“You cannot learn anything if you already feel that you know.”
You might have heard it before that you should empty your cup before learning anything new, particularly when it comes to something like martial arts. This means, of course, that you rid yourself of preconceptions (how you think things should be) and start from the beginning, keeping yourself open and receptive to new ideas and teachings. This is such an important concept, I think. Everyone comes into the dojo (particularly guys) with their ideas of how to punch, kick, etc. and can easily fall into the trap of learning these techniques by reshaping or refining their existing notions rather than tearing those ideas down completely and starting from scratch learning these techniques. That is, emptying their cups. To truly develop you need to let go of these old, crude ideas and be willing to be a blank slate, be that empty cup that’s willing to be filled.
I think there’s a danger when someone goes too far with the idea of emptying their cup. These are people who have either emptied their cup willingly or been sort of beaten down into that state of mind. They are now docile students looking to be shown and told everything — step by step — that needs to be performed for a given move or counter attack. They become almost like robots in a way, awaiting the next command to spring into action. I see this pretty often, and not only with junior belts like myself. This is something that just about anyone from beginner to intermediate can fall victim to. I was doing it myself for a while until I realized that it wasn’t doing me any good.
It really dawned on me one class when we were given license to do whatever combatives came to mind following the main technique being taught. We were shown how to do a pluck from a front choke, I believe, and were then told to “use your combatives” after we did the pluck. Immediately, almost all of the students (including me) looked blankly at the instructor. “What combatives?” The instuctor was somewhat perplexed, “You know. Combatives. Mix it up. Put in some kicks, elbows, clinches, knees…. Whatever feels right. Go full on and devastate the attacker. You know. Combatives! The offensive techniques you’ve been learning all this time. There’s no ‘right’ way to do it and no wrong way — other than freezing or not going at it like your life is on the line!” Some students picked up on it and began some jumbled, awkward combatives, eventually falling into a comfortable, personalized combination that felt right to them, probably unaware that they were starting to put their own signature moves together, moves that they will resort to automatically in the years to come. Others continued looking sheepishly at the instructor for more guidance. You could sense the instructor becoming frustrated too. And rightly so. These students had evidently emptied their cups so much they had no common sense left to apply to their teachings.
I think it’s essential for students to always keep their perspective and thinking caps on. As a result of this belief I always try to maintain perspective and relate the class to the real world. I try to see how this would apply and, although I hope to never have to use this stuff for real, I imagine situations as I’m training to provide some context to the lesson. You can never let your body take over completely in class, you have to always keep your head in the game too — keep thinking. This is sometimes easier said than done as we stumble to the finish line of class, exhausted and drenched in sweat. It’s as my instructors frequently say, “You aren’t trying to defeat your opponent’s moves, you’re trying to defeat their mind.”
Do I still fall into this trap? Go on autopilot and just go through the motions? Sure. I have such a long way to go and so many things yet to learn and also unlearn. But I firmly believe that this awareness has helped me progress and made it possible to function more smoothly in class when I need to “get creative”. It’s worth pointing out that sparring also helps in this regard in that it forces you to keep thinking, keeps the head engaged. And keeping your head engaged is what it’s all about.
So empty that cup. Lose all your preconceptions of what it is you are “supposed” to be doing. But never shut down that noggin. That thing between your ears is being trained just as much, if not more, than your body.