Thursday, December 04, 2008

Martial Arts Mindfulness, Intent, Thought

We have, in our version of silat, short upper body moves called djurus. (We use the Dutch/English plural -- some styles use the Indonesian method, doubling the word, as djuru-djuru, or dropping the "d" altogether. After Independence, the Indonesians rebuilt their dictionaries, and threw out the old spellings. Our style's head teacher in the West was raised with the Dutch versions, which we mostly still use. So we write "pentjak," instead of the newer version "pencak," wherein the "c" is given a "tj" or "ch" sound.  To my mind, the new version looks like it should be pronounced "pen-kack.")

These djurus, we believe, are like the basic ingredients of flour, water, sugar, butter, and eggs. There aren't many of them, but they can be combined together in various ways to make everything from bread to cake to cookies. (Rita Rudner used to do a funny stand-up routine: "If you mix flour and water,  you get paste; if you mix flour and water and eggs, you get cake. Where does the paste go ... ?"

Together with the lower body moves, which we call langkhas, and things like groundwork, we believe the most efficient tools one will ever need in a fight situation are covered. The forms are not to fight with per se, but to learn the tools.

A few weeks back, my teacher added a new wrinkle. The more senior students among us are now doing a fillip -- during a move called "trapping window," which ends in a punch, the position is varied ever-so-slightly into a pukulan-style punch. 

"Pukul" is one of those multiple-use Bahasa words that means, among other things, "hammer" or "hit," and thus "pukulan" means the art of hitting. One of the ongoing arguments in silat -- and there are many ongoing arguments, many -- is how the hodgepodge of a given art's techniques came to be assembled. One of these contentions is that the Dutch brought western boxing to the Spice Islands and used it in the port bars, and that the locals liked what they saw and borrowed parts of it. Which is not to say that they didn't have their own ways of punching, or that they didn't alter what they saw to fit. It's a theory. 

To somebody without any knowledge of our art, the new variation doesn't really look any different. The window is stretched a bit into three dimensions instead of a plane; the intent of the punch is different, but that's hard, if not impossible, to see from without. Doesn't break any principles, is almost the same, but there is a little flare ...

All of which is to set up the point: After you have been doing the moves one way for a time -- fourteen or fifteen years, say, then re-focusing them even slightly is passing hard. 

We are supposed to practice these forms mindfully and with intent. By which I understand it to be something more than than as an automaton and by rote -- there needs to be focus and not just going through the motions half-heartedly.

Which is not to say that "mindful" and "thinking" are the same. As my teacher quotes his teacher, "If you think, you stink." What this means is that conscious thought is too slow to effectively deal with incoming attacks. If you have to think: "Oh, look. He's punching at my nose -- I should do something about that." then you won't have time to do anything about it before you get smacked. The best way to head 'em off at the pass is to get there before they do.

The djurus give you tools that, with enough practice, can be used via a kind of learned reflex. This term is, of course, inaccurate. A reflex is hardwired into the system, a short-circuit that only has to go as far as the spine and not the brain; nonetheless, enough practice of a motion will allow it to be used without conscious thought. Consider walking -- if you had to consciously detail to yourself each aspect of weight-shifting, leg-moving, foot-placing and like that, you'd never get anywhere save very s-l-o-w-l-y. Try it running and you'll likely fall down. 

Which is to say that altering a motion you have practiced for a long time requires conscious thought and so for the last few weeks, my djurus have looked pretty ragged. (Not that they were all that great before, but they are definitely less so now ...)

Never a dull moment. 


J.D. Ray said...

A simple demonstration that a most people can appreciate (and try): Attempt to sign your name differently. You can probably come up with something that looks completely different than your signature, but if you compare the two, chances are good that you'll see a lot of similarities. Your brain has a hard time representing something its familiar with in a completely unfamiliar way.

AF1 said...

One trend I have seen a lot of in the martial arts world lately is the desire to credit "Western" influence for the more successful Eastern arts.

Whether it be Filipino arnis, silat, or wing chun.

No proof has been forthcoming as of yet though.

Steve Perry said...

Oral history is colorful but accuracy is not always its biggest virtue. From what I know about the Javanese arts -- which is admittedly not all that much -- the notion of them swiping anything useful from any other system that they see is absolutely valid. Fight a guy, get decked by a technique he has, and you either steal it or come up with an answer so it won't happen again.

Batavia -- now Jakarta --is a seaport and would have been thick with Dutch sailors during the days when the Dutch held sway.

Oong Maryono's articles on silat reference much borrowing in those styles -- from each other, from kuntao, from Indian arts, and it is no stretch to assume from whatever sword or handwork the Dutch brought with them. Up until WWII, Oong says, most people in Jakarta referred to the arts as bersilat or even kuntao. Even the term pentjak silat is relatively new.

Ideally, you train to prepare for what you think you will face. If a big Dutch sailor was in your face, it would seem useful to know what tools he had.

Major influence? Probably not. Some? Almost certainly. Many of the Dutch intermarried with Indonesians and while learning local culture, would have offered their own to their families.

Most of the silat in the U.S. comes from Dutch-Indonesian roots. It is an eclectic blend. The whole idea of "purity" in arts breaks down once you get back far enough.

Worg said...

I responded to this last night but blogger errored out and ate my reply.

The way to get around this is to perform variation A, then variation B, alternating each time. That teaches your brain that there is a branching point. It's the same with learning complicated phrases with variations on the guitar.

Once again, the strange confluence between martial arts and music rears its head.

Steve Perry said...

I don't think it'll work that way for me, Worg. The years of doing it one way wore a groove deep enough that it is the default. I can do it the new way okay, but I have to consciously choose to do it like that.

Eventually, I expect I will get the new version down, but then going back to the old one will have the same problem.

When I started playing the guitar, I learned how to make the first-position open G-chord "wrong" -- i.e., I did it with the fore-, middle- and ring-fingers. Works okay, but when you need to make the G into a G7, or a C, it needs a bigger and slower motion than if you use your middle, ring, and pinkie for the G.

Same thing with the cowboy E-chord. I was able to fix that one because barre chords can be slid up or down, and going from a barred-F to an E works.

Most of the time, I still do it the first way.

At this point, I can switch fast enough so the G doesn't bother me,( and I can always barre that anyhow,) but the G first-position chord is what it is and I think it would be a long and frustrating time trying to change it.

Worg said...

I find this interesting.

What if you were to just do the move immediately preceding the new movement, as well as the new movement? And then tack on the movement previous to it, and the movement previous to that.

Learning difficult music from back to front is a very old technique. You are playing it frontwards but you learn the last measure first, and then the second-to-the-last. The idea is that as you play you are going into more and more familiar territory.

Steve Perry said...

I already know the territory -- save for one slight variation of a move I have done fifty thousand times.

It's like playing a piece you have done for years and changing a note in the melody. You can do it if you concentrate on it, but if you relax, the old note is there. You have to override it manually.

I can do it, it's just slower and doesn't feel right.

A few years back, I tried to learn how to type using the Dvorak keyboard. It is much more mechanically efficient and easier than Qwerty; but after forty-five years of doing in the latter way, the new system was like stacking greased BB's using boxing gloves.

When you can type eighty or ninety words a minute on a roll, and all you have to do is think of the word and it automatically gets tapped in, then going to twelve or fifteen words a minute and having to remember where each letter is is a whole other game.

If I'd had fifty or so spare hours, I probably could have gotten fast enough to stay with it, but I was trying to write while learning, and it was just too frustrating. I bagged it.

I'll learn the variation. But it is gonna take a while to make it flow.