This post is the third in a series begun back in October interviewing 3rd degree black belt Aikido practitioner Dwight Sora of Chicago Aikido club. While I’m interested in martial arts for their own sake, Aikido strikes me as having some unusual philosophical lessons about acceptance, change, and growth.
Previous posts in this series are Aikido Interviews, #1: Trying to Discover Truths and Aikido Interviews, #2: “Lift Your Head and Say ‘Isn’t Today a Great Day?’”
The discussion in this post follows up on an idea Dwight brought up in the previous interview of becoming calm and not focusing on an attacker or problem.
Luc: If we’re engaging with an opponent (and I really mean this both in the literal and figurative senses), but we’re not letting the opponent take our focus, how do we strike a balance between being aware on the one hand and not getting sucked in on the other?
Dwight: First off, this is a question for which I still do not have a definitive answer. While prepping for my three degree black belt test recently, I was acutely aware that during Aikido randori (which takes the form of defending against multiple attackers) the very act of extending one’s attention to more than one attacker felt simply exhausting. Even though the situation was extremely safe and very controlled (for form’s sake, attackers during Aikido randori should be taking smooth ukemi or “receiving the technique,” not allowing the situation to turn into a knock-down dragged-out fight), I could feel my heart start to race, my fight-or-flight mechanism kicking into gear, etc. In particular, there were moments where I was aware that my back was turned to an oncoming attacker as a result of throwing aside another, and though this moment was brief, I could feel a spike in my stress level.
On one level, I do think it’s simply a matter of constant practice. You need to simply drill all those techniques into your muscle memory so that you can “think” with your entire body and respond to situations accordingly without wondering where your hand or foot is going. I really feel like learning martial arts is a lot like learning how to play music, especially improvisational forms like jazz. Drills and exercises are like practicing your scales, forms are like studying the work of other musicians so you understand what works and what doesn’t, and techniques are like chord progressions or melody lines that you can adopt, modify or riff.
In that sense, I believe the majority of those of us studying martial arts are more like musical students than actual musicians. We’ve practiced our scales a lot, have memorized a lot of pieces of music and have mastered a handful of melodies and chords; but only a handful of us really know how to make music. (To add, I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, as long as you realize whether you’re a real fighter or not.)
Another way of looking at this question is to steal an idea from another teacher. I was once told to think of martial arts as not an external series of techniques by man, but a refinement of our basic animal instincts. Think of the way a common squirrel responds to its surroundings and possible
threats. It’s not thinking the way a person does, but it’s paying total attention to everything – sights, sounds, smells, movement. Its thoughts (whatever they are) are in total alignment with every fiber of its being, and if it needs to high tail it out of there, it seems almost instantaneous.
The idea is that maybe the study of martial arts allows us as human beings to get back to that sort of state, a kind of pure intuition. That, combined with the techniques we study, gives us a refined series of physical responses, a stronger “vocabulary” if you will, than simply running away (like the squirrel).
I don’t think this state of mind is particular to martial arts. I’m pretty sure when pro athletes talk about being “in the zone” or race car drivers feel like they’re watching their own actions in slow motion it’s the same thing. [A note from Luc: There's some good research to back this up. Interested readers may want to read “Flow: What It Feels Like to Be Perfectly Motivated” and “Some Steps for Getting into a State of Flow“] I work as a stage actor, so I’m constantly hoping to reach that sublime moment where I can connect with the audience and really bring a character to life, while still taking care of those pesky technical details (hitting my marks, remembering my lines and cues, etc.).
For my own training lately, I’m working on “forgetting” my body. Basically, I’m trying to allow myself to trust that I actually do know all this stuff I’ve been studying over the years and to remove any self-conscious movement.
That even goes to trying not to think about getting into a proper starting stance and putting my hands in the right place, and see if it happens automatically. It’s a little strange trying to “turn off” parts of my brain, and very disconcerting (especially when you end up responding late) but it seems to be the only way I’ve been able to free myself of the crutch of thinking of technique all the time and see if I can have natural responses to a situation.
Photo by Maggie Mui