Martial arts for your mind: thought kata

One of the great analogies for growing in virtue is that of a battle against the passions and appetites. The particular virtues which are like a battle in the moment are temperance and fortitude.

But the idea of a “thought kata” can be used to develop the intellectual as well as the moral virtues. A kata is a form of ritualized rote learning in Japanese and Asian martial arts.

When I studied Isshin-Ryu karate, I found that three forms of training most prepared my mind and body for fighting:

  1. Kata (MMA people hate this, but whatever)
    Kata is practicing a preset pattern of attacks, blocks, and combos. They were allegedly used to encode entire fighting systems into an easy to memorize format so that the moves could be passed on to the young. Katas must be memorized and preformed with absolute conviction and focus. I still do two katas on a regular basis.

  2. Makiwara (heavy bag is the same thing, really)
    Makiwara is hitting a post in order to strengthen your muscles and toughen your hands. The idea is to work up to full contact to work on focus and to practice hitting something with resistance similar to a rib cage or abdominal wall. I prefer hitting a heavy bag, but when I was in high school and for my first two years of college, I hit the makiwara every day before I bought a heavy bag. I’m certain that a great deal of my punching power (my instructor said I punched unusually hard for somebody my size) came from the makiwara.

  3. Kumite/Randori (sparring)
    This would be free-flowing combat or sparing. We did this most often with jiu-jitsu drills on Fridays, but every couple of weeks we’d do drills with specific constraints. My favorites were boxing gloves for rounds, jiu-jitsu rolling, and a block-strike patterning drill from Escrima.  

As I’ve grown older and less focused on martial arts, I’ve found that there are three similar levels of training for your mind:

  1. Kata
    A thought kata would be learning grammar, logic, and specific thought processes or patterns for approaching problems (like mindset).

  2. Makiwara
    Training the mind in this way would be applying the rules of grammar or testing the rules of logic or the basic thought processes against self-imposed obstacles. This would involve practicing difficult

  3. Kumite
    As with physical sparring, this involves a partner or group of partners. Kumite might be arguing with a friend for fun, debating somebody online, join a debate club, or submitting a paper or speech to a conference. The difficulty with kumite of this sort is that many people take disagreement to be offensive or a personal challenge. Other ways to practice managing your thoughts might be to challenge your body. I used to warm up on weights, run a mile as fast as I could, and immediately do the big three to practice focusing while under psychological stress. One might also use the lecture-to-the-wall method of studying in order to practice explaining and defending difficult material to an imaginary audience.

Problem Solving Thought Kata:

My senior English teacher in high school made me memorize this:

  1. Identify and define the problem
  2. Form tentative hypotheses
  3. Gather data
  4. Test hypotheses
  5. Evaluate and decide

He called it, “the thought kata.” That’s actually where I got the idea of a 3-tiered system of training your mind.

It has gotten me out of many situations in life and helped me write many papers.

The world is a vast and confusing place and its machinations can even seem opaque and threatening. But if you deal with your immediate experiences in the context of problem solving, that opacity becomes less menacing because most problems are solvable.

Here’s how the thought kata can be used in Makiwara and Kumite:

Makiwara – Intentionally find difficult problems to solve that have no risk. Buy an LSAT book, a logic text book, or use khanacademy.org. Another option is to practice using the kata when reading philosophy books or reading books with which you suspect you’ll disagree. You could even write a paper or a blog post on a favorite subject and put it online to see what the critics say.


Kumite – The next time you face anxiety or a sudden problem which elicits your emotions, step back from your feelings and define the problem. From that point, if you’ve memorized the kata, the other steps will be more of less automatic. But you’ll find yourself being more satisfied with your decisions because you made them. You didn’t just “go with the flow of the moment.”

This process, which has become almost automatic to me except in times of anxiety or depression has done a lot to improve my quality of life.

I hope that it’s helpful to you.

Are there any thought katas that have helped you?

 

 

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