Kicking and Punching Your Way to Mindfulness

Does mindfulness really inhibit implicit learning?

Studying Taekwondo (I’m currently preparing for the 2nd degree black belt test), the art of kicking and punching, has taught me a lot about being human and about myself. What I’ve learned about being human makes me question much of what I learned while earning a Ph.D. in experimental psychology and what I read in a recent Science Daily report. Although this isn’t about me—it’s about all of us—I’ll be the guinea pig.

Taekwondo’s most famous kick is the roundhouse kick; it’s the workhorse of sparring. When an expert does a roundhouse kick, it looks awesome and simple. The simplicity is deceptive. A roundhouse kick involves several different movements: the knee of your kicking leg comes up, the knee of your standing leg flexes a bit, the foot of your standing leg pivots, the hip of your kicking leg opens and turns over, the kicking leg whips out and around, and finally, the lower leg snaps out to deliver the kick.

If an instructor were to tell you all these steps before you try to do a roundhouse kick, you would probably feel paralyzed. If you could still walk at that point, I would recommend running away, fast.

So, you begin to learn by watching a roundhouse kick and trying to do what you see. An instructor points out the pivot and coaches you to pivot your foot. The pivot comes first because it protects your knee; without the pivot you can damage or tear the ACL. During warm up exercises, you might practice picking your knee up. You might get down on the mat on all fours, lift your hip and leg up and out, and practice kicking. This isolates and strengthens your thigh and hamstring muscles and works your core. It also makes you look like a male dog about to pee. Another instructor might tell you to turn your hip over before you whip your leg around. And so it goes. You practice, focusing on one element at a time, and slowly a roundhouse kick emerges. One day it happens: you execute a roundhouse kick with power and snap.

While learning to do a roundhouse kick, I learned about habit formation, persistence, repetition, forgiving oneself, and mindfulness. The most profound learning is that there is no mind-body distinction. I feel a bit silly saying this because it seems so obvious. But years of studying psychology led me to think that something called mind exists separate from the rest of a person. And a mind-body distinction is a pervasive part of Western thinking. But through doing Taekwondo, I experience that a human being emerges from biological processes that can’t really be isolated. Humans are synergistic systems. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, Fritz Perls reminded us (reminded us, because Aristotle noted it first). I am a human being, and therefore, I think.

But thinking, although human, is not always or necessarily a good thing. If you think while you practice Taekwondo, you are probably not paying attention—not focusing on what you are doing and what is happening around you. If you do not establish and maintain focus, you are likely to get punched or kicked. (Worse, you might punch or kick someone else. Try to explain that when you were supposed to be sparring with no contact!)

Another name for this level of focus and attention is mindfulness. You are fully in your body, attending in the moment to what you are doing and your environment: mind what you see, mind what you say, mind what you do. You both learn and practice mindfulness when you practice Taekwondo. Although following the breath is one of many ways into mindfulness, it is not all of mindfulness. Kicking and punching can guide you there as well.

So I had my doubts when I read in Science Daily (“Mindfulness Inhibits Implicit Learning — The Wellspring of Bad Habits”) that mindfulness can interfere with the formation of both good and bad habits. This conclusion runs counter to what I have learned and experienced practicing Taekwondo. The researchers, Chelsea Stillman, a PhD student, and Darlene Howard, PhD, from the Cognitive Aging Laboratory at the Georgetown University Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery, cover their bases and say the results are counterintuitive.

When I reflect about what I practice when doing Taekwondo, I observe both mindfulness and implicit learning occurring simultaneously. When sparring—the sport aspect of Taekwondo—you want to execute kicks and punches with as little thought about the techniques as possible. Instead you want to focus on the big picture of what your opponent is doing and act tactically and strategically. Thinking during sparring interferes with your ability to act. You rely on habit, built through training, to execute techniques. You observe your opponent, and react automatically to the twitch of a hip, the slight movement of a shoulder, a shift of weight. It all happens too fast for conscious learning and thought. But somehow (I suspect through implicit learning), you read your opponent and carry out effective attacks and counterattacks.

If psychology researchers want to learn about the impact of mindfulness on implicit learning and habit, they ought to study the elite Taekwondo masters similar to how meditation in an expert Tibetan Buddhist monk has been studied at the Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. (This research is reported in Destructive Emotions, A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, as narrated by Daniel Goleman, The Mind and Life Institute, New York: Random House, 2003.) Outfit headgear with electrodes and wireless transmitters and observe what goes on during a sparring match. The results are likely to be more interesting and less counterintuitive.

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