Action Without A Thinker: The Search for Elusive Martial Performance

If you have been following me on Facebook recently, then you know that roughly eight weeks ago I injured myself quit severely on the mat. Two bulged disks later, with one of them compressing on a nerve, has seen me out of action since that day. As my condition improved, mostly down to not doing anything (other than eating donuts), dozens of chiropractic and physiotherapy sessions later — with some, what might consider out there craniosacral therapies – I started thinking of ways to start, although slowly my physical recovery.

I lost almost 70% of my strength in my right arm initially. Most notably was the loss of fine motor coordination in my right hand. For weeks some of my fingers were numb, including the back of my hand and into my forearm. I realised that I would have to teach my right hand again how to function. I started with what I thought would the be the easiest way to achieve this, by throwing a tennis ball against the wall, and trying to catch it with what was now an uncooperative right hand. Easier said than done. The more I tried to catch the ball, the more I was over thinking the mechanics of catching it, and the more I missed.

I then tried another strategy. I took a moment to pause, to breath, to clear my mind, and now, I simply allowed my body to make the right moves for me. I caught it. I then missed it again as thoughts of catching it pervaded my mind. Clearing my mind again, what could only be described as no thought action, I was once again able to catch the ball. In hindsight, this is something I have often recognised in peak performance moments in my martial arts game. It shows up not only on the mat in rolling, but equally in stand up sparring. Which then got me thinking, how much of poor performance comes down to overthinking, and simply not trusting the body enough to make its own decisions?

The Body As Natural Intelligence

This may seem like a really strange question to ask. Anyone reading what I just wrote would be obviously confused. We think with our mind, that grey gelatinous thing inside our skull, we don’t think with our bodies. It is our thinking mind, like a conductor of an orchestra, that orchestrates the movements we want to achieve right? Increasingly I no longer believe that.

My injury brought this realisation front and center into my immediate experience. Catching that ball that day taught me a valuable lesson. Of course, to a degree, one requires to know an action already to repeat it. Taking it to the mat then, if I was just learning something new like an arm-bar from the mount, a technique I had never previously trained, it is imperative that I learn the correct sequence to the move. Like it or not, it’s going to take some conscious thought to work through all the moving parts of that submission. But once I have learned it then what? Or said another way, once I know the ‘basics’ of the move, do I still need to think it through every time I apply it? Or just maybe, the constant hanging on to thinking it through – may just be the very thing that stands in my way of ever really achieving a high level of success with that submission against uncooperative opponents to begin with.

I have talked about this at length in workshops, but it’s not really our fault that we over think things. Many of us, especially in the Western world come from an educational system that prizes rationality, i.e., head smarts over all other potential forms of intelligence. This separation even shows up in our use of language: nerds are those who use their intellect, and Jocks are those who are ‘dumb’ in the head, but can kick a ball.

The neglect of the body as both instrumental in lived experience, and as a valid source of knowledge in the world, goes as far back in Western thinking as Plato’s Phaedo. Plato saw the body as negatively interfering with the search for true knowledge. The body, he claimed, interrupted our attention with all kinds of passions and fancies. In other words, the body distorts our apprehension of reality through our sense organs. In this view, the body is merely a tool in the service of our intellect. This decapitation of the body as intelligence reared it’s ugly head again, with the seventeenth century French philosopher René Descartes. Descartes’ philosophy of separating the thoughts of the mind from the actions of the body (known as the Cartesian dualism) greatly influenced Western philosophy, resulting in the dominant idea that our mind is distinct from, commands and functions independently from our body.

Increasingly though new research is debunking these claims. Damasio a neuroscientist for example, cites neuroscientific research that does not support the idea of the mind/body split introduced by Descartes in the seventeenth century. According to Damasio, the mind is embodied, in the full sense of the term, not just embrained; the living body is the instrument of all our action and perception in the world itself. Candace Pert, a neuroscientist and pharmacologist who discovered the opiate receptor in the brain (which blocks pain, slows breathing, and has a general calming and anti-depressing effect), notes that people’s immune systems have both memory and a capacity to learn, much as the central nervous system does. The implication is that intelligence is located not only in the brain but is distributed throughout the body. As Pert suggests the old dualistic paradigm of separating mental processes, including emotions, from the body is invalid.

Applying Embodied Intelligence To The Fight Game

Coming back to martial arts performance then. At its heart, all students want to be able to perform what they have learned in the technique and drilling stage in the live action of the game. This could be either in live rolling against a resisting opponent in martial arts such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, or live sparring against an opponent in stand up like boxing. What ever your choice of combat sport, or unarmed combatives training for self-preservation — we can all likely agree, that it is ones ability to perform against an uncooperative opponent that gives both ‘technique’ meaning, and validity. The question then is, what will aid in improving that peak performance?

In Homer’s Odyssey, he hints to an answer,“[So] then said Odysseus, the great tactician, Be silent; curb your thoughts; do not ask questions. This is the work of the Olympians…” In other words, and as philosopher Hubert Dreyfus points out, what is being said here is that, “in general, if you try to reflect on the source of the intelligibility of the situation, that is, if you try to think about why things are going so well rather than just letting yourself be drawn to respond directly to the solicitations lit up in the current situation — you will at best perform competently. At worse, you will lose your skill altogether”

This abandoning of thought to the background, and allowing the body to step forward, to take front and centre stage seems at least to me often the key to peak performance both in martial arts, or getting my wonky hand to catch that ball. Of course this topic isn’t as simple as this. It’s a complex topic, that no single short article can give justice too. But I do think one can make a start by simply suggesting to oneself to get out of your own way, and let your body make the appropriate decisions for you. What will be required is a complete paradigm shift from the norm.

Thinking itself has to be pushed to the background. One will have to let go of the Ego, and the need to win. Focusing on one’s breath is often the fastest way to achieve this. But it is equally about changing one’s relationship with one’s body. Seeing it rather, not as simply a workhorse that gets your brain from one place to the next, but rather the very embodied actor that makes all things possible, even the brain itself.

A silly as it sounds, its about trust in the end. I had to trust, that if I suspended thoughts of an outcome, pushing my thinking mind to the background, and moving my body forward — that by doing so, I would be able to catch that ball. And I did. But I also had to trust, that this same approach would allow it to happen again. Unfortunately, when we succeed, our Ego steps in to try and make it happen again. Before you know it, thoughts have once again pervaded the front central stage of our experience, and as it always seems to do, hinders our ability to truly perform as we should be able too, because like it or not, it really truly believes it runs the show. My body however, says otherwise!



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