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Back to the Future

“Marty McFly: Wait a minute, Doc. Ah… Are you telling me that you built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?
Dr. Emmett Brown: The way I see it, if you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?” – Back to the Future 1985


That’s right, we can time travel. I’m not talking a random shot into the past. You can be precise and hit a specific moment in time. That whole business of traveling back in time and changing the present because you’ve messed with the time-line… it’s wrong. You don’t have to worry about it; however you can look into the future and affect its outcome by what you do now.


Don’t throw away your Flux Capacitor just yet. I’m talking about an ability we all use every day.  Here’s the rub: only our minds can time travel. Our bodies are stuck right here in the present. Moreover, the mind only has the capacity to hold one thought at a time. That’s right; you can remember the past and imagine the future. But, when your mind is in the past or future it’s not with your body in the present.


We take this all for granted but it is truly an amazing ability. It allows us to learn from the past and shape the future. However, to quote Stan Lee, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Our minds slide so easily from past to present to future that often, when we need it in the present, it is somewhere else in time. I seem to remember once or twice when I was young, my mind should have been in the present absorbing information being scratched onto a chalk board. Instead, it was traveling into the future where I was playing a game of tag on the playground.   My teacher, then, accurately predicted a poor grade on a future test.


Kata in the martial arts is a great tool for learning to control this ability. Now, the term kata can mean slightly different things in different styles of the martial arts (generally speaking it means practice) for our purpose here it means a long standardized pattern of movement. You can think of it a bit like a dance routine but with moves unique to a particular style of martial art (and not set to music.)


When a martial artist performs kata they must seize the moment.  This is a great concept I picked up years ago in a book called Zen in the Martial Arts by Joe Hyamz, who explains the value in, “seizing life at the moment.” I didn’t quite understand it at the time but, basically, it means to be in the present. For the martial artist performing kata, it means to be focused on the move they are doing – seize the moment.  When you watch someone perform kata and they don’t stay in the moment you can actually see their mind drift out of the present.


If you’re a parent with a child that studies, have them do their kata for you and see if you can notice when they drift out of the moment. The signs can be subtle like a sight pause or a shift in eye movement or they can be obvious like doing the wrong move or freezing. Either way, if you’re looking for it, it’s not hard to pick up.  The tendency is to drift when they’re not confident with the kata. They are either thinking forward into the future, making sure they remember the next moves, or they are stuck in the past dwelling on a mistake.


An extreme example of this comes out of season thirteen of Dancing with the Stars. China Philips made a mistake early on while dancing the tango to the Mission Impossible theme.  Under the pressure of competition her mind froze in the past dwelling on the moment the mistake was made. She was unable to remember the rest on the routine and was kicked off the show that week.  You can see the effects of her being out of the moment first hand in this video.


It amazes me every time I work with a student on their kata and explain this to them. The improvement in their performance of the kata is immediate and usually dramatic. When they are focused on the move they’re doing they do that move better. It’s that simple. The best part is it usually elicits a big bright smile when they’re done.  Now a big key to this is they have to know the kata. They must practice. If they don’t know the moves it doesn’t matter how “in the moment” they are they won’t be able to perform.


For the martial arts student, the kata becomes a place to practice seizing the moment. We think of our kata as a way to practice moves but it is so much more.  Once this concept has been practiced in our kata, we can start applying it to other aspects of our life. Ask the child that has learned to improve their kata by seizing the moment to apply their new skill in a school, and then enjoy their smile when their grades improve.  Moreover, helping kids draw the correlation between what is learned in kata and how that can help them in life is a great way parents can connect with their martial arts children and add value to their training.


We can’t forget the value in imagining the future or remembering the past. How many mistakes have been avoided a second time because we’ve remembered the past or how many things have been created by imagining the future? The key is to be in control of our mind’s time travel so that it is appropriate for the task at hand. We all know what happened to Marty McFly when he got stuck in the past. It took 1.21 gigawatts of electricity to get him back. You don’t need a lightning strike to get back to the present. Just practice your kata and practice seizing the moment.

One Comment, RSS

  • Mark Lingenfelter

    says on:
    December 2, 2011 at 1:57 am

    I find this to be particularly true in my prayer time. There I am saying, “Hey, God, omnipotent creator of the universe, can I have a moment of your time?” He says, “Sure, what’s up?” Then I start talking to Him and my mind begins drifting into the past or the future. He’s a loving God, but you’ve got admit that must be a bit insulting for Him. My studies of Zen philosophy (Zen is a philosophy, not a theology) have helped me greatly in my one-on-one time with God. We were the past… we will be the future… but we ARE the present.
    – Pastor Mark Lingenfelter, totallyChrist.com

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