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On Awareness: Shaolin Monks & Fighter Jets

March 22, 2017

In years past, I had the opportunity to speak with a high-ranking monk from the Shaolin Temple. Starting when he was 10, he'd been training for over 25 years by the time we'd met. 

He told me: 

"Many people believe that the only way to meditate is to sit on a cushion, but sitting meditation is just one type. At the temple, everything we do is meditation. All of our training is done with these guidelines. We simply focus on breath and movement together."

When many people think of a physical practice, they envision a typical "workout" at a gym. And that's not entirely untrue: we go through a series of movements & exercises to train our bodies. Undeniably, it's good for your health, your physique, and your general physical capacity. 

Those are obvious. We need only scroll through Instagram to see the latest and greatest in the world of movement. 

What's less obvious, though, are the emergent properties that can develop throughout the course of training over many years. These are difficult to pinpoint and quantify, as they're only accessible through direct personal experience that arises from a sustained long-term practice. 

One of those qualities is awareness. 

A useful framework for conceptualizing skill development in any area is the four stages of competence: 

Unconscious incompetence: The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

Conscious incompetence: Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

Conscious competence: The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.

Unconscious competence: The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.


In general, I find this chart of utility for conceptualizing the different stages of skill acquisition and where one might fall on that journey. 

Similarly, I believe you can also evaluate the strength and clarity of awareness in your physical practice. Sharpening your awareness gives you:

1. A way to gauge mental difficulty/effort of a movement;
2. Improved coordination & proprioception;
3. Sharpened attention, mindfulness, and concentration under duress;
4. Feedback into the limits of your mind and mental toughness. 

So how exactly do you build "awareness", and what does that even mean?

Simply put: your awareness is your ability to direct and shape focused attention.

Think of it like flying a fighter jet. 

For a pilot, it's important to be able to direct your awareness around the jet to specific areas, absorbing & parsing new information with focused, direct concentration as the situation requires. That's the first part of awareness. However, it wouldn't serve any pilot to be thrown off by a flashing beacon on the radar, or upon aural contact from base. They need to maintain a larger, expanded circle of awareness in addition to focusing their attention on a single point.


Of course, that doesn't happen the first day they hit basic training. They train for years. They practice for thousands of hours. As they improve, they don't only improve their ability. They can see the gaps in their learning more readily. They notice they're calmer when performing maneuvers. The rate at which they learn new skills increases. 

This is as much an attitude towards learning as it is a quality of mind.

And with respect to awareness and the physical, it's the same. 


We all start with conscious incompetence: lacking the means to fully understand awareness in the context of the body, we are unable to conceptualize or evaluate what that even means. Sure, you can think of your armbut that's different than an awareness of your arm in space. Or how you can modulate muscle tension, consciously supinate, or contract a little harder. 

When you start to really look and listen to your practice, you start to notice. 

Maybe it's that you really feel the contraction of your lats when you do pullups. Maybe it's the endurance of your last 3 fingers when working the hangboard. Or your ability to retract your scapulae during a front lever. 

By consciously directing your attention, you're able to notice new insights about the situation and improve your performance of a movement in real time. At the same time, as movements become easier, you're able to more readily direct your awareness to certain parts of your body, breathing, and attention. 


As you begin to sharpen your awareness more and more, you're able to perform movements or engage with the physical world while also readily evaluating and analyzing the data from your movements. The process of attuning your awareness can provide you time-sensitive data that would otherwise be inaccessible to an untrained or unfocused mind. 

Progressions are great, but nothing beats knowledge of oneself for busting through plateaus and targeting weaknesses. 

When you train, don't just slack off and check your phone between your sets. Dig into your mind - what did you notice about that set? How was your form? What was hardest? What was easiest? Why? Does this tell you about a momentary gap in mindfulness, or a long-term issue that needs addressing? Where was your attention directed? In your body? Outside? What does this tell you about the next set? What does this tell you about yourself?

Because the "rest break" isn't just for rest. 


It's for parsing your embodied, physical experience and turning that into data for your mind to analyze so you can become better.

Ultimately, this is one of the most valuable parts of a movement practice. 

Developing the habit of investigating your experience, of concentration under duress, and of ever-expanding mindfulness in the present. 


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