The Yoda of Sparring

Okay, I am a little bit of a geek (at times). I am a sucker for sci-fi movies like Star Wars. When you look deeper at some of the characters in the movie series, no one offers more ‘life’ lessons than Yoda, a wise old sage, part warrior, part scholar. I have used the ‘Sayings of Yoda’ to great success, especially explaining the ‘mental game’ to my kids, but I have equally used them to teach the ‘inner game’ of sparring to my students. As I often suggest to them, “If no mistake have you made, yet losing you are … a different game you should play” and often this means check what’s happening on the inside.

“Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.” – Yoda

Probably the hardest lesson for someone new to sparring to understand is that there really is no prediction in what is about to happen. I blame Hollywood mostly for this (and of course neatly packages martial art systems that seemingly have the answer for every attack). Seen that we are using movies to explore inner game for sparring, the best example of this ‘prediction’ approach is in the Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jr. There is a scene, prior to him fighting, where he can see in his minds eye, exactly how the fight will unfold, move for move. He then proceeds to execute those moves in actuality in the fight itself. In fact he does this numerous times throughout the two movies. While this is great for cinematic effect, it doesn’t work like that in the real world of fighting.

The fact is, sparring, is chaotic and unpredictable. When you are sparring, you are going up against another human being, and unless you have access to his mind (ala ESP), you don’t know what he is going to do next, anymore than he likely knows himself. In sparring, trying to predict your opponents next move is in fact the enemy of success. The more you try to predict, the more you move away from the present moment. It is only in the present moment, that you are able to respond, clearly, with timing and precision. When you try to predict, you are in the future that hasn’t happened yet – and as noted earlier, there really is no way of knowing what the opponent may or may not do in the next moment. While you are focusing on what he is likely to do next, you lose touch with what he is actually doing now. In this sense, the way to approach sparring mentally, is to firstly trust your training, then to stay present, and as Yoda notes, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

A lot of what surrounds prediction is fear. Fear of looking bad to others (which is a nice way of saying having your Ego bruised) or fear of making mistakes. Ironically, it is our psychological fear that often creates defeat, not the fear of actually getting physically hurt. Yoda suggests that you need to “train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” When you are able to be accepting of where you are, where winning or losing no longer drives your motivation, you suddenly are able to achieve the success you always wanted. When you focus on winning, you invariably are focused on the consequences of losing. When you let go of both, there really is only the present moment, as it unfolds, moment to moment. This is what the Samurai Togo Shigekata meant when he wrote, “one finds life through conquering the fear of death within one’s mind. Empty the mind of all forms of attachment, make a go-for-broke charge and conquer the opponent with one decisive slash.”

Attachment is a curious thing, it is as Yoda notes, “Many of the truths that we cling to depend on our point of view.” When you look closely at what you consider to be truth in your mind, how much of it can you truly, and honestly say is truth, or simply a point of view — historically wrapped, twisted fragments of thoughts, often clouded by your own insecurities, fears and desires? The truth is, if we are really honest with ourselves, much of our pain and suffering not only in sparring, but in life — is created inside ourselves, not so much what happens outside of us. When someone punches me, and it gets through, it is the story, the point of view that I tell myself about that punch getting through that will decide what happens next. As Yoda notes, “You will find only what you bring in.”

Back to, looking bad in front of others as one of our fears. Do we actually know for certain that the people, the coach etc, watching us are thinking badly of us, or is that a story we created independently in our own mind? Again, if you look closely at your mind when sparring, much of what you are trying to avoid, or convince yourself of, is your own creation. If you conquer the fear of death in your own mind by being free of your own story, then there is nothing to hook you in. You simply are as you are, free to experience the present moment unhindered by outcome. This ‘being present’ is so contrary to how we have been programmed by society, a society based on thinking of past and future as reality, that as Yoda suggests, “[Luke:] I can’t believe it. [Yoda:] That is why you fail.”

This approach to sparring (or life) is not a form of denial. I am quite aware of fear, anger, frustration etc as it arises. I am as Yoda suggests, able to name my “fear…before banish it you can.” Maybe ‘banish’ is the wrong way to describe it, I see it more as acknowledging it, and then putting it aside. It is only when fear for example is attached to a story, or a way of justifying it to myself “I am afraid because….” that ‘fear’ becomes a problem. Fear, unhinged, not tied down by a story (my ego), is simply my bodies way of keeping me safe in a fight. Again, it is this story, this continued conversation we have with ourselves, which often can consume us, that as Yoda so famously noted, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

I haven’t mentioned this word yet, but what you are trying to achieve in sparring (and especially in life) is to be more mindful. I would argue, that the single biggest change to my sparring performance, happened the day that I fully realised that being present (and not stuck in the past or future) allowed me to play my best game. It had such a dramatic effect on my sparring game (and my life) that I even was crazy enough to make it the focus of my PhD. I have already hinted on what it means to be present. But to define it more succinctly, mindfulness as Jon Kabat Zinn defines it, is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” Both in what Yoda is talking about, and what many of the Samurai noted, comes down to this mindful state.

If you take Zinn’s definition of mindfulness, all the ingredients noted by Yoda are there. And as I have written elsewhere, what I love about sparring, is that you are able to achieve this state of mind in the midst of someone trying to punch you in the face. As most of my students, and I agree, if you can do it in the ‘ring’ then applying, and achieving mindfulness in life, seems a whole lot easier. But getting it right isn’t easy either in life, and especially in sparring. It takes practice, and with this practice,“You must unlearn what you have learned.” Spend today just noticing where your mind is at. What you will realise if you can be present with your mind long enough, is that most of your day (and even your dreams) is spent anywhere but in the moment. Part of being more mindful both in sparring and life, is starting with the awareness of how mindless you actually are.


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