Moving Meditation: Kata/Forms/Patterns

It’s often been said that performing Kata/Forms/Patterns (Kata for convenience) is like moving meditation; but what exactly does that mean?

Well first let’s look at meditation then see how performing Kata can be similar. Meditation is a practice which (amongst other things) aims to silence the mind and help focus the intention. There are many variations, but (put very simply) one of the most common methods of meditation is simply to sit and focus all your minds attention on the breath so as to “distract” the mind from other thoughts. With time and practice, you get used to distracting the mind till it gets used to becoming quiet and absent of thought.

Generally speaking, many of our reactions to given situations (including what we would call “thoughts”) are just conditioned responses based on our upbringing and previous life experiences. We often respond to many situations with automatic responses, which have little or nothing to do with actual logical or rational thought or informed choice. Yet the self talk we hear in our heads makes us feel that we are actually thinking rationally and choosing our responses when we’re not really.

A Neil Genge1busy mind with a lot of internal “self talk” can be distracting, cause stress (as self talk is usually negative) and often has difficulty thinking straight. Quieting the internal self talk with meditation can be useful for attaining calmness (cutting out negativity) and helping with the clarity of actual rational thought (cutting out distracting thoughts which don’t help).

There are also spiritual connotations as many people believe that you can connect to higher spiritual parts of yourself (usually called higher self or inner being). Now I know some people will believe in this and others won’t and it is beyond the remit of this post to argue that case either way.

However, without doubt, it is known that we only consciously use a small percentage of our brain, most people say about 10%. By silencing that 10% that we do have direct access too, we slowly learn to access some of the other 90% (our subconscious). This part does not usually speak to us directly with words or thoughts; but with feelings and intuition which guide us. This can be in a self defence situation, our job, relationships or any part of our life.

Furthermore the human brain takes in enormous amounts of information, most of which our conscious mind filters out (as it would be a burden to be aware of so much insignificant detail every second). However, when we have a problem or seek an answer, the subconscious which has absorbed this vast amount of information can sometimes give us an answer from this vast amount of information, which the conscious mind has filtered out. But we need to quieten our conscious minds long enough to become aware of it.

Now whatever your paradigm (higher self, inner being, subconscious mind); it all works basically the same way. Therefore it’s not worth arguing over which is right or wrong, all that is important is that by silencing the conscious mind we can access a higher level of intelligence/intuition.

SoFunikoshiooooo, back to Kata! Try observing your mind for a while (without meditating). High grade martial artists should have fairly quiet minds already as it is a side effect of our training, so this may not work too well with experienced martial artists. However, you can get your students to try this. Normally, after a while you will notice a certain amount of self talk inside your mind, this is natural.

Then choose a Kata that you know well and can perform without having to think or concentrate on. As you perform that Kata, put just a small part of your attention into observing your own mind. If you know the Kata well, you should notice that your mind falls silent as you flow from one movement to another to another, without the need for thought. The use of breath in meditation for distracting unwanted thought is replaced by the well rehearsed dynamic, fluid and powerful movements of the Kata. Instead of conscious thought there is intension, focus and a sureness of purpose. Ironically, some Kata movements can be quite complex, detailed and demanding; yet rather than thinking about them, we shut of thought to perform them!

The same is true of course of basics, but they are generally shorter, giving less time to gain the benefit.

If we can perform complex movements and turns; with power, grace, speed, balance, accuracy and poise better without conscious thought than with thought, surely that’s a lesson for other areas of our life. I’m not suggesting that we stop thinking altogether, but silencing the mind can bring benefits to many other areas of our life. It does actually help us to think more clearly and to an extent helps us overcome our automatic responses to situations where we respond from conditioning rather than from any rational thought.

Imagine a situation for example where one person picks a fight with another. Often the person being picked on (especially young men) will respond with a conditioned response such as, “who’s he think he’s talking to” or similar and actual clear rational thought has nothing to do with it. Being able to clear away the “who’s he think he’s talking to” self talk actually allows us to take the ego out of the situation, think more clearly and find a way out without having to resort to a pointless fight. With rational thought rather than conditioned response, we would usually observe a fool trying to intimidate us and why on Earth would we value the opinion of a fool? If we do not value the opinion of the fool, then it is easy to walk away and NOT be provoked by it! Why would a fools opinion be provocative? Isn’t that very rational and logical?

This is not an overnight thing, but slowly over long periods of time, we gain access to the deeper parts of our mind and intuition.

There is of course a lot more to it than what is covered here, but this is just a blog post and this subject could take a book. Please leave your comments below and let me know what you think?

Is Kata (Forms/Patterns) Without Realistic Bunkai “Organized Despair”?

Bruce Lee once famously referred to the way that many traditional martial artists train as, “organized despair”.  The full quote is reproduced below for you:

“Instead of facing combat in it’s suchness, quite a few systems of martial art accumulate “fanciness” that distorts and cramps their practitioners and distracts them from the actual reality of combat, which is simple and direct and non-classical. Instead of going immediately to the heart of things, flowery forms and artificial techniques (organized despair!) are ritually practiced to simulate actual combat. Thus, instead of being in combat, these practitioners are idealistically doing something about combat”

So, are our katas/forms/patterns “flowery forms and artificial techniques“?

Whilst some undoubtedly are, I don’t believe that all of them are and I think that it helps to look at a historical perspective.  When Bruce Lee made that statement, martial arts were very new to the West and they were not as well understood then as they are now.

Traditionally masters would teach a small number of students and the students would have to gain the masters trust before being taught anything of consequence.    However, when fully accepted the student would learn a full system of self defence which would include kicks, punches, locks, throws, breaking bones/joints and much more.

So when Karate was introduced into the Okinawan school system, would you want the school kids knowing how to break each others bones?

Funikoshi took Karate to Japan at a time when Japan was building up for war and saw unarmed martial arts as obsolete, except for personal development.  Do you think Funikoshi who wanted to gain acceptance for his art challenged this stance?

When the Americans occupied Japan after the war, they banned martial arts.  To get permission to train, the Japanese had to play down the martial aspects in favour of sport and self development.  This is the version that the GI’s learnt and took back to America.

The Chinese community in Bruce Lee’s day, were very reluctant to teach Kung Fu to non-Chinese.  When they did finally open up to the Western public, do you think that they would teach mass audiences their best techniques?

Even Ip Man who taught Wing Chun Kung Fu to Bruce Lee is believed to have held back information from Bruce Lee because Bruce was not a full blooded Chinese.

The bottom line is – a lot of information was held back for one reason or another and in Bruce Lee’s day, many people did not have much clue about what the katas/forms/patterns were for.  With Bruce Lee’s very pragmatic approach and with information held back by even his own teachers, can you blame him for seeing it as “organised despair”.

Although so much has opened up today and is continuing to do so all the time, there are still very many people (and whole associations) still caught in trap of not knowing what there katas movements are really for.  So we go back to the question, is Kata without realistic bunkai, just organized despair?

Undoubtedly kata WITH realistic bunkai is a much better way to train.  It brings the katas to life.  However, there is always the old maxim, that before you can control somebody else (in a fight), you must be able to control yourself.

This is where I believe that kata will always be useful.  The turns and spins in different directions; landing with co-ordination, speed, power and crispness are excellent ways to learn that control of yourself.  You will learn more control and co-ordination with kata than you will by pounding pads or punchbags.  You also learn form, structure and principles of movement that you can apply to other things.  That is not to say that pounding pads/punchbags is not useful, because obviously it is.  However, I believe that kata training in its own right does have something to offer martial artists of all styles, even without good bunkai.

I do not suggest that kata training kata should be pursued at the detriment of other aspects of martial training and I agree with Bruce Lee, that in itself kata does not prepare you for actual combat.  However, as part of an fully rounded taining system I do believe that it plays an important part.