Monday, January 4, 2016

Simplifying Complex Commonalities

An Essay of Analysis and Understanding

Sensei recently assigned an exercise to write a paper connecting an abstract thought to physical technique.  We were given a list of excerpts to choose from which would be the basis for our paper.  I selected the following excerpt.
If a system is created, affected, or destroyed by an exchange of polar opposites, then we must examine like effects in similar systems.  If in standard striking arts it is accepted that a curved attack is best countered by a straight defense and vice-versa, then we must examine the representative concept in non-striking arts.  If there are exceptions to this concept, we must likewise search them out in like systems.  If we can break systems down to the physical, mental, and philosophical concepts, then many systems become the same.  That which increases our focus in a punch also increases our focus in a throw, a kick, a cut, or communication.  The action, while we can see and feel and measure it, is less important to the properly trained mind than the law that governs it.  When systems become the same, a difference that makes no difference is no difference.
The paragraph instantly reminded me of a famous quote made by Bruce Lee when talking of Jeet Kune Do and how it was born of simplicity.
Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I've understood the art, a punch is just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. The height of cultivation is really nothing special. It is merely simplicity; the ability to express the utmost with the minimum.
I believe that I could write a book on how this idea correlates many facets of life (sports, musical instruments, computer science, wood working, relationship building, etc.) but that's not the assignment.  The assignment is to describe how this idea pertains to physical, martial techniques.  Therefore, in the next few paragraphs, I shall do just that.

I will begin by breaking down the excerpt into the ideas that it contains.  There are two main concepts to be covered here; simplicity and commonality in techniques and systems.

All martial arts systems share commonalities.  Breaths, stances, strikes, and blocks are the basic building blocks for any martial art system regardless of whether they are internal or external, hard or soft, combat or sport systems.  If we analyze the various systems and distill their syllabus of techniques we will discover that it's not the details of technique that make systems different.  Their differences lie only in the way in which techniques are expressed in movement.  These expressions are become the focal point of each system.

However, if we analyze the common expressions of movement in various systems and overlay them on each other, we will discover a way in which each set of mechanics will flow together in harmony.  We can then enact the philosophy of yin and yang, complementary opposites, to develop movements that chain techniques from various systems into a singular expression... an expression that can exist outside of any martial arts system.

Strikes in Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Kung Fu, Tai Chi, and even when using simple weapons have the same basic principles; root oneself in a stable position, maintain soft and elastic muscle tension until the last moment, and transfer full-body power into the target at the strike zone.  Only the expression of movements from one technique to another differs between the systems.

For an untrained person, punching is simply punching and kicking is simply kicking.  There is no thought to the movement; the technique is just executed without understanding.  When a person first begins to study an art it is made clear that there is much more to a punch and a kick than just swinging your hands and feet.  A punch in karate is only properly executed from a proper stance, with a properly formed fist, with properly aligned knuckles and forearm.  Power is achieved from proper transfer of energy from the feet to the hips to the shoulder to the elbow to the fist and ultimately into the target.  Perfection of that technique comes only when proper muscle control is used to make sure that the muscles in the arms and hands do not prematurely fatigue and can still tighten to take full advantage of the impact force.  These are only a few of the details that must be analyzed and understood to create a punch in any martial arts system.  A similar list of mechanics can be written about any strike, any kick, any block, or any transition from one stance to another.

Students train these precise mechanics over and over again to perfect each individual detail.  After years of training, when a full understanding of each separate mechanic is achieved, all of the components of a technique are committed to muscle memory.  Only then may a state of mindlessness be reached whereby all of the complexity of what a technique is becomes a natural phenomenon rather than a detailed, mechanical checklist.  At this point a punch is, once again, just a punch and a kick, again, just a kick.

If we step back and take a look at both of these concepts (commonality and simplicity) at a macro perspective, we can see that, regardless of the precise mechanics in a technique or a system, we can apply the same analysis and understanding to all.  We can simplify the complex commonalities between each system; blur the lines of difference; and, as Bruce Lee said, "express the utmost with the minimum" in our own training.