Your filters hinder your progress
"The most important is your openness, literally.
If you want to change the way you move, your brain has to be flexible. It's the same in the business community, the best CEOs are flexible. People who are very good at what they do are not just smart. They are also very flexible. "
Akuzawa Minoru , Yashima Issue 2, September 2018
Martial practices are as rich as they are diverse and if we can find a large number of good practitioners, few have reached the highest level of mastery, sometimes demonstrating a seemingly unreal work in the eyes of neophytes, at the limit of charlatanism, or on the contrary ... not so different from what they or their teachers do. And yet ...
We all come with our own baggage and preconceptions. How to accept that an adept can throw someone twice as young, taller, stronger, without any apparent effort if we haven't experienced such a level of practice?
"We do that too"
To me, this sentence is one of the most dangerous that can be heard on or off the mats. Not dangerous because it can lead to serious injury, but because it places a clear limit to what one can learn. If it is useful to see similarities and connect the dots between different practices to better understand them, it is much more of an issue not to see what separates them in their essence. Seeing the differences between two practices does not mean judging them or comparing them, but looking at them objectively to understand what makes them specific, whether it is from a body, strategic or tactical point of view. Behind the illusion of similarity lies the inability to embrace something new and explore it in depth.
Having practiced for a few years some arts with very specific use of the body (Aunkai and Kishinkai Aikido), I can only roll my eyes when I hear practitioners watching the practice of an adept such as Akuzawa sensei and find what he does pretty close to what they do in their dojo. If there are indeed a handful of people capable of such feats and possibly using similar principles, I have personally never met anyone coming close to it.
It is natural to bridge things back to what we know. Yet our filters are our biggest enemy. It will be easy to find an adept mediocre, simply because he will not use ways that we only deem valid. Among the very high-level practitioners I am lucky to see on a regular basis, Akuzawa Minoru, Leo Tamaki, and Maul Mornie, all of them use extremely different methods, sometimes even going in opposite directions, far beyond the mere appearance of their techniques. I could have personally gone to Léo Tamaki's class, do Aunkai there, and come back disappointed by the lack of internal connections of his students. I would also have lost an opportunity to learn something.
Understanding what makes the heart of the practice of the greatest is the key to progress.
"Oh yes, you use xxx"
In the same way, it is easy, and not constructive, to try to understand the elements of a style that differs from ours with irrelevant filters. I personally very often hear comments such as "it works because you are engaging more muscular fibers", "it works because you're going fast", etc. Comments that always prove to be ... false, but also reveal a way of thinking and seeing the world. A paradigm that we will have to be broken to move forward.
"What is essential is invisible to the eyes" said Saint Exupery. It's up to us to make this our motto and go beyond appearances.
Learning how to learn
Learning does not require so much a particular talent as it requires an ability to... unlearn. Knowing how to get out of our comfort zone to explore the unknown and accept new ideas as a beginner. Having prejudices about the content is only an obstacle to learning.
I have considered martial practice as something austere for quite a while now, far from the fancy and spectacular techniques seen in demonstrations. For if this is what the public sees, the life of an adept made of constant doubt and questioning. What we thought was true yesterday may prove to have been a mistake, and having the mental flexibility to accept a totally different idea is essential. It is a process that I go through regularly, changing my practice and my approach completely with each new enlightenment, forcing my students to unlearn just as much as they learn.
Learning also requires an ability to deconstruct information. The practice of the greatest adepts is difficult to understand at first glance and being able to identify the key elements that give them this particular flavor is an effective way to get closer. This topic itself deserves more than just a blog post and is also covered in many books including those of Tim Ferriss and Josh Waitzkin that I particularly recommend.
In conclusion, be open, curious, and take a fresh look at what is on offer. Some practices will speak to you less than others and it's natural, but you'll only know after seeing and exploring them for what they are.