Precession and the power of the side effect

Many years ago I came across Richard Buckminster Fuller’s masterpiece ‘Synergetics’. Buckminster Fuller is now a household name, genius, geometer, mathematician, generally a superb thinker, inventor of the geodesic dome and numerous other brilliant ideas.

Synergetics is hard going and contains some mind boggling ideas. I spent perhaps six months reading it and building his models in stick magnets, ping pong balls, wood and rubber bands.

Many of his ideas have stuck with me, but one has really permeated Apogeniks, and it is the idea of “Precession”.

The notion is simple. When a force is applied to something it tries to get out of the way.  It doesn’t sound much, does it – obvious really. So how can something so obvious and simple give rise to anything specially useful?

The answer is in how the ‘getting out of  the way’ appears.  This is far from obvious, and yet holds the key to learning anything.

Take a simple situation.  Suppose I am changing the wheel on my car.  I jack up the car and I am just about to unscrew the bolts when the car rolls forwards and falls off the jack.  It’s a silly mistake – forgetting to apply the handbrake.  But why do I need to do this? Because the car wants to get out of the way of the jack, and will do so given the slightest opportunity.

But take a look at what is visible. I want to get the tyre off the ground.  I do something (jack it up). The tyre ends up back on the ground two feet to the left with the jack on its side.  What I mean here is that the form of the failure does not look like the solution to the problem.

If I knew nothing about cars and jacking them up I might be tempted to think there was something wrong with the jack, or I had installed it the wrong way.  But the solution to the problem is to stop the car precessing out of the way.

In physical actions, the same things happen.  Say I’m trying to unscrew a stuck lid from a jam jar.   I’ve often seen people trying to do this, clenching their teeth, gripping the lid until their knuckles are white, holding their breath – etc etc.  You are probably quite familiar with that.

But none of these behaviours contribute anything at  all to opening the jar.  They are all precessive behaviours, side effects of my failed attempt to open the lid.

In Apogeniks, the primary target is precessive behaviours – unwanted side effects of an intent.  

In one of Conan Doyle’s stories, Sherlock Holmes explains that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

The parallel in Apogeniks is, once you have eliminated precession, whatever remains is the happening of your intent.

So in the lid example, the Apogenik approach would be to focus on the teeth clenching, breath holding etc.  Once these behaviours have gone, the lid will unscrew, without apparent effort.

Sounds ludicrous doesn ‘t it? But I’ve tried it thousands of times, and it always works.

The basic format for using precession is to implement the intent at a very low intensity and with an Holmesian attitude of alert watchfulness, for it is at this level that precessive effects are clearly visible.  I often liken this to an engineer applying a tiny strain to a system to observe how it behaves.

This attitude is initially not easy to maintain.  It requires discipline. Many people are swept away into ‘forcing’ their intent to happen, and so completely overlook the precession.  Alternatively someone might notice the precession, interpret it as failure, and ‘have another go’ – which is perhaps where the ghastly “try, try again” principle has come from.  Each of these approaches discards the precession as an inconvenience, something ‘wrong’.

But this is such a waste.  For that precessive behaviour is your passport to the joy of effortlessness.  Transforming it from the base lead of frustration to the gold of success is true alchemy.

Martial Art or Partial Art?

Apogeniks has its own style of martial art too, ‘Kensho-ryu’, which I created about fifteen years ago.

Why create a martial art, when there are so many mainstream forms already?

What I have to say will perhaps be a bit controversial from the mainstream Martial Arts point of view. But my viewpoint is rooted in both historical fact, and also practical experience, so here goes.

Before the 20th century there were no ‘schools’ of martial arts.

These arts were taught – often in secret owing to oppressive laws – by ordinary people. The local carpenter, smith, farmer, fisherman, would finish his day’s work, and then in his back yard, or in a room in his house, he would teach a small group of people the art he had learned from his own teacher. The methods he would use were simple and ingenious, and it is those methods that I have attempted to resuscitate.

The format that we have in most modern martial arts by and large is derived from the 1920s, when the Okinakwan master Funakoshi was invited by the Emperor of Japan to give a demonstration of martial arts. He was so impressed that he asked Funakoshi to develop a programme of training for young Japanese men, to discipline and prepare them for army service.

The formula that came out of this was the ‘drill’ style – lines of students in rows responding to an instructor’s barked out command. By and large techniques were blocks, strikes, kicks and punches. A uniform was created, and an hierarchical belt system. And a competitive arena with which stylised sparring, with a limited range of scoring techniques.

It is obvious what was the point of this – to provide a strong sense of discipline, obedience and fitness for potential soldiers. And this was the form of martial art exported to the West.

Of course there were some exceptions. But the key functions of the various techniques Funakoshi (and his peers) learned and developed in Okinawa were simply left out, or disguised. The ‘real’ meanings of the forms were concealed, and eventually forgotten about even by high level teachers, who continue to practice and teach what has essentially become a cardiovascular and self discipline exercise.

We can also bring the ‘soft’ martial arts under the same spotlight – T’ai Chi for example. What has largely happened in all areas of martial arts is that attention has shifted to the physical movements, the outer form. What is behind those movements is sometimes talked about , but almost always missing.

In recent years, styles have appeared that seek to recover the roots. But (in my humble opinion) there is still a large gap. I hope in this article to explain that gap and what it is.

Now there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this.  Many people have hugely benefited from these activities.  My point is that there is another, and very useful and interesting, missing element.

But first of all, what are martial arts for? Well, one obvious answer is that the purpose is to defend oneself. But this is in a way a precessional side effect. The underlying function of martial arts is rooted in systemic integrity. To put it simply, martial arts training is a type of precision maintenance system. Martial arts training is 95% co-ordination. Co-ordination involves ‘whole being’ action, where everything in one’s being is focused on the movement.  Co-ordination is not merely physical.  It is co-ordinated consciousness.

If you are a student or practitioner of some styles of martial art, you may be familiar with this idea. Although having the idea is far from actually being able to implement it. In co-ordinated action the movement does not arise consciously. It arises by itself, as a ‘pulse’ of aligned whole body activity, without any conscious noticing.

Certain writers have talked about this. In the Tao Te Ching appears the following passage:

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?

In Herrigel’s ‘Zen and the Art of Archery’ this idea is explored in considerable depth. The arrow ‘shoots itself’, the archer disappearing at the moment of release.

The notion sounds crazy – and indeed the dialogue in the book between the Master, trying to explain this idea, and the student, desperately trying to implement it, is amusing, frustrating and confusing – perhaps sounding like a load of contradictory gibberish at times.  But the principle is far from gibberish.

The reader will notice by the end of the book that the Student is not the only one struggling. For the Master, despite his comprehensive knowledge and consummate skill, is in difficulties trying to communicate to a student how to implement his understanding.

This problem can be seen in pretty much every book one picks up. We are surrounded by ‘know how’ – information telling us how to do things. But where is the key to translating this information into actual skill? Is it, like Herrigel experienced, a journey of suffering and frustration, practise, practise and more practise, until finally the penny drops?

No, I don’t think so. The practice of Apogeniks repeatedly contradicts this idea.

In my style of Martial Art, Kensho Ryu, the aim is to combine the Apogenik method of changing behaviour, with an effective forum for experimentation in defensive skill. The aim is, given a specific type of attack, for the response to arise by itself as a whole body skill.

Experimentation takes a variety for forms.  But central are the methods orginally practised in Okinawa, and before that in China – the flow drill, and the form.  A flow drill is a two person interaction in which an attack and a defence is practised as a continuous movement. However the Apogenik element is introduced in the practice. Any gap between the desired outcome and the actual experience is instantly dealt with and resolved into changed behaviour.

‘Forms’ – or ‘kata’ as they are called in Japanese – are effectively flow drills with one person removed. “Kata” means “One side”. The function of the form is to enable the student to pay attention to their movement in a different way – in the absence of another person. Many different types of awareness can be addressed in the execution of kata. Speed can be practised as well.  the student is free to experiment in many different ways, with the Apogenik method always present as a mean of digger deeper and changing behaviour.

Together the flow drill and kata ‘ratchet’ each other up. The presence of another person gives something to ‘push against’, which provides feedback about the effect of one’s influence. The absence of another person gives freedom to explore a movement, which allows a more introspective form of experimentation. The learning from the flow drill is taken to the kata. The learning from the kata is taken back to the flow drill.

In changing any behaviour, one critical factor is the intensity of the activity. For example practising a flow drill too fast overwhelms the student into a ‘coping’ strategy. At this point learning stops. In Apogeniks we recognise that learning has to happen beneath the overwhelm threshold. In this zone it is possible to explore, identify and change behaviour. Above the overwhelm threshold all one can do is react.

So this is how Kensho Ryu works. Really what you are doing is learning how to re-educate yourself very quickly. The side effect is that you can also defend yourself against an attack. One of the great values of learning Apogeniks in the context of a physical skill is that the results are very obvious. A sense of weakness suddenly turns to strength, an impossible movement suddenly becomes possible, an unstable posture becomes rooted like a tree.

Perhaps most importantly, we can learn to honour our failures as our best friends. For in learning, it is the observation of what doesn’t work that opens to door to what does work.

“Techniques” in Apogeniks

Oddly enough, Apogeniks only has one technique, “Apogenesis”.

This technique is a ‘state switcher’. It shifts awareness from symbolic to experiential feedback. So it is analogous to an electrical switch. The Switch is in pretty much every piece of electrical equipment. There are endless types of electrical equipment. But you only need one technique to turn any of them on – press the switch!

The technique of Apogenesis is the switch, and in everything we do we are practising using it. But the big question is what do you want to switch on, and how do you choose it?  Indeed how do you even know about it?

The aim in Apogeniks is to select the best possible feedback for a given issue. To do this we refer to an enormous ‘library’ of types of feedback, which I call “Focal Entrainments”. In a way this library is like a huge range of different ‘Awareness Spectacles’ – different ways of being aware about what is happening – essentially different types of experiential feedback. This library is overwhelmingly vast, and has to be approached with respect along your own unique path, for it goes very far beyond most peoples’ experience.

Learning Apogeniks involves understanding Apogenesis (how to turn the switch on), and developing a large range of Awareness Spectacles. This means experimenting with different types of awareness and developing familiarity. It also involves learning how and why we would select any particular pair of spectacles, something I call “Resonant Amplification”.

As we increase the range of types of awareness at our disposal, our skill at changing behaviour becomes greater. We can imagine ourselves as explorers in an unknown territory. We proceed at a pace appropriate to our current receptivity, knowing that each new experience opens us up further and provides us with new ability and new scope for deeper exploration, as well as increasing our confidence in the success of our method. Everything in Apogeniks is testable, so at any point we can check our skill, and if we find any issues deal with them.

Above all this is your unique journey, but in the company of fellow travellers. We each have the ability to illuminate each others’ paths, sharing our experiences and offering new experiments for others to try out.  In this way we grow, and our joint ‘library’ grows.

The Story of Apogeniks

Twenty-five years ago, I woke up.

The quest started by accident – or maybe not – when as a successful solicitor I was unexpectedly shoved into a martial arts class. Suddenly I discovered what I never expected, that this was ‘my thing’, and took to it like a duck to water.

Within a few years I was competing around Europe, and started teaching in schools.  And as they say one thing leads to another. How, I wondered, do children learn movement? How for that matter do I learn? What is going on when we learn things?

No one really knew. No one could tell me anything particularly useful.   Of course there is a lot of information on education – techniques and so forth.  But what was missing was how people translate this information into actual skill.  And what was the difference between know-how – information about how to do something – and the actual skill of doing it?

Lots of people had information.  Volumes and volumes have been written on pretty much every skill under the sun.

But reading a book on playing the violin does not make one a violinist, however good the book.  Something happens as the student ‘implements’ the knowledge.  But what?  How do we turn information into skill?  This seemed to me like the Holy Grail of education.  If this could be discovered and actually taught to people – wow!

“Practise, practise, practise”, people said.  “You just have to practise.”

I was not convinced.  How was it that some people pick things up instantly, others take ages?  What about autistic savants?  The exception disproves the rule, and there were plenty of exceptions to this ‘Practise and eventually you’ll get it’ notion.  There was something more going on in fast learners, something like ‘precision’ change of behaviour; something elusive, something that people had not seen; or maybe didn’t want to look at.

So my quest broadened. I studied Acupuncture and Chinese medicine for clues. No luck. Then by chance – or maybe not – I came across an accelerated learning book stand at a Schools Exhibition, and found something. This was a small are rather badly written book on Educational Kinesiology, which claimed that academic learning and movement were connected.

So I went on a course. Within a day I knew I had found a new and promising line of enquiry. For here some really odd things were going on. I was experiencing obvious and sometimes breathtaking changes in my skill level (both academic and physical) in a short time using apparently irrelevant physical techniques. Emotional issues were vanishing, apparently stuck behaviours disappearing.  I even found bizarre physical changes, like my flexibility suddenly and dramatically improving.

Something was happening, but again no one really knew why. The explanations were very unconvincing, but the results were undeniable.

So I ploughed my way through the world of kinesiology, eventually teaching it professionally for a time. But still there was no explanation that I found convincing. “It just works” people said. And they were right, it did.

But my legal training had instilled in me a deep scepticism and needed more than just faith. If it works, there must be some explanation.

I wasn’t happy with what I had heard. It was a haphazard collection of ideas and techniques, coupled to a sense of just hoping for the best. Quite a lot of the ideas were ‘fluff’, stories someone had made up. Others seemed pseudoscientific. These problems were often papered over with appeals to intuition. It was obvious that ‘intuition’ was somehow involved. But why and how? And what was intuition anyway?

And so I carried on – for years – delving experientially more and more deeply into every system I could find, from mainstream to completely off-the-wall.  Science and philosophy, various religions, to shamanism, covering many systems of bodywork, energy work, and many different esoteric practices and systems of thought.

Wherever I went I could see something, as it were out of the corner of my eye: a single ‘core’ that worked, the same basic pattern in all of these approaches – like a diamond of which all these various disciplines were like facets. But the clouds were always there in front of the sun.

Then in 2006 things started to change, fast. I had a glimpse of that diamond and how it worked. It was shockingly upside down and inside out, and knocked me sideways; but also absurdly simple. In a way like one of those optical illusions where suddenly you see something completely different, and wonder why you couldn’t see it before.

It worked. It worked really well. Stuck behaviours melted away in seconds. Learning became extremely fast.

But how to explain it? Was there a way? I started to refine what I had experienced into some simple form, at the same time developing a model that provided a clear explanation of what was happening.

I realised eventually that what I was trying to communicate was pre-conceptual.  Trying to explain it descriptively was as crazy as trying to build a model of water out of ice cubes.   The key thing was how to lead someone’s awareness to the types of experience I had discovered.  To understand it, you had to jump in the water.

I decided that the only way to communicate this was through building a model of logically distinct types of awareness, and using my experiences to attach experiments to these that a student could implement.  This would then lead them to a direct experience.

This would show them what they themselves can do, what extraordinary power is within their grasp – within your grasp.

But I needed to test it out further, develop more clarity, a library of experiments, and a method that could actually be taught. So I started to experiment on myself, learning different skills and seeing how fast and how deep I could go. And I also started to expose my explanations to other thinkers, to see if they could find a hole it in.

After twelve further years of trying to pull it apart, I have failed to find any holes or cracks. It works, consistently and reliably.

So that’s what Apogeniks is.  It’s a precise map of the territory of awareness, and a whole heap of ways of exploring it, coupled to a Method, which I call ‘Apogenesis’.  This Method is what I set out to find, the Diamond in the Dust, the Holy Grail of education, the key to transforming information into skill, of changing stuckness into movement.

So come along, and I’ll do my best to show you a glimpse of that diamond.


Solve et Coagula

I hold in my hand
This brittle darkness,
Blackened, charred wood.
My hand closes tight…
A thousand thousand years of pain,
And there in my opened palm
A diamond sparkles.

And every day as I perceive
Old Saturn’s tattered veil,
I’m searching all the time
For the key to end the tale.
And falling through this endless space
One thing I know I trust,
Is that nothing has more value
Than that diamond in the dust

Practise, practise, practise?

Not any more…

Have you noticed that, when you are learning something, teachers will tell you, show you, offer your all sorts of ideas and activities to do.  But do they tell you how to ‘convert’ all this information into actual skill?  Probably you have heard time and time again, that you just have to practise and eventually you will probably learn.  Practise, Practise Practise.

Isn’t that an odd thing?   Certainly it seems reasonable to say that you have to have a go at something to learn it.  This is where we get experiential feedback.  But why should we have to repeat many times?  And why do some people not need to repeat things many times to learn them?

Are we really so dull witted that only endless repetition will drum it in?

I don’t think so.  The problem is that we are taught information, but not how to implement it as changed behaviour

One of my teachers said, there is nothing more likely to inhibit a skill than repetition without a sense of reward.  And I have to agree.

Suppose you were walking across a frozen river.  Would you stomp out determinedly in a straight line staring at the far bank, and run back to the bank when you foot broke through the ice, to repeat the same hopeful but blind venture?  Probably not.

More likely you would take a tentative step, check to see whether any cracks appeared, listen carefully for any sound of cracking.  You would probably take each step with great care, paying careful attention to all your senses, and very deliberately choosing each landing place for your feet, carefully shifting your weight to avoid shock loading the ice.

This is how we need to approach learning.  When we practise something, we need be aware of the ground in front of our feet, and STOP when we hear  the ice cracking.  For it is that sound that we need to hear.  That is experiential feedback.

Applying this analogy to learning, the point where we need to stop is the moment we observe the slightest indication that what we want is not happening.

Consider something simple like opening a jar.  We have all experienced trying to open that jar of jam with a stuck lid, and embarking on a series of grotesque exertions in order to twist the lid.

The point at which I would stop is the point where the lid does not twist off.  For this is the point where I have undeniably been shown that my current behaviour does not work.  Then I use Apogenesis.

Almost invariably I can open stuck lids in a few seconds, not because I am particularly strong, but because in that few seconds I give my body the chance to learn to co-ordinate itself. The amount of torque most people are capable of producing with their hands is enormous, well in excess of what is needed to open a jar.  But where do you think all that power is going normally?  Yes, into those grotesque expressions, clenching of teeth, conflicting muscles, bizarre postures, holding the breath, exasperated noises.  Almost all of the body’s energy is being wasted, and hardly any is left to twist the lid.

When we practise a skill, we have to stop when our behaviour doesn’t work, and change it there and then.   We have to grab hold of the first signs of failure and use it.

So yes, we need practice, but precision practice.  With Apogeniks practice becomes exhilarating, not a series of demoralising repetitions of the same tedious wrong behaviour, but the reward of rising skill level and an exciting series of discoveries.  Once you discover that, you will want to practise your skill for hours, and come out of it light and full of energy rather than exhausted and frustrated.