“The additive process is merely a cultivation of memory which becomes mechanical. Learning is never cumulative; it is a movement of knowing which has no beginning and no end.”

Imposing One’s Will

Yesterday I had the distinctive honor to work with my brother on sparring techniques and strategy. As someone who has been teaching martial arts for more than thirty years, it was the first time that I had been presented with the opportunity to share one of my greatest passions with him. This is something that I had been looking forward to for several months - even going so far as to pull out and peruse pages from my personal notes while I was being taught.

I was surprised to discover that we spent almost as much time on strategy as technique. So much of a person’s success in sparring is related to the mindset that one brings to the training space, which is traditionally viewed as a microcosm of one’s entire world, or macrocosm. Before we even began I was careful to mention that, despite how it might appear, the main focus of sparring is not attempting to impose one’s will upon someone else.

As the above quote from Bruce Lee intimates, truly effective fighters focus on developing an awareness of the present moment. One even could go so far as to say that they “become” the present moment, for during these times any sense of a split between subject-and-object dissolves. There is a fluidity in these moments, a time where one naturally “works with” whatever presents itself.

“When there is freedom from mechanical conditioning, there is simplicity. Life is a relationship to the whole.”

This ability to “work with” whatever arises can be cultivated, not by accumulating knowledge or information, but through a process of “learning by doing”. It is categorically impossible to “think oneself” into a state of flow, since the process of thought, sometimes symbolized by a sword or knife, functions by cutting and separating our experiences into ever-smaller pieces and fragments.

While the intellect excels at exploring and examining aspects of our experiences, it is far too slow a tool to use when sparring. After all, cutting, separating, and analyzing aspects of our experience takes time — something which is in short supply during sparring sessions.

Instead, success in sparring often relies upon one learning how to “navigate by feel”. Like time itself, feelings are always in a state of flux and can serve as a powerful source of insights if we learn to understand what this information means. Tapping into one’s feelings can be a challenging proposition for many people, especially when caught in the activity of full-speed sparring.

Sessions of sparring at half-speed or even alternating techniques with a partner can be incredibly helpful in this context. Even when someone finds themselves without a workout partner, this kinesthetic “sense of feel” can still be cultivated simply by engaging with how well different techniques in combination flow with one another.

Once one cultivates this sense of feeling in the training hall, the lessons one learns will naturally bubble out into everyday life — serving as a valuable source of information.