karate

Order and Chaos – Why it Matters for Martial Artists.

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I have recently been reading Jordan B. Peterson’s ’12 Rules for Life’ and I have watched a few of his lectures online. Peterson is a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Toronto and has some quite interesting things to say. His views on Order and Chaos chimed with something that had been going through my head for a long time.

Way back when I was a university student I attended a lecture on ‘Apollo and Dionysus’ that got me thinking. As you may know Dionysus (Bacchus) was the god of wine, darkness and of wild hedonism and chaos, a real fun guy. While Apollo was the god of reason, order, light, a total bore; the ‘Captain America’ of superhero gods. The logic of this was creating models of duality; virtually the same as the Taoist Yin and Yang, which is a simple circular motif of two halves, one black, one white separated by a curving line.

For the purpose of explanation ‘Order’ and ‘Chaos’ are the most useful terms.

The realm of Order is everything we know; where rules are followed, structures are in place, it is comfort and to some degree also complacency (but more of that later). Whereas Chaos is unpredictability, it is the gaps between the laws that protect us; it is what happens when things break down, small scale and large scale, ultimately expressing complete anarchy.

I witnessed a minor version of chaos recently on a Tube train in London late at night. The majority of the passengers were abiding in the world of order, following social protocols, but a small noisy part of drunken people came into the carriage, not following the rules; nothing significant happened but to me they were like illogical, fuzzy minor condensed version of chaos, anything could have happened, the potential was there, just by the presence of chaos.

Peterson says that it is healthy to not just acknowledge chaos but also to engage with it. The complacency that comes with order ultimately would just result in you staying in your room. Progress comes from stepping out into the world and moving away from your comfort zone and putting yourself in more unpredictable positions (chaos).

Look at what we do in martial arts training.
In a very simplistic way we discipline ourselves through the most orderly, regimented environments imaginable, we convince ourselves we are training for chaos, and, in a way we are, but not necessarily in the way we think. Violence is an extreme embodiment of chaos and should not be taken lightly, but it is a complex issue full of wild variables. Just think of one of the worst scenarios; multiple attackers, unfamiliar environment, motivations unclear, limited light, all parties befuddled or fuelled by alcohol – it’s a mess. But this is an extreme.

Let’s go back into the Dojo; here are some examples of engaging with chaos that lead you towards more positive outcomes.

It starts out very simply, where you pressure-test your training in more manageable ways.
In a formal setting there is scope for tiptoeing into the chaos zone; e.g. if you work kihon gumite but the Torime doesn’t know what the second attack is; you could gamble, but it’s better to see if you can resolve the problem through your conditioned training.

Every time you take part in sparring; there are rules but essentially you are engaging with controlled chaos.
In my Dojo we have been working for a long time now on devising new ways of pressure-testing our reactions to attacks, creating opportunities to really work our conditioned responses, one method we use is called Ohyo Henka Dousa, a method of continual engagement  with an attacker’s intent.

To go back to the Yin Yang symbol, Peterson says that the curving line between the two areas is a line that we should tiptoe along, occasionally deliberately allowing our foot to stray into the zone of chaos and very much acknowledging that it is part of our lives – something that can be used for good.

Tim Shaw

Waza o Nusumu.

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‘Waza o Nusumu’ is a phrase I’d heard and read about some time ago; essentially it means ‘stealing technique’. It relates to an old style aspect of direct transmission of knowledge from Sensei to student. We know that verbal transmission or just telling students how techniques and principles work is not an efficient method of passing high levels of skill and knowledge on to future generations. We also know there are other models; for example in old style Budo teachers passed information to their students by having them ‘feel’ their technique, but even that is a flawed method.  How do we know if the student is really getting to the core of the technique, or is just mimicking the exterior feel of what they thought was going on?

Waza o Nusumu sounds subversive or even dishonest, but really the teacher is in cahoots with the student; he wants to present the technique to the student, perhaps in an oblique way, a hint here, a hint there, or even a quick demonstration to see if they have the ability to grasp it.

I am reminded of a Wado Sensei I know who wanted to explain Okuriashi foot movement to a junior student and so had a £5 note on the floor with a piece of cotton attached and told him if he could put his foot on it he could have it; every time the student tried to put his foot on it (with Okuriashi movement) the note was snatched away.

It also makes me think of Fagin in the musical ‘Oliver’, the scene where he encourages Oliver to steal the handkerchief dangling out of his pocket.

As mentioned earlier, all of this can fall apart if the student only grasps a part of the picture. It is entirely possible for the student to make the assumption that they’ve ‘got it’ when they haven’t, probably because they’ve projected an understanding on to it that is immature or underdeveloped; this is where the importance of ‘emptying your cup’ comes in.

Another side of this is that the student has really work at it to decode what they have ‘stolen’. There is significant value in this; partially because understanding with your head only is never enough, this is part of making the technique or principle your own. If you are to truly value it and ‘own’ it it has to come from your own sweat.

Tim Shaw

Feedback (part 2).

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What information is your body giving you? Are you truly your own best critic?

When we are desperately trying to improve our technique we tend to rely on instruction and then practice augmented by helpful feedback, usually from our Sensei.

But perhaps there are other ways to gain even better quality feedback and perhaps ‘feedback’ is not as simple as it first appears.

If we were to just look at it from the area of kata performance; if you are fortunate enough to have mirrors in your training space (as we do at Shikukai Chelmsford) then reviewing your technique in a mirror can be really helpful. But there are some down sides. One is that I am certain when we use the mirror we do a lot of self-editing, we choose to see what we want to see; viewpoint angle etc.

The other down-side is that we externalise the kata, instead of internalising it. When referring to a mirror we are projecting ourselves and observing the projection; this creates a tiny but significant reality gap. It is possible that in reviewing the information we get from the mirror we get useful information about our external form (our ability to make shapes, or our speed – or lack of speed.) but we lose sight of our internal connections, such as our lines of tension, connectivity and relays. We shift our focus away from the inner feel of what we are doing at the expense of a particular kind of visual aesthetic.

You can test this for yourself: take a small section of a kata, perform the section once normally (observe yourself in a mirror if you like) then do the same section with your eyes closed. If you are in tune with your body you will find the difference quite shocking.

Another product of this ‘externalising’ in kata worth examining is how easy it is to rely on visual external cues to keep you on track throughout the performance; usually this is about orientation. I will give an example from Pinan Nidan: if I tell myself that near the beginning of the kata is a run of three Jodan Nagashi Uke and near the end a similar run of three techniques but this time Junzuki AND that on the first run of three I am always going towards the Kamidana, but on the second run of three I will be heading in the direction of the Dojo door, I come to rely almost entirely on these landmarks for orientation, thus I have gone too deeply into externalising my kata; it happens in a landscape instead of in my body. Where this can seriously mess you up is if you have to perform in a high pressure environment (e.g. contest, grading or demonstration) your familiar ‘landscape’ that you relied heavily upon has disappeared, only to be replaced by a very different, often much harsher landscape, one frequently inhabited by a much more critical audience. A partial antidote to this is to always try and face different directions in your home Dojo; but really this is just a sticking plaster.

Another quirky odd anomaly I have discovered when working in a Dojo with mirrors is that during sparring I sometimes find myself using the mirror to gain an almost split-screen stereoscopic view of what my opponent is up to, tiny visual clues coming from a different viewpoint, but it’s dangerous splitting your attention like that and on more than one occasion I have been caught out, so much so that I now try and stay with my back to the mirror when fighting.

Another visual feedback method is video. This can be helpful in kata and individual kihon. In kihon try filming two students side by side to compare their technical differences or similarities. If you have the set-up you could film techniques from above (flaws in Nagashizuki show up particularly well).

There are some subtle and profound issues surrounding this idea of ‘internalising’ ‘externalising’, some of it to do with the origin of movement and the direction (and state) of the mind, but short blog posts like this are perhaps not the place for exploring these issues – the real place for exploring them is in your body.

Tim Shaw

Feedback (Part 1).

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It’s very obvious that people always appreciate having the opportunity to offer their opinion; particularly when it is something they really care about. So with that in mind I decided to consult with our regular students at Shikukai Chelmsford through the medium of a questionnaire.

I must admit, I was curious as to how this can be done through new technology. So initially I not only set about designing my questions but also researching the available platforms.

I had heard about Survey Monkey and assumed that this was going to be the one to use, however, after signing up and learning about all the whistles and bells and putting my questions in to the template I hit a major hurdle at question 10…. Something that wasn’t clear from the outset; i.e. that this so-called ‘free’ service was only free if you didn’t go beyond 10 questions, after that they wanted £35 a month, (sneaky eh!). So, frustrated and ever so slightly miffed I had to abandon the smiley happy world of Survey Monkey.

More research lead me towards Google Forms, this was totally free and in lots of ways was even better than Survey Monkey.

The idea of a questionnaire has many advantages, particularly when it is anonymous (I made sure that this was the case as it would allow people to give candid and honest responses). Without wanting to use too much jargon I would also say that Dojo members are also stakeholders; it’s in everyone’s interest that all needs are being addressed; in a successful Dojo the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.

I think we are very fortunate at Shikukai Chelmsford that the social make-up and personalities all mesh neatly together, largely because we have a common goal and it is in our interests to perpetuate that particular dynamic – although I must say that this is the same for Shikukai as an organisation across all Dojos. However it does not mean that we have everything right; so the best thing is to consult the members.

The range of questions went from organisational issues; times, number of sessions, costs, etc, to venue and facilities; then on to training content, and even looking at fairness and equality. The links to the questionnaires came through to members via email and through Facebook, which was very slick. I must say, the design template also looked incredibly neat and professional.  The results came in steadily and were really helpful in getting a snapshot of where we currently are. The culmination of all this is that I will share the results with the students and this in itself will promote more dialogue and then work with them to address any issues.

Brilliant!

Tim Shaw

Sticking Points.

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More technical stuff.

Because you have to start somewhere, all of us use form as a framework to hang our stuff on. By form I mean, end position, making a shape, a posture, an attitude usually based around a stance, that kind of thing. This becomes our go-to teaching/learning aid. My argument is that we fixate far too much on that aspect of our training. Yes, it’s really important and can’t be by-passed, but to some it becomes an end in itself. It becomes a crucial moment of fixation working a bit like the full stop at the end of a sentence. Of course this is reinforced by a picture book mentality; where that end posture is used to judge quality, as you used to find in karate books that show kata, kihon or kumite. I have written before about the idea that some people think that the posture alone is enough to judge how good a person’s technique is – well, usually that and how much ‘bang’ they can give it. I find this really difficult to accept; surely we have moved on from this rather low branch in our evolutionary development?

Fixation points can be very dangerous; and habitually programming them into your nervous system is not what you should be doing as a martial artist. When the mind becomes fixated energy and intention stagnate and become momentarily stuck.

Don’t confuse this with pauses – I know this may sound counter-intuitive, but ‘pauses’ can be used as part of the necessity to manipulate the tempo and rhythm of an encounter, e.g. to create a vacuum to allow your opponent to fall into (another blog post perhaps).

Look for things that ‘happen’ on the way to something else. By that I mean; for example, watch an expert in motion and try and identify when the engagement first happens. If it’s of a high quality it will cause an effect on the other party; it may even cause his mind to fixate; a crude example would be an initial shin kick, or a distracting inner sweep; but it may well be something much more subtle and it won’t always happen on initial contact.

I can think of some very interesting manoeuvres in Wado where the atemi-waza occurs seemingly between moves. By this I mean, many of us too easily buy into the idea that a technique (be it hit or block) happens at the moment your ‘stance’ arrives; it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a time-line between moves, and that time-line has opportunities that relate to how your body is positioned in relationship to your opponent; it might be angle, it might be distance, or a combination of both, but you have an opportunity to do your stuff while on your way to your primary objective. All of this is the opposite of ‘fixation’. A mind frozen or fixated on a block or strike dies at that point; the engine has stalled and there’s nothing left but to throw away crucial time, slip into neutral and turn the ignition key again.

During sparring try and take a tally of how many times opportunities occurred and yet you were unable to capitalise on them. Often this reveals a number of weaknesses; one example being an overreaction to the threat of your opponent’s technique, but another is when you become fixated on what you are going to do, or have just done. Against a poor opponent you will get away with it, but against someone good your frozen nano-second will supply an excellent window of opportunity for your opponent.

And there’s another thing; don’t wait for the opponent to supply you with the big window of opportunity, slot into the smaller windows; be like a key in a lock.

Tim Shaw

The Dunning Kruger Effect.

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“When incompetent people are too incompetent to realise they are incompetent”, is only part of the story of the Dunning Kruger Effect. There is a lesson here for all martial artists (as well as anyone involved in any areas of the development of skill/knowledge).

The Dunning Kruger Effect is a graph or timeline explaining our perception of our own competence.

The Effect was first described in 2000 by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University. At the extreme left of the graph is a statistical pinnacle, this describes the supreme level of confidence that a person with very little skill tends to have. The timeline then turns into a cliff face and as the true nature of the specific skill reveals itself and the level of confidence plummets. Then comes a long pit of despair; followed by a gentle rise towards a modest level of confidence.

I wouldn’t presume to ask anyone to try and locate their own position on the Dunning Kruger graph line; that would be a wonderfully ironic contradiction, particularly if they are near the beginning of the graph line. As martial artists given enough time we may be able to look over our shoulder at our younger selves and remember our own ‘cliff face’ moment, but all I would say is, be thankful for it, and be thankful that you had enough fortitude to soldier on.

I am not naïve enough to think that the Dunning Kruger Effect is liable to be as neat a curve as the diagram suggests; but taken in general it is liable to follow that path.

But what about the ‘modest level of confidence’ at the end of the graph line? This is another part of the story; Dunning and Kruger also revealed that when people do develop their skills to a high level they are also inclined to score low in confidence, because they believe that those around them may also possess similar skills. This stands to reason in some ways because if your world is populated by people of a similar advanced technical background then you are likely to be only making comparisons with people like yourself.

The ‘modest level of confidence’ may sound like taking a position of being overly modest or humble but it also may be a symptom of what is known as Imposter Syndrome. Although not classified as a mental disorder ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is a frame of mind whereby a person feels that their success is fraudulent, or that they’ve just been lucky. An author once said, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think ‘Uh oh, they are going to find out now; I’ve run a game on everyone and they are going to find me out’”, the author was Maya Angelou.

There is a basic checklist for Impostor Syndrome; it is;

  • If you exhibit signs of being a perfectionist.
  • If you find yourself overworking.
  • If you have a tendency to undermine your own achievements.
  • If you have an unreasonable fear of failure.
  • If you are inclined to discount any praise you receive from others.

I suppose for senior martial artists there is another negative tendency, best summed up by a T-Shirt slogan I once saw for elderly bikers, “The older I get, the faster I was”. For martial artists one of  the symptoms of this unacknowledged condition is the illusion that your belt is weirdly getting shorter day by day!

Tim Shaw

Cultural Appropriation.

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Recently there has been a significant amount of media chatter about ‘Cultural Appropriation’.

Susan Scafidi defines the negative aspect of cultural appropriation as, “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”

It’s interesting to look at how might be applied to Western-based Budoka. Firstly I’m not so sure that the standard bearers for traditional Budo inside Japan worry too much about having their cultural practices and icons ‘appropriated’ by enthusiastic Westerners. Robert Twigger in his 1997 book ‘Angry White Pyjamas’ said in a specific and telling quote, “Sara thought martial arts were pretty silly. To a trendy young Japanese, aikido was about as sexy as Morris Dancing”. I suppose that the more archaic and, dare I say it, ‘traditional’ a Japanese martial arts the westerners tries to immerse themselves into the more bizarre it must look to the outsider.

A friend of mine is a long established practitioner of Kyudo; a while ago he invited me to his Dojo. I must have looked upon it as creature landing from another planet; even though I desperately sought common ground I struggled to relate to the ritual and obsession around what in actual fact was a martial art that was based around just one simple action; firing an arrow at a target. Of course I realise there was far more to it than that, and he was able to explain to me the cultural significance and deeply personal struggle that all serious practitioners have to come to terms with. But the ritual observances and the setting up of the Shinto shrine, all of which seemed to take up half of the session, left me wondering exactly what was going on? Was I perhaps witnessing a more exotic version of what the Sealed Knot get up to every major summer Bank holiday? Or was this something else?

The opening quote hinted at an ownership issue; I get that, and I also understand that in the hands of the truly ignorant cultural icons can be misunderstood, misrepresented or even abused. They may even evolve into ‘Cargo Cults’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult ). I’m pretty sure this happens in the martial arts, it’s all over YouTube, but I think most people can see that and just find it a bit….sad. But hey.

But here’s a thing. Let me explain this through the lens of Japanese Art, just to show that Cultural Appropriation is not a one way street.

Pre the arrival of western cultural artifacts to Japan the Japanese printmakers and painters had no concern with western ideas of space and depth in visual compositions. I have at home an original woodblock print by Japanese artist Tachibana Morikuni (1679 – 1748) of an Ox under willows, there is only the vaguest nod towards anything that might relate to foreground, background or middle distance; it’s all based upon a very formulaic and decorative methodology. When the later artists were exposed to western art the game changed, Hiroshige, Hokusai etc. embraced the ideas of perspective and distance and in Hokusai’s case he created visual puns, e.g the swamping of the mighty Fuji by the great wave!

But, when Japanese artifacts arrived in Paris wrapped in throw-away Japanese prints, Post-Impressionists became fascinated by the visual conceits  and ‘appropriated’ their methods for themselves – oh the irony!

tachibana_morikuni1

‘Oxen’ by Tachibana Morikuni (1679 – 1748)

Tim Shaw