Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Mindless Perfection

Don’t think.


“Don’t think.”

Can you imagine a worse torture?

“Don’t think about it, Monica.”

I try. I do the move.

He notices I fail to stop thinking.

How did he know? I think about it. Must be the way my brow furrows when I’m unhappy with my performance. I make a mental note to leave my face a blank next time around.

I step toward my training partner for another run through, visualizing the series of moves I need to set in motion. There is movement on the periphery of my vision.

He’s already seen something he doesn’t like and has moved close enough for me to sense that he wants my attention. I turn.

“Monica, just....” He trails off, scrutinizing me with a somewhat pained expression. It’s a look that he gives me every once in a while, a very long look. As if he’s trying to figure me out and it’s not going particularly smoothly. “You and I both, mate.” I think to myself just before he resumes speaking.

“...just stop analyzing.” He implores. “Do the move. Trust your body. You know this stuff, just react.”

I think about it. I try to bring a tool to bear other than analysis. What is there? A blank. Frustration. Try again.

It’s as if the cogs of my mind are whirring furiously, having been sent on a mission to retrieve some piece of data. The familiar sensation of a stream of results - the jumble of good, bad and obscure - isn’t coming back, though. Instead, there is nothing. A cold, uncomfortable, unfamiliar nothing.

Maybe this is it. Maybe this is how he wants me to approach training, awful and naked though it feels.

I look toward my partner, making eye contact, sizing him up again. What will his reach be? Is he heavy? Muscle-bound? Fast? I’m cheating – I already know how he moves. I nod my head slightly, indicating that I’m ready when he is.

He comes at me, a solid punch for the jaw – the first in a series of moves that I am to react to in a specific way.

My usual habit is to break everything I’m supposed to do into small components (like lego pieces) and to remember the sequence methodically, mechanically. This takes a lot of effort, which is why I must usually look like I’m calculating pi to 17 decimal places rather than avoiding a fistful of pain.

Now I’m not allowed to do that. I can’t analyze, partition and synthesize. I have to....to what? I still didn’t have a clue and he’s still coming right for me.

I stood there until the last second, willing myself to react naturally rather than from rote before years of training kicked in to at least make me get my head the hell out of the way.

I had also raised my arm in a block – but nothing else, no countermove. I certainly wasn’t ready for the kick coming my way.

Damn.



Who do you trust?


That was last week. The 1.5 hour journey home was a study in frustration, sulking, anger, mortification, introspection and – finally – sheer bloodymindedness that I would find whatever this damned Nirvanic state of no-thought-training was, even if I had to install a Temporary Lobotomy switch on my forehead to do it. Something told me that this was important.

M, sage as always and cryptic as Yoda when he wants to annoy me hovered around for days saying things like “Ahhh, but walking – you don’t actively think about how to do that anymore, do you?”

Right...so there are stages of learning. The mechanical, memorize-parts-and-put-them-together and then that wonderful, seemingly-miraculous moment when you find yourself just doing something without thinking about it – the point at which you trust your new ability.

I thought about all the skills that I had acquired over years and tried to remember that tipping point from belabored rote to effortless integration. I realised something very strange - that I naturally separated new skills into ‘physical’ and ‘mental’.

Mental tasks, I implicitly trusted myself with. I’ve always been confident in walking into any situation, any disparate job or role and picking it up quickly with minimal effort – usually to the amusement or chagrin of people around me, depending on the work environment involved. I also ‘intuit’ information as I learn – extrapolating high level concepts from basics early on. I trust myself with new information quickly, I trust that it’s integrated enough to rely on without explicitly checking against its minutiae every time I use it.

Physical tasks, on the other hand, I implicitly didn't trust myself to get right. I didn’t even trust myself when I was actually getting it right. I can type at 80wpm easily but if I pay attention to the fact that I’m doing it...I lose it for a while. I used to get better at the range when I was tired, I would run around the stage setup and not think at all...just engage targets as I saw them, as I peered in a window or as I kicked a door open – two perfect little holes near the centre. When I went around refreshed, I would routinely kill no-shoots. Too much energy to think, to size up the shot, to unnecessarily override my reflexes and second-guess myself into a bad shot.

The physical is also where I ‘chop’ instructions and memorize...rote learning. The only time M and I routinely argued was in Salsa lessons. I memorized steps and needed to get them exactly right. I would stop at any mistake and insist on starting again, where M would be doing the right thing and just flowing with the music, taking mistakes in his stride, doing generally the right move and refining from there. It’s a miracle he didn’t strangle me.

So this was the key, then. Not switching off the mind altogether, but switching it to automatic pilot, trusting that the information was in there and would be duly retrieved at the appropriate time.

Hrmm. Good theory, it was time to test it out.



Switching off.


What a difference.

I had resolved to take everything in uncritically, to take it in at the macro level and to implement it without analyzing it. This, I found, was excruciatingly difficult to master, I would waver between it and my normal state.

“You’re thinking again.”

I wince. “I know.”

“Stop it.”

I nod. “I will.”

At first, I would abstract too broadly and miss the detail that made the move The Move and not just some random movement. I narrowed the detail a little.

Not perfect yet, but workable.

Two very interesting things emerged from this shift in focus.

The first was that I was seeing flows, vectors and centers of gravity rather than move one, move two, move three, move four... I could see the purpose and genius behind these countermeasures to attack. I could also finally see the thing that I had always been told about this art – that it uses the way the human body naturally moves, bends, folds and falls in order to achieve control. It’s not pretty or flashy, but it’s subtle and superbly effective.

He came up to me at one point and asked if I was alright. I know I wasn’t behaving normally and was almost crosseyed from the effort of staying in this mode. I was quiet. I don’t think he was used to not seeing either my furrowed brow or my dimples for an hour solid.

The second was that I could finally sort out what I knew and what I didn’t. If it wasn’t stored properly in the cache, it just didn’t come out or came out as ineffective fluff. I wasn’t using a fresh demonstration to boost my knowledge levels temporarily in order to just get through a few practice rounds – I was finding my weaknesses and working on them whilst reinforcing and practicing my strengths.

I was working on one of those things that evidently weren’t stored properly. I was twisting and folding my training partner’s wrist/forearm and he was refusing to go down. I pushed his body around a fraction in a few different directions, testing his stability. Aha...I felt it. I pivoted to the left and pulled him along with me, deepening the stretch of his wrist to the point where he would move anywhere to avoid the pain. He folded and went down.

As I was looking down at my training partner, still holding onto his arm and contemplating a kick to the ribs, I felt a light tap on the crown of my head.

He was standing there with a smile on his face and a training sword in his hand.

“Why the long face?”

I panicked. “I wasn’t thinking, I swear! I was just concentrating very hard on not thinking.”

“Smile.”

“What?!?”

“Smile. Now I want you to enjoy it.”


It never ends.

M


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