Tuning In

“Son of man, you live in the midst of the rebellious house, who have eyes to see but do not see, ears to hear but do not hear; for they are a rebellious house.” ~Ezekiel 12:2 (New American Standard Bible)

A good portion of learning I-Liq Chuan is learning to recognize what you are seeing. It is not that the advanced practitioner has achieved some mysterious power or superhuman senses. Rather it is something much more mundane: they have better control of how they perceive reality. Sifu uses the analogy of learning to be like a receiver, specifically an FM radio. The information (radiofrequency waves) is already out there and the antennas are up, but information from the radio waves is not clear until the frequencies are tuned in. Everybody receives information through the same senses, but not everyone tunes in as effectively to perceive what they are actually sensing.

The human mind is capable of advanced information processing. Every day we receive multitudes of sensory input which our brain processes to inform us about the world around us. Of course, the processing of the sensory information does not always work like we expect it to. For example, many optical illusions work by manipulating the relationship between what is actually seen by the eyes and what the brain will perceive. The flip side to this is that mental training can influence the effect of optical illusions. One classic example would be the box optical illusion. It is just a drawing of several lines, but it will be interpreted by some as a box oriented downward, by others as a box oriented upward, and others will be able to switch their perception of the orientation.

Research shows that meditation training (which we can view as mind training for our purposes) allows people to control their perception of optical illusions. “Seeing” something does not necessarily equate to truth in this sort of relationship between the senses and the mind. All sorts of mental filters can come between your senses and understanding.

Another place where our perceptions can be manipulated is in the actual receiving of information. Just because our eyes are seeing, our ears are hearing, noses are smelling, tongue is tasting, and skin is feeling does not mean we are actually paying attention to any of the information we are receiving through our senses. Ever watch TV while eating? Chances are that you don’t taste your food as well and don’t recognize satiety as readily while you are immersed in television. With continual sensory input, you tend to start ignoring your senses. Do you recognize your clothes on your skin? Most people don’t because it’s so continuously there that they tune it out. But if you tune back in, you can still feel it on your skin.

Those are just the simple examples. The more interesting example would be that of the invisible gorilla. Even knowing that there is going to be something unexpected in the video, many people will miss glaringly obvious things while engrossed in their task of following a ball through the video. Even the highly trained eyes of a radiologist will miss a blatant gorilla inserted into medical images simply because they are focused on a specific task of looking for signs of disease. It is remarkably easy for mental filters to completely tune out information coming in from our senses.

So, how does this relate to training I-Liq Chuan? The relationship between our senses and mind has several implications:

  • Mental filters may be clouding our ability to perceive the true conditions. Preconceived notions can distort what we “see” and can even cut off information from our senses altogether. We should be training to to remove these mental blocks and achieve clarity.
  • Not being able to perceive the essence of a skill is not an indication of an inherent deficiency. Barring a rare medical disorder, it is more likely that the mind’s mental blocks have not yet been removed or that the mind’s concentration powers are not yet sufficient to tune in and process the information received through the senses.
  • Perception and attention to the senses is a trainable skill. Mindfulness meditation practice and attentive training can reconnect the mind to the senses and bring the mental clarity necessary to see things as they are. Indeed, the mental aspects of training will be necessary to reach higher levels of skill, as mental blocks or an inability to perceive the conditions of the moment will preclude understanding of higher skills.
  • Certain things can only be taught through direct experience. For certain things, no amount of intellectual pondering will bring true understanding. The mind contains a model of the world to bring order to the information coming in through ours senses. Some explanations will fall outside of the realm of the mental model of reality. It would be like explaining to a fish what it feels like to walk on land. No matter how good the explanation, the fish will never truly grasp it since it is too far outside of its understanding of the world.This has direct implications for teaching and learning. It may seem mean and a bit like old-school harsh training, but I sometimes do not immediately explain things to my more advanced students. Instead, I continue the drill and proceed to block the student from executing the drill or just collapse his defense altogether and enter his space. The reasoning behind this is that an intellectual explanation of what they are doing wrong is sometimes not sufficient and potentially counter-productive to what I’m trying to get them to train. If the student’s mental model of reality is erroneous to start with, an immediate explanation will just confuse matters more. I gradually ramp up the required greater precision in the drill until it is being outright blocked from successful execution. Despite the frustration this causes, I delay offering an explanation. This forces the student to recognize that something is wrong and pay attention for clues as to what is wrong. Using experiential training in this way forces listening to one’s senses, helps train perception, and challenges incorrect mental models.

The mental aspects of training are just as important to making progress as the physical. This is not always clear in the beginning, but becomes increasingly obvious the more progress one makes. Understanding arises as our training removes mental blocks and allows us to more clearly perceive reality.

“Approach learning as if there’s nothing to learn, but to recognize the way as it is by shedding away your layers of habits and allowing the truth to be revealed.” ~Sam F.S. Chin