A fable: There was a father with two sons. They owned a farm, and over the years had accumulated a modest fortune. The father knew, as any good father does, that the smartest son is the best son, so on his death bed, he devised a contest to decide which of his two deserved to inherit the fortune.
Each son was to take one gold coin from the fortune, and with it, fill the family barn as much as possible. Whoever was more successful would inherit the rest of the fortune, along with the farm and the greater share of their father’s love.
The elder son went to the local grocery store. He bought as many of those cans of compressed whipped cream as he could afford. He chose the store brand. He was smart, see? He knew if he bought the Reddi-Wip he’d just be paying more for advertising.
He was able to buy a whole pallet of the stuff, which he brought home and emptied, two cans at a time, onto the floor of the barn. But, as time went on the cream got warm and collapsed, and even as he emptied the last can, the barn was only filled a few inches.
The younger son, meanwhile, knew his brother was smart, and it would take some savvy to beat him. He considered several options as he walked up and down the aisles of the local hardware store, but eventually a strategy dawned on him. He bought a candle and a box of matches. When he returned, he set the candle in the middle of the barn, struck a match, and the father and brother saw the room fill with light, from floor to ceiling and into every corner.
There is martial art in this story. In training, we often think about space – taking it, filling it, barring others from entering it. We learn early, as the elder son knew, that a space can be filled by physically occupying it. Two people can’t stand in the same place, after all.
What the younger brother knew, though, is that there are more subtle ways to fill space. He was sensitive to an idea that is crucial to martial arts.
Have you ever heard someone described as lighting up whatever room they are in? Or have you ever had a friend show up in a sour mood and drag down the mood of everyone around? We have all experienced these effects, and whether we realize it or not, have also caused them.
When you enter a room, you change it. You cast your light into it. The people there become aware of you. Your demeanor affects them, for better or worse. You cannot stop this from happening (except possibly through extensive training).
A homework assignment: To see this effect in the wild, go to a grocery store. Stand near another shopper. Not too close – don’t make it weird. Just stand close enough that you can see what they are looking at, and continue shopping.
Odds are they will change what they are doing. It is an unconscious response. Experiments have shown most people are unaware of even doing it. But, people will usually move along, turn away, or look at a different product.
This behavior may be a survival instinct, a natural inclination toward privacy, and away from giving away too much information about yourself – even if that information is just what brand of whipped cream you prefer.
You could instead go to a book store. Look around. Pick up a book, leaf through it, and set it down. Now, notice there aren’t piles of books lying everywhere, set there by other patrons. Someone must work at these stores, shelving books and tidying things. But book stores always feel vacant.
They wouldn’t stay in business otherwise. Watching someone shop causes them to change their behavior; the last thing a book seller wants to do is change your behavior while you are in the process of deciding to buy a book. So they give you space. Not overtly, though. They never scurry out of the aisle just as you enter it. They just happen to not be in your way. There is something to learn from Barnes & Noble employees about how not to be seen.
This effect happens wherever you go. Wherever you are is different because you are there.
There was once a man named Bob Humphrey. He was a marine, a veteran of Iwo Jima, and a mentor to several of my mentors. He articulated a refinement of this idea. A goal. He called it a creed.
The room isn’t just different because you are there. It is better because you are there. It is safer. The people are happier.
But that idea is a little different from what I argued before. His creed suggests we don’t just observe the change we have on the world. We choose it. We shape it.
Bob discussed this idea with ninja grandmaster Masaaki Hatsumi, and as a result of that conversation, Hatsumi awarded Bob an honorary 10th dan – a rank indicating mastery of a martial art. The implication is that whatever Hatsumi teaches – normally through decades of physical training – Bob had already understood.
Bob was exempt from a test the rest of us have to go through at some point to demonstrate our understanding. It’s called the sakki test, and it’s the only formalized test there is in the art I study. You kneel. Someone stands behind you and tries to cut your head open with a training sword. Avoid this and you pass.
There are videos of this online. Take a quick look: sakki test
You would be forgiven for thinking this test is a parlor trick. It certainly has that appearance. But that’s not what it is.
I wouldn’t try to convince you that it’s a real attack, either. Not exactly. The cut is real in the sense that you can really get hit. But it’s a test – not an earnest attack. The people who give this test are ninja masters with decades of experience. If all they wanted to do was hit you, they’d hit you. There are no two ways about that.
I’ve heard some people who took it describe their experience like this: The tester projects his intent to attack you. You sense that, and when you do, you move out of the way.
If you want to roll your eyes at that idea, I wouldn’t blame you. But bear with me for a minute. I know what that explanation sounds like. It sounds like mysticism. It sounds like some vague kung fu bullshit. Harness your chi. Open your third eye.
Consider this though. We sense people’s intention all the time. When someone walks toward you with their arm extended for a hand shake, you sense their intention. When you’re in heavy traffic, and the front bumper of the car next to you starts to inch into your way, you sense the driver’s intention, even if you can’t see the driver. There’s no magic in that. You don’t need a third eye to see it. The ones you have are fine.
Imagine a staring contest, where you look someone in the eye and they look back, and the first one to look away loses. There should be nothing difficult about a staring contest, right? It isn’t physically demanding to hold your head still, or focus your eyes on something for a while. But something weird happens. You see other person, and they see you, and you see that they see you, and they see that you see that they see you. Both of you are aware of each other, and both of you are aware of this dynamic.
It’s abstract. It’s not physical. Even still, it is so intense that most people will struggle to endure it. They’ll laugh to relieve the tension. Or they’ll look away. And then, if you ask them what happened, why they lost, they’re won’t be able to explain it. But something did happen.
Another homework assignment: You can do this one in a grocery store as well. But, you probably shouldn’t.
Pick another shopper and look them in the eye. Don’t make a sound. Don’t respond if they say anything. Don’t move unless you have to in order to keep them in sight. And most importantly, do not look away. Keep eye contact no matter what happens.
Can you imagine the effect this would have on someone? Can you imagine the effect it would have on you, if you were on the receiving end? What would you do?
That’s right! You’d get the fuck out of there. And you would be right to do so, because what that person is doing isn’t normal. They’re messing around with forces they most likely don’t understand.
Those forces are fundamental to martial arts. We just call it a connection, because that’s all it is – a connection between two people – a process where two people’s thought processes become intertwined.
A connection can take numerous forms. It happens when a person puts their hands on you, or when you lock eyes. Those are the obvious examples, the ones the older brother from our fable would think of. There are more subtle forms, as well, which the younger brother might have considered, and which the sakki test just might be meant to explore.
When you sit for the test, you are deprived of your most powerful tools. You’re not in physical contact with the tester. You can’t see them. Instead, you’re forced to use secondary tools.
The hairs on the back of your neck might detect a shift in the air pressure, indicating that something behind you has started moving. We have a weak form of echolocation. You might have felt it when you got into your car, and somehow you just knew, without looking, that the back window was down. The air just moves a little differently based on the shape and size of where we are, and we can just barely sense it.
Or you might feel a tremor in the floor – a sound, really, with a frequency below about twenty Hertz. These vibrations are called infrasound. Like infrared light, they are just beyond what you consciously perceive. But it affects you anyway. Horror movies use infrasound to unsettle you, even when nothing unsettling is actually happening yet on screen. Places people describe as haunted tend to have infrasound as a part of their natural harmonics. The fear associated with those sounds, or the feeling some people describe as a presence in an empty room, is likely because those same frequencies tend to reverberate through the ground when people walk on them.
We also collect a lot of information that our brains filter out before it reaches our conscious process. And even though we don’t consciously register them, they have a powerful effect on our perception and decision making. This principle is how subliminal advertising works. And cutting edge neuroscience is only beginning to fathom the depths of how they affect us.
Human cognition is complicated, and we’re not going to solve it here. The sakki test, the connectivity we feel in martial arts, Bob Humphrey’s creed, the fable of the brother with the candle, and the feeling you get when someone reaches out to shake your hand – these are all facets of the same phenomenon, that human beings are connected, and in subtle, nearly inscrutable ways.