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Martial Arts and Training the Reptilian Brain

originally written in 2013

The man who taught me Nippo Kempo, Luther, had a very refined teaching method that I appreciated unduly and although it didn’t always garner the most admiration for the man, it did draw respect. He certainly knew what he was doing. His pedagogy wasn’t crass and his style was clearly enacted from decades of experience. He would never outright describe his motivation or lay out the plan for how he taught, but it was obviously a well established method that brought about success in his students. He engendered a kind of Zen technique to teaching which is rigorous, never satisfied, rarely handed-out compliments and would never let you in on what he was trying to achieve from you. By his standards, the execution was never clean enough and fast was never fast enough. This would often leave you confused and wondering what could you possibly be doing wrong, and what even was the goal of that exercise. “I can’t go any faster!” I would often think aloud in my head, and it would always make me exert even more energy to go faster and hit harder even though I didn’t believe I could. His teaching often seemed contradictory like he was pulling you simultaneously in opposite directions. “You’re too tense, relax.” and then seconds later “ENGAGE, STRONG GUARD!”. In the moment you’d be frustrated or demoralised, but in the aggregate you were improving and learning to rewire the functions of your nervous system that led you towards a more harmonious, masterful understanding of the sport.

You may not intellectually comprehend what was being asked for, but subconsciously your body was learning when to ease up and when to bear down. And much like in the Zen tradition the unannounced art of the teaching is to get the student out of their thinking mind. The instructions appear too nonsensical at face-value, but by stifling the thought process momentarily it opens up a window for the student to disengage with thinking and turn to a more primitive faculty — action! You cannot fight well if you are stuck in your head, the flow of the battle happens too quickly for you to think your way through it, you need quicker reaction time and to make sure your default reactions are the appropriate ones you need to hack into the reptilian part of the brain. The part of you that can’t be reasoned with. The part of you that acts like a mouse that has been trained a hundred times to perform a certain action when given the subsequent stimuli and reward. The stimulus becomes a command “IN-OUT!” or an unconscious, but registered flash of a fist lunging towards you. The reward is not getting hit and possibly landing a counter attack. By rehearsing these movements countless times, eventually they would be so ingrained in your psyche that they would become a part of who you were. Like a snake in a pit with a small rodent, instinct kicks in, as does with a black-belt on the mat with a blue-belt.

Luther knew all this about human psychology, but he would never spell it out like I just did; for to describe the process defeats the point and can lead the student astray by getting them to analyse the theory of the technique — which only gets you more in your head. I didn’t realise at the time what Luther was doing when he ran the classes. It is only years later in the aftermath that I am beginning to understand his method, which has welled-up in me a newfound appreciation for his teachings. I used to train Kempo two nights a week for 2–3 years and then I took almost a two year hiatus from Kempo when I moved up to Scotland and couldn’t continue my practice. when I returned one summer I was astonished at how much of what I had learnt had been retained and how quickly I got back into the groove of things. Evidently Luther’s teachings had ingrained itself deep into the recesses of my brain that they had become a permanent weapon in my arsenal ready to be brought to life when prompted. Even Luther showed a sign of being impressed by how much I remembered (or rather my muscles remembered).

Another well understood facet of teaching was making sure to keep morale high. Luther may crush your spirits by not praising you or even acknowledging a good performance, but it would only serve to fuel the fire of determination and desperation inside of you which kept you from giving up. When Luther noticed that our flames were burning cold, he would make us shout “うす” or “OSU!” (which is a verbal command to show acknowledgement) as loud as we could muster again and again and again. This seemed so silly at the time and even though you felt so stupid screaming this sound at the top of your lungs it would work at reigniting your drive to fight into a hot, white blaze of energy that would then gush from your innards. This would quickly turn you back into a punching, kicking, throwing, kneeing machine that could fully express what it was built to do.

The fact that most of the core moves and concepts were presented in Japanese further fostered Luther’s essential methodology; communicating to the substrate of the brain that doesn’t deal with words or language. You don’t teach a dog tricks by talking to it, you have to show it an action which produces a certain behavioural response and then you reward it with a treat so as to encourage that response. And slowly the dog learns to perform the trick on command. By labelling all the moves in Japanese it allowed for enough of a gap between the word and its direct meaning to not be entirely bridged and so the thinking faculty of the brain wasn’t fully engaged. Instead when a word like “Yoko Geri” (which means something like ‘side, thrust kick’) was said, we would automatically perform the kick despite not really knowing what it directly translated to. This process would bypass a whole mode of understanding which would have slowed down our reaction speed by allowing the mind to first interpret, then translate, then conceptualise what ‘side kick’ means, and then put all that into motion. No, “Yoko Geri” is said and immediately we act and it doesn’t matter if you don’t fully understand how to etymologically deduce its meaning and in fact it is better that you don’t. We are animals and there is a part of us that can only be reached with short, sudden commands and positive reinforcement. If you want to rewire the brain and change its default behaviour you have to understand that purely reasoning with it and talking your way into certain responses has its biological limits, because ultimately you are not dealing with a fully rational agent. We are chimps rapped in suits that have to deal with a lifetime of conditioning and learnt reactions, and to unlearn those reactions requires hours and hours of physical maintenance to be done on our out-dated, primal hardware.

During training from the moment we entered the dojo to the moment we de-gied (took off our robes) there was a very palpable understanding of hierarchy that was maintained. We all knew never to argue back and to never question the authority of someone with a higher belt than you. This maybe angered and hurt your ego when you disagreed with a certain comment and felt like you were being denied the opportunity to intellectually defend yourself, but that is a good thing. Sparring isn’t the time to be talking. You’re trying to defend your body not your IQ. This created a near no-ego environment. Rank was established clearly by colour and there was no arguing about it — it was literally worn on your waist. It really was a no bullshit zone, with little speaking going on. No one could claim to be better than they actually were, because your level of skill was openly demonstrated to everyone each round; which allowed for no one to lie about how good they really were, not even to themselves. This created a space of immense respect and honesty for each other and made us form a tight communion together. Although little verbal communication was made, other than very brief advice, another kind of dialogue was being aired; a rawer, visceral conversation of instincts and intentions which hit harder than words. It was kind of funny how often after training we would all go to the bar, but would rarely have much to say to each other, as if we had already said everything we wanted to say.

Obviously, this is applicable to a lot more than just martial arts — martial arts is just a prime example, but the sooner you realise what you are and what you have to work with then the quicker you can best utilise the most valuable tool at your disposal… your reptilian brain. And I can see how this all sounds horribly archaic and ritualised to the thinking mind, which wants to talks things through and transcend its brutish nature with logic and reason and civil discourse — and of course there is a time and place for that — but when it comes to deep learning we have to accept what we have to work with. Our tools maybe millions of years old, poorly designed for the modern era and blunt at the tips, but if you can understand its origins of function, its mechanisms and how it has been designed to operate, then the better it can be used for your desired effects. I believe Luther understood all this, though he wouldn’t admit it because he wasn’t talking to that which would have asked the question. He was talking past your thinking brain to a more base centred structure inside of you, and that is why his teaching produced such relishing results.


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