Effortless Skill, Takes a Lot of Effort

I was talking the other day to someone who said that they practiced Chi Kung, but they didn’t do any formal movements or set breathing. They did it intuitively, they said. They also allowed their body’s needs for nutrition to guide their eating and their own instincts would be a better guide to martial arts techniques in the event of having to fight. Now this got me thinking and got Will and I chatting. This idea of intuition needed some unpacking. In the case of this particular person it took a couple of questions to establish that they knew almost nothing about Chi Kung and whatever they thought they were doing, their use of Chi Kung was limited to the name. But it did make me wonder. How much can we listen to our body, rely on instincts and follow our intuition?

I found myself remembering musicians who did, it seemed, play by intuition. They could invent the tune as they played it, totally improvised, spontaneous, fitting the mood of the listeners and apparently utterly inspired. Ah, but hold on. Did they pick up an instrument for the first time and do that? Im pretty sure the answer is no. What they did was practice with their instrument until they played it unconsciously as an extension of their own body. They learned how music is structured so that they would stay within a key without giving it a second thought and if they moved from a major to a minor during a piece it would be unconsciously deliberate to change the mood. Their understanding of what order of notes would ‘work’ was perfectly unconscious. No, such playing is not really intuitive and spontaneous, it is the result of years of learned method and technique, but learned so well that it can be done without the effort of the cerebral cortex, it is the cerebellum that is responsible for such actions; much the way most people walk or use a knife and fork or indeed typists who don’t need to consider the keys, but only look at the screen and choose the words.

What we consider intuition is principally the ability to know or do something unconsciously. You realise that you are aware of that person in a crowded room who is feeling nervous, out of place. Is that intuition or did you simply notice some body language that implied such feeling, but you were not aware of the initial perception because that happened at an unconscious level. Of course the amount of our perceptions that reach the conscious level is truly tiny, in the region of a billionth of the actual information that comes in through our various senses. The bits of information that reach the conscious part of the mind will depend on what we are habitually tuned in to. The same will be true for those who just know what the weather is going to do etc.

So what about intuitively knowing how to fight, or eat, or even exercise? Ask yourself this, does your appetite always direct you to the right balance of nutrition? We appear to have evolved over a long period of time when sufficient nutrition was a rarity. As a result, we all have an inbuilt tendency to fill up when we get the chance. We ‘intuitively’ know that fat has a lot of potential energy in it so are automatically drawn to it. We know ‘intuitively’ that a fruit that is ripe and won’t give you a bad stomach is sweet and full of energy, so again we are drawn to it. In a million years of scarcity these are useful survival instincts but today when we have access to unlimited fat and sweet foods, following our intuition, our instincts, will kill us. Whenever I hear someone say they just intuitively know what is a healthy diet, it always turns out to be a combination of what they were fed as children and what they have learned since. All they mean is that they don’t consider it consciously, but of course their unconscious learned knowledge is guiding them. It may be that if their learned knowledge is correct then they may well have good intuition, but does that mean they will not have an appetite for very unhealthy food or simply that good habits overcome the unhealthy drives.

It seems to me that if, and only if, you have a well learned skill/knowledge, you can reach the point of using it unconsciously, which will seem to you that you are not thinking about it, because consciously, you aren’t. You may well think of that as intuition or indeed inspiration but actually it just makes you very proficient. One person might very well aggressively fight with what they think of as instinct, but it is probably just a few moves they have seen others do and they aren’t thinking because they are simply in a fight or flight state. Such a person will of course loose to anyone with real skill, although they might do okay against another untrained person simply if they have more aggression.

Really intuitive, instinctive, unconscious skills are, I suspect, always the result of many many hours of training. Shifting skills back to the unconscious cerebellum is a normal process of learning. Effortless skill, takes a lot of effort.

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