‘Taking steps is easy, standing still is hard.’ Regina Spector.
Karate is as easy as falling off a log. It really is. But what’s involved in falling from a log?
Well, you just fall off. Don’t you?
No. Because if you intentionally fall off, you’ve actually jumped off. Jumping isn’t falling.
There’s an alternate question: How do you stay on a log?
Well, that’s a lot easier to answer. You stay on a log by allowing a whole raft of internal biological mechanisms do their jobs. Your inner ear , in partnership with your eyes, senses your position and movement relative to your environment. Proprioception tells you where your limbs are, and how they are moving, whether the log is unstable and wobbly, or slippery.
Some of this sensory information doesn’t even make it to the conscious mind. An automatic response called ideomotor action controls automatic fine muscle movements that micro-correct our balance on this slippery, wobbly log.
Ideomotor action is what causes you to flick the light switch as you walk into a room, even though you know the bulb has failed. Ideomotor action is the ‘spirit’ that moves the glass on a Ouija Board. The players absolutely are moving the glass. They just aren’t doing it consciously.
Just standing up and standing still on a flat and level surface involves constant muscular adjustment and readjustment. It’s no wonder lying down on a flat surface feels so good; it’s the only time everything can actually, totally, relax.
Some of the wobbles are too coarse to automatically correct, and their information gets fed up to the conscious brain. The conscious brain is only really any good at things at which it has had practice. Likely, the first time you stand on the log you’ll fall off pretty much straight away anyway. But, you see, that isn’t good enough. You have to fall off in just the right way.
So, back up on the log with you. And stand there properly this time.
Practice indeed makes perfect. As you repeat a task, over and over, brain cells rearrange themselves to better accommodate the neural activity required to successfully do that task, from threading a needle, to sitting at a desk typing, to balancing on a log, the more you do something, the better you get at it; it becomes hard-wired into your brain and ideomotor action is able to take over more and more of the process.
If you do it often enough and long enough, eventually the act of standing on the log is second nature. So now we’re completely happy on the log, standing there, stable and serene.
Now, fall off.
No. You totally jumped off again. Get back on the log.
Jumping off takes a physical effort, initiated by conscious thought. Falling happens naturally. Stop thinking about falling and…fall.
In ‘Zen in the Art of Archery’ the author, Eugen Herrigel, struggles with this puzzle. How is it possible to take action of any kind without conscious thought or decision?
A drawn bow is similar to a well made karate stance. The tension between string and stave, skeleton and tendons, holds the potential energy that translates to the flight of the arrow and movement of the technique. Hesitation, or snatching, on release robs the projectile (arrow or fist) of some of its energy.
After some months of being reprimanded by his Master, Herrigel discovered something. If the fingers holding the string are gradually relaxed, eventually the string slips free and the arrow flies. Excited, thinking he had found the solution, Herrigel hurried to his Master and showed him, releasing an arrow smoothly, and not a little smugly.
The Master sat forward, watching intently. ‘Do that again,’ he demanded.
Eagerly, Herrigel complied. The Master watched again. After the arrow had flown, the Master opened his fan, turned away from Herrigel and began to calmly pour tea.
Stunned, Herrigel stumbled out. The Master’s simple action of turning his back told Herrigel something he had not expected; that his Master was extremely angry, and no longer wished to teach him.
It was some weeks before Herrigel persuaded the Master, via intermediaries, that he had not intentionally been trying to cheat, but had sincerely felt that he may have found the way, and to allow him to return as a student.
The arrow must fall from the bow as an apple falls from a tree; instantly and completely, without effort or initiation. The apple tree neither slowly releases its grip on the apple, nor deliberately throws it out; at precisely the right moment, the apple…just falls.
This is what we are seeking with our log-falling antics. Slowly relaxing and leaning over until you fall is a conscious effort just as much as jumping, albeit slower.
What we’re talking about here is a physical and mental self-discipline. Physical, because we must train until our bodies are comfortable and relaxed at the very limit of balance, so near to falling that simply releasing that discipline allows the fall to occur; mental because we must train until our minds are calm and clear, recognising and responding to the perfect moment of release without the need for a conscious initiation.
So we’re pretty well back to ideomotor action again, but more refined and controlled. An ingrained action that happens regardless of subtle changes in the environment can merely waste time and energy (as when we automatically flick a switch which connects to a dead bulb), or be a catastrophic mistake (as when we stamp on the brakes when we feel the car start to slide). We must keep a level of awareness that allows us to fall from the log at the exact moment, and to refrain from doing so at the wrong moment.
This state of relaxed and calmly aware alertness, focussed on no one opponent or thing, anchored in no one strategy or plan that we seek, is zanshin, the ‘remaining mind’ after fear, anger and ego are silent. It’s true achievement is the greatest expression of budo, and, once found, allows us to fall from the log exactly when we choose, without ever making a choice.