It is remarkably easy to provoke people into attempting to explain things that they do not understand. Such games have become a staple of late-night talk shows and comedy routines. I think of Rick Mercer’s “Talking to Americans”, Jimmy Kimmel’s “Can you name a country”, or the Jaye Leno’s “Jaye Walking.”
Think also of most arguments on social media.
Perhaps there is something about human nature that makes us willing to place unwarranted faith in our own understanding, and to aver an intellectual assent toward things we know nothing about.
This can make for great comedy, and also lead unnecessary conflict and, hence, to horrible tragedy. It is amazing to see the historic willingness of people to believe fictions that would send their young people to war.
Religious practices and science are both plagued by the prevalence of misinterpretations by the uninitiated. There are people who profess an unwavering believe in something that they do not understand. These students often become the representative for their faiths.
Think of the person professing a deep and abiding belief in science, who cannot describe scientific method, or Newton’s laws of motion. Would you ask this person to explain thermodynamics?
Think of the devote Christian who believes that Jesus wrote the bible. Would you ask that person to explain the divine mystery?
The same, of course, can apply to martial arts. There are many people with at least a simple understanding of martial arts. But there are far more people who have no understanding beyond what they have seen in kungfu movies or sporting events. Can you guess who is more confident in their understanding?
The disagreements between proponents of different styles usually only exist among novices and the uninitiated. Likewise, disagreements between science and religion usually occur between people who have only a superficial understanding of both.
For science to dismiss religion is to ignore the fact that humans appear to have evolved to be religious. Religion is both deep and profound. But few people actually treat it as such. Science is both deep and profound. But very few people have more than the shallowest understanding of it. To ridicule religion based on the level of understanding possessed by the average follower seem little shallow. Likewise, to ridicule String Theory based on an explanation given by an average teenager, is also unfair.
I find it necessary to point out that I don’t think that under-informed people are stupid. On the contrary, I find that the more I learn, the stupider I become. But it took me a long time to realize that. Sometimes, it takes some extraordinarily brilliant thinking to come to an erroneous conclusion.
A little bit of knowledge can be a very dangerous thing. But a little bit of authority can be devastating. I submit, for your consideration, the success of Flat Earth propaganda. A few short decades ago, the Flat Earth Theory was mostly seen as an entertaining exercise in dialectics. It was like listening to bored astronomers sitting around their telescopes one cloudy night arguing about whether the moon was made of blue cheese or green cheese. Both knew it was not made of cheese. But the arguments grew increasingly compelling until the mouldy dawn had them both agreeing that it was Epoisse cheese, and that that was why it was kept 384 400 km away.
The thing about the Flat Earth Theory is that the arguments, which started out fairly simply, began to grow in complexity as more people got into the game. When people started to explain Flat Earth models using gravitational constants, General Relativity, and laws of thermodynamics, then it started sounding a lot smarter to more and more people. Non-scientists were entranced by the apparent science behind the theory. They accepted the authority of the scientific arguments, not being scientists themselves.
It seems that we might sometimes be more willing to believe that which we do not understand, and sometimes be less willing to understand what we believe.
Once we have selected a belief, that is to say “chosen a team,” we can be fiercely loyal to what limited understanding we might have. We will gladly abdicate responsibility for doing our own homework in favour of quoting an expert of our choosing.
The problem is that we often feel as if we have to choose between faith in authority or believe in ourselves. But, thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that simple.
There is a sentence that is as useful to religion as it is to science. It is a simple declaration that can be used as a powerful tool for expanding our understanding of ourselves and the Universe. That sentence is, “I don’t know.”
This sentence is the foundation of martial art training, and is essential to the application of strategy, tactics, and technique. In the heat of combat, only the most skilled are able to accept that they don’t know what is going to happen next. Those who fail to accept that will be doomed to respond inappropriately 99% of the time.
When we learn a martial art, we start by submitting to the authority of our teachers. We trust that their knowledge is greater than ours and that their motivation is pure. But as we progress, we are required to take more and more responsibility for our own art. We must investigate our methods scientifically, and examine ourselves honestly. We must transcend style. We must decide for ourselves what is useful for us and what we will choose to discard or modify. Too much faith in our teachers or our style is as bad as being satisfied with our own understanding.
No one is more proud of their own level of understanding than a beginner who has just scratched the surface. [see Dunning-Kruger effect]
I remember a conversation I had with a Catholic Priest. He was an experienced martial artist and meditator who had spent years in a cloister. He suggested that most Christians pray in a way that is, shall we say, imperfect. He said that what they do is more like talking to themselves than talking to God. He felt that they speak to a construct of their own mind and personality, and fail to surrender to the mystery of the divine. He was addressing a great challenge of religion, which is to accept ignorance of the divine as a starting point.
I suggested that this might be just as well, since few have the support or resources to enter into the sort of deep contemplation of a cloister. There are, likewise, many exercises in martial art traditions that are best practised in a mountain cave, far from the madding crowd and the barking of dogs, and closer to fellow hermits who know the path.
My friend, the friar, was a regular participant in what we called “The Blasphemy Game.” This is when a group of us, all from different religions, would see how long we could talk about religion before the others could accuse them of blasphemy. A skilled player could go on almost indefinitely. Less skilled players would get caught in predictable traps.
“What do you think God is like?”
“Well, first of all, she’s black.”
Scientists can play variations of this game, too. There is “The Logical Fallacy Game”, or “The Underdetermination Game,” or the more complex “Cognitive Bias Game.”
My point is that there can be tragic comfort in knowing, chaos in understanding, and danger in thinking.
In combat, we should be careful to never believe what we think. The moment that we think we know what the opponent is doing, we trap ourselves in that moment. That act of thinking attaches us to a universe of our imagination, and separates us from the reality of the moment. The human mind has a poor track record for discerning the difference between what we are thinking about and what is actually happening. A memory or a prediction, real or imagined, is a current event, in so far as the mind is concerned.
The result is that if we think we know where the punch is coming from, then our thinking allows the opponent to kick our kidney.
The thinking mind remembers patterns, and tries to re-enact past events because they worked before, or almost worked. But in combat, a past event might be less likely to work again, precisely because it has worked before. The enemy has seen it.
The thinking mind also expresses our deeply ingrained personal characteristics, our thought patterns, and our physical habits. Those patterns telegraph our intent and lock us into predetermined paths of action.
There are thousands of different styles of martial art, just as there are thousands of religious denominations. The style of martial art that we practice can also tend to become an article of faith. We start learning the style because we were impressed with it in the past, and we remain devoted to it for the foreseeable future. To break faith with the style would seem like sacrilege, and foolish.
But the style is designed to be transcended. That is how it came into existence in the first place. Each style is the result of the transcendence of a previous style.
If your style is like a canoe, then you can paddle it across the water and portage it across the land, and put it in another river. But if your style is a yacht, you will remain a prisoner of one river, or be left without a boat. The style should be a means to adaptation, not a trap.
During martial art training, you commit to practising a technique until you can make it work, or until you learn to make its failure work for you. However, if you are in a real fight, and you commit to a technique, and it doesn’t work, then your survival will depend on your ability to betray that commitment.
The technique you use may instantly become useless as the opponent adapts. So, the key is to develop the art of abandoning techniques. As each technique is surrendered, principles and methods begin to emerge that defy any attempt to make predictions.
Belief in a style, a technique, a theory, or a religion, can be a prison. But it does not have to be. If you have faith in yourself, the courage to seek the truth, the willingness to look for the answers, and the tolerance for new questions, then you can explore farther (and further), stand more firmly, and feel free to face the mystery.