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Sixth Sense

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martial arts

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There is little left to mys­t­i­cism in martial arts today, with perhaps one very per­s­ist­ent ex­cep­tion: the concept of "chi" or "qi", de­pend­ing on lan­guage. Qi is not re­co­g­n­ized by the sci­en­ti­f­ic com­mun­ity, mostly owing to the fact that there are no meas­ur­able or oth­er­wise ob­ject­ively ob­ser­v­able fea­tures that reveal this "force" despite its alleged ubi­quity and im­port­ance to human in­ter­ac­tion and de­vel­op­ment. There is good reason for skep­t­ics and sci­ent­ists alike to laugh scorn­fully at anyone claim­ing to be able to harness qi. The burden of proof lies on those who claim that qi exists.

I fit squarely within the group of skeptics, and that leaves me somewhat torn. One one hand, I agree that qi should be discarded and left among the other lumber and wreckage of dead gods and dead philosophies that have proven by results to be empty fiction. On the other hand, I react to qi during my martial arts training, and having studied martial arts for more than a decade, I dare speak with at least some authority on martial arts theory and practice.

Some reactions might easily be explained by learning to somehow read another person's intentions, such as knowing whether to move out of the way of a strike depending on the opponent's facial expressions, but other reactions would be more difficult to explain. How, for example, can a person know when and where his opponent is striking when his back is turned to the opponent?

We have trained blindfolded where one student was assigned the role of an assassin, and the remaining students were to avoid being "killed" by the assassin. One person, who was not blindfolded, was to observe our behavior. I quickly learned not to trust my immediate senses, and instead relied on finding one of the weapons that were scattered around on the floor in the dojo for the purpose of this training. Once I had found a weapon, I pointed it in whichever direction it seemed to be the lightest, which according to the observer was always in the direction of the assassin. Those of us who had at least a few years of training reacted immediately by jerking away if someone suddenly aimed their weapons at us. Such plays do not prove the existence of qi, but they do indicate that something odd is going on. It may not be qi, but a "nine of out of ten" statistic in our training should raise an eyebrow.

The best explanation I can come up with involves our current knowledge of the human brain and consciousness. It is a fairly established fact that humans react to a huge array of stimuli of which we only become conscious of a tiny fraction. There are amusing examples, including the famous "invisible bear" video, which illustrates how even obvious events escape our consciousness. Other stimuli are so subtle that they stay below the consciousness "radar" even if we know they will occur, and if we do react to such stimuli, even our reactions may be too subtle to become conscious of, too. We are bombarded with stimuli that, both individually and combined, our consciousness will never detect (and for a healthy reason too, lest we become overburdened with input). Our bodies do receive the stimuli, however, and this I believe this is how qi may be explained.

Martial arts training teaches us certain moves that we learn to perform without thinking about them, and as one's skill improves, fewer and fewer moves become conscious. There is nothing mystery in this. It is like learning to ride a bike or how to tie your shoelaces: few of us give it any thought once we have learned it; we just do it. So, too, with martial arts moves. Similarly, we learn to react automatically to cues that are evident to begin with, but as we learn to react, we learn to recognize and react to preliminary cues as well. The cues become decreasingly evident, and eventually are too subtle to become conscious of. It is impossible to become conscious of, for example, a slight rustle of clothes in the distance, movements in the floor, slightly increased air pressure, weak shadows, tiny differences in temperature, and what else might reveal the presense and movement of an opponent, and much less to be capable of analyzing the combined stimuli and reacting consciously on them. In short, we learn to move without thinking according to stimuli that we do not think about.

Shaolin Monk Breaks Staff with Arm
Source: at approximately 1:28 minutes within this video clip on YouTube.

Many of the seem­ingly im­pos­s­ible feats of highly skilled martial artists have little to do with hidden powers but are simple physics. For example, the ability to break a staff with one's arm is a ques­tion of tight­en­ing the muscle and po­s­i­tion­ing the arm at the precise spot on the staff where it is most likely to break, using one's arm as a pivot. It does not hurt, and it re­quires con­cen­tra­tion more than an­y­th­ing else. I de­mon­strated it to my co-stu­dents last summer, and I am cer­tain­ly no focused Shaolin monk.

The stimuli may not be re­co­g­n­ized con­s­ciously, but so­me­times they or their com­bined effect are non­eth­e­less felt as a derived stim­u­lus as the body reacts to them: you do not consciously detect the stimuli themselves, but you do discover your reaction. This reaction may be violent, it may be a strong feeling that "something is wrong," or it may be a feeling that your weapon is magnetically drawn to a certain direction—but there is never a rational explanation why. The feeling is real, and it may be strong, too.

I believe this is a rational approach to explaining what qi is. It is no force, and it does in fact not exist. However, the human consciousness is a rather limited faculty, and we physically sense much more than we become consciously aware of. Such stimuli are easily felt as some force emanating from others, and in a sense, it is fair to state that martial artists really do feel something from others and can bring the feeling to use, just like a martial artist may learn to cause certain reactions in other people; it is not qi, however, because it does not exist. To the best of my knowledge, it is the composite, secondary reaction to otherwise trivial stimuli.

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The Stabwounds in My Back

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Popular belief states that "everybody loves a winner." However, popular opinion reflects human opinion and rarely observable and quantifiable reality, and generally couldn't be much further from the truth: Nobody likes a winner, and everybody loves to hear about a winner being torn down or a winner failing. If in doubt, consult the tabloids which bulge with scandals, accidents, and disasters.

That's why the so-called geek is bullied in school; it is why the eggheads are ridiculed; it is why the worst thing you can tell a religious nut out to save you is that you are already been saved, because the person doesn't want you to be saved; and it is the reason why expert opinions are consistently throttled and replaced by complacent yay-sayers by right-wing governments who need to "get something done."

It is the reason why you should never strive to become the best in your professional life. Strive to become second-worst according to the following two rules:

Rule 1: You must be better than the worst performer, because is the one that gets the ax during corporate "rightsizings," and you must be just superior enough to avoid the pink slip.

Rule 2: The best performer is the primary challenge to anyone who is threatened by the perpetually looming layoff rounds, which means that the best performer is always a challenge to everyone else. It is the best performer that gets knifed in the back, never the worst performer, because only the better performers pose a threat to your job security.

Your challenge is to strike a balance where you avoid as many knives in your back as possible while being barely skilled enough to make it through the next stable period.

Contrary to what you might think, your project manager will not appreciate your skills. Your project manager is paid to do his or her job, and the faster his or her team completes the project, the sooner the project manager is in need of a new assignment which may not be available. The project manager's job security increases with the slowness of the project team, and not only do the best performers expose the project manager's occasional ignorance, they also endager the project manager's job security by completing the project faster. If the project manager's boss begins to wonder, the worst performers in the team can always be sacrificed, because it is never the project manager's fault that the team is slow.

Hence, any skilled project manager who is determined to keep his or her job will slander the best performer and lie about the person if it helps. The project manager will usually choose to tell your boss that you are considering a new job or that you are helping some other department, because this is a codified message known only to senior management that a person is unwanted: it instructs senior management that a person is a threat to them, too.

And so skill is undesired. One would think that, in spite of our major scientific headway and occasional wonders of civilization, mankind would have progressed to a state where life could be a wonder to be lived rather than the battle to be fought that still charaterizes the life of less advanced species, but no; humans have not truly advanced to a state that is any different from the beasts of the wild. Mentally, we are still primitive apes struggling to survive being yet another experiment of evolution which, statistically speaking, is guaranteed to fail. Were it not for business competitiveness, we might have succeeded.

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