Muscle Memory

I used to be very involved in Martial Arts – Kenpo Karate, Modern Arnis, and Kickboxing.  I spent hours upon hours at the dojo, eventually earning my black belt, and even helping with the classes.  I loved it, and grieved when I had to give it up (my body just couldn’t take it anymore).

I still think about the forms and techniques.  I still think about how I would handle different situations, if I had to.  I still miss it terribly.

I still remember my first class, wearing my white uniform (gi) and white belt.  I didn’t have a clue.  But, I was eager to learn.  During that first class I was taught about 5 or 6 things – a few kicks, punches, and blocks.  Slowly, as I demonstrated proficiency, I was taught more.  As I learned and improved, I was given opportunities to test for the next higher belt.

But, on my very last class, though I was competent in dozens and dozens of strikes, kicks, blocks, etc.; though I had been tested 11 times; though I was instructing others; I was still required to accurately perform the basic techniques I was taught at very my first class.  The same had been true at every class – hundreds of classes – between my first and my last, and countless private practice sessions.

My instructor (sensei) used to talk about developing muscle memory through repetition.  He wanted us to be able to react correctly in a dangerous situation, without needing to think about what the right strike or block needed to be.  In fact, he was a stickler for accuracy, saying, “Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Perfect practice makes perfect.”  If I was doing something wrong – even small things – repeating the error only reinforced the error.  So, he was quick to correct.  And, I was corrected often.  And, I repeated the technique again – accurately.  And, once I did it correctly, I repeated it some more.

I’ve been told that there really isn’t such a thing as muscle memory.  Muscles don’t remember – the mind remembers.  The mind, however, has an amazing capacity to absorb and retain what we do routinely.  Eventually, repeated actions become second-nature.

Similarly, when I first started riding a motorcycle, I had to concentrate on every detail of what I was doing.  The right hand can brake or throttle, and presses down to steer right.  The right thumb pushes the right turn signal.  The left hand works the clutch, and presses down to steer left.  The left thumb presses the left turn signal, and the horn.  The right foot brakes.  The left foot shifts between the gears.  You shift your body weight to steer.  You watch everywhere. You listen.   And, you do it all simultaneously.  The details really matter when you’re riding a motorcycle!  It’s life or death!

But, I noticed on Monday, as I was riding, even while still being very attentive to my driving, how little I have to think about the details.  They’ve become automatic.

We call repeated actions or behaviors, that become automatic, habits.  Obviously, there are good habits or bad habits.   I have more than a few bad habits.  And, just as bad habits are hard to break, good habits can be hard to form.  Developing good habits is like learning karate or riding a motorcycle – doing the right thing over and over and over, until it becomes second nature.

Honestly, bad habits, formed unintentionally, come a lot easier to me than forming good habits. In fact, for years I resisted living my life habitually.  It seemed boring and uninteresting.  I acted on my impulses.  when my impulses were good, that was good.  When my impulses were bad, that could be a problem.

But, as I’ve “matured,” I’m increasingly realizing the value of habit and routine.  I still fight them, sometimes.  But, increasingly I’m forming “muscle memory” – particularly in my spiritual life.

I need time with God, every day, and the morning tends to be my best time.  I need weekly Sabbath.  I need annual retreat – usually to a monastery for a week of silence.  I have a rhythm for my sermon prep.  I have a basic rhythm for how I structure my week.  I increasingly value the cyclical nature of the liturgical seasons – like annually using Lent to reevaluate my habits, and work on new ones.  The Church calls these spiritual disciplines.

There are some habits that I still need to break and some I need to develop.  I still haven’t managed to develop good habits around eating and exercising.  I also need to develop some better mental habits, to reign in the negative thoughts and responses that come way too easily.  I’m discovering that even some basic character attributes can only form through practice.

So, while my martial arts days are unfortunately in my past, I’m still working on developing healthy and holy habits, that will, hopefully, also lead to proficiency and “muscle memory.”

What habits are you working on?


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