You’re flying down the highway at seventy-five miles per hour when break lights flash in front of you. Slowing down you check your rear view then side view mirrors. Just before the car in the left lane passes you clutch, downshift to forth and notice that your speed has dropped to sixty-five. The car passes. Rolling the wheel to the left and dropping the gas pedal smoothly, you change lanes before the next car blocks you. You then pass the car that was in front of you. Now you’re doing seventy-five again.
We use timing everyday all day. Something as simple as changing lanes on the highway goes from getting home a little quicker to death if our timing is off. Yet, we do it without compunction.
I love the martial arts for teaching us things like timing. Timing is one of those critical and common skills that follows us through our day. It’s so common in fact that we don’t think about it. Most timing happens in our subconscious. Martial arts training taps into the primal space in our mind; it is a complex study of one of the most basic instincts we have – the fight side of our fight or flight response. It takes significant effort to tap into that instinct and program it. When we gain the skill to tap into our fight response we gain the skill to program other subconscious activities like timing.
What is timing and how do you develop it? Timing consists of two critical components: rhythm and observation. Let’s look at a fighter squared off with an opponent. First they observe their opponent. They connect with them, watching what and when they do certain things. They get a feel for their rhythm. Then they move with respect to all that they observed and when it changes they change too. However, in order to be good at timing, the fighter must practice all their skills to the point of being instinctual. There is no time for conscious thought. The observation and rhythm must happen on a subconscious level to achieve the necessary speed for timing. A speed that is faster than thought.
Moving Faster than the Speed of Thought
How do you move faster than thought? Easy, get rid of the thought. You don’t need it. It just gets in the way. This is a Zen principal called mushin no shin – the mind without mind. We Americans owe our understanding of this to the great Zen master himself, Tom Cruise. (Where would we be without him?) In one scene of the movie The Last Samurai, Tom Cruise’s character, Nathan Algren is sparring with his sword. His Japanese liaison explains to him: “Please forgive,” he says. “You have too many mind…mind sword, mind people watch, mind enemy. Too many mind. Must have no mind.” It’s a lesson that eventually leads Algren to victory. The only way to do what we must do without thought is to practice what we must do. When changing lanes on the highway you don’t give thought to the subtle movements required to operate the controls of the car. Sometimes you don’t even think, change lanes. Why should you? You drive home that way every day moving in and out of traffic all the time. You do it without thought.
Observation Without Focus
This no mindedness also helps us with the observation piece of timing. Observation works best when you take in everything. This is why it is necessary to take a step back and not focus on any one thing but focus on all things at once.
Let’s look at our opponent as an example. We know we need to observe them to discover their rhythm so we focus on their hands and notice they tend to lead with a jab. We also notice that every three to four times they jab they follow up with their right cross. Having notice this you’re able to avoid the cross and follow up with a good counter attack. Keeping your focus on the hands, however, has caused you to miss the fact that they take a slight step before throwing the jab. Had you noticed this you would be able to react better to the jab itself. Now you can set up your counter attack at the jab or cross (making it harder for your opponent to pin down your rhythm.) That is not to say you’re consciously noticing all this. If you’re in a state of mushin this all happens at a subconscious level.
The other piece to our timing is rhythm. Rhythm is all about expectation. When we listen to music the rhythm sets up an expectation for us. It allows us to instantly relate to it because we can predict when the next notes are coming based on that rhythm. When a traditional martial artist practices kata (a set of moves that is basically a deadly dance routine) one of the many things they practice within that kata is rhythm. It’s not the perfect rhythm of music. It is an organic rhythm like the ones we use in our everyday life. When watching the kata performed, the rhythm sets an expectation for us. We as the observers immediately begin to relate to it, anticipating upcoming moves and experiencing drama during the pauses. Even someone who has never taken the martial arts has a way to start relating to what their seeing through the rhythm.
In observing the rhythm in things we gain the ability to predict future action. So now we no longer need to react to an action with reflex. We time our action with rhythm. You are now a musician playing your instrument in a band following the drummer’s rhythm. To improve you timing you just need to find the drummer and their rhythm in each situation.
All Together Now
Observation and rhythm on a subconscious level (no mindedness) all work together to give us an instinct… a feel for timing. This could be in something as physical as a boxing match or as integral to our lives as a conversation. Anytime we’re interacting with something that is changing through time with us, we need timing. A friend of mine, who is a great salesperson, came to me once frustrated with his current sales efforts. He was having great conversations, saying the right things, opening himself up to help his clients, however, he was not making the sale. We talked about what he was doing specifically when engaged with his prospects. All though he was giving them all the right information, it wasn’t at the right time. He had developed a great right cross but wasn’t using his timing instinct so it never landed. After looking at the timing of a natural conversation and applying that to his conversations with clients he began delivering information to them at the exact moment they were ready for it. To this day he enjoys a career as a highly successful salesperson.
If you are in the martial arts you’re practicing timing at a high level every time you train. It is a key part of almost every drill you do. The trick is to look at everything you do and find places that you can apply this highly developed sense. You’re probably already doing this to a degree but now that you’re more aware of your timing skill, you can consciously and specifically apply it to new areas of your life. Moreover, you will become aware of the rhythms that happen all day, everyday, around you in nature, in the people you meet and in places you’ve never even considered. As you listen to these rhythms you will work in concert with them, time your efforts with respects to them and find success in your timing.