Sunday, 15 March 2009

On Honesty & Expression, and Unlimited Possibility


As a personal interest, I've been learning and performing Japanese Taiko Drumming for about 3 1/2 years now.  Taiko drumming is hard and fast; requiring a distinctive combination of strength, endurance, technique and rhythm.  I like to think of it as "music as an extreme sport".

In many ways, the movements and striking techniques used in taiko are deeply connected with the martial arts--and like martial artists, taiko performers are forever trying to balance strength and speed with precision and sharpness of technique. 

Most martial arts teach that you must first train your body, so that it can perform the techniques without conscious thought.  Westerners often refer to this as muscle-memory.  At that point, you mind is free to relax, observe, polish, learn, and pay attention to the "big picture".  This has a very important implication which is that the mind is just too slow to keep pace with the action -- and this is literally true in taiko.  Your body will not be in the right place or position if it has not been trained to begin that movement at exactly the right time -- often 1-2 seconds before that position, strike, or motion is needed.  Therefore if you have not adequately trained your body to a particular song, your rhythm will have off-beats, and your movement will be uncertain, half-hearted, incomplete, and weak-looking.

The ultimate zen state of martial arts seems to be no-mind, which to my understanding, refers to a state of heightened awareness where there is no conscious thought occurring.  You simply feel, sense, react... at a sort of instinctual level.  In this state, a master can sense almost anything coming before it comes, and know the best response without consciously thinking about it.

This relaxed state of no-mind can deeply benefit any endeavor you pursue, particularly when it requires fast or compicated physical movements.  And though I've known of this concept for some time now, today is the first time I've got to experience this principle personally and in full-effect.
One of the songs my group performs is named San nin no yuushi, which means "three warriors".  Three guys play on upright drums, with a series of movements and rhythms that represent a Samurai sword battle

Its a unique song, which my group has created -- so rather than being taught a choreographed set of movements, I was only given a rhythm to work with.  Most of the movement is my own decision.

Today during practice, we were rehearsing Yuushi, something completely new happened.  The best way to describe it is that I relaxed, in a very no-mind sort of way.  Somehow my mind was able to dis-engage from the activity of the song completely, and let muscle memory do its thing without the heavy interference that normally goes on.

What this means is that for the first time ever, I was able to be freely creative, with my whole body, mind, spirit, 100% invested into the performance.

It was an enlightening experience, one in which everything was committed to the song, and I discovered a completely new connection with the song, and with the art of taiko -- but far more surprisingly, a deeper connection with myself.

One of the more unexpected aspects of the moment was the sensation of unlimited possibility.  Speed was no longer limited.  Neither was power.  Movement?  Where do you want to go?  The speed of playing just sort of naturally jumped a comfortable 20%, and everything was is motion.  A whirling dervish of action.

This all ties into a couple of other recent observations, that the key to speed and accuracy is being truly relaxed and at peace.  Normally, anything you do involves a tiny bit of distraction, a tiny bit of reservation--and if you're stressed, the opposite happens and basic functions like memory and logic are paralyzed.

There was an interesting study I read regarding sports performance that observed out that people under intensely stressful situations, such as being locked in a burning house, are logically paralyzed.  People in a locked room try repeatedly to bash the door down, completely ignoring the fact that there is a key already in the lock, just waiting to be turned.  Those that survive report that they saw the key, but could not comprehend how to use it.

I think this is a spectrum -- one end being "panic", which makes you about as useful and structured as a wet paper bag.  And the other end being "peace and calmness", when your ability to react with precision, clarity, and perfect timing.

Perhaps it's a zen thing.  The more peace and calm you can achieve, the less limits you have on your action.  But whatever it is, it is incredibly useful and interesting.  And mysterious too.  I will be pursuing this state aggressively...