By George Donahue
Just as we need to defragment our computer hard drives regularly
to keep them effective, we need to defrag our mental hard drives to remain
effective as students and teachers of martial ways.
Along with other routine maintenance, I clean and update my household’s
computer hard drives—registries, files, security settings, and so
forth—at least once a week. Whether on our several Windows or the
Linux computers, this attention helps to keep the computers stable, lean,
fast, efficient, and relatively safe. I’ve had three catastrophic
drive failures in the last twenty years anyway, but it could have been
worse.* Shikata ga nai. Just as my computers, with their
different OS flavors, all need a similar maintenance regimen, so do my
different flavors of martial training and technical knowledge each need
frequent evaluation, review, and tuning, maybe not weekly but at least
annually. I tend to tune my martial understanding with the change of the
seasons, because the nature of my training changes with the seasons anyway,
but I also make smaller adjustments as I go (and major adjustments whenever
I see my teacher).
Some (too many) of us don’t do this at all when it comes to our
computers, and some (too many) of us don’t do this at all when it
comes to our martial training. We know what inevitably happens with a
neglected computer. In regard to martial ways, those who neglect the maintenance
are equally subject to dangerous obsolescence or the equivalent of disk
failure. Their attitudes and perceptions are frozen in the past, at best.
At worst, the operating or programming code of their thought patterns
and knowledge begins to degrade—errors creep in without notice,
just as computer data files can degrade over time—human files become
fragmented or broken. To the outside observer, it shows clearly. From
the inside, though, everything seems normal, sometimes until there is
an extreme failure, because, of course, the “hard drive” is
really the mind. If our brain has gotten clogged up with decrepit or static
ideas, we can’t think straight enough to see what a mess those training
ideas and fighting concepts have become. Even if they haven’t become
a mess, they’ve invariably become slow and inefficient. So, it’s
a difficult process to revamp our thinking when we’ve let it go
for too long. A muddled mind can’t easily find its own way. Unfortunately,
too many of those muddled minds belong to teachers, who pass along their
With computers, we have a lot of fixes at our disposal. We can download
the latest programs to defragment and repair our files. We can back up
our data and settings and totally replace hard drives that have worn out.
We can upgrade just about any component, or buy a whole new computer and
transfer our files. We can install new software to monitor and facilitate
our activities while screening out damaging processes. We effectively
sharpen our computers’ thinking and, thus, our own thinking.
With our own minds, however, things are more difficult. We can’t
begin to upgrade ourselves physically and it’s almost impossible
to make much of an upgrade to a long-fermented thought pattern. Our brains
are wetware (unless we let them dry out) and when they degrade it’s
hard to re-hydrate them. In addition, unlike software, each wetware program
is unique to the individual host. A fix that would work perfectly well
for one mind might be counterproductive for another. A fix that would
have worked perfectly well if it had been timely won’t work at all
when its time has passed.
It’s not hopeless, though. We’re lucky that our resources
for both computer artificial intelligence and human brain maintenance
have a crucial factor in common. That is, we’re not reliant solely
on our own efforts for either; for both, there is community support. That
is great for all of us, especially someone like me, who has not much computer
talent and very little martial talent, either. I get all my knowledge
and what little insight I have from the community. And the more I look
to the community, either martial or computer, the more I find and the
more I learn.
Although we can and should access the wisdom and observations of our
own teachers and peers as frequently as possible, if we’re locked
into proprietary thinking and are unable to accept feedback from outside
our limited circle, we’re needlessly restricting our community to
people who think very much like ourselves. At worst, we narrow ourselves
so much we might as well just look into the mirror for our community feedback—we
can console ourselves that there is very little disagreement in our community
of one. Still, we can at least get feedback from students of our own tradition.
The only time this might possibly be harmful—rather than just useless—is
if a martial tradition is so regimented and homogenous that everyone has
been trained to think alike. This situation is like some computer networks,
in which the master server and slave workstations are in total harmony.
This makes for smooth running of a business or a martial arts organization,
but it definitely stifles development and innovation in the latter.
For martial knowledge, and most knowledge, a better way is to access
the wisdom and observations of the wider community, to learn from people
in other traditions how to improve our own. The traditions we consult
need not be martial. For example, we can learn from psychology, from dance,
from physical therapy, from physics (ever think of kata as fractals?).
We can also learn by observation: from watching how squirrels—or
even old people—cluster in parks, from noticing how people align
the handles of their beer mugs when they belly up to the bar, from just
about everything, if we care to look or ask.
Here is part of a checklist that I use to evaluate my own internal disk
health and the state of my understanding of martial technique:
Is my understanding based on shaky assumptions? For example, am I
counting on my attacker being even dumber than I am? Or weaker, or
slower? Or clumsier? Or more inept?
Is my understanding based on obsolete circumstances? For example,
am I imagining that I’m still as fast and agile as I was thirty
Is my understanding based on “facts” that have never
been demonstrated in the real world to be true? For example, do I
“know” that hitting with the tip of my index finger a
certain spot (say Q7) at a 30-degree angle at a speed between 14 and
22 miles per hour—on a full moon—will result in my attacker
immediately spewing blood and croaking from a massive cerebral hemorrhage?
Because I read it in a book? Or saw it demonstrated on a DVD seminar?
Is my understanding based on faith in my own magic bullets? That
is, do I count on techniques to have certain effects because I wish
them to have those effects?
Is my understanding based on the unquestioned authority of a teacher
or expert who hasn’t yet had the mercy to demonstrate the efficacy
of the transmitted knowledge?
This list is not complete, because some of the items on my complete list
are applicable only to me. Some items might be offensive to those who
quickly or inevitably take offense. And some are just secret.**
Your list will likely be different, but the important thing is to have
a checklist grounded in reality and to use it often.
* The last drive collapse also cost
me my backup drive. I should have known better than to have them in
the same location, on the same circuit.
** That’s just a joke. There
are no secrets in the martial ways. Or maybe it’s just that no
one has ever entrusted me with any.
Copyright © 2008 by George Donahue
About The Author:
George Donahue has been on the board of FightingArts.com
since its inception. He is a freelance writer and editor, providing literary
and consulting services to writers, literary agents, and publishers, as
well to advertising agencies. He has worked in publishing for more than
three decades, beginning as a journal and legal editor. Among his positions
have been editorial stints at Random House; Tuttle Publishing, where he
was the executive editor, martial arts editor, and Asian Studies editor;
and Lyons Press, where he was the senior acquisitions editor and where
he established a martial arts publishing program. He is a 6th dan student
of karate and kobujutsu—as well as Yamane Ryu Bojutsu—of Shinzato
Katsuhiko in Okinawa Karatedo Shorin Ryu Kishaba Juku. He was also a student
of Kishaba Chokei and Nakamura Seigi until their deaths. He teaches Kishaba
Juku in New York and Connecticut, as well as traveling to provide seminars
and special training in karate, weapons, and self-defense. His early training
was in judo and jujutsu, primarily with Ando Shunnosuke in Tokyo. He also
studied kyujutsu (archery), sojutsu (spear), and kenjutsu (swordsmanship)
in Japan as a youth. Following his move to the US, he continued to practice
judo and jujutsu, as well as marksmanship with bow and gun, and began
the study of Matsubayashi Ryu karate in his late teens. Subsequently,
he has studied aikido and taiji and cross trained in ying jow pai kung