Technique vs. Strength

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As long as people have been fighting, there has always been the ‘classic’ match-up, that of the boxer vs. the slugger; Mohammed Ali vs. Joe Frazier (or Sonny Liston). Ali might have been strong, but it was his movement that made him great. He was hard to beat because of his ability to “float like a butterfly”.

We’re all fascinated when a ‘David’ beats a ‘Goliath’. It fosters hope that the little guy can defeat the big bully. It is upon this premise that our system of Shaolin Chuan Fa is based. We learn many combinations of techniques imitating various animals, not in hopes of actually performing them on someone in a real fight (that particular series of moves may not fit the action), but for the purpose of having these movements become like second nature to us. In this way, when we are fighting, the appropriate move and counter will just ‘pop out’ without our having to think about it. This is the way our techniques will become effective in ‘real time’.

If you’re not familiar with brain architecture, let me give you some basics. We have three major sections to our brains. There is the medulla oblongata, or brain stem, which takes care of all autonomic functions like breathing and temperature regulation. (Wouldn’t it be difficult if we had to concentrate on making our hearts beat at the correct rate for the exercise load we’re experiencing?) Then there is the cerebrum. This is the folded, convoluted outer section that we all recognize as the brain. Here is where our thinking takes place and where all voluntary actions originate. When we learn something, we must use the cerebrum to analyze and process the information into memory.

The section of brain that we’re interested in for martial arts training is the cerebellum. It is interesting that the word cerebellum comes in part from the Latin “bellum” meaning war. The function of the cerebellum is to memorize physical coordination. Remember when you learned to ride a bicycle? Had to concentrate on it at first, didn’t you? That was the cerebrum analyzing and processing the data into movement patterns for the cerebellum. Once an action has been done many times, the cerebellum memorizes the movement patterns and will then reproduce them faster and more accurately than you could by using the cerebrum alone. Voila’, bicycle riding without thinking.



In war, or fighting, we face our most important use of the cerebellum. Our lives depend on how well we coordinate when we fight. That is why, in the martial arts, we spend so much time doing techniques on each other. Our judgments about which kick or punch to use and from what range to use them must be automatic. If you have to think at all — you’re in the past. Effective fighting is beyond the speed of thought. If you iterate anything in your mind as you fight, you’re not up to speed. In fact, fighting is as close to the concept of ‘no mind’ that I’ve ever come.

What is ‘no mind’ ? This is a Zen concept that allows us to exist in the present. Most of our thoughts have to do with the past or the future, i.e. what I did yesterday or just minutes ago, and what I will do tomorrow or just minutes from now. We actually spend little time in the present; that is why we don’t hear the sound of the grasshopper at our feet, because we are off somewhere in our minds.

Through settled or seated meditation some people are able to eliminate extraneous thought. This form of quieting the mind has never worked for me. I find the concept of moving meditation much more valuable and applicable to the martial artist. Fighting should also be viewed as moving meditation. When you fight, you must be completely immersed in the present, reacting to what is going on right now, and you must be on ‘automatic pilot’. This is the only way your reactions will be on time!

With that in mind, let me describe the three stages of learning how to fight. In the first stage, you don’t know what to do and consequently can’t do it. You look untrained and you’re feeling pretty clumsy! In the second stage, you figure out what to do, but processing takes too much time and your technique doesn’t score – you still look like a novice. Then, as if by magic, suddenly you start to fight well. Now your automatic responses are coming to you within the time frame demanded by the fast pace of fighting.

You are a trained martial artist! Walk in peace, for you are now dangerous. Use it wisely—hurt no one who doesn’t deserve it. If you have been well trained (and you have if you study with me), the big bully is still a formidable opponent, but you can and will defeat him! Don’t think about anything—just do it—and let the force (of your cerebellum training) be with you