martialarts

Flow

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My intentions are to present a book review and at the same time expand it to look at the potential implications for martial artists of this very interesting theme.

For anyone who has not discovered the ideas of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi get hold of his book. ‘Flow – The Psychology of Happiness’.

    

This came to me from a very roundabout route. Initially I was curious about Mushin no Waza, (technique of no-mind), a concept many Japanese martial artists are familiar with; but further research lead me on to ‘Flow States’. Musicians might describe this as working ‘in the groove’, or ‘being in the pocket’, psychologist Abraham Maslow called it ‘Peak Experience’, being so fully immersed in what you do, in a state of energised focus almost a reverie. It’s all over the place with sporting activities. Csikszentmihalyi describes it as an ‘optimum experience’.

I should say at this point that it’s nothing mystical or magical, although some would like to describe it as such. As with magic – magic ceases to become magic once it’s explained. I know that once the illusionist’s sleight of hand technique is revealed we all feel a little disappointed and the magical bubble has burst, but if explanation leads to greater understanding it’s a loss worth taking. So it is with Csikszentmihalyi’s book; he unpacks the idea and neatly describes the quality of flow experiences as well explaining the cultural and psychological benefits.

In a nutshell, flow states happen when:

Whatever activity you are engaging in creates a state of total immersion that you almost lose yourself within the activity.

The identifying qualities include:

  1. Total focus (excluding all external thoughts and distractions).
  2. The sense of ‘self’ disappears but returns renewed and invigorated once the activity has concluded.
  3. Time has altered, or becomes irrelevant.
  4. The activities must have clear goals.
  5. A sense of control.
  6. Some immediate feedback.
  7. Not be too easy, and certainly must not be too hard and entirely out of reach.

Now, I challenge you to look at the above criteria and ask yourself how these line up with what we do in the Dojo. I would bet that some of your most valuable training moments chime with the concepts of the flow state – you have been there. Many of us struggle to rationalise it or find the vocabulary to explain it, but we know that afterwards we have grown.

This ‘growth’ is vital for our development as martial artists and human beings. This is what they mean when they describe martial arts as a spiritual activity; but ‘spiritual’ devoid of religious baggage, but ironically in traditional martial arts there is generally a ritualistic element that sets the scene and promotes the mind-set necessary to enable these flow state opportunities; so I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss this side of what we do.

Csikszentmihalyi says that flow experiences promote further flow experiences; i.e. once you have had a taste of it you yearn for more, not in a selfish or indulgent way but instead part of you recognises a pathway to human growth and ‘becoming’. We become richer as these unthought-of experiences evolve; we become more complex as human beings.

What is really interesting is that flow states are not judged upon their end results; for example the mountaineer may be motivated by the challenge of reaching the top of the rock face but it is the act of climbing that creates the opportunity and pleasure and puts him in the state of flow and rewards him with the optimal experience that enables him to grow as a human being. So, not all of these experiences are going to be devoid of risk, or even pain and hardship, they may well be part of the package.

Another aspect is that in the middle of these flow experiences there is no space for errant thoughts, if you are doing it right you will have no psychic energy left over to allow your mind to wander. In high level karate competition the competitor who is ‘in the zone’ has no care about what the audience or anyone else might think about his performance or ability; even the referee becomes a distant voice, he is thoroughly engaged in a very fluid scenario.

How many times have you been in the Dojo and found that there is no space in your head for worries about, work, home, money, relationships. You could tell yourself that this ‘pastime’ just gives you an opportunity to run away and bury your head in the sand, but maybe it’s more a case of creating distance to allow fresh perspective.

If Otsuka Sensei saw Budo as a truly global thing, as a vehicle for peace and harmony, then consider this quote from author and philosopher Howard Thurman, and apply it to the idea of Flow;

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Tim Shaw

Sanitisation.

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Early 20c Japanese Jujutsu.

I recently watched a YouTube video which was focussed upon the sanitisation of old style Jujutsu techniques that were cleaned up to make them safe for competitive Judo. Throws and techniques which were originally designed to break limbs and annihilate the attacker in dramatic and brutal ways were changed to enable freeform Judo randori where protagonists could bounce back and keep the flow going.

This inspired me to review techniques in Wado, some of which I believe went through a similar process.

We know that the founder of Wado Ryu Karate, Otsuka Sensei had his origins in Koryu Jujutsu and that Wado was crafted out of this same Koryu base; Wado is certainly still considered as a continuation of the Japanese Budo tradition. Koryu Jujutsu in particular had historically developed a reputation as an antiquated form of brutality which was not compatible with an agenda developed by modernisers like the founder of Judo Kano Jigoro.

To set the context; Wado went through many transformations, and even though quite elderly Otsuka Sensei was still reforming and developing Wado Ryu throughout his long life; a project that was continued through subsequent generations of the Otsuka family.

But how much has Wado allowed itself to be sanitised? Did we lose something along the way? Was Wado de-fanged, did it have its claws clipped? And, if it has, where is the evidence?

But beyond that – does it matter? The loss of these dangerous aspects may well be a moot point; the development of Wado may well have bigger fishes to fry, and this particular issue may just be a distraction from a much larger agenda.

However, to my mind it’s still worth considering.

First of all, I am reminded of a discussion I had with another instructor regarding the craziness of the practice of the Tanto Dori. Thinking back to when these knife defence techniques were part of the Dan grading syllabus, nobody seemed to care what kind of blade you pulled out of your kit bag; blunted pieces of stick, to razor-sharp WW2 bayonets, in fact there seemed to be a badge of honour based upon how sharp and dangerous was your Tanto! We laughed about how such practices would be looked at in today’s politically correct, health and safety environment.

In Judo there are the Kinshi Waza, the banned techniques; these include. Kani Basami (Crab Claw scissors), Ashi Garami (Entangled leg lock), Do Jime (Trunk strangle), Kawazu Gake (One leg entanglement). These are the techniques that the authorities decided were more likely to cause injury, so not necessarily banned because of their viciousness, more their proclivity to cause accidental damage.

Within Wado undoubtedly some techniques were ‘cleaned up’, even within my time.

I can think of at least fifteen techniques, most of which existed inside the established paired kata which were ‘made safe’. Sometimes this came out of trial and error, i.e. the Japanese Sensei saw too much damage incurred by over-enthusiastic students, so decided to soften the technique to minimise injury. Others were implied techniques, e.g. ‘if this technique were to be taken through to this position it would result in significant damage’. Some of these techniques were hidden; you would struggle to spot them if they weren’t explained to you. In some cases the ‘brutal’ part of the technique was actually easier to execute than the so-called ‘cleaned up’ version, but this latter version remained closer to the practice of Wado principles; a contradiction….maybe, maybe not.


A variation on Kumite Gata. The body is ‘scissored’ apart; this is combined with a leg action that completely takes away the base. It is almost impossible to practice this technique safely.

I think that most people are aware that some throwing techniques were designed so that a successful breakfall (Ukemi) would be extremely difficult or even impossible, resulting in damage that you would never recover from; not something to dwell on lightly. (A prime example in Wado is the technique known as Kinu Katsugi, which we now practice in a way that enables uke to land relatively safely).

   
This Ohyo Gumite technique is very effective on its own, but another variation involving standing up from this position would result in Uke being dropped to the floor with very little chance of being able to protect themself.
Right, Suzuki Sensei showing the ‘stand up’ associated with this technique.*

There are other Wado techniques which on the outside look incredibly dangerous but are sometimes so wrapped up in misunderstood formalism that the accepted coup de grace becomes a merely academic endeavour (works well on paper but could you make it do the job?). Usually this is because of a misunderstanding of the mechanism of the technique itself, or the mechanism of ‘kata’ and how the teaching model actually functions.

I remember Suzuki Sensei sometimes held ‘closed-door’ sessions, you had to be above a certain grade to participate and no spectators were allowed. I attended some of these and the best I can describe them was that they involved what some would think of as ‘dirty tricks’, but very effective fighting techniques which would really damage your opponent.

To reiterate; while it is interesting to speculate on these matters, compared to the other complexities of Wado they could be looked upon as a mere side-show, after all, just the fundamentals take a lifetime to get your head round, never mind all of this.

Tim Shaw

*Photo credit, Pelham Books Ltd, ‘Karate-Do’, Tatsuo Suzuki 1967.

The Monkey Trap.

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This one has been around for a long time, but it’s a very useful model and can be used in many ways.

The Monkey Trap is supposed to be a real thing, a real trap used by primitive tribes to outsmart monkeys. Traditionally the trap features a narrow necked jar which is either tethered to the ground or weighted down. Scattered around the jar are treats the monkey would like but there are more inside. The monkey reaches inside the jar, closes its fist around one of the treats and, with a closed fist it cannot extract its hand past the neck. The monkey is stuck, because of its unwillingness to relinquish its grip on the treat – its own stubbornness, greed and narrow thinking trap it in position. The story was used by Tolstoy in ‘War and Peace’ to describe the French’s unwillingness to discard their loot on the retreat from Moscow. Robert M. Pirsig made use of the same story in ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’. There’s even an episode of the Simpsons where Homer thinks he can reach inside a vending machine to steal a can of drink, the fire brigade have to free him but a fireman points out to him that all he had to do was let go of the can and his hand would slide out.

Therapists are attracted to this neat little story; it’s a literal example of the pitfalls of not ‘letting go’.

I can think of a number of ways it relates to training. In a way it’s another example of the necessity of ‘emptying your cup’, but, to me, it’s a much more interesting model.

I can see it relating to the problem solving involved in fighting, about the unwillingness to depart from set formulas to solve the problems your opponent is presenting you with. I also see a warning to those of us who have many years behind us in training. I know it’s easy for senior instructors to rest on their laurels and start to believe their own propaganda and particularly to trade upon their association with the stars in the Wado firmament (the ones still with us and the ones departed) but this can have a detrimental effect. In these cases it is possible to get stuck with your hand inside the jar, by being unwilling to let go of perceived status attached to such associations. It’s a matter of judging what’s important to you. By hanging on to such shiny baubles as a form of comfort you miss the opportunity to engage with the wider world and in particular to follow the path of development that got you to where you are in the first place. A monkey stuck in a jar, or a case of wilful arrested development? You decide.

Tim Shaw

Combinations.

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Renraku Waza, Renzoku Waza, Renketsu Dosa, whatever we decide to call them Combination Techniques seem to feature on nearly every Wado syllabus.

In my early training I was as guilty as everyone else in treating combinations as a test of memory (as well as speed and power). But there are other ways to look at them. I would urge Wado practitioners to examine them more closely. Is there perhaps something inherent in their design that has more to give us?

At first sight as we advance through the grades the sets of combinations just seem to get more complex with more techniques strung together. Yes, they were physically demanding and you got a great workout and many of the strings of techniques programmed the body well for attacking combinations used within conventional free fighting. It was a good way of reviewing your available range of techniques, but it was impossible for it to be all-encompassing. Hand strikes seemed particularly limited. In the early UK syllabus created in the 1960’s and still used by many organisations, there were only three main strikes used in combinations, as well as only three kicks (albeit deployed to different levels) and there were no explicit blocking or covering techniques, they may have been there in some small way but they weren’t really highlighted. Admittedly, since then organisations have become more creative, either by adding more techniques or completely deconstructing combinations, with varying levels of success.

The lower level combinations give good foundations on how to utilise moving in a formalised fighting guard and how to operate the mechanics of particular movements while being in that guard. But if combinations have been designed well they add another vital component that is often overlooked – transition.

Combinations looked at as a test of ‘transition’ gives a whole new perspective. When you fight you are in transition all of the time; you can either do that well, or you can do it badly. When you do it well it allows for snap changes dictated by the ever fluid physical challenges in combat scenarios and puts you a great position to deliver the necessary payload. An image that comes to mind is of the great French tennis player Jean Rene Lacoste (1904 – 1996), it is no accident that the Crocodile is used as the Lacoste logo, Lacoste’s ability to ‘snap back’ from nowhere when returning the ball was the embodiment of the ferocity of the Crocodile’s movement. For the fighter this type of tenacity and flexibility is a terrific skill to aspire towards. Look within combinations; examine what positions you find yourself in, what techniques demand the most commitment in stance and posture? Where do you feel dangerously close to over-extension and then you find yourself having to move from one extreme to another?

Some combination strings seem to create relatively easy transitions from one attack to another; while these have some value I think they are red herrings; examples being ones where the hip extension from one technique automatically and comfortably flows from that technique to another. But these are not the ones I am referring to.

Within the combinations in the Shikukai Karate-Do International it is no accident that there are numerous examples of these transitional challenges. If instructors are devising their own teaching combinations I would heavily recommend looking at what transitional challenges you are including.

Tim Shaw

 

Hierarchies.

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This is not about politics (though it may start out like that).

It used to be said that if a man is not a Socialist when he is seventeen then he has no heart, if he is still a Socialist when he is fifty he has no head. This does not mean that you are supposed to swerve from left to right as you mature, personally I don’t subscribe to the tribalism of ‘left’ and ‘right’ anymore, they are both two cheeks of the same backside.

Socialists abhor hierarchies, while at the same time feeling it is necessary to utilise them (contradiction?).

Humans by their very nature have a desire to set up hierarchies, even where they do not exist.
Imagine a man who could balance ping pong balls on his nose; would he be content to be the only person who could do that? I doubt it; instead he would present it as a challenge to other jugglers and balancers, who would, inevitably, be able to repeat the trick thus rendering his ‘achievement’ as mediocre. So he then manages to balance two balls on his nose, one on top of the other; seemingly impossible and sets himself up as King of the Ping Pong Ball Balancers! A hierarchy is created – out of nothing. I suppose a good question would be; would ping pong ball balancing put food on the table? There lies another discussion.

In all hierarchies there are winners and losers and people in between and there is supposed to be mobility; not like the old feudal pyramid, more like a ladder.

The people on top give you something to aspire to – unless you are hopelessly stuck on the bottom and then you either resign yourself to failure and give up, or you become a festering ball of resentment, which is not healthy.

These people on the very top are there for a reason. To briefly examine that, it might be worth making a quick reference to French and Raven’s six bases of power. This was formulated in 1959 by social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven.

  • Base 1. Legitimate power (or inherited power) – the person in charge has the right to be there.
  • Base 2. Reward – You are rewarded by letting that person assume the position.
  • Base 3. Expert – That person is the most skilled, so they should be on top.
  • Base 4. Referent – the person is seen as the most appealing option because of their worthiness.
  • Base 5. Coercive – The fear of punishment keeps this person on top.
  • Base 6. Informational – (added later and very apt to today) The person on top controls the information that people need to get stuff done.

Every boss I have ever met considers that ‘Base 3’ is why they are there, with a liberal dose of ‘Base 4’ of course.

Everything you have ever done and gained a feeling of positive achievement from existed within a hierarchy, and that of course includes martial arts training. If the hierarchy is working well you have confidence in the system because opportunities arise from engaging in it, you reap the rewards of your own efforts.

Ambitious people tend to form their own hierarchies and strive to become king of their own tiny little hill, and we see that in the martial arts all the time – everyone wants to King of the Ping Pong Ball Balancers.

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

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