It’s probably happened to all of us at least once. That unsettling moment when you look at a word you’ve just written and then question its spelling – even though you’ve used it countless times before – because now it appears entirely foreign. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of, upon becoming suddenly aware of being observed walking down the street, watching helplessly as your gait becomes stilted until you feel as though you’re no longer in control of your own limbs. How is it that in this split second we’re reduced to a third grade literacy level or made strangers to our own two feet? Somehow, we must have gotten in our own way.
Some mutiny deep in our brain chemistry has bumped us outside of ourselves, making us the observer instead of the actor. Instead of expressing ourselves, we find ourselves questioning the validity of our native language. We go from striding down the street to feeling like a puppet on invisible strings. When this happens in daily life, it’s a mere annoyance. When it happens in the martial arts school, it’s a valuable lesson.
The consciousness of self is the greatest hindrance to the proper execution of all physical action.
Okay, so it may be a time-worn quote, but it’s still got relevance to me. So much so, in fact, that I wish I could have it tattooed on the backs of my eyelids to continually remind myself not to let my brain get in the way of the rest of me. Over-thinking things, or wanting so fiercely to get a movement “right,” is often my greatest pitfall. While attention is important – and concentrated effort clearly necessary – in being a student of martial arts, self-consciousness has no valuable place. One would do better to try without “trying” so hard. Yup, you’ve got it: wu wei.
I begin to see an object when I cease to understand it.
-Henry David Thoreau
Several years ago, I remember those “magic eye” optical illusion art prints being popular and how many of us struggled to see the image that resolved so easily for others.
“Oh it’s a boat!”
“Yes, yes, of course it is, now I see it.”
“Do you really?”
“No, I don’t! Where’s the #%@* boat!”
It was (supposedly; I still have never truly got the hang of it) only by softening your focus that the picture would appear. Similarly, by adhering to a solely analytical “left brain” approach, one may miss the big picture in one’s marital arts practice, too.
As a beginning student, it’s natural to labor a bit over concepts and engage one’s conscious self in monitoring your movements to make sure you’ve got the right structure, alignment, energy, etc. Just like when we’re kids learning to ride our first bike, it’s necessary to develop a basic awareness of the way our feet move the pedals and understand how to make the brakes work. But at some point, it becomes less about learning the mechanics of the bike and more about all the places it can take us. That’s where the journey really begins.
Melissa Campos-Mendez is a student in the Shaolin Kung Fu division of the Academy of Martial Arts. She has practiced Shaolin, Tan Tui (Muslim Spring Leg), Saber, Staff and the rare Plum Flower (Mei Hua) Style.