Perfect, naturally.

Last week I was reading a blog by Jesse Enkamp (Karate by Jesse) that discussed the differences between practical and artistic approaches to kata. Although I don’t agree with his entire premise, the post is a good read and it ends with a video of Luca Valdesi competing in the kata portion of an international tournament. This guy is certainly worth watching.

The word “perfect” comes to mind. His movements are perfect. His attention to detail, perfect; balance, perfect; focus, perfect. But, as I watched him I asked myself if the goal in my training should be “perfection”, or “naturalness”? As this idea took hold I began to think on the difference between the two, and whether or not they can work together in one’s martial arts.

Perfection like Valdesi’s is impressive but it reminds me of the recent gymnastics competitions in the Summer Olympics. When you saw “perfect” you knew it, and so did the judges. “Perfect” can be judged because it can be seen and understood by others. By the same token, when physical skills are compared for their crispness, power, balance, focus, etc., less than perfect is also fairly easy to acknowledge. This competitor is deftly aware of how he appears to others. That is to be expected in great performance but what is less obvious is that he is changing his movements to create a better “perfect” for just that reason. His every move is informed by outside stimuli.

On the other hand, moving “naturally” requires an internal focus as opposed to an external one. What others can see and/or judge is irrelevant. Movements need to feel right, not look right. The entire body needs to be in tune with itself. Extraneous movements have less relevance as every part of you moves together with a single purpose; and all without the distraction of mental thought. Animals move this way and, the truth is, judging which of two different tigers attacks a zebra with better form would be an impossible task. Integrated movement like this is so personal that there are rarely many external markers that we can use for comparison.

Humans, unlike animals, have to learn almost everything from those that nurture us. We don’t carry very much instinctive knowledge into the world. And, to my mind, one of the biggest differences between perfection and naturalness is that perfection can be taught. This may be why it is so valued. Naturalness, on the other hand, must be learned on one’s own. For this reason, I would suggest that perfection is a worthwhile goal for those beginning their training in martial arts (or any other endeavor for that matter). In the effort to be perfect a student develops certain foundational skills and a teacher can tell easily if those skills are in place or not.

But, if you are training on your own then you are probably not a beginner. And, as such, it is time to see how many of those skills are now good looking habits, and how many are truly a natural way for you to move.

Shunryu Suzuki writes in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “In Zen we put emphasis on demeanor, or behavior. By behavior we do not mean a particular way that you ought to behave, but rather the natural expression of yourself. We emphasize straightforwardness. You should be true to your feelings, and to your mind, expressing yourself without any reservations.”

For me, this is another way of saying that perfection is naturalness. As we progress in our training, we don’t need to change our goals from “perfect” to “natural”; we need to change our definition of “perfect.” When we focus on moving in harmony with the uniqueness of or own bodies, we can reach for this other type of perfection. Natural movement like this can save our lives, but rarely can it be judged “perfect” by anyone except ourselves.

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