Joukenhansha 条件反射: Reflex Conditioning or a Trap?

正拳 photo by  *嘟嘟嘟*
I love it when I get to spar with a martial artist who has great conditioning. Not only is it a great test for me and what I think I know about martial arts, but I have a secret weapon in our Bujinkan taijutsu that allows me to defeat them even if they have superior conditioning. This weapon is the conditioning itself. I can use it to trap them.

In martial arts, sports, or combat training people strive to develop fast reflexes. Reflexes don't require conscious thought. In fact the action of a true reflex follows the reflex arc to create a near instantaneous response to stimuli.

This is an advantage in dangerous situations where there isn't time to think about your choices. You just pull your hand out of the fire. In our training we are not usually studying true hard-wired reflexes. Instead we are conditioning our muscles and bodies to develop responses that have proved effective in our training and in combat.

Some people call this muscle memory. Or another term is procedural memory. This is where you commit a specific action to memory by training it over and over. This repetition strengthens neural pathways allowing the brain to access these patterns more efficiently. A medical definition for this might be more like the word reflexive as opposed to reflex.

For the most part, this conditioning is useful and good. Unless you are facing a devious and thinking opponent who can turn it against you. Soke calls this 条件反射 joukenhansha which is a conditioned response. He spoke of this while talking about how you should not take ukemi. Which I wrote about here: Why Do You Take Ukemi? So How can this conditioning be turned against you?

Well a reflexive action is a habitual and unthinking behavior; or relating to or consisting of a reflex. It's the habitual and unthinking part that gets you. When I recognize these reflexive actions in your movements, whether they are offensive or defensive, I will seek to trigger them to set a trap.

It's easy to see this in action no matter the style. Test it out on any person (choose someone who will not seek revenge). Stand facing each other, but don't tell them what you are testing. No reach as fast as you can for their ear.

How do they react? People with no training at all act with pure reflex in a startle-flinch response. People who train in a specific style will reveal their training, which is reflexive. In the 1980s the US Army conducted experiments to discover that people can be startled into their favored, trained fighting stances, no matter what those stances were.

Then set a trap so that when they react with their reflexive conditioning again, you will defeat them. All you have to do is trigger that reaction by reaching for their ear. Or you can make some other feint, kyojitsu, or threatening motion.

Hatsumi Sensei says this is like Pavlov's dogs. And he says we all know how easily dogs are controlled by people. So we should not train ourselves to be conditioned like dogs. Don't design reflexive traps into your training program.

Falling Flowers of Fear

恐怖!! photo By *嘟嘟嘟*
How do we overcome fear in combat? Fear can be crippling. It can make us avoid taking actions that need to be taken. It becomes an invisible obstacle to reaching a goal. It can turn our taijutsu into hesitation and clumsiness. It even causes involuntary tension in our muscles so that they will not respond the way they were trained.

I had a teacher in college who defined F.E.A.R. as False Evidence Appearing Real. The idea here is that fear is a construct of our own minds. And since our minds create it, our minds can also release it.

What is this false evidence? In combat, the false evidence is death. You don't want to die so you fear being killed. But while you are fearing, you are not dead. So the evidence is a death that has not occurred and might never occur.

Hatsumi Sensei describes it this way: "If it seems that the blade is not yet positioned at your heart, then both life or death are stopping your heart… You must immediately cast out this mind. Essentially have nothing."

There is a famous section from the science fiction novel, Dune:
"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain."
A commonality can be observed here. The power of nothingness. This is what we speak of as Mu. Or a power we can actually harness to our favor with the 空間 kukan. I personally can attest to this power. When you learn to connect to this emptiness there is strength and power beyond any training or physical prowess. But you must discard what you consider to be "empty space."

What do you think Kukan is made of? This very question already takes us away from an answer. Groping about in the darkness of space, we are caught in a fight with our own subjectivity.

Hatsumi Sensei says if you wish to understand the 空間 kukan, then you must ask one of the ten great disciples of the Buddha, Subhūti, who understands the importance of Ku.

Subhūti shows us the potency of emptiness in this story:
"One day Subhūti, in a mood of sublime emptiness was sitting under a tree. Flowers began to fall about him.

'We are praising you for your discourse on emptiness,' the gods whispered to him.

‘But I have not spoken of emptiness,' said Subhūti.

'You have not spoken of emptiness, we have not heard emptiness,' responded the gods. This is the true emptiness.' And blossoms showered upon Subhūti as rain."
Let your fear fall softly as flowers showering down in the Kukan.

潜 Moguri: Diving Into Infinite Courage

Racing Gravity, photo by cmaccubbin
There is a secret to 潜 moguri gata. It is of the deepest importance, yet is not taught. It is expected that the students find it for themselves, yet, how many do?

To confront death and enter. Diving down into the chaos of a moment in combat despite the danger of an upraised sword or hail of gunfire… Soke calls this 沈勇不動 chinyuu fudou, a composed and unwavering courage in diving. He compares it to a bird diving into water (more on waterbirds in moment...).

To nurture this courage we must understand the reality of what we are diving into. If we can grasp this meaning, we will understand it is more than blind faith or courage, but rather a strategy for survival and victory.

When we dive down we are diving into infinity of life and death contained in ourselves, in our opponent, and in that eternal instant. The instant that contains a swinging blade, but also is empty. The instant erupting with gunfire, but also forever silent. We are part of that same space.

One of my favorite poems captures this spirit in a waterfowl:

The Little Duck
By Donald C. Babcock
Now we are ready to look at something pretty special.
It is a duck riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf.
No, it isn’t a gull.
A gull always has a raucous touch about him.
This is some sort of duck, and he cuddles in the swells.
He isn’t cold, and he is thinking things over.
There is a big heaving in the Atlantic,
And he is part of it.
He looks a bit like a mandarin, or the Lord Buddha meditating under the Bo tree.
But he has hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher.
He has poise, however, which is what philosophers must have.
He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.
Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is.
And neither do you.
But he realizes it.
And what does he do, I ask you.  He sits down in it.
He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity—which it is.
That is religion, and the duck has it.
He has made himself a part of the boundless, by easing himself into it just where it
touches him.
There is a very big secret in that poem. When you enter with this knowledge, or even, this truth… You make a space for yourself in infinity in which you can be safe. The kukan expands to protect you.

I know this sounds very philosophical… and it is. But it is also what lies behind something as basic as 潜 moguri gata.

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