Imagine someone in a forest―with his/her current perception and its limitations―trying to find a way to the next town. This situation would represent a beginner’s level of understanding karate-jutsu. Now imagine this person climbing up the highest tree in that forest. This would represent a learning process to penetrate the obvious. While climbing higher, i.e. learning more and understanding better, the related perception of our friend’s surroundings changes continuously. Finally, there will be a moment, close to the tree top, when the view suddenly opens up, and the entire perspective completely changes. Our friend is now able to look across all the other tree tops, and he/she will have an entirely new perspective and new insight. He/she now can see in unison “the big picture” of the forest, the “totality” of the landscape beyond the forest, and the many details close by as well. A new insight is gained, and this new view at the tree-top changes all the previous understandings while climbing, irreversibly and completely. The revolutionary change of perspective and related understanding in this metaphor is an important facet of the first aspect of mastery. It represents a change of perception from detailed to holistic, i.e. from seeing parts of a whole to seeing the whole as more as the sum of its parts.

Let us now look harder at the implications of such a changed perspective and its included options for new understandings. Everyone who plays a sophisticated board game, like Chess or Go, experiences that there are different levels of understanding the game. Beginners may think through one move, its implications and an opponent’s optional reactions. More advanced players may be able to think through two, three, or even more moves. But there are chess-masters who play at the same time, simultaneously, with a dozen or more adversaries. These masters walk around a room from one opponent to another, briefly glance at the board, and make their move. A couple of minutes later all their opponents are either check-mate or give up.

How is that possible?

There is no way that these masters analyze “sequentially,” i.e. step by step, and that they think in detail through all possible moves during the split-second they only need to react to the displayed situation. They must process the information on the board differently compared to less advanced players. And this they do indeed. Parallel to our forest-metaphor, the beginner perceives more or less details in close proximity to the pending move and processes the analysis of this information sequentially, one step after another. In contrast, representing the view at the tree-top in the forest-metaphor, a master’s perception is “holistic,” “total and at once,” realizing the “totality,” i.e. the entire big picture, its inherent patterns, and its possible developments.

This holistic perception is the first core component of mastery. Psychological theories help us to understand how an individual’s perceptions are shaped by personal experience, by subjective thinking patterns, by social environments, by individual physiological conditions, and by situational circumstances (Schaffer/Kipp 2007). Humans do not just perceive, they interpret their perceptions, and they “construct their individual reality” (Berger/Luckmann 1966). Hence, individual perceptions amongst individuals are differing; they are more or less narrow; constricted and pre-occupied by emotions and attitudes, by stress, routine and habit, by anger, fear, ambition, by social/cultural components, and, last but not least, by ego.1

The wider one’s view, yonder what some call “comfort zones,” and the less constricted by subjective impacts, the more an individual’s perception approximates reality. Masters overcome most of these limitations; they widen their perception, they have a clearer, less subjective awareness of reality. At its most developed stage, a master’s perception becomes “total,” “here and now,” grounded in the complete calmness of an “empty mind.” Thus, a master’s holistic perception is completely open.

The result of such an open perception leads us to the second core component of mastery; a master’s mental store of cross-linked concepts, which permits a master’s advanced level of knowledge and understanding.

Advanced Level of Knowledge and Understanding

Developmental psychology explains how individuals organize and store their perceptions and experiences in order to find meaning in their surroundings, and in order to be able to act reasonable. Human perception can recognize a possible inherent structure within singular events, which makes it possible to identify patterns (Kretch et. al. 1969, pp. 98ff); e.g. “blocking- receiving” as one structure within many moves in karate-jutsu. Comparable patterns may now be detected, which allows to group those patterns further, e.g. “blocking-receiving with an arm” in karate-jutsu. Within an array of groups, similarities of a second level may be identified, e.g. “arm-blocks as preemptive strikes” in karate-jutsu, allowing again to cluster those. Within this selection of clusters, parallels of a third level may be identified, e.g. “pre-emptive arm strikes as the preparation for a take-down” in karate-jutsu, and so on and so forth.

To organize and to structure recognized patterns this way is “reduction of complexity” (Luhmann 1968) and represents a basic intellectual function allowing human beings to find the meaning and the sense between related events. A published karate example to illustrate this structure is Sensei McCarthy’s description of him “recognizing common principles” in defensive moves across a variety of Asian martial arts: “I compared and contrasted many of the ritualized practices utilized by a great number or Asian empty-handed defense traditions. I discovered a shared commonality in technique and defensive applications across all of these arts” (McCarthy 1998a, p. 38).

Reduction of complexity leads to an organized hierarchy of cross-linked concepts, a scheme with deeper penetration of the subject, where each higher level allows a more advanced understanding; like our climber in the forest metaphor above gains a broader view the higher he/she climbs.

The Total Landscape

Within this hierarchy of cross-linked concepts, through a process of “creative synthesis,” the grouping or clustering of patterns leads not just to an array of elements but allows to realize a completely new “whole” (Werner 1980, p. 3) ―like the conjunction of several tones creates a melody, which is more than just an array of tones. At a certain level, referring back to our forest- metaphor, this allows to see “the trees through the forest” as well as the big picture of “the forest formed by the trees” ―as well as the even bigger, the total, picture of “the entire landscape where the forest is a part of.”

The deeper the penetration and understanding of the subject, the more the complexity of reality reduces itself into a limited number of constituting fundamentals. As already Sun Tzu wrote 2,500 years ago, “there are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard. There are not more than five primary colors (blue, yellow, red, white, and black), yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen. There are not more than five cardinal taste (sour, acrid, salt, sweet, bitter), yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted . . . there are not more than two methods of attack―the direct and the indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to and endless series of maneuvers.” (Sun Tzu n. d.; chapter V; #7, #8, #9, #10; p. 27f).

Corresponding, at the mastery-level of understanding karate-jutsu, it becomes obvious how the combinations of a handful of core concepts, or “fundamentals” in Sensei Patrick McCarthy’s term, explain all single occurrences―like all the countless hues of printed artworks are reducible into combinations of the only four basic printing colors, blue, yellow, red, and grey.

The benefit of this theoretical explanation to understand mastery in martial arts becomes clear when we match the term “totality” with “concepts used in kata,” the term “big picture” with “moves used in kata,” and the detail-term “elements/patterns” with “techniques used in kata.” Advanced level karateka understand concepts, including all their hidden options, and realize all the big pictures in combat 2 where these concepts may be applied, whereas beginners narrowly see a technique as a mere technique to be used for only one (or for a limited few) specific application(s).

Humanistic-holistic theories in psychology3 explain further how a mental core store of such overarching, all-embracing high-level wholes and totalities allows to hear the melody instead of recognizing a collection of tones. With this kind of mental store, the initial process of “bottom-up creative synthesis” to create the store can be reversed into “top-down analysis” to understand single events as part of totalities, as part of big pictures.4 In scientific language: “The elements are not precedent to the whole, but the whole, as a basic entity, is the precursor of its component parts” (Werner 1980, p. 9).

Identifiable Pattern

A practical example could be that in a fight one person throws several seemingly unrelated offensive punches and kicks [input], which, however, all show the same identifiable pattern of slightly dropping the left hand when moving forward. This result of holistic cross- checking all those random inputs in the opponent’s brain, allows the identification of the pattern [dropped left hand] within milliseconds, and allows the application of the specific counter concept which ends the fight.

Referring these theoretical considerations back to our chess-example: a chess-master immediately and holistically recognizes a game’s totality, its entire big picture with its inherent patterns, and its whole representing more than the current positions of chess pieces. The chess- master’s mental store of concepts in combination with a broad and deep hierarchy of all possible chess-patterns, now allows to quickly apply this insight, and to precisely react with the most effective move. 3

Owning such an all-embracing mental store, a broad and deep hierarchy of core principles, concepts, and functions, together with chess-game totalities and all inherent possible patterns, requires a very long and extensive path of learning, training, analyzing, and experimenting to reframe own experience. It requires from a chess master to step outside the own box of constricted perception in order to gain new insights. It requires to try out new things, to draw correct conclusions beyond wishful thinking, and to apply knowledge in all practical situations one can think of―ending up in an automatic, sub-conscious but correct application of stored knowledge and insight.

1 This led to the scientific finding that perceived “reality” in the eye of one individual is not necessarily the same perceived reality in the eye of another; but both “subjective realities” ―which are in fact interpretations―are “individually real,” hence personally correct. This social fact of utmost importance was already formulated in the early 1900s by the Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler, a colleague of Sigmund Freud’s, who named it “individual logic.” The concept was further elaborated by Adler’s student Rudolf Dreikurs, who immigrated into the USA in 1937, and who named it as the “private logic” of an individual (Dreikurs 1981, pp. 69ff).

2 Interestingly enough, a completely different approach, i.e. Cybernetics [science of communications and control] comes to the comparable result of a hierarchy of concepts and their constituting fundamentals, when a “functionalist perspective” (Acutt 2012) is used to reduce the combat complexity of martial arts systems. “In order to define and to understand those variables, it is essential that we perform a “reductionism” on the combat arts to attempt to deliver them back to their most universal definition; to remove all aspects which might serve to mask their basest existential value - to the use of the human body in physical conflict with another human body” (ibid. p. 4).

3 These are theories which stress that a whole is more than the sum of its parts, they stress the underlying structure, unity, and integration of individual perception, development, and action (theories were formulated e.g. by Adler, Erikson, Freud, Pearls, Piaget).

The above is an excerpt from Analysis of Genuine Karate 2: Sociocultural Development, Commercialization and Loss of Essential Knowledge by Hermann Bayer, Ph.D., Publication Date July 2023, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 9781594399244.