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Embrace The Wobble - developing skills toward metastable states, the use of play over rigid practice

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Much has been made of the role of play in traditional Thai pedagogy. Instead of more rigidly define skills taught mechanically, with precision, a great deal of Muay Thai in Thailand is developed in group experiences, through play and imitation. I've written about this a bit in these two articles:

1. The Slow Cook versus the Hack – Thailand Muay Thai Development

2. Precision – A Basic Motivation Mistake in Some Western Training

And relatedly, Sylvie and I have talked about flow state in our Muay Thai Bones podcast, episode #2

This post is about metastable states, and the wobble. You can read the more complete quote from an essay on Simondon, sited at the bottom of this post, but this section below presents a beautifully simple illustration of what a metastable state is. A wobbling bowling pin. It is nether falling, nor stably at rest. It is neither, and in a sense, both. The thread linked at bottom is about Brain Criticality, and the theory that the human brain pursues and exists upon a line that rides between phases, a line of criticality, which is not that different than the metastability of a bowling pin mid-wobble. And, while a bowling pin will not wobble any important length of time, a living system, the human brain, may have evolved to ride on this line of wobble.



This is when we get to deeper philosophical ideas, and more practical ideas in skill development. A reason why a system might want to ride the wobble, and not lay in an energy state of stability is that a sunken state of rigidity cannot take in events outside of its structure and framework. A system that has wobble can more readily incorporate unanticipated information, is more readily able to adapt. Buddhism tells us that life is suffering, and that nothing can stay what it is. Everything is in a line of decay. What is this other than the wobble of existence? The critical line of dissolution. The legendary Thai 19th century monk Somdet Doh likened living to falling from a very tall tree. If theories about brain criticality are correct, no matter how simplified you make your life, or complex, the brain will find a critical line in it, like the surfer's line in a wave. I suspect that this is the reason for so much simplification in Buddhistic practices of meditation. They simply experience, strip it down to such bare elements, in order to expose the Nature of that wave, the way the brain will find that line, that wobble. When life (and experience) becomes much more complex, it's much easier to blame (or credit) our states on dramatic moments or events...but, the same line of criticality is likely at work, we're taking the same line on the same kind of wave.

This could mean in a very interesting way, that the ascension in fighting skill is a form of meditation. Meaning, it's about seeking that line, the surfer's line, on a narrowly defined wave, a wave that triggers fear, adrenaline, flight, amygdala, shame and pride, drawing on our baser instincts and social relations. The practice is full of techniques, practices, but ultimately what is being sought in that line of criticality. 

Its for this reason that while the training of specifically defined, and mechanically correct skill-sets (in drills) could very well be advantageous, this isn't really the practice of what elite fighting is. It's not about being able to perform memorized patterns under great stress. Ultimately, it's about finding that line of criticality, a line that embraces the wobble, the way that a fighter can be both stably unstable, such that it can be open to a great variety of information. This is something Sylvie and I talk about as "growing eyes". You cannot grow eyes without seeking the wobble, in your training. Because its about hunting the wobble, gaining a feeling for it, there must be a degree of uncertainty, and in fact often a very high degree of uncertainty...sometimes the bowling pin will fall. The shorthand for this is play.

In this way we gain access, perhaps, to the artistic line that combat fighting realistically presents, and why we thrill when we see fighters find it.



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One fundamental note, it occurs to me to add, is that when we see and feel the wobble our immediate thought is that something is wrong. And there are good reasons for this. It usually means that something is amiss, some piece of balance, or a placement of weight, or even timing. Sure. But, there is another thing going on when the wobble presents itself. It means that the student, the fighter, is risking the wobble, feeling and exposing themselves to the metastability, and this exposure may very well be the PATH to a refined sense of balance and (meta)stability. Yes, the wobble may be corrected by direction. Put your foot here, be sure to keep your hand up...yes. But ultimately it is about the body engaging with the very instability itself, and finding/feeling the unique ways in which it can ride the line of the wobble. Just as a skateboarder or a surfer does.

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This account of Caipoeira instruction in Brazil reveals a program of imitation and more importantly memesis in social transmission not very far in principle from kaimuay osmosis in traditional Muay Thai. 

Click the link above for more extensive citations, but this section talks about how physical imitation alone (mirroring actions consciously) makes a very poor conduit for the passing of cultural knowledge surrounding an embedded practice. This suggests that rote drills only provide a very narrow band of what makes up an art:


In contrast to more mechanical copies of physical actions, Bourdieu's generative habitus (which would be buried in the training melieu) exists as an explanation for the feel of an art or practice, likened to the style of painters, or handwriting:


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