This is a very big topic which you could probably write a whole book about, so I will attempt to do justice to this topic but please accept that I can’t cover it all in just a single post. There is much written about the subconscious and conscious minds, but this post will mainly focus on how the 2 parts of the mind relate in a martial arts context.
The role of the conscious and subconscious mind has been likened to the captain and crew of a ship. The captain (conscious mind) makes the decisions and decides on the direction of the ship, and the crew (sub conscious mind) makes it happen.
So lets start with simply practising the basic movements. Your conscious mind decides that you will perform a given technique. As we repeat this technique over and over again, specific cells in our brains called neurons join other neurons which control this movement. This creates
what is known as a neural pathway. The more we practice, the more neurons become joined, the bigger and stronger the neural pathway becomes. These neural pathways are responsible for what is generally known as “muscle memory”, though it isn’t actually located in the muscles, it’s in the brain. The irony is, it’s not necessarily the guy with the biggest muscles who produces the most speed and power, it could be the guy with the most developed neural pathways! The conscious mind (captain) says punch and a well established neural pathway in the subconscious mind (crew) instructs the muscles to perform that punch extremely quickly.
Neural pathways don’t just cover our physical movements, they are responsible for our habits, our posture, the way we speak and even our emotional responses to given stimulus. They affect all aspect of our behaviour.
Yes yes, I know; fighting and self protection are different. But from the point of view of how the conscious and subconscious minds interact (as opposed to techniques and tactics), I’m going to treat them the same.
Our senses pick up many millions of pieces of data all the time about our surrounding environment. However, the vast majority of that information is not really important to us so it is filtered out by a part of the brain known as the Reticular Activating System (RAS), which only passes on to our conscious attention what it thinks (based on our past experience) we need to be aware of. Furthermore, it would probably drive us mad being consciously aware of all that information all the time. It would certainly distract us from the things that are important to us.
When we are fighting/defending ourselves, our conscious mind focuses on the immediate threat and we might even get tunnel vision (possible side effect of adrenaline), excluding most of what is not to do with that immediate threat.
The subconscious mind will still receive lots of information and might well spot something that the conscious mind has missed. Maybe a weapon you could use, an escape route, a clever way to talk your way out, whatever. However, the subconscious mind cannot communicate directly with the conscious mind. It communicates by giving us a feeling; an instinct, an intuition. It’s that something you just know/feel but you don’t know why you know it! But to receive this intuitive feeling, your conscious mind needs to be relatively quiet. If it chatting away saying things like, “oh no, he’s going to kill me”, “oh this will be so embarrassing if I lose”, “he’s so much bigger than me” . . . . whatever; it’ll be too loud to hear the messages being sent by the subconscious!
When you can quieten the conscious mind, you are more likely to hear, recognise and act on those intuitions sent from the subconscious. This is why top fighters (sport or street) seem to have an ability to read their opponent and react almost before the attack has started. The subconscious picks up any give away signs that their opponent may give away about their intended attack, select the desired counter, fire the neural pathway; all this before the conscious mind has time to think about it! Have you ever been in a fight (sport or street), then afterward you mates say to you that a good punch/kick/strike/whatever and you don’t really remember it clearly? That’s when the subconscious has taken over and you’re responded on autopilot and its probably been a really good decisive technique because of that.
A lot of the top fighters are not vastly superior to the people they beat in terms of speed, power or quality of technique; but they just seem to have a special sense of timing. A sense of when their opponent is about to move, or a momentary opening in their opponents guard which they exploit. This is because they have this highly developed link with their subconscious mind and have learnt to rely on it, harness it and act on the instinct rather than on any logical process. The logical processes are carried out during controlled training in order to build the neural pathways, which then take over when under pressure. Even just having a determined, never give in mindset can result from training in a certain way to build an appropriate neural pathway.
Now I mentioned above that the conscious mind has to be relatively quiet; but to be clear, it still has an important role to play. The conscious mind can assess the opponent and decide on what tactics you should use. For example, to fight aggressively or defensively, he’s a kicker so I’ll fight close in to smother his legs, he’s good at throws so fight with long range strikes, whatever. However, once the conscious mind (captain) has decided the overall tactic, it hands it over to the subconscious mind (crew) to make it happen. If your conscious mind tries to micro manage all your movements, it’ll take too long and you’ll be slow. Leave it to the subconscious to carry out the instructions and it’ll happen faster than conscious thought!
But be warned, the conscious mind has to give clear orders to the subconscious mind.
Quietening The Conscious Mind
Ironically, most of the martial art training helps to achieve this goal on some level or other even though its just a lucky side effect of that training.
Solo performance of Kata/forms/patterns (whatever your style calls them) are for the purposes of this post, an extension of basics above. The actual application has more to do with the self protection section. But focusing on the solo performance, Kata takes a lot of thinking about when you first learn them and you’re trying to remember the next move. But as you get to know them more thoroughly and they become ingrained, the conscious thinking part starts to turn off and you will normally perform it with speed, power, ferocity and a mindset of putting everything into each move so as to incapacitate your opponent. This single minded mindset pushes out other thoughts so that all there is at that moment is just you and the kata. Nothing else should exist in your mind for those few short minutes. Many Japanese martial arts use the phrase Zanshin, which is usually translated as a state of awareness or relaxed alertness. A more literal translation is “remaining mind”. This is interesting as we’ve discussed above getting rid of the negative distracting self talk from the conscious mind so that we could use the conscious mind for clear decision making and being able to tune into the intuitive feelings passed up by the subconscious mind. In other words, the thoughts/feelings that remain after the clutter is cleared.
This will apply to basics too, but Kata being longer gives us more chance to practice it.
Many people argue that practicing kata without knowing all the applications (bunkai) is pointless and little more than a dance. I partly agree as I think we should strive to understand how to use all the movements in a practical manner. That said, I do think that kata has an important element for simply training the mindset, focus and concentration. And as this happens, the negative inner voice starts to become more and more quiet. This is why it is sometimes referred to as moving meditation.
Many Chinese and Japanese martial arts include meditation. It’s usually not given much significance other than simply clearing your mind of you daily stresses before training and calming your mind after training. But mediation done properly teaches you to observe your conscious mind. Some people say that it’s too silence the conscious mind, but that is very difficult to do. Besides, the conscious mind is the captain, and you don’t want to silence the captain. However, a captain that it talking too much or talking negatively will confuse and demoralise the crew leaving them without a clear direction. So the captain should ideally only speak when there is something useful to say.
When you meditate regularly, you should be more interested in observing the conscious mind than simply trying to silence it. As you become more aware of your own thoughts (especially the negative ones) they tend to become more quiet as a natural side effect! More importantly thought, the regular act of observation will over time make you aware of a deeper part of your own consciousness. A consciousness that is observing the thoughts of the conscious mind. Many people identify their conscious thoughts as being their core personality, who they think they are.
But if that is the case, what is that other part of your own consciousness that is observing those thoughts?
Now different people have different paradigms for explaining this and it doesn’t really matter which paradigm you choose, the end result is basically the same. Some people will say that the part observing is your higher self, some will say it’s your soul, some will say it’s your subconscious mind. It doesn’t matter what you call it; what does matter is that the more you tune into it, it will give you access to higher intelligence and intuition!
A common mistake with meditation is that most people see it as separate from “real life”. They have real life and they have meditation. The aim should be to take this act of observing your thoughts and take it into “real life” with you. This again is very much a simplification and so much more could be written about it.
Observing Your Thoughts
Whether you formally meditate or not, this is a practice you can easily embrace and you can do it almost any time of the day and with almost any activity that you’re doing. I’ve never heard of anybody in the martial arts world advising this, but when I learnt it and embraced it from a self development book, it’s applicability to martial arts was obvious to me.
All thoughts either take you forward in life or take you backwards. Negative thoughts take you backwards and most of us have them without questioning if they help or not. Let’s say that you’re driving along and somebody cuts you up. You might think all kind of negative things about them, whether their parents where married or not, how stupid and thoughtless they are and you get angry. But who is having those thoughts?
Who is being affected by those thought?
The other person is probably not even aware of what you are thinking, so they don’t care. You are the one having those thoughts, they upset you and they don’t change anything. So what is the point of having those thoughts and getting upset? Doesn’t matter if it’s “his fault” or not, you’re the one being affected by your own thoughts. How about you just ask yourself, “is this thought helping me to move forward or is it holding me back”? Obviously such thoughts don’t help and will hold you back as they take time and energy! You might say/shout/swear something at the person for their thoughtlessness, but again, what does that achieve. They’ll probably shout back, you have an argument and waste more time and energy. Even if you feel you win the argument, how does it change your life? You still come away with a cocktail of adrenaline and other hormones which over time negatively impact your health!
Now I’m not saying that we should let people take advantage of us or push us around, there’s a time for standing up for ourselves. But how often do we get angry/upset over something that, if we take our ego out of it, is really unimportant and of no real consequence to our lives?
Make a habit of asking yourself that question. Things are unlikely to change instantly, but with consistent practice, you’ll find that you can defuse negative thoughts more and more quickly. Bad moods and being upset will have less and less hold over you. They won’t go all together, not unless you achieve enlightenment, but you can significantly reduce the impact that small things have on you.
This is actually life changing, as most of the time, people don’t have thoughts, their thoughts have them. Most people have conditioned reflexes to given stimulus (maybe a provocation if you see it that way), a neural pathway is activated and the thought and associated behaviour takes over. The thought has you, you don’t have the thought. This takes away your choice and your control over your own life.
When you make a habit of asking yourself, “is this thought helping me to move forward or is it holding me back”, you start to realise what is happening, you start to weaken and break down the neural pathway governing that thought/reaction and start building a new neural pathway for that given stimulus. You take back control of your own mind. You regain the ability to actually choose your own reaction rather than leaving it on autopilot with a bad neural pathway.
Now from a martial arts/self defence point of view, this is actually huge. You can more easily avoid confrontations or even fights simply by choosing your reaction rather than reacting on autopilot! Kevin O’Hagan summed this up very humorously at one of his seminars. He said (and I paraphrase):
“You’re walking along minding your own business, when somebody calls out, ‘hey Kevin, you’re a f**king wanker’. You have a choice. You can either get angry and challenge them, ‘who the f**k you calling a wanker’, or you can just ask them, ‘how the f**k did you know that’ and walk on”.
OK, that’s a bit tongue in cheek, but it does make the point very well. Giving in to conditioned responses of pride and ego can get you into fights. Even if you win, you could still get hurt and into trouble with the law. It effects how people around you see you and your reputation.
Having the ability to actually chose your response rather than reacting with a conditioned response (neural pathway) gives you options. Do you get into a fight, do you walk/run away, do you set them up for a pre-emptive strike, is there an escape route you hadn’t noticed before, if they’re dangerous and you are unable to escape is there something you can use as a weapon, is there anybody you can ask for help, is there another route you take to avoid dodgy looking characters, are your actions compliant with the law, etc.
It’s often said that the mind is the most important part of your body in self defence. But how often do you actually train your mind, just your mind? You mind will be trained as a side effect of your physical training, but this is a great exercise to actually train your mind properly so that it can help you react appropriately, rather than having it get your into deeper trouble.