I sometimes teach the martial art of aikido. The way I was originally taught, you had to learn how to “feel the flow of ki” (basically life energy) through you and from your opponent, and you had to make sure that your movements — both physical and mental — were such that your “ki” would blend with and guide the “ki” of your opponent. Even after I stopped believing in ki, though, there were some core elements of the art that I just couldn’t do, let alone teach, without thinking and talking in terms of ki flow.
A great example of this is the “unbendable arm“. This is a pretty critical thing to get right for most aikido techniques. And it feels really weird. Most people when they first get it think that the person trying to fold their arm isn’t actually pushing because it doesn’t feel like effort to keep their arm straight. Many students (including me once upon a time) end up taking this basic practice as compelling proof that ki is real. Even after I realized that ki wasn’t real, I still had to teach unbendable arm this way because nothing else seemed to work.
…and then I found anatomical resources like Becoming a Supple Leopard.
It turns out that the unbendable arm works when:
- your thoracic spine is in a non-kyphotic position
- your head isn’t hanging forward (which would mimic the thoracic tension of kyphosis)
- your shoulder is rolled back and down enough for the part of your clavicle immediately above the sternoclavicular joint to stick out a bit (see here)
- your shoulder has slight tension in it from holding your elbow in a pointing-down position
That’s it. If you do this correctly, you can relax most of your other arm muscles and still be able to resist pretty enormous force on your arm.
Why, you might ask? Well, from what I have gathered, this lets you engage your latissimus dorsi (pretty large back muscles) in stabilizing your elbow. There’s also a bit of strategy where you don’t actually have to fully oppose the arm-bender’s strength; you just have to stabilize the elbow enough to be able to direct the push-down-on-elbow force into the push-up-on-wrist force.
But the point is, by understanding something about proper posture, you can cut literally months of training down to about ten minutes.
To oversimplify it a little bit, there are basically three things to get right about proper posture for martial arts (at least as I know them):
- You need to get your spine in the right position and brace it properly. (For the most part and for most people, this means tucking your pelvis, straightening your thoracic spine a bit, and tensing your abs a little.)
- You need to use your hip and shoulder ball-and-socket joints properly. (For the most part this seems to mean using them instead of your spine to move, and putting torque in them by e.g. screwing your elbow downward when reaching forward.)
- You need to keep your tissue supple & mobile. (E.g., tight hamstrings can pull your hips out of alignment and prevent you from using your hip joints instead of your mid-lumbar spine (i.e. waist) to bend over. Also, thoracic inflexibility usually locks people in thoracic kyphosis, making it extremely difficult to transfer force effectively between their lower body and their arms.)
My experience is that as people learn how to feel these three principles in their bodies, they’re able to correct their physical postures whenever they need to, rather than having to wait for my seemingly magical touch to make an aikido technique suddenly really easy.
It’s worth noting that this is mostly known, even in aikido dojos (“training halls”). They just phrase it differently and don’t understand the mechanics of it. They’ll say things like “Don’t bend over; the other guy can pull you down if you do” and “Let the move be natural” and “Relax more; let ki flow through you freely.”
But it turns out that getting the mechanical principles of posture down makes basically all the magic of aikido something even a beginner can learn how to see and correct.
A quick anecdote along these lines, which despite being illustrative, you should take as me being a bit of an idiot:
I once visited a dojo near the CFAR office. That night they were doing a practice basically consisting of holding your partner’s elbow and pulling them to the ground. It works by a slight shift sideways to cause a curve in the lumbar spine, cutting power between their lower and upper bodies. Then you pull straight down and there’s basically nothing they can do about it.
However, the lesson was in terms of feeling ki flow, and the instruction was to pull straight down. I was feeling trollish and a little annoyed about the wrongness and authoritarian delivery of the instruction, so I went to the instructor and asked: “Sensei, I see you pulling slightly sideways, and I had perhaps misheard the instructions to be that we should pull straight down. Should I be pulling slightly sideways too?”
At which point the sensei insisted that the verbal instructions were correct, concentrated on preventing the sideways shift in his movements, and obliterated his ability to demonstrate the technique for the rest of the night.
Brienne Yudkowsky has a lovely piece in which she refers to “mental postures”. I highly recommend reading it. She does a better job of pointing at the thing than I think I would do here.
…but if you really don’t want to read it just right now, here’s the key element I’ll be using: There seems to be a mental analog to physical posture.
We’ve had quite a bit of analogizing rationality as a martial art here. So, as a martial arts practitioner and instructor with a taste of the importance of deeply understanding body mechanics, I really want to ask: What, exactly, are the principles of good mental posture for the Art of Rationality?
In the way I’m thinking of it, this isn’t likely to be things like “consider the opposite” or “hold off on proposing solutions“. I refer to things of this breed as “mental movements” and think they’re closer to the analogs of individual martial techniques than they are principles of mental orientation.
That said, we can look at mental movements to get a hint about what a good mental posture might do. In the body, good physical posture gives you both more power and more room for error: if you let your hands drift behind your head in ashihonage, having a flexible thoracic spine and torqued shoulders and braced abs can make it much harder for your opponent to throw you to the ground even though you’ve blundered. So, by way of analogy, what might an error in attempting to (say) consider the opposite look like, and what would a good “mental posture” be that would make the errormatter less?
(I encourage you to think on your own about an answer for at least 60 seconds before corrupting your mind with my thoughts below. I really want a correct answer here, and I doubt I have one yet.)
When I think of how I’ve messed up in attempts to consider the opposite, I can remember several instances when my tone was dutiful. I felt like I was supposed to consider the opinion that I disagreed with or didn’t want to have turn out to be true. And yet, it felt boring or like submitting or something like that to really take that perspective seriously. I felt like I was considering the opposite roughly the same way a young child replies to their parent saying “Now say that you’re sorry” with an almost sarcastic “I’m sorry.”
What kind of “mental posture” would have let me make this mistake and yet still complete the movement? Or better yet, what mental posture would have prevented the mistake entirely? At this point I intuit that I have an answer but it’s a little tricky for me to articulate. I think there’s a way I can hold my mind that makes the childish orientation to truth-seeking matter less. I don’t do it automatically, much like most people don’t automatically sit up straight, but I sort of know how to see my grasping at a conclusion as overreaching and then… pause and get my mental feet under my mental hips before I try again.
I imagine that wasn’t helpful – but I think we have examples of good and bad mental posture in action. In attachment theory, I think that the secure attachment style is a description of someone who is using good mental posture even when in mentally/emotionally threatening situations, whereas the anxious and avoidant styles are descriptions of common ways people “tense up” when they lose good mental posture. I also think there’s something interesting in how sometimes when I’m offended I get really upset or angry, and sometimes the same offense just feels like such a small thing – and sometimes I can make the latter happen intentionally.
The story I described above of the aikido sensei I trolled also highlights something that I think is important. In this case, although he didn’t get very flustered, he couldn’t change what he was doing. He seemed mentally inflexible, like the cognitive equivalent of someone who can’t usefully block an overhead attack because of a stiff upper back restricting his shoulder movement. I feel like I’ve been in that state lots of times, so I feel like I can roughly imagine how my basic mental/emotional orientation to my situation and way of thinking would have to be in order to have been effective in his position right then – and why that can be tricky.
I don’t feel like I’ve adequately answered the question of what good mental posture is yet. But I feel like I have some intuitions – sort of like being able to talk about proper posture in terms of “good ki flow”. But I also notice that there seem to be direct analogs of the three core parts of good physical posture that I mentioned above:
- Have a well-braced “spine”. Based on my current fledgling understanding, this seems to look something like taking a larger perspective, like imagining looking back at this moment 30 years hence and noticing what does and does not matter. (I think that’s akin to tucking your hips, which is a movement in service of posture but isn’t strictly part of the posture.) I imagine this is enormously easier when one has a well-internalized sense ofsomething to protect.
- Move your mind in strong & stable ways, rather than losing “spine”. I think this can look like “Don’t act while triggered”, but it’s more a warning not to try to do heavy cognitive work while letting your mental “spine” “bend”. Instead, move your mind in ways that you would upon reflection want your mind to move, and that you expect to be able to bear “weight”.
- Make your mind flexible. Achieve & maintain full mental range of movement. Don’t get “stiff”, and view mental inflexibility as a risk to your mental health.
All three of these are a little hand-wavy. That third one in particular I haven’t really talked about much – in part because I don’t really know how to work on that well. I have some guesses, and I might write up some thoughts about that later. (A good solution in the body is called “mobilization”, basically consisting of pushing on tender/stiff spots while you move the surrounding joints through their maximal range of motion.) Also, I don’t know if there are more principles for the mind than these three, or if these three are drawing too strongly on the analogy and are actually a little distracting. I’m still at the stage where, for mental posture, I keep wanting to say the equivalent of “relax more and let ki flow.”
A lot of people say I have excellent physical posture. I think I have a reasonably clear idea of how I made my posture a habit. I’d like to share that because I’ve been doing the equivalent in my mind for mental posture and am under the impression that it’s getting promising results.
I think my physical practice comes down to three points:
- Recognize that having good posture gives you superpowers. It’s really hard to throw me down, and I can pretty effortlessly pull people to the ground. A lot of that is martial skill, but a huge chunk of it is just that good posture gives me excellent leverage. This transfers to being able to lift really heavy things and move across the room very efficiently and quickly when needed. This also gives me a pretty big leg up on learning physical skills. Recognizing that these were things I’d gain from learning good posture gave me a lot of drive to stick to my practice.
- Focus on how the correct posture feels, and exactly how it’s different from glitchy posture. I found it super-important to notice that my body feels different in specific ways when my shoulders are in the right position versus when they’re too far forward or back. Verbal instructions like “Pull shoulders back” don’t work nearly as well as the feeling in the body.
- Choose one correction at a time, and always operate from that posture, pausing and correcting yourself when you’re about to slip up. Getting good shoulder posture required that I keep my shoulders back all the time. When I would reach for water, I’d notice when my shoulder was in the too-far-forward position, and then pull back and fix my shoulder position before trying again. This sometimes required trying at very basic tasks several times, often quite slowly, until I could get it right each time.
Although I didn’t add this until quite late, I would now add a fourth point when giving advice on getting good physical posture: make sure to mobilize the parts of your body that are either (a) preventing you from moving into a good position or (b) requiring you to be very stiff or tense to hold that position. The trouble is, I know how to do that for the body, but I’m not as sure about how to do that for the mind.
But the three bullet points above are instructions that I can follow with respect to mental posture, I think.
So, to the extent that that seems possible for you, I invite you to try to do the same – and let me know how it goes.