Training happens in the brain, and in my experience, the biggest barriers to training exist between a student’s ears. One of the most common problems I have seen (and experienced myself), is the tendency to stop and make judgements when things aren’t going well. For example, I’m practising my still-imperfect mandritto fendente, as part of the Farfalla di Ferro. I make a noticeable mistake, so I stop, berate myself (“you bloody fool, couldn’t swing a sword through a wet paper bag, come on, what kind of idiot are you?”) and then get back to practising.
Or for another example: I’m fighting someone for real. I get hit but am not dead. So I stop fighting back, and start criticizing myself for getting hit. Meanwhile my assailant keeps hitting me.
Do you see the problem? Do you ever do this? I have seen this problem so severely ingrained in a student that he actually stopped in the middle of the class and hit himself three times in the head for making the mistake, about five times a session, three sessions a week, until I trained it out of him. This corrective technique has never once in the history of mankind ever been shown to work.
So what does?
At its core, the mistake is allowing your attention to be taken off what you are doing, and on to what you were doing. This is followed by an emotional reaction to the mistake or imperfection, which locks your attention on to what you have done. This is the very opposite of mindful presence. But because it is disguised as paying attention to what you are doing, because you are indeed paying close attention to what you have done, it can feel like something you should do. And if you are not alone at the time, it can feel like you need to indicate to everyone else that you have noticed the mistake. The social pressure to do this is actually quite severe. But think on this: it’s not them that need to fix the mistake, so bringing it to their attention does nobody any favours. If they are not well trained, they haven't spotted the mistake anyway, and if they are, they will be less impressed by your reaction than they would have been by your dispassionate correction of it next time the opportunity arises.
The trick is to notice the mistake dispassionately, and calmly correct it next time round. It should not break your flow, not so much as a flicker of a frown should cross your brow. There should be no emotional reaction clouding your ability to actually enact the correction. Noticing something and reacting to it are two completely different things.
This is a skill, and can therefore be trained. Here’s how:
- Set up an exercise in which you know you’ll make a natural error. Do a form a bit faster than usual, or do a pair drill at a level of complexity that challenges you.
- Knowing that a mistake is coming, decide that when it does you will notice it but not react.
- Pay attention to your emotional state. When the error arises, spot your reaction. Just notice it, and don’t interfere.
- Keep running this exercise, the point of which is to practice noticing mistakes without judging them. If this is a common problem for you, then every training drill you do should be done as a way of generating natural errors for you to practice noticing without judging.
Beating yourself up about mistakes simply reinforces the mistake. Noticing them dispassionately allows you to correct them much more quickly and easily. It took my head-bashing student several months to change the habit; because his case was so severe, I had him replace the head-bashing with push-ups to change his reaction before getting rid of it altogether. This worked quite well, and no doubt saved him many brain cells.
The image at the top of this post is of Justice, from the “Allegory of Good and Bad Governance” by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, in the Palazzo Publico, Sienna. I saw it last year, and was swept away. Notice that Judgement is necessary, and must distinguish between Good and Evil. But she is calmly seated, dispensing Justice even-handedly. Think on this.
I’m writing this on Wednesday March 30th, and will be flying off to Seattle on the 31st when it goes live. I’ll check in with the comments and whatnot in a couple of days. Looking forward to seeing my Seattle chaps soon! I’m then popping down to visit Sean Hayes in Eugene on Monday, before spending a couple of days in Chicago with Nicole Allen and Greg Mele on my way home. I travel a lot, and yet spend far too little time with my far-flung friends. I’m making a deliberate effort to change that. If you're in any of those cities, I hope to see you too!