Testing Times

08.11.17

In the same way that there are multiple lenses with which to view exercise, there are also many uses or purposes of testing.  In classical education tests are mostly exercises in regurgitation, where the student with the best memory is able to perform the best.  Individual sports such as running or weightlifting are also a kind of regurgitation, or mechanical performance of techniques that have been practised over and over, where the rules and the task are well known.  In such cases we may wonder what the purpose of testing or competing is.  Is it to see how well we perform under pressure, or is it primarily a means by which to judge one’s self against others?  The aspects of competition or testing in these cases are very limited, because the participants are aware of what is precisely demanded of them, and have months and sometimes years to prepare for a relatively one-dimensional performance.  Because of this I don’t see competition and testing in their traditional forms to be very beneficial for would-be competitors.

Anticipation gives us time to prepare, and the existence of structured and routinely programmed tests, especially when we are told exactly what we’ll be tested on, remove the opportunity for surprise.  It’s as if most tests have been designed for the purpose of making sure that participants fail as little as possible.

If you suddenly found yourself stranded on a desert island and had to seek shelter, build a fire and find food, that would be a test.  But if you spent months learning and practising how to start a fire, make a shelter and find food on that exact island before being left there alone, it wouldn’t be much of a test would it?  Or, at the very least, it wouldn’t be the same kind of test.

At the heart of this idea is expectation, and that if we make plans and train based on expectations we limit our options for exploration and spontaneous adaptation.  In a sense, training for a known or anticipated scenario biases us and changes the way we view the world.  As long as there is a well-defined goal there will always be a most efficient solution to reach it, which means that most testing has the effect of getting us to focus on efficiency for the sake of reaching that goal.

Professional sports is one relevant realm where the goals are clear, and where efficiency is paramount because it leads to winning more, which ultimately means more financial reward.  But outside of sport the most efficient way often strongly correlates to whatever the majority happen to be doing, as following requires no self-reflection, personal investment or creativity.

Creativity and exploration demand uncertainty which is why it can be emotionally challenging to be an explorer or artist.  Living in constant doubt and darkness takes its toll, and so the explorer must return to the comfort of familiar territory from time to time, just as long as he doesn’t build his home there and then never leave.

So the real tests are not so much the ones we choose ourselves, except when we choose to submit to the challenge of unpredictable outside forces.  It’s too easy to select challenges that don’t do much to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones, and of course we must all start somewhere, but I believe that the direction must be towards more uncertainty and a relinquishment of control.  Training for Ninja Warrior on your backyard replica course is very different from entering the competition with little or no experience of the kinds of obstacles you will encounter.

For me, a meaningful test is an adaptation or improvisational challenge that should help stimulate growth and generate new information and perspectives about one’s self and the world around us.  This is why repetitive activity, including preparation for competitions gets old quickly, because the cognitive complexity is soon reduced to a process of primarily tissue adaptation after a relatively few exposures.  Thinking on your feet becomes mere foot strengthening.

Weightlifting, even bodyweight training is like having a predictable sparring partner who just takes more and more hits to knock down over time.  The anarchic, improvisational-challenge perspective is to change partners once you discover their weaknesses and then defeat them.

The balance needed to be a successful artist is between ultimate freedom and constraint.  Freedom is exciting, wild and scary, and can present a challenge in itself for those who are unorganised or used to having things habitually handed to them on a plate.  Freedom means that you must decide the operating parameters, the goals and the means to get there.  Freedom ultimately puts you in charge of defining the constraints.  We define, explore, refine and narrow down the list of possibilities until we reach a goal, a fork in the road, or a point at which we decide to go in a completely different direction or to just stop all together.  Wherever we go or end up though, there is always a constant movement between freedom and constraint, or else we stagnate.

If we have too much freedom we do nothing; too much constraint and we do the same thing over and over again.

In this case at least, balance isn’t about finding the centre point between the two and then staying there indefinitely, it is about developing an instinct for when to move towards one or the other, and then acting upon it.

The Hidden Pathway

06.11.17

Some months ago I began writing a list of exercises for learning how to control the lumbar spine and how to differentiate between movement that originates in the hip from that of the low back.  As my list of variations grew an interesting pattern emerged: all of these exercises required and promoted “core” strength as a kind of side-effect.  I came to call this method “implicit strength training”, but at the time I hadn’t yet applied the idea elsewhere and it seemed paradoxical to think of training the core by not training it.  This concept drew awareness to the often hidden benefits to any particular set of exercises or method.

As the weeks went by, during various moment of my training I began to tune into the implicit strength aspects of what I was doing, while juggling and playing throwing and catching games I saw how I was also conditioning not just the skin on my hands but also the bones, through the repetitive impacts of catching spinning sticks and logs.

Returning to an even earlier point a couple of years ago when I wasn’t doing any type of training or exercise, I decided that without having any strong motivations for moving I would use manual labour as a point of entry, or excuse to introduce movement into my life again.  Sweeping leaves taught me a number of things that I had forgotten in my sedentary state, most importantly, that movement and physical effort or exertion were enjoyable activities in and of themselves, regardless of what outcomes they implied or lead to.  I was also reminded that for me at least, movement is often a meditative activity, I.e. one in which I am completely focused on the present moment, enjoying the different kinetic sensations that arise from any particular action.  In addition, I was aware of the strength requirements and eventual adaptations that would result from habitually moving in such a way.

Sweeping was not a mere chore that had to be finished and as quickly as possible, but it was an opportunity to benefit from an activity in multiple, non-obvious ways.  Each movement was something that could be practiced and refined if only we decided to give it our attention and deem it worthy of our time.  The irony being, that when we make the effort to give ourselves completely to whatever we may be doing we no longer wish for time to pass quicker, and we stop seeing things as being a “waste” of time or as obstacles to achieving our goals.

For Daniel, waxing cars and painting fences was a waste of time because he had wanted to learn karate, but what he didn’t realise at the time was that he was learning, and that in fact there were many such opportunities throughout the day to practice, to learn and to improve implicitly.

Just as parkour uses obstacles as tools with which to strengthen the mind and body, the implicit learning mindset takes this a step further by applying it to all activities and all obstacles, both physical and metaphorical.

What the implicit model of learning highlights is that in our attempts to decrease work and make life more efficient and convenient we successfully reduce exercise down to what we consider the bare essentials, to our own detriment.

The trend of isolating muscles in order to train them is actually a fool’s quest, because not only does the body function as a single coordinated unit both in daily life and in sport, but ironically, if we are successful in isolating  movements, NOT muscles, we call upon a much larger range of musculature to stabilise the body while one or two joints move under control. Badly executed barbell curls that resemble strange hyper-extended deadlifts are an example of someone who thinks they are isolating their biceps, but would benefit from a free ab workout among other things if true joint isolation were to be practised. Gymnastics rings offer the most difficult and purest form of controlled joint isolations imaginable, which makes the rings a great tool for practising and increasing the skill of paired stabilisation/mobilisation, and also a diagnostic tool for finding weaknesses or areas that lack necessary control.

In nature everything is experienced multi-dimensionally and has many implicit elements.  Problems begin to show up when we attempt to isolate and prise apart these elements from their intrinsic structures because in doing so we are ignoring the context in which they have grown.  If we cut off the philosophy (or fighting) from a martial art we are left with competition or meaningless movement.

As I have previously hinted at I believe that what is often referred to as the soul is actually a number of non-obvious, invisible and implied characteristics of an object, activity or being.  Martial arts minus philosophy is soulless, a person without strong guiding values, morals and purpose: soulless.  A meal from a blender or microwaved package: soulless.

In this way we could see that attempts to alter traditions whether they originate in martial arts, religions, governments or other areas of society are deeply felt threats that are more than simple challenges to beliefs and norms, but are threats to the very soul, that act on an emotional and not intellectual level.

Soullessness is simply a synonym for “there’s something important missing from this equation”, where that important thing might just be in the eye of the beholder.

I believe that soulfulness equates with wholeness, in other words, an appreciation and expression from multiple angles maximises soul, while anything isolated is soulless.  The soul needs a body to inhabit, and not just a few skin cells.

This explains another part of the internal dilemma I had about creating my own non-martial art, which was the feeling that I was somehow contributing to a less-soulful universe.  I realised that I had successfully isolated many disparate ingredients for my home-brewed concoction, and that I now needed to put them together, to create something new and above all, whole.  I needn’t have worried though, as my intention has always been to move away from efficiency and towards deeper meaning and purpose stemming from honest self-expression.

How did I do that?  How did I get here?  These are typical feelings of those who learn implicitly, and ironically it was such a question, along with a desire to know more for the sake of self-improvement and ultimately sharing my experience with others, that lead me down a long tunnel away from self-knowledge and a naturally instinctive approach to everything in life.  I learned a lot of interesting things during that time, in a backwards, inside-out kinda way, but despite it being interesting most of that information did little to benefit me in any practical way, and more importantly it left my original question unanswered.

Now I know that I don’t want to know.  My new question however, is how can others be taught, or should I say guided towards the path of implicit learning and instinctive exploration?  Bruce Lee would have called this a study of unnatural naturalness, and I have already begun experimenting recently with novel techniques designed to facilitate skill acquisition in an unconscious manner.  My past experience though, is grounded in accidental strength, but it remains to be seen whether I can take that experience to build a useful model for others, and whether or not the other implicit qualities can be successfully integrated along with all the additional, less physical, but nevertheless important aspects of my non-martial art.

This is the challenge facing anyone wishing to design their own ritual: how to mould separate and unrelated elements together in order to form a coherent whole that appears as natural as possible, while providing the benefits you want without introducing problems.  This is another example of unnatural naturalness, but on a different level.

Perhaps the pursuit of a purpose-built, all encompassing way of life, philosophy and culture will suffer the same problems my other non-instinctive activities did, except this time on an all-encompassing scale.  I see the problem as ultimately being an artistic one though; a challenge of creating a sense of order from chaos, of building a whole that is greater than the sum of all its components.  I have already chosen the main ingredients instinctively, what remains now is how they are put together, and it seems highly likely that the result will be a surprising one.