Abdi is my longtime friend and gongfu brother. He likes fast cars and even faster motorcycles. For a few years, he owned and raced a BMW M3 that had been modified for competition. I drove it once. It was stoopid fast.
There was a switch under the dash that disconnected the car’s computer. Flip it and you are on your own. I had no idea how much help we get in steering. With the computer disconnected, I may as well have been piloting a space shuttle. It was like vertigo. My muscle memory was not up to the task. I wanted to go back to my Flintstone’s car with the stone wheels.
Abdi explained that at racing speeds of 120-140 mph, you need more control than you can get from a computer. I have grown accustomed to using this crutch, as have most people. For Abdi, it’s like playing the piano with mittens. For him, the car is an extension of his mind, and his awareness in this area is a hundred times keener than mine. The computer is an impediment to feeling the road through his extended sensorimotor apparatus.
That computer is like our muscle memory. What is that exactly? The Wikipedia entry has a pretty good description:
Muscle memory has been used synonymously with motor learning, which is a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition.
When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems.
Examples of muscle memory are found in many everyday activities that become automatic and improve with practice, such as riding a bicycle, typing on a keyboard, typing in a PIN, playing a melody or phrase on a musical instrument, playing video games, or performing different algorithms for a Rubik’s Cube.
The car’s computer has been programmed to simulate the felt-sense we associate with driving. Technology has come a long way, but the feel of driving a 21st century vehicle is similar to driving a 1950 Cadillac, even though mechanically quite different.
Muscle memory does a similar thing for our movements. We repeat an action enough and the nervous system sets up an algorithm to free up our attention to do other cool stuff. Good thing, too. The computing power of body consciousness is at least a million times that of our conscious mind.
But unlike the car’s computer, the body-mind is always learning new stuff—not all good. We accumulate some bad habits over the years and rarely take the time to clear them. We usually just add new muscle memories, sometimes in direct contradiction to prior ones. And that results in internal conflict, often leading to health problems, achy joints, and premature aging.
Taijiquan gives us a system to clear old programming.
Like Abdi, we have to turn off the computer and learn to drive this thing ourselves. Most physical activities—sports, martial arts, dancing—train skills by programming muscle memory. Practice, practice, practice…then forget it.
This doesn’t work for taiji, though. It depends on consciously engaging each movement and feeling what is going on moment by moment. Sure, there will be muscle memories, but the student’s job is to destroy them again and again and rediscover movement in the present.
Any time you repeat an action, your nervous system will try to install an algorithm. It’s like setting up a machine to do that work. I notice this particularly in push hands. Give your partner the same challenge a few times and watch the eyes glaze as the machine takes over. This is a form of trance induction. While your partner is busily saving the algorithm to the hard drive—or looking for an old one—you have the advantage. Porch light is on but nobody’s home.
This is what makes taijiquan a “moving meditation.” You keep bringing your attention back to what is happening NOW. To do this you must consciously override your nervous system. Again and again. In doing so, your body-mind learns to resonate with what is going on now and your conscious mind taps into a multi-dimensional awareness that is inaccessible in memory, muscle or otherwise.
Turn the computer off and learn to DRIVE!