselves. As we learn to tune out distractions, we gain clarity, which helps us become better focused on what is important.
How many people beat themselves up mentally and emotionally when they make a mistake? What a huge waste of energy that is! Such a person is stuck in the past, which cannot change. A feedback loop of negative self-talk is called “stinking thinking.” It’s better to stay focused on the positive. Simply acknowledge the error, recognize what needs to be fixed, and correct it.
One form of negative belief is that it will take a long time to learn something. If that’s what you believe, then that’s what you will get. We program our experience through such internal structures. I use a Huna technique, which is to program new patterns in three repetitions. It works like this:
The first time you do something new, your unconscious mind ignores it. It’s busy thinking about someone on whom you have a crush while digesting lunch, maintaining heart rate and metabolic temperature and balancing a tall vertical structure on the narrow platform of your feet.
You then repeat the behavior (thought or action) immediately and EXACTLY. Not similar, but as close to duplication as possible. Your subconscious mind still hasn’t paid attention to the content of your new behavior, but because it is a repetitive pattern, it rises to a higher level of significance. Your mind is geared towards noticing things like patterns.
Now you repeat the behavior for a third time; your subconscious has been primed to pay attention to the message itself. Add to this the fact that your conscious mind is focused on this exercise, which will increase its attraction to the unconscious.
Programming the basic behavior can be that quick, but without reinforcement it will be forgotten. Each subsequent repetition over time will deepen the channel. We build our neuro-networks to find and access our information. This is why it’s important to learn something correctly the first time, because it is harder to change established patterns of behavior than it is to create new ones.
Some teachers will let students flounder for a long time without correction. Perhaps this is to allow the chance for self-discovery, but then isn’t the function of the teacher to point the right direction? There is plenty of self-discovery to take place even when looking in the right direction. That is why I take pains to establish the foundation with beginners, because then they can go much further on their own. At least this way, if they don’t stay in the art, at least they will understand basic principles, which will be of more benefit in the long run than merely trying to remember sequences of movements.
As martial artists, one of our skills is to become fighters. Even in arts like Tai Chi, to raise energy and focus there should be a sense of an enemy standing before oneself. In arts like FMA, this goal is explicit. Some people are born with a fighting spirit, or acquire it early from their environment. Others have to learn it later, and perhaps more by choice than necessity.
There is a difference between “knowing” and “not knowing” that is irrespective of intellectual content. As Sijo Adriano Emperado has said, “one must turn on the light; once it is turned on, it cannot be turned off.” One obstacle to overcome is equating anger with intensity. Think of the scene early in “Enter the Dragon” when Bruce Lee gives a lesson to his young disciple. Anger clouds judgment; intensity focuses it like a laser.
It is the natural fighter who seems to learn quickly. One of my recent students was an experienced martial artist who learned six angles of escrima in three months and was able to use them fairly proficiently. At the other extreme I have a student who has been with me for half a dozen years, and it took much of that time for him to become actualized, someone in whom the art lives as opposed to “just doing it.”
The first guy is tough, already knows how to fight. Escrima added a new skill set, filling in knowledge not yet acquired. What he learned serves him well as he is proficient with those basics. The question is whether he will deepen that skill or whether he will set aside his training as he goes on to other things. The only way to really become good is, just like tennis or many other sports, to continue to test oneself against better opponents and thus elevate one’s game. As I wrote at the beginning, it is rarely the fastest learner who excels. Hmm, like the tale of the tortoise and the hare.
The second guy is a professional who likes to spend his free time outdoors. Escrima was just an add-on activity, something he found interesting. For a long time he seemed to be sleepwalking through training; my challenge was to find a way to awaken him. The trigger finally turned out to be switching from stick to blade, sparring with the swords I’m now making. That one change injected a higher perception of risk that propelled his skills to a significant level, and suddenly he has become very hard to hit.
To see the light come on is the moment I wait for as a teacher, because I know that now the art lives in this person. When it takes a long time, as it sometimes does, the struggle itself has meaning for it is what gave birth to a new reality.
What difference does this make? For one who has “seen the light” the answers come from within. In practical terms it means this person will perceive and counter attacks even faster than he consciously realizes them. When I spar such a person I can simply attack, knowing that it will take all my skill to find an opening I can exploit. Against someone who is merely proficient, I not only must protect myself against their attacks, but must also take responsibility for protecting them against my own!
At one level, one trains a student to spar by giving them opportunities to succeed; there is a danger that they will see this as ultimate success. It seems particularly true in fencing arts that it is easier to attack than defend, lending credence to “the best defense is a good offense.” Perhaps, though, it is simply harder to learn good defense, as that involves reading the opponent’s intentions accurately rather than leading them, or worse, ignoring those signals. Boxers may be willing to trade blow for blow, but with weapons that is rarely a wise course of action. Those that strike without concern for safety risk getting set up in the worst way.
To quote another saying, “There are bold pilots and there are old pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.”