”The first principle” said Professor Richard Feynman ”is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool”.
Rational thought is a very recent addition to the human skill set. Much older instincts and urges still drive the body from the more primitive hind and mid-brains, atop which rationality rides in the fore-brain like Horatio Hornblower transplanted to the bridge of an aircraft carrier and given the con.
It’s possible that, pace technological shock, Mr Hornblower would find enough behavioural and procedural similarities between his Navy and that of the modern-day to convince himself he really is in command of a machine he can scarcely comprehend. He’s not really of course. Not by a long way.
It’s no stretch to realise that there are plenty of processes in the body that just happen without conscious intervention; the heart beats, the liver performs many essential functions and a thousand endocrine reactions govern the moment to moment chemical management of the body. That’s a perfectly accepted and comfortable view of the body; we find it trickier, and more uncomfortable, to understand that a good deal of thinking takes place without conscious rationality being involved at all. Important thinking; formation of memories, opinions, decisions and beliefs take place almost entirely under the radar of rational thought.
This is an understanding that the rational mind does not like very much. The realisation that positions one holds -that one had previously believed one had arrived at through logical, rational consideration- are mostly derived from unconscious associations, hormonal cues and learned responses causes an acute form of psychological discomfort called cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance occurs when new information conflicts with an individual’s core beliefs. It is intensely uncomfortable, and the discomfort increases proportionally to the strength of the beliefs, and the force of the new information against them. The response of a truly rational being to this state of affairs would be to assuage the dissonance by assimilating the new information and altering their core beliefs in line with the best description of reality.
The response, however, of the scarcely rational human being is somewhat different. The conscious human mind is too new, too inexperienced, too damn teenage to use its powers of rationality in this mature way; instead it fudges and prevaricates, clinging to all manner of cognitive biases to convince itself that, in this conflict of world versus world-view, it is the world that is wrong.
In short, your brain is a bloody liar. It utilises the most complex and subtle object that we know to exist to tell itself placatory fibs; you need not face this uncomfortable truth, it says, because, look, it isn’t true at all.
It is though. And that’s why, in this state, we feel angry, embarrassed and defensive. People can be driven to really quite extreme actions to escape the sensation; Storming out of meetings and shouting at the secretary is the low-end of a spectrum that tops out at starting wars.
A few months ago, a young man who practiced a different style of karate visited our dojo. He had a black belt, and had trained for nine years, he told us proudly.
I believe he was a student recently arrived at University, and short of a dojo teaching his particular style had come to look at us. Embarrassing enough that he could not stop me in low-speed gohon kumite; worse still that he was meat for the fourteen year old 8th kyu too.
We never saw him again. Swallowing a lump of cognitive dissonance that big and hard is extraordinarily difficult. I hope sincerely that he did not just up and quit karate. That would be an extreme response; far more likely he convinced himself that his karate was just fine, that we ‘weren’t training properly’ or somehow cheating. It would be hoping for an exceptionally strong-willed person to expect him to return to us to learn what he was doing wrong.
It is often said in karate that one’s greatest enemy is oneself; in this context it is the whispering liar within that saps your will.
”You can just walk through this combination,” it says ”You could do it properly…if you need to…like when sensei is looking this way.”
”That application absolutely works,”it wheedles ”Uke absolutely didn’t help you throw him…”
”You’re a karate master,” it coos ”Bruce Lee was nothing!”
Karate is exercise for the will. To practise faithfully we must exert our will over our own bodies, from the quivering muscles protesting at a stance to the mid brain packaging those protests in appealing rationalisation. We must subject our every technique, every kata, every bow and utterance to ruthless interrogation, and not shy way from the assessment that they could be improved; not allow the instincts control again until they have learnt what is now expected of them.
The truth is harsh. By looking it boldly in the face, by defeating physical discomfort and emotional petulance with an effort of will, we advance our karate and improve ourselves.