Sunday, October 10, 2010

Looking But Not Seeing...

The other day, my friend was inspired to teach in darkness. Maybe in the modern Aikido setting, that kind of training is off the beaten track, but traditionally Silat was taught in the dark as well. Sensei too have conducted similar classes sans light. In fact, Osensei liked to train in the elements. It is known that in his Iwama retreat, when training was conducted outdoors sometimes at night, Osensei made no changes to how training was conducted. Sometimes it was with live weapons... much to the dismay of his students.

There are probably two lessons to be learned here. Training in the dark removes a factor that most people are reliant on, vision. It is with the eyes that most people lead their lives, or perhaps have their lives led by. When you last watch TV, didn't that advertisement about that luxury SUV catch your eye? Its lines were really sporty and the engine had real power. Even though you may have a car already, but you wish that you could get that SUV too...just because.

Or maybe you're not really hungry, but McDonalds just came out with a lunch special... triple big mac with cheesy fries. Man! I need to dig that!

Its not just about TV. Research shows that employers often prefer to hire good looking men and women and most employees with above average height earn more than their shorter peers. What relevance does face and height have on their work? Not much, not unless you're a model or a basket baller. But these discrimination goes across the board, from secretaries to management to lawyers and even gardeners.

It is a fact that through genetically imprinted instinct, mankind look for good looking, tall specimens to procreate with because it is assumed that they have the best gene pool. It appears that perhaps the bias we have over ugly people is not rationalised, but instinctive. Well, instinct may be good and all that, but if human beings were to live their lives on instinct, we should have known a long time ago to stop cutting down all those trees. But no. We don't. Destroying the environment to enrich our lives goes against every survival instinct and yet we ignore it, but choosing your mate is decided by instinct? So which is it? Mankind it seems can choose to override instinct when it suits them. Go figure.

Lets go back to the eyes then. We have eyes that inevitably trigger desires or reaction in us to something it sees. Turning us off or on as it were. Yet behind that visual appeal or turn off, is what we perceive from our eyesight really representative of that object or person? Don't judge a book by its cover is an age old wisdom that has been spoke so often its often called cliché. But isn't it a gem of a wisdom?

Training in the dark is loosely based on this understanding. That to let our eyes deceive us will lead to our undoing. Osensei taught for us not to look at the opponents hands/weapons or his eyes, lest we be deceived. Its true. Look at any fight, good opponents feint to create openings. The majority of Silat is all about trickery. That's what fighting is all about, you trick your opponent. You destroy their advantage and you build yourself up. No one wants to go to an even match. Forget those noble fiction about fighting in a fair fight. If you're out there trying to survive, the last thing you want is an even match. 'Even matches' is for sports (or at least it was) not Budo.

Having said that, how does training in the dark give an advantage to us? Well, training in the dark in itself doesn't really give you much advantage unless you're specifically going to fight in the dark against someone. But its more about building up other sensory perception that you have besides your eyes. We of course have sight, hearing, touch and smell as the basic senses, but some have improved sensitivity than others whereby their tactile sense is finely hone, their hearing is very precise and etc. Some even border into the 6th sense where they have unerring predictive powers knowing your every step even before you've made them. Wow! Will training in the dark help me get all that? Well... let's just say that the jury is still out there on that one. But what we can see is that, in eliminating one of our senses, we learn to use our other senses to compensate and that's always a good thing.

Imagine a fighter jet where the control is solely in the province of a pilot. He has to eyeball everything and make snap decisions. Yes, fighters in world war 1 eyeballed and dogfight all day long, but modern jets shoot opponents 5 km out, the enemy is not even a speck of dust in our eyesight then... so how exactly is eyeballing going to work? To help him get a target and verify if its a friendly or not, to help him compensate for the relative speed and trajectories, the pilot needs a lot of information. Certainly this information couldn't be discern by him alone. So his other 'sense's' help... command, satellite imaging, radio signals, laser targeting and etc, they all mesh together and create an information package that effectively identifies targets and friendlies leaving the pilot to make a conclusive action. So, what it means is reliance on eyesight is like handicapping yourself, when really you could have all the other senses combine their input into a more comprehensive information package for you to decide over.

In more esoteric terms, you can't wait to see if a strike is heading your way in the dark, you need to 'sense' it. If you hear a movement and you can feel the incoming wind, you have an information package already. Your brain makes a snap decision, overriding the need for visual confirmation based on the 2 out of 3 positives so that you put yourself out of harms way. This is sensing it rationally. Develop this so that it becomes so intuitive and that it operates below conscious thought, and it becomes almost 6th senselike. Sometimes you know when your opponent is planning to do something. Just like when you know someone is about to say something...

The other thing that you may learn from practising in the dark is that the eyes is a frequent distraction. Not only that, it often lies as well. Learning to make judgements beyond the sole providence of the eyes, often reveal that we might have taken a different path had we listen to the other senses as well.

Often teachers will show you what they want you to do. Sometimes they focus on a few things and try to make you see it, but different people see different things. For instance we write about the chicken crossing the road, and one guy might look at your drawing and say it looks more like a duck than a chicken, another might say that the chicken is jaywalking, whilst another might say that there's really no point for the chicken to cross the road, what's the chicken running from? Or where is it going to? and so on and so forth. From the drawing of a chicken crossing the road, you can come to so many different understanding/assumptions, yet were we to just forget what we saw and instead ask why is the teacher talking about the chicken crossing the road, and what is he not saying when he does that... that is when we start to see the whole picture. In other words, the way we should practice is not to get stuck or let our eyes lead us where it desires, but to use our mind and guide our eyes to where it really matters.

We look everywhere, and what I see is seldom what you see. My black is not your black, we just assume it is. Working the dark is not similar to blinding yourself, it is about opening your eyes and seeing in a different level.


  1. Teh Beng,
    i just wonder how an aikidoka with Achluophobia would practice in the dark. as for myself, i would see double vision due to my high level of astigmatism. to practice under the light of the shy moon would be really nice though ;)

  2. That's the whole point isn't it... to lessen your dependence on the eyes.