So often in class we are told to “stop thinking”. However, I hold the following opinion: nobody can stop thinking. Unless they die. Well, maybe some Buddhist monks and cloistered Catholic nuns can get close, after several decades of practice, but most of us can’t. Monkey mind and all that. So, I think teachers tell their students to stop thinking for a few reasons:
1) They believe students can truly stop or reduce the amount of cognitive activity
2) They are using a shorthand comment for something else
It seems to me that teachers don’t actually believe they can measure their students’ brain activity, and even if they could, most wouldn’t want to reduce it! So, I believe that option #2 above is more probable. Teachers rely on an abbreviated statement ‘stop thinking’ to denote a much larger statement (whether this is weak thinking on the teacher’s part is another discussion!). Perhaps some better translations of the wisdom that teachers are trying to communicate are:
- Taijutsus Interruptus – Stop interrupting your movement in the middle of a technique to dissect things. A good uke should take swift and definitive advantage of it.
- The Dog and His Reflection – Stop degrading the quality of your movement by whipping your head around to see if you are doing it right. Because that makes it wrong.
- Paralysis by Analysis – Stop analyzing each technique taking only intermittent breaks to actually train.
- Stop worrying about details – That you are missing the millions of details is not as important as that you are missing big, important things.
- Don’t judge – Stop judging the quality of your movement. It’s not good, and everyone knows it, so no reason to announce it. Constantly.
Each of these has different implications. All of them may apply to you. So, what are some good habits one can adopt to “stop thinking”?
1) Follow through – Once the uke attacks (punches, kicks, grabs, strikes, chokes, etc.), it’s game on. Finish the entire technique with a smooth, even flow at the timing or pace that you are comfortable with, and can think through. Even if you are performing a technique badly, complete whatever is happening at the time.
2) Reduce your reliance on sight – Use your proprioception to sense where your body is in space, rather than your eyes. Wobble boards, balance beams, etc. can be useful in improving your ability to know your body’s location in space. Also, try training with your eyes closed, or look directly at the uke at all times.
3) Repetition – When in class, train. Tai (body) jutsu not Atama (head) jutsu. Ultimately, the goal is for natural and reflexive movements. Therefore it’s critical that you invest your time in actual training, and not trying a technique 3 times and then (over) analyzing what happened, how other ryu might have done it, how you felt, what Gogyo element most matched the technique, etc. Monday morning quarterbacking, if developed into an ingrained habit, could get you killed, and will annoy your training partner.
4) Put the big rocks in first – Don’t worry so much about the details. We’ve all gotten confused about the beginning of a technique due to our focus on the POW! end. Instead, get the basic gross movements right. Shiraishi sensei ingrained in me the mantra: first feet, then hips, then spine, then hands. One of the profound beauties of this art is that getting the right distance, angle, and timing right renders the POW! moment often immemorable due to its obviousness. We all have enjoyed that moment, as uke, when one is overcome with an extreme vulnerability in a technique when the tori is at the right distance and angle. “Thinking” about whether the punch was a koppoken or fudoken, while interesting, is simply not as important as the foundations of the art.
5) Reduce Performance Anxiety – Rather than thinking or making drama-laden comments like “I suck”, “I’ll never get this”, “I can’t believe I am still so bad”, etc., invest that time in assessing your position, your distance, and your angle. Find the kihon and the kamae in the technique, and focus on that. Avoid self-assessment within any realm larger than that particular technique and that particular moment, especially during training. Feel free to discuss how much you suck after class, over tea.
The concepts described above are different faces of the same prism. Peering in each of them, one finds the true cost of ‘thinking’; namely, removing your focus from the current moment. Martial arts are most effective and beautiful when we are reacting in the present moment. All ‘thinking’ is a wedge between the moment in which you exist and the moment in which you are aware.
Over the years I’ve noticed that senior practitioners struggle with this less than beginning and intermediate students. While one might think that this is because they are better and have less to worry about, I think the causal arrows actually go the other way: by letting go of the moment, by reducing the behaviors described above, one truly improves. This concept is certainly consonant with what we constantly hear from our teachers, in so many words.
So, when your teacher tells you to “stop thinking”, consider the ways in which you have let self-analysis, self-judgment, and self-pity cloud what should be a laser focus on the basics, and the present.