What does Refocusing teach?

I received a question by email yesterday, and thought my response was relevant enough to the general discussion that I should include it here.

On Jul 21, 2013, at 6:21 AM, Adam Cole  wrote:

Hi, Ralph,

A good start.  I’ve definitely experienced this in work with a high-level Tai Chi teacher.  He moved his arm in an arc and I couldn’t stop it.

What I’d like to see next are some steps for a process for learning how not to inhibit the movement.  (I didn’t want to say, “Steps for learning how to inhibit the inhibit!”)


That’s a great questions, Adam, one that I find harder to address satisfactorily than you might think. It goes to the core of my dilemma about what I want to communicate about Refocusing, and about how to do that. It forces me to think about that dilemma, and try to articulate it, and that’s good! 

Most of the knowledge we encounter comes formalized and nicely packaged — as a book, an article, a course curriculum, or perhaps a well-organized workshop. But it may not have started out that way, it may have originated in the mind of its author as something murkier, fuzzier, and less well-defined. Part of the author’s job, then, was to filter and shape the ill-defined murk into something more formalized and usable, and to packaged it in a form that our routine knowledge-processing skills could digest. How difficult this will be in a particular case depends on the murkiness of the raw material, and on what the author is attempting to accomplish.

Most of the time the raw material will be fairly familiar, and the author will primarily be rearranging and perhaps making new connections between known quantities. This would be the case, for example, if I were writing about the control of movement from a more conventional perspective, using concepts that I could expect my audience to share such as muscle contraction, motor neurons and motor units, cortical and sub-cortical activation, and the like.

My current raw material, however, is unfamiliar and very murky, and there are real issues for me about how far along the path to familiarity I want to take it. The core lessons I want to deliver, I think, revolve around the idea that the world is really a very different place than we usually take it to be, which we can bring into focus and interact with in many different ways. If I take that material too far along the path to familiarity, if I give you clear steps toward a process for achieving a easily definable goal, as you’re asking for above, then I deprive you of the potential for radical discovery that is possible if I can entice you over the boundary into unfamiliar territory and suggest paths through it along which you might fruitfully wander. This is what I’m trying to accomplish with my quasi-comprehensible explanations of these quasi-comprehensible videos.

When Bob and I began playing with this stuff as part of our Aikido practice, the Aikido world was in the midst of a struggle over the successor to Aikido’s founder, Morihei Ueshiba, who had died a few years earlier. The contenders were Ueshiba’s son Kisshomaru and Koichi Tohei, who had been Ueshiba’s Chief Instructor. A formal schism resulted when Tohei split from the existing Aikido organization and set up his own Ki Society. The Sensi under whom Bob and I were studying at the time was one of Tohei’s chief US lieutenants, and after the schism he allowed only orthodox Tohei-style Aikido to be taught and practiced in his dojo. Bob and I were “outside the box,” so he invited us to “shape up or ship out.” The discoveries we were making were too interesting to step back from, so we chose the latter. We left the dojo and continued to practice on our own, in the mode you see in the videos.

We were totally on our own, with no teacher to guide us as we wandered through this unfamiliar territory, no one who knew the way to show us around. That was a tremendous gift, because with no one to steer us in his preferred directions, or to interpret our experience in his preferred terms, we could encounter and reencounter the same experience from different directions, finding new and different realities and new ways of describing those realities to each other each time. This way of learning strongly reinforced don Juan Matus’s central lesson — that the real value of being able to experience more than one reality lies in realizing that none of them are “really real,” or more real than the others. They are simply different ways of perceiving a larger reality which can be experienced only through these partial glimpses.

That’s the real lesson I hope to offer, though I’m still figuring out how do it. It feels, though, like I’ve got a better chance of succeeding if I don’t get too deeply involved in teaching specific skills, like “steps for a process for learning how not to inhibit the movement.” It’s better, from my point of view, to guide you to discover that you limit yourself unnecessarily in myriad ways, and that as you become more familiar with them you will find it easier not to continue to invoke them. It is as Moshe said, “If you know what you are doing, you can do what you want.”

The best way to practice, I think, is by playing with a compatible friend, along the lines that Bob and I play together in the videos. The feelings of empowerment, freedom, and joy that come when what had been an overwhelming physical constraint suddenly evaporates provide strong positive reinforcement, as well as a lot of just plain fun,

As distinctions between solid and fluid, rigid and floating, narrow focus vs broader awareness of larger patterns, etc., become more available, you can extend your practice to consciously bringing those distinctions in other situations. You can play with constraining yourself, by twisting your own arm, for example, or impeding your movement as in Exploring the Cascade, then looking for ways of releasing that impediment. (Lindy’s comment on that post is also useful.) The same responses that lock you in place physically also get triggered in non-physical situations — in conversation, standing in line at the market, or even on the phone, so these also provide opportunities to practice.

Narrowly focusing on a perceived impediment and applying effort against that impediment without noticing what else is going on is a major form of self-limitation, so consciously broadening your perceptual field to take in and respond to the larger pattern is an important tool. One of the best descriptions of this tool that I’ve come across, Adam, is the magicians’ manipulation of pattern in your book, Myth of Magic. You may have been tapping into deeper layers of knowing than you realized, when you wrote that. I hope you find all this useful. Let me know where your practice leads you.

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One thought on “What does Refocusing teach?”

  1. Thanks, Ralph,

    A difficult answer, but that’s good, right? I understand what you’re saying. Still, I hope you can offer more specific direction, if not actual instruction, in your posts, both for my sake and the sake of the work you’re communicating.

    Your friend,


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