Consciousness is a fascinating subject, and the subject of many contradicting theories. A recent article entitled How the light gets out, generated quite some buzz (meaning: I saw it in multiple social network streams). The article is quite long, but presents some interesting ideas, notably that consciousness might not just be a side-effect of our brains, but a specialisation of our attention and help projecting ourselves on other beings and even objects. I like the idea that consciousness is not a bug of our intellect, but the model of our perception of the universe.
While consciousness is a defining feature of humanity and something useful, it is not without side-effects. We spend a good part of our childhood and our studies learning consciousness and thought, yet the fact of the matter is that we humans are really efficient when that consciousness is toned down, nearly anything can be killed by over-thinking.
So we strive to get back to a more natural state of mind, the flow, which is basically the state of a young kid playing, but this is the one thing we were never taught: during one’s study, courses of non-thinking are rare, I was lucky to get some yoga while in high-school, but this was pretty exceptional in those days. Generally we were taught to think more, not less.
While yoga was interesting for me, I felt it was too passive, and I need some form of sport, so I settled on Aikidō. I tried other martial arts, shōlin-ji kempō while I lived in Japan, and some karate at work. My main problem with theses arts was that they rely a lot on 型. A kata is a sequence of moves that you learn, a mock fight against an invisible adversary. Because there is no adversary, the moves are not linked to any external input, except maybe somebody counting, so you body has to learn the full sequence, in the correct order, without switching sides. This is hard for me and requires concentration, thinking.
Aikidō has few kata, in my dōjō they are mostly about body moves (and short) and some sword techniques. For the rest, you do the technique with a partner, an uke so the techniques are about something you body can feel and react to: your partner. What technique you should do is pretty implicit in the context, and if once in a while you do the wrong one, people are very gracious about it. Even when doing shōlin-ji kempō, an aikidō technique would slip out, the teacher’s comment was insightful: 体が覚える – the body remembers.
The notion of not consciously doing a technique, but just let the body do the right thing is far from new, Musashi mentions it in the book of five rings as the technique of no-technique. Many martial art teachers have repeated to me the same concept in one form or another.
A key aspect of martial art techniques is that they are supposed to work even when I’m busy panicking. Thankfully I never had to verify this in a fight, but when falling from the bike, they just happen. This is why I think that mock fights, 乱取り, are important: this is the moment when the brain must switch off from the tactical problem and learn to think in strategical terms, i.e. figure out where the adversaries are, and not concentrate on the techniques.