In this article we will look at the mind as it relates to the acquisition of new skills and movements. Movement, after all, is handled by the brain and nervous system, which in turn is the residence of the complex phenomenon we call the ‘mind’.
It is our brains and nervous systems that give rise to our ability to move in complex ways and also our brains that allow us to retain good movement habits once they are learned. Further, it is our minds that harbour the awareness, consciousness and control of such things. Indeed, some people theorize that movement diversity is the reason for humans developing such large and complex brains and such inquisitive and probing minds, regardless, I think we can agree that without a nervous system or mind to control it, the methods of the martial artist would not exist.
In the Animal kingdom we are somewhat of an anomaly. We are not the best sprinters, not the best climbers and not the best swimmers, however, we are able to perform a truly expansive array of tasks with a general level of competence. It is this generality that makes us relatively unique in the animal kingdom, after all a cheetah can’t swim nor dolphin climb a tree, yet we can do both.
Our ability to move in complex ways and utilize a wide variety of motions is what makes the human animal one of the ultimate ‘generalists’. Perhaps nowhere is this diversity more apparent than in the myriad styles of martial arts from around the world. From the crawling, complex animal mimicry of a Silat expert to the brutal simplicity of the Thai Fighter, the realm of the martial arts contains nearly every way in which a Human can move.
It is the ability of the human to move with general capability that makes this variety possible. After all, anyone, from any corner of the globe, can train in any martial art, and even master it!
It is this skew towards general movement rather than specialisation, and the unique way in which our brains are wired to acquire new movements that can be taken advantage of via concentrated training methods. We are hard wired to develop movement competencies that we deem important and with dedicated practice, any movement can be made to feel important.
How we learn.
Skill can be split into two general categories, those that are short lived and must be constantly practiced retaining, and those that remain with us for life even when not practiced. For example, when you learn how to ride a bike or swim your body, understanding the importance of not falling off a bike, or drowning, will hold onto those skills for the rest of your life. Even after 10 years, never touching a bike or getting in the pool, you will still be able to ride or go for a swim.
With many other physical endeavours this is not the case and it is difficult to re-create the conditions where by skills have this ‘burnt in’ quality. Often it is the skills where unconscious competence is obtained (often under conditions of stress or serious consequence), that will remain with the person, as is the case with riding a bike where, once learnt, you no longer have to ‘think’ about how to balance, turn the peddles or direct the bike around a corner.
Neuroscientists at the University of Aberdeen have identified a key nerve cell that controls the formation of motor skills, such as cycling or eating with utensils.
They discovered that one particular type of nerve cell –the so called molecular layer interneuron - acts as a "gatekeeper", controlling the electrical signals that leave the cerebellum. Molecular layer interneurons transform the electrical signals into a language that can be laid down as a memory in other parts of the brain.
Dr Peer Wulff, who led the research in Aberdeen together with Prof. Bill Wisden at the University's Institute of Medical Sciences, said: "What we were interested in was finding out how memories are encoded in the brain. We found that there is a cell which structures the signal output from the cerebellum into a particular code that is engraved as memory for a newly learned motor skill. "
It could pave the way for advancements in prosthetic devices to mimic normal brain functions, which could benefit those who have suffered brain disorders, such as a stroke or multiple sclerosis.
Excerpt from Aberdeen University News Jul 2009
Similarly, there is a familiar situation among martial arts ‘competitors’ that emerges. Anyone that coaches a group of athletes some of whom compete will note that the competitors will often acquire a higher level of skill than their counterparts in a shorter level of time. They are putting themselves in situations where the body believes it is in danger an therefore prioritises the skillsets needed to survive. It is the understanding of the stress of the fight that enforces the backs up the skills searched for by the body.
It is in this fertile ground of struggle, framed within the real understanding of consequence, that we can begin to acquire skills, the trick is making them as permanent as possible, making them habits. One of the ways in which we can achieve this is to train with the majority of ‘success’ in any method remaining just out of our grasp. This is the process of targeted struggle which keeps the mind reaching for and burning in the process of acquiring a given skill.
When we employ movement complexity with Targeted struggle we produce a fertile environment for the acquisition and maintenance of a new skill, especially in the martial arts. This approach does not fit the ‘cookie cutter’ method found in many martial arts schools. It required direct and targeted coaching that is specific to the individual in question, but can produce extremely useful results quickly.
Once good movement skill is burned into the individual it becomes a habit. This provides a very real challenge for the coach who has succeeded in embedding good habits themselves as they will very often struggle to physically demonstrate the ‘wrong’ way, once the right way is engrained.
Engrained habits can manifest as the ability to recall forms they may have not trained for 20 years with little trouble. Because the general body method burned in, it is almost ‘natural’ to move through a long-lost form with correct method and focus.
This ability to create a trained naturalness in our body method is at the core of a Martial System I have had some contact with known as Ziranmen. One of this styles inheritors, Serge Augier, a Taoist Arts Adept and Lineage holder once said to me:
“The ease with which you pick up new, complex movements, is directly related to your level of internal development”
Here, internal development refers to the body/mind unit and how well connected they are. It is a process from inherent ‘inability’ to natural ‘ability’. An acquisition of skill through targeted and dedicated training methodologies.
From ‘Unskilled’ to ‘Skilled’
There is a process that describes the path from ‘unskilled’ to ‘skilled’ which I would like to introduce here. It is a process identified in Psychology that describes this process through the lens of mental capability and its relationship to our competence.
The process is as follows :
Stage 1 : Unconscious incompetence.
In this stage we are simply unaware that we are unable to move or perform correctly in a given task. The Mind is largely not involved in the action.
Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence
This is the stage that most beginners inhabit. It is the position where we are aware that we are performing a given task incorrectly. The mind is aware of the errors in the action
Stage 3: Conscious Competence
Here, when we concentrate we are able to perform given tasks correctly. The mind is heavily involved in the action.
Stage 4: Unconscious Competence
Here is the level of Mastery of the given task. We are performing something correctly without thought. The conscious mind is largely uninvolved in the action.
The road from unconscious incompetence > unconscious competence for most martial artists is one that, along the way, engrains and burns in specific skillsets. I have seen this in my own training and my coaching of Brazilian JiuJitsu Athletes. It is one of the few Martial Arts where the division between grades is often stark and clear. As you move up through the grades you see the various levels of competence emerge.
White belts are often unaware of the flaws in their technique or movement. Blue Belts are often aware of their flaws and working hard to resolve them. Purple belts are generally moving correctly with the right focus and are beginning to run on the ‘autopilot’ of stage 4. Brown belts are generally in stage 4 for most techniques, or are building towards that position, then finally the Black Belts are unconsciously competent, able to perform freely and swiftly with little thought.
Initially, however almost all people will be moving in a way that is at odds with themselves, agonist and antagonist muscles will not be in harmony and aches, excessive force, strange disharmonious joint articulations and pains will result after strenuous training sessions.
But over time we begin to find the ‘sweet spot’ in every movement, where there is a balance between the various efforts of the body, focuses of the mind and alignments of the frame. During this final phase (stage 4) people will talk of the practice becoming like a ‘moving meditation’ or a flow state, because the mind is no longer pre-occupied with forcing the body into unfamiliar or demanding positions.
No Mind – The State of Unconscious Competence
The highest level is not in the complexity of forms or the speed at which the adept can move, instead it is the ability to move in accordance with Trained Naturalness without having to consciously adhere to it. This ability creates a type of movement that is simply ‘correct’, it is correct for the moment the adept finds themselves in, it is correct in that it adheres to the bio-mechanical ideals of their particular martial art and it is correct in that it requires no fore thought or force of will to achieve.
Indeed, when the highly trained Martial Artist does anything, from walking to the local store, to lifting a box, to sparring with their peers, the body will move in accordance with the principles and methods that they have embedded.
Central to this ‘correct’ movement is the idea of method without thought. This concept is known in the Japanese systems as ‘Mushin’ which translates as ‘No Mind’ and is one of the more difficult concepts for the beginner or new student to understand. For the beginner every motion they learn in the martial arts is challenging or requires varying degrees of mental focus to achieve as we have seen in steps 1 and 2 above. The question is often asked, ‘How can you do something if you don’t think about it??’
Creating Unconscious Competence.
Before the ability to move and act with no-mind (or Unconscious Competence) is achieved we must first have a body capable of performing appropriately for the situation presented. I have outlined in many of my other articles how the techniques of the MartialBody system directly aim towards this goal. Suffice to say, all of the major martial arts have the re-training of the body’s natural capabilities as a fundamental goal. This training is often to engrain and ‘hardwire’ the specific attributes or qualities of the style so that, when called upon, not matter what the movement, the exponent moves in accordance with the styles core principles.
I like to use the very well-known term ‘Second nature’ to describe this process. Through training, the correct motion becomes ‘Second nature’ to the exponent. The first nature being their untrained state, the second nature being their trained state.
As the beginner struggles valiantly through methods and movements that may be difficult to achieve, their brain will be forming new pathways and connections to attempt to make the movement easier. The more we train the movement, the more importance we place on it and struggle with it, the more the brain will try to strengthen these connections. To begin with the connections are like an electrical wire with very little insulation around it, as signal travels down the wire, some of the information is lost. But the more you train, the more the body lays insulation around this wire (a substance called Myelin) and the stronger the signal becomes. Soon the requirement of the movement is clear and very easy for the Brain to manage and the movements become automatic. The once un-natural movement, although still unusual and complex is now natural. The individual has moved from Conscious Incompetence to Unconscious Competence.
The brains ability to recognize and ingrain complex movement patterns will ultimately mean that simple movement patterns are far easier for the brain to recognize and perform. The layering of complex skills over time will result in the individual having a far more refined general movement quality and this can be seen when the person is walking, running, sitting or trying new methods. They have a ’Quality’ to their movement even if a movement is completely new to them. This is the MartialBody and is the Unconscious Competence State that we are focused on achieving represents the final phase of the MartialBody System, the FluidBody.
Flow state is closely linked to the unconscious competence or no-mind state. It is a place in which someone is entirely absorbed in the moment and moving correctly in accordance with the situation. Within the frame of motion or movement it is the state in which the person is not in a planning mindset but is present in the now; and their movement is reflective of this. In essence it enables the practitioner’s movement to be ‘correct’ based on the conditions which are presented. Some internal arts like I Liq Chuan have a deep foundation in this idea with ‘Awareness’ the core tenant of the art.
Far from being a modern term or concept, the idea of ‘flow state’ has been present in the arts of life and death for many hundreds of years. In the classic text the Unfettered Mind, Takuan Soho describes how if a thought arises in the mind of a swordsman, if he were to think of doing this or that, then he would fail. The thought would interrupt the correct course of thing’s; it would block the flow of the encounter. My Daito Ryu JuJutsu Teacher would call this dwelling in the correct point of the interaction, ‘The Absolute moment in time’.
When we look at the 6 commonly accepted characteristics of flow we can see how advantageous this state may be to the martial artist.
- Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
- Merging of action and awareness
- A loss of reflective self-consciousness
- A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
- A distortion of temporal experience, one's subjective experience of time is altered
- Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience
When a practitioner zooms in on the present moment, with a heightened state of awareness of the exact situation as it is with no fore or post planning there is a seamless union between thought and movement. These two attributes are no longer separated because of decision making. The ‘self’ fades to a tiny point as the body/mind is in complete harmony with the now and the situation presented before them.
Flow state produces a sort of ‘fluidity’ in the exponent, one which is present in the mind and the body. The mind is flowing and fluid, and the body is free to fit into any situation, like water filling any vessel. This is the FluidBody of MartialBody and is something we will look more deeply into in later articles.