The Law -- And Art -- of Intensity
“The excellency of every art is its intensity.” -John Keats
“Intensity” has been the subject of much discussion as of late. During the Instructors Course I taught through last month, we examined the Laws of Learning. These are conditions, identified by Edward Thorndike in the late 19th century, under which a student is best able to learn. Among these is the “Law of Intensity”, which states that the more vividly and dramatically something is taught, the better it will be absorbed. While martial arts is an inherently exciting topic, a good instructor must accept the challenge of bringing the art of combat alive as much as safety will allow in a dojo setting.
But intensity is also something that each student needs to aspire to. I have also found myself having that conversation with students (and in some cases their parents), who find themselves at a plateau in their training until they learn to invest each moment and each movement with ferocity and feeling.
Take our “kata”, or “forms”—these extended sequences of movements we commit to memory and than practice until they become alive. While a person can indeed improve their self-defense skills through diligent practice of their kata, it’s an exercise that speaks more to the art side of our martial arts. And that’s important. Think of, say, a saxophonist who can reproduce every single note in a John Coltrane song, but does so without the phrasing and the feeling that makes Coltrane… well, Coltrane. You’ve got someone who shows great technical skill, but without the ability to take you – by virtue of pouring themselves into every note – to another place.
To watch a kata practiced with intensity is to see someone exist fully in every moment: every block, strike, step and breath. Even their eyes are invested in each movement, every bit as much as their hands and feet.
What would our lives be like if we approached every task, every interaction, the way a true warrior approaches their kata? Sure, it would be tiring. But that shouldn’t discourage us—endurance and stamina are qualities that increase through the very act of repeatedly doing things that drain our energy. Rather, we should encourage ourselves to take that challenge, and treat our lives like art. Then, by pouring intensity into everything we do, we achieve in our lives a real level of excellence.