How to React Without Thinking

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What Bruce Lee and Malcolm Gladwell Taught Me About Mushin (or the Art of No-Mind and Executing the Perfect Technique),

Bruce Lee and Malcom Gladwell agree with Mark Mullen.  Sometimes things just happen too quickly to use conscious thought.

Sometimes you just need to forget about thought and simply react to the situation.This is what the high-level pro’s do, but it’s within grasp for you too if you practice diligently.

I’ll let Mark Mullen tell you about this BIG step that occurs in a martial artist’s development…

From Mark Mullen.

Part 1 – Too Fast For Thought

Watching elite level BJJ blackbelts roll I am often astounded by the speed of their decision making process, especially during scrambles for position.

The movements and exchanges, counters and re-counters can occur so quickly that I have analyse video frame by frame several times to fully understand what happened!

I recall some friends and I repeatedly rewinding and re-watching a Renzo Gracie MMA fight against Oleg Taktarov.  In one exchange we counted 5 different techniques that Renzo attempted (within mere seconds) while Taktarov was in his guard.

On another occassion, I watched a pro Muay Thai fighter hitting the pads with his trainer at one kickboxing gym. After each combination the fighter threw, the trainer would fire back a strike at random. The fighter would instantly and effortlessly lift his elbow or knee just high enough to block the strike and reset. I was astonished at how fast his reaction was to the trainers seemingly unpredictable strikes.

How are athletes like this making decisions so incredibly fast? Mere milliseconds to identify and then react in a technically precise way to the opponents move (which itself was milliseconds short!)?

How could the fighter possibly be conducting an internal dialogue like this: “Opponent is trying to get a deep De La Riva hook on me and has my left sleeve, so I will change my angle to free my ankle, try to break his sleeve grip and do a leg drag pass; and I hope he gives me his back when I pass because I can catch a lapel grip….”?

It seems impossible to do this under duress if you’re trying to use conscious, deliberate thought. So what’s really going on?

And – more importantly – how can we train ourselves to do the same?

 Part 2 – Bruce Lee & “Zen In the Martial Arts”

My first clue came from a great old book on Martial Arts philosophy that I had in my library “Zen In the Martial Arts” by author Joe Hyams.

After a brisk workout in the sun, Bruce Lee and I were having a glass of juice in the garden. He was relaxed and it seemed a good time to ask him a question that had been on my mind for some time.

“What would happen in a real battle in which you were forced to fight for your life? How would you respond and what would you do?”

“I’ve thought about that often,” he said finally. “If it was a real fight, I’m certain I would hurt my assailant badly, perhaps kill him.  If that happened and I was forced to stand trial, I would plead that I had no responsibility for my action.”

I had responded to his attack without conscious awareness. “It killed him, not me.”

“What do you mean by ‘it'” I asked.

“‘It’ is when you act with unconscious awareness, you just act. Like when you throw a ball to me and, without thought, my hands go up and catch it.  Or when a child or animal runs in front of your car, you automatically apply the brakes. When you throw a punch at me, I intercept and hit you back, but without thought. ‘It’ just happens.”

He noticed I was still puzzled, and he laughed. “It is the state of mind the Japanese refer to as mushin, which literally means ‘no-mind’.”

“According to the Zen masters, mushin is operating when the actor is separate from the act and no thoughts interfere with action because the unconscious act is the most free and uninhibited.  When mushin functions, the mind moves from one activity to another, flowing like a stream of water and filling every space.”

“And how does one attain this state of no-mindedness?” I asked.

“Only through practice and more practice, until you can do something without conscious effort. Then your mind becomes automatic.”

(Excerpt from “Zen In the Martial Arts” by author Joe Hyams)

Definition of Mushin

Wikipedia tells us that: Mushin (無心; Japanese mushin; English translation “no mind”) is a mental state into which very highly trained martial artists are said to enter during combat.[1] They also practice this mental state during everyday activities. The term is shortened from mushin no shin (無心の心), a Zen expression meaning the mind without mind and is also referred to as the state of “no-mindness”. That is, a mind not fixed or occupied by thought or emotion and thus open to everything.

Mushin is achieved when a person’s mind is free from thoughts of anger, fear, or ego during combat or everyday life. There is an absence of discursive thought and judgment, so the person is totally free to act and react towards an opponent without hesitation and without disturbance from such thoughts. At this point, a person relies not on what they think should be the next move, but what is their trained natural reaction or what is felt intuitively. It is not a state of relaxed, near-sleepfulness, however. The mind could be said to be working at a very high speed, but with no intention, plan or direction.

Part 3 – Malcolm Gladwell “What The Dog Saw” – The Art of Failure

Just how this mysterious almost mystical phenomena occurred because clearer while reading a book by author Malcolm Gladwell (most famous for the 10,000 hours rule to being expert in his book “Outliers”).

There is a fascinating chapter in another book of Gladwell’s – What the Dog Saw – called “The Art of Failure.” It discusses how a world class tennis player “choked” during a championship match that further illuminated the idea of mushin in athletes.

“We live in an age obsessed with success, with documenting the myriad ways by which talented people overcome challenges and obstacles. There is as much to be learned, though, from documenting the myriad ways in which talented people sometimes fail.

Choking sounds like a vague and all-encompassing term, yet it describes a very specific kind of failure. For example, psychologists often use a primitive video game to test motor skills. They’ll sit you in front of a computer with a screen that shows four boxes in a row, and a keyboard that has four corresponding buttons in a row. One at a time, x’s start to appear in the boxes on the screen, and you are told that every time this happens you are to push the key corresponding to the box.

According to Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, if you’re told ahead of time about the pattern in which those x’s will appear, your reaction time in hitting the right key will improve dramatically. You’ll play the game very carefully for a few rounds, until you’ve learned the sequence, and then you’ll get faster and faster. Willingham calls this explicit learning.

But suppose you’re not told that the x’s appear in a regular sequence, and even after playing the game for a while, you’re not aware that there is a pattern.

You’ll still get faster: you’ll learn the sequence unconsciously. Willingham calls that implicit learning — learning that takes place outside of awareness. These two learning systems are quite separate, based in different parts of the brain. Willingham says that when you are first taught something — say, how to hit a backhand or an overhead forehand — you think it through in a very deliberate, mechanical manner.

But as you get better, the implicit system takes over: you start to hit a backhand fluidly, without thinking. The basal ganglia, where implicit learning partially resides, are concerned with force and timing, and when that system kicks in, you begin to develop touch and accuracy, the ability to hit a drop shot or place a serve at a hundred miles per hour.

“This is something that is going to happen gradually,” Willingham says. “You hit several thousand forehands, after a while you may still be attending to it. But not very much. In the end, you don’t really notice what your hand is doing at all.” Under conditions of stress, however, the explicit system sometimes takes over. That’s what it means to choke.”

(Excerpt from “What the Dog Saw” by author Malcom Gladwell)

Part 4 – Development of the “Touch Reflex”

When we take into consideration the concept of “implicit learning” we realize that not all of our knowledge of jiu-jitsu can be described as conscious. Consider how slow, awkward and deliberate your movements are as you try to coordinate your limbs whenever you’re trying to learn any new skill.

A useful analogy is the student driver whose every task is halting and tentative, requiring all of their concentration.

After several years of driving experience, that same student is almost operating on autopilot, thoughtlessly steering the vehicle, while sipping a latte in one hand and jabbering on a cell phone with the other. The skill has moved from the deliberate, “explicit” actions to the unconscious “implicit” ability.

Stephan Kesting introduced me to a drill he uses to help students identify “trigger position” in the closed guard. When the opponent places one of their hands on the mat, this is a “trigger point” that the opponent’s arm is in a position vulnerable to attack. The drill trains opponents to recognize the situation and then react with the appropriate technique.

The more the skill is repeated, then more automatic it becomes for the practitioner, the speed at which it is recognized and the body automatically reacts in response.

Think Daniel San and Mr. Miyagi with the famous “wax on,..wax off” scene in the martials arts classic movie “Karate Kid”.

Now take a physically talented and well trained athlete and their response time to a fight situation is measured in milliseconds.

Jiu-jitsu and all grappling sports are by their very nature more “feel oriented”.  We feel our opponents.

We have grips on and body contact with our opponent and minute shifts in muscle tension, weight and balance communicate to us instantaneously the intention and movement of their body. Our own bodies react unconsciously in response and we move in that trained pattern.

In this same way, the scrambles in Brazilian jiu-jitsu matches happen so fast, that they move beyond the speed of conscious, deliberate thought. Through thousands of hours of sparring, the situations are “recognized” by the body and the almost instinctive response automatically comes out of the athlete’s body.

There is likely a sports psychology / physiological term for this phenomena, but I call it the “touch reflex”. The intentions of the opponent are transmitted through a heightened sense of touch – which relays information to the brain faster than your sense of sight can – and the physical reaction is faster than conscious thought.

When I roll with a high level black belt who can dominate every exchange – despite the fact that I understand all of the techniques that are being used on me and their counters – I am aware that their kinesthetic sense of feeling me and anticipating my movements is so much sharper than my own, that I can not get ahead of them.

And when it comes to rolling with a sharp practitioner, a few milliseconds might as well be an eternity!

Roy Harris famously said that “rolling with Rickson Gracie was like grappling with a 500lbs, mind-reading anaconda“. Once the opponent has established a connection with your own body, they can feel your movements and react immediately.

I recall once sparring judo standup with a heavier purple belt opponent. I had my favorite grip on their kimono and thwarted a takedown of theirs. The opponent returned to a neutral stance after they realized their own throw was unsuccessful.

In that instant, my “touch reflex” took over. I had over my years of training executed thousands of repetitions of uchimata and my body “felt” the optimal momentum and weight distribution and distance to my opponent.

In a fraction of a second my body moved of its own accord into the throwing position and an with an effortless throw my opponent sailed through the air and landed flat on his back with a satisfying SPLAT!

I had not consciously executed the technique.

Time did not freeze Matrix-style, and nobody said to me, “Hey! Use the uchimata here!“.  Instead the techniques came out of me. It happened independently of deliberate, conscious thought.

The momentarily stunned opponent looked up at me from the mat and exclaimed “That was a perfect throw!”

I experienced a fleeting moment of mushin.

A Roadmap for BJJ

by Mark Mullen, a BJJ Black belt now based in Taipei, Taiwan.  Twitter: @MarkMullenBJJ

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