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Martial Arts Teaching and Learning

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Three Levels of Knowing: Three Phases of Training

By Scott Kelley

Not too long ago, one of my students sent me an excerpt from a book called “101 Things I Learned in Architecture School.” While I am not an architect, this person thought the concept was generic enough to be applied to many other aspects of life. I agree. The basic text of this is as follows.

Three Levels of Knowing

SIMPLICITY is the world view of the child or uninformed adult, fully engaged in his own experience and happily unaware of what lies beneath the surface of immediate reality.

COMPLEXITY characterizes the ordinary adult world view. It is characterized by an awareness of complex systems in nature and society but an inability to discern clarifying patterns and connections.

INFORMED SIMPLICITY is an enlightened view of reality. It is founded upon an ability to discern or create clarifying patterns within complex mixtures. Pattern recognition is a crucial skill for an architect, who must create a highly ordered building amid many competing and frequently nebulous design considerations.

This passage was applied to the realm of architecture. However, I agree that the concept has much farther reaching implications than in just this one area. I liked it but wanted to think about it some more, so I printed it off and hung it on my cube wall. This morning I walked in, read it and had an epiphany. For years, I have had a philosophy that martial arts training can be categorized in three distinct phases. I saw this morning that the three levels of knowing are very similar to the three phases of training. The phases I believe are distinct, but the lines between the phases and the length of the phases can change depending on the student. In any case, I believe a student’s training falls into one of these categories.

Phase 1 – Instinct / Reaction

Responses to aggression are driven by a simple reaction. Most of the time, the reaction is driven by instinct and is not the correct or most efficient reaction. A student automatically reacts and has very little control over that response. For example, if an attacker throws a punch, the student may just throw his hands up in some random fashion and hope for the best. If this works, it would be a complete accident. All of this happens at a sub-conscious level.

Phase one of our training is like the SIMPLICITY level of knowing above. Everything is simple and unencumbered by the need to know that something is beneath the surface, waiting to hurt us. When it pops up, we have no idea how to deal with it properly.

Phase 2 – Planning / Thinking

Responses to aggression are driven by thought, calculation and planning. We are trying to use what we learn in class to deal with the aggressive (verbal or physical) behavior. In this case, a student is trying to identify when that punch comes in, analyze it, and respond with the appropriate defense. This could be a block/counter punch, a parry, or an attempt to move out of the way and redirect. The student sees the complexity of the attack and is trying to deal with it the best way he knows how. If he is correct in identifying the attack and is quick enough to implement the correct defense, then he is successful. Otherwise, the defense is too slow and he is hit. All of this happens at a conscious level.

Phase two is like the COMPLEXITY level of knowing in that we are now aware of what is going on but in order to deal with it, we really have to think our way through things. As a result, sometimes we are unable to discern the patterns of our attackers and unable to formulate the appropriate response in time.

Phase 3 – Instinct / Reaction

Responses to aggression are driven by a simple reaction. The difference this time is that after years of training the body, mind and spirit, reactions are now based on a “new” instinct and are usually much more efficient and effective reactions. This time, at the first hint of an attack, his body reacts without thinking. He has trained enough to know the correct response without thinking about it. He automatically reacts the right way. He is now back to reactions from the sub-conscious level but with an aspect of awareness blended in.

Phase three of our training is like the INFORMED SIMPLICITY level of knowing. In both cases, we have come full circle and are now able to deal with the complexities of our environment but from a deeper, simpler understanding. Your mind and body work together in harmony to recognize and defend against the attack without planning and even much thought. The defense is now a trained reaction.

The more I go through life, the more I learn that all things are interconnected and the number of “rules” that govern the universe are not as many as one would think. Concepts we learn in one area of our life are quite often relevant to other parts of our life as well.


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About The Author:

Scott Kelly is a Shihan in Wadokai Aikido (under the styles founder Roy Suenaka Sensei). He teaches in Marietta, GA.


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martial arts training, karate, taekwondo, kung fu


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