Proper posture for mental arts

I’d like to start by way of anal­ogy. I think it’ll make the link to ra­tio­nal­ity eas­ier to un­der­stand if I give con­text first.

I some­times teach the mar­tial art of aik­ido. The way I was origi­nally taught, you had to learn how to “feel the flow of ki” (ba­si­cally life en­ergy) through you and from your op­po­nent, and you had to make sure that your move­ments—both phys­i­cal and men­tal—were such that your “ki” would blend with and guide the “ki” of your op­po­nent. Even af­ter I stopped be­liev­ing in ki, though, there were some core el­e­ments of the art that I just couldn’t do, let alone teach, with­out think­ing and talk­ing in terms of ki flow.

A great ex­am­ple of this is the “un­bend­able arm”. This is a pretty crit­i­cal thing to get right for most aik­ido tech­niques. And it feels re­ally weird. Most peo­ple when they first get it think that the per­son try­ing to fold their arm isn’t ac­tu­ally push­ing be­cause it doesn’t feel like effort to keep their arm straight. Many stu­dents (in­clud­ing me once upon a time) end up tak­ing this ba­sic prac­tice as com­pel­ling proof that ki is real. Even af­ter I re­al­ized that ki wasn’t real, I still had to teach un­bend­able arm this way be­cause noth­ing else seemed to work.

…and then I found anatom­i­cal re­sources like Be­com­ing a Sup­ple Leop­ard.

It turns out that the un­bend­able arm works when:

That’s it. If you do this cor­rectly, you can re­lax most of your other arm mus­cles and still be able to re­sist pretty enor­mous force on your arm.

Why, you might ask? Well, from what I have gath­ered, this lets you en­gage your latis­si­mus dorsi (pretty large back mus­cles) in sta­bi­liz­ing your elbow. There’s also a bit of strat­egy where you don’t ac­tu­ally have to fully op­pose the arm-ben­der’s strength; you just have to sta­bi­lize the elbow enough to be able to di­rect the push-down-on-elbow force into the push-up-on-wrist force.

But the point is, by un­der­stand­ing some­thing about proper pos­ture, you can cut liter­ally months of train­ing down to about ten min­utes.

To over­sim­plify it a lit­tle bit, there are ba­si­cally three things to get right about proper pos­ture for mar­tial arts (at least as I know them):

  1. You need to get your spine in the right po­si­tion and brace it prop­erly. (For the most part and for most peo­ple, this means tuck­ing your pelvis, straight­en­ing your tho­racic spine a bit, and tens­ing your abs a lit­tle.)

  2. You need to use your hip and shoulder ball-and-socket joints prop­erly. (For the most part this seems to mean us­ing them in­stead of your spine to move, and putting torque in them by e.g. screw­ing your elbow down­ward when reach­ing for­ward.)

  3. You need to keep your tis­sue sup­ple & mo­bile. (E.g., tight ham­strings can pull your hips out of al­ign­ment and pre­vent you from us­ing your hip joints in­stead of your mid-lum­bar spine (i.e. waist) to bend over. Also, tho­racic in­flex­i­bil­ity usu­ally locks peo­ple in tho­racic kypho­sis, mak­ing it ex­tremely difficult to trans­fer force effec­tively be­tween their lower body and their arms.)

My ex­pe­rience is that as peo­ple learn how to feel these three prin­ci­ples in their bod­ies, they’re able to cor­rect their phys­i­cal pos­tures when­ever they need to, rather than hav­ing to wait for my seem­ingly mag­i­cal touch to make an aik­ido tech­nique sud­denly re­ally easy.

It’s worth not­ing that this is mostly known, even in aik­ido do­jos (“train­ing halls”). They just phrase it differ­ently and don’t un­der­stand the me­chan­ics of it. They’ll say things like “Don’t bend over; the other guy can pull you down if you do” and “Let the move be nat­u­ral” and “Re­lax more; let ki flow through you freely.”

But it turns out that get­ting the me­chan­i­cal prin­ci­ples of pos­ture down makes ba­si­cally all the magic of aik­ido some­thing even a be­gin­ner can learn how to see and cor­rect.

A quick anec­dote along these lines, which de­spite be­ing illus­tra­tive, you should take as me be­ing a bit of an idiot:

I once vis­ited a dojo near the CFAR office. That night they were do­ing a prac­tice ba­si­cally con­sist­ing of hold­ing your part­ner’s elbow and pul­ling them to the ground. It works by a slight shift side­ways to cause a curve in the lum­bar spine, cut­ting power be­tween their lower and up­per bod­ies. Then you pull straight down and there’s ba­si­cally noth­ing they can do about it.

How­ever, the les­son was in terms of feel­ing ki flow, and the in­struc­tion was to pull straight down. I was feel­ing trol­lish and a lit­tle an­noyed about the wrong­ness and au­thor­i­tar­ian de­liv­ery of the in­struc­tion, so I went to the in­struc­tor and asked: “Sen­sei, I see you pul­ling slightly side­ways, and I had per­haps mis­heard the in­struc­tions to be that we should pull straight down. Should I be pul­ling slightly side­ways too?”

At which point the sen­sei in­sisted that the ver­bal in­struc­tions were cor­rect, con­cen­trated on pre­vent­ing the side­ways shift in his move­ments, and obliter­ated his abil­ity to demon­strate the tech­nique for the rest of the night.

Brienne Yud­kowsky has a lovely piece in which she refers to “men­tal pos­tures”. I highly recom­mend read­ing it. She does a bet­ter job of point­ing at the thing than I think I would do here.

…but if you re­ally don’t want to read it just right now, here’s the key el­e­ment I’ll be us­ing: There seems to be a men­tal ana­log to phys­i­cal pos­ture.

We’ve had quite a bit of analo­giz­ing ra­tio­nal­ity as a mar­tial art here. So, as a mar­tial arts prac­ti­tioner and in­struc­tor with a taste of the im­por­tance of deeply un­der­stand­ing body me­chan­ics, I re­ally want to ask: What, ex­actly, are the prin­ci­ples of good men­tal pos­ture for the Art of Ra­tion­al­ity?

In the way I’m think­ing of it, this isn’t likely to be things like “con­sider the op­po­site” or “hold off on propos­ing solu­tions”. I re­fer to things of this breed as “men­tal move­ments” and think they’re closer to the analogs of in­di­vi­d­ual mar­tial tech­niques than they are prin­ci­ples of men­tal ori­en­ta­tion.

That said, we can look at men­tal move­ments to get a hint about what a good men­tal pos­ture might do. In the body, good phys­i­cal pos­ture gives you both more power and more room for er­ror: if you let your hands drift be­hind your head in a shihonage, hav­ing a flex­ible tho­racic spine and torqued shoulders and braced abs can make it much harder for your op­po­nent to throw you to the ground even though you’ve blun­dered. So, by way of anal­ogy, what might an er­ror in at­tempt­ing to (say) con­sider the op­po­site look like, and what would a good “men­tal pos­ture” be that would make the er­ror mat­ter less?

(I en­courage you to think on your own about an an­swer for at least 60 sec­onds be­fore cor­rupt­ing your mind with my thoughts be­low. I re­ally want a cor­rect an­swer here, and I doubt I have one yet.)

When I think of how I’ve messed up in at­tempts to con­sider the op­po­site, I can re­mem­ber sev­eral in­stances when my tone was du­tiful. I felt like I was sup­posed to con­sider the opinion that I dis­agreed with or didn’t want to have turn out to be true. And yet, it felt bor­ing or like sub­mit­ting or some­thing like that to re­ally take that per­spec­tive se­ri­ously. I felt like I was con­sid­er­ing the op­po­site roughly the same way a young child replies to their par­ent say­ing “Now say that you’re sorry” with an al­most sar­cas­tic “I’m sorry.

What kind of “men­tal pos­ture” would have let me make this mis­take and yet still com­plete the move­ment? Or bet­ter yet, what men­tal pos­ture would have pre­vented the mis­take en­tirely? At this point I in­tuit that I have an an­swer but it’s a lit­tle tricky for me to ar­tic­u­late. I think there’s a way I can hold my mind that makes the childish ori­en­ta­tion to truth-seek­ing mat­ter less. I don’t do it au­to­mat­i­cally, much like most peo­ple don’t au­to­mat­i­cally sit up straight, but I sort of know how to see my grasp­ing at a con­clu­sion as over­reach­ing and then… pause and get my men­tal feet un­der my men­tal hips be­fore I try again.

I imag­ine that wasn’t helpful—but I think we have ex­am­ples of good and bad men­tal pos­ture in ac­tion. In at­tach­ment the­ory, I think that the se­cure at­tach­ment style is a de­scrip­tion of some­one who is us­ing good men­tal pos­ture even when in men­tally/​emo­tion­ally threat­en­ing situ­a­tions, whereas the anx­ious and avoidant styles are de­scrip­tions of com­mon ways peo­ple “tense up” when they lose good men­tal pos­ture. I also think there’s some­thing in­ter­est­ing in how some­times when I’m offended I get re­ally up­set or an­gry, and some­times the same offense just feels like such a small thing—and some­times I can make the lat­ter hap­pen in­ten­tion­ally.

The story I de­scribed above of the aik­ido sen­sei I trol­led also high­lights some­thing that I think is im­por­tant. In this case, al­though he didn’t get very flus­tered, he couldn’t change what he was do­ing. He seemed men­tally in­flex­ible, like the cog­ni­tive equiv­a­lent of some­one who can’t use­fully block an over­head at­tack be­cause of a stiff up­per back re­strict­ing his shoulder move­ment. I feel like I’ve been in that state lots of times, so I feel like I can roughly imag­ine how my ba­sic men­tal/​emo­tional ori­en­ta­tion to my situ­a­tion and way of think­ing would have to be in or­der to have been effec­tive in his po­si­tion right then—and why that can be tricky.

I don’t feel like I’ve ad­e­quately an­swered the ques­tion of what good men­tal pos­ture is yet. But I feel like I have some in­tu­itions—sort of like be­ing able to talk about proper pos­ture in terms of “good ki flow”. But I also no­tice that there seem to be di­rect analogs of the three core parts of good phys­i­cal pos­ture that I men­tioned above:

  1. Have a well-braced “spine”. Based on my cur­rent fledgling un­der­stand­ing, this seems to look some­thing like tak­ing a larger per­spec­tive, like imag­in­ing look­ing back at this mo­ment 30 years hence and notic­ing what does and does not mat­ter. (I think that’s akin to tuck­ing your hips, which is a move­ment in ser­vice of pos­ture but isn’t strictly part of the pos­ture.) I imag­ine this is enor­mously eas­ier when one has a well-in­ter­nal­ized sense of some­thing to pro­tect.

  2. Move your mind in strong & sta­ble ways, rather than los­ing “spine”. I think this can look like “Don’t act while trig­gered”, but it’s more a warn­ing not to try to do heavy cog­ni­tive work while let­ting your men­tal “spine” “bend”. In­stead, move your mind in ways that you would upon re­flec­tion want your mind to move, and that you ex­pect to be able to bear “weight”.

  3. Make your mind flex­ible. Achieve & main­tain full men­tal range of move­ment. Don’t get “stiff”, and view men­tal in­flex­i­bil­ity as a risk to your men­tal health.

All three of these are a lit­tle hand-wavy. That third one in par­tic­u­lar I haven’t re­ally talked about much—in part be­cause I don’t re­ally know how to work on that well. I have some guesses, and I might write up some thoughts about that later. (A good solu­tion in the body is called “mo­bi­liza­tion”, ba­si­cally con­sist­ing of push­ing on ten­der/​stiff spots while you move the sur­round­ing joints through their max­i­mal range of mo­tion.) Also, I don’t know if there are more prin­ci­ples for the mind than these three, or if these three are draw­ing too strongly on the anal­ogy and are ac­tu­ally a lit­tle dis­tract­ing. I’m still at the stage where, for men­tal pos­ture, I keep want­ing to say the equiv­a­lent of “re­lax more and let ki flow.”

A lot of peo­ple say I have ex­cel­lent phys­i­cal pos­ture. I think I have a rea­son­ably clear idea of how I made my pos­ture a habit. I’d like to share that be­cause I’ve been do­ing the equiv­a­lent in my mind for men­tal pos­ture and am un­der the im­pres­sion that it’s get­ting promis­ing re­sults.

I think my phys­i­cal prac­tice comes down to three points:

  • Rec­og­nize that hav­ing good pos­ture gives you su­per­pow­ers. It’s re­ally hard to throw me down, and I can pretty effortlessly pull peo­ple to the ground. A lot of that is mar­tial skill, but a huge chunk of it is just that good pos­ture gives me ex­cel­lent lev­er­age. This trans­fers to be­ing able to lift re­ally heavy things and move across the room very effi­ciently and quickly when needed. This also gives me a pretty big leg up on learn­ing phys­i­cal skills. Rec­og­niz­ing that these were things I’d gain from learn­ing good pos­ture gave me a lot of drive to stick to my prac­tice.

  • Fo­cus on how the cor­rect pos­ture feels, and ex­actly how it’s differ­ent from glitchy pos­ture. I found it su­per-im­por­tant to no­tice that my body feels differ­ent in spe­cific ways when my shoulders are in the right po­si­tion ver­sus when they’re too far for­ward or back. Ver­bal in­struc­tions like “Pull shoulders back” don’t work nearly as well as the feel­ing in the body.

  • Choose one cor­rec­tion at a time, and always op­er­ate from that pos­ture, paus­ing and cor­rect­ing your­self when you’re about to slip up. Get­ting good shoulder pos­ture re­quired that I keep my shoulders back all the time. When I would reach for wa­ter, I’d no­tice when my shoulder was in the too-far-for­ward po­si­tion, and then pull back and fix my shoulder po­si­tion be­fore try­ing again. This some­times re­quired try­ing at very ba­sic tasks sev­eral times, of­ten quite slowly, un­til I could get it right each time.

Although I didn’t add this un­til quite late, I would now add a fourth point when giv­ing ad­vice on get­ting good phys­i­cal pos­ture: make sure to mo­bi­lize the parts of your body that are ei­ther (a) pre­vent­ing you from mov­ing into a good po­si­tion or (b) re­quiring you to be very stiff or tense to hold that po­si­tion. The trou­ble is, I know how to do that for the body, but I’m not as sure about how to do that for the mind.

But the three bul­let points above are in­struc­tions that I can fol­low with re­spect to men­tal pos­ture, I think.

So, to the ex­tent that that seems pos­si­ble for you, I in­vite you to try to do the same—and let me know how it goes.