Tag Archives: Metacognition

Intuition, Boxing and Freedom

I recently received an intriguing short essay from a friend of mine. It gave me a different perspective on what we consider freedom. I’ve published it in full below. Enjoy!

It’s when thought and action form a single whole that you’re free to be something

Freedom

I know a boxing instructor who used to tell his pupils to evade incoming blows intuitively, to block intuitively, to throw punches intuitively.

This, I think, was an elegant shorthand for saying: Think carefully about what’s really intuitive, and do that. To this boxing instructor, intuition was not just whatever first comes to mind, but above all whatever makes the most sense.

No one is born a boxer. There may be those who pick it up with remarkable speed, but they, too, must first be shown what to do, and will only progress, maybe to greatness, with years of teaching and practice. For the rest of us, our first reactions to an incoming punch are often wrong: His fist is moving to my right, so I should duck my head to my left. This is fine—if you mean to use your head to block the punch. Otherwise, do what’s truly intuitive: move your head ahead of the punch, in the same direction. Evade the punch intuitively. Then bob back up and give him a left hook to the jaw.

Intuition must be learned, paradoxical as it sounds. The elegance of a good boxer is nothing other than mastery of a boxer’s intuition. It is not just a mechanical matter of moving quickly and economically; the boxer learns a way of looking, which is as much a way of tuning out what he doesn’t need to know as it is a way of zeroing in on what he needs to react to, or exploit.

Probably the hardest thing for the intermediate boxer to learn is to look his opponent hard in the eye. If you can deliver your punches without even glancing at where you want them to land, all the better: This is the poker face of boxing. Where poker is all about detachment and nonchalance, in boxing, you avoid betraying your intentions best by locking your gaze on his. The intuitive way to look at someone, in boxing, is the most aggressive, but also the most intimate. It’s a weird invitation: Let’s box.

Until the pupil achieves a certain dexterity and a certain ease with these psychological demands of the game, he will not be able to integrate what he already knows into an adequate response to his opponent. Maybe he can punch a bag well. The bag swings in predictable ways, never making a fuss. Maybe his footwork looks good in a mirror. You don’t have time to look at your own technique when your opponent is about to punch your liver in.

To be able to surprise your opponent, you mustn’t give any indication where you’re going to punch. At the same time, you must be alert to whatever your opponent may be planning, which he’s likeliest to betray with his eyes, a split second before he makes his move. And so, there’s only one thing to look at directly: The eyes of your opponent. This, in turn, means you need to split your perception of visual stimuli: You must get used to seeing the motions of his body out of the corners of your eyes. You can’t try to focus on whatever you have to react to or whatever you’re about to do, as you might in everyday life. That’s everyday intuition; what you need is a boxer’s intuition.

There is, in other words, no way to box but to box intuitively. In the absence of this intuition, you have no way of assessing dangers or opportunities, and your approach to your opponent becomes nothing but an overwhelming sequence of options, which you need to think about consciously, one at a time. In the time it takes you to do that, you’re already on the canvas.

I think skilled practices like boxing—I could, instead, have written about playing an instrument—give important lessons about the nature of human freedom generally. Because I never feel as free as when the need to make conscious, considered choices drops away, when I no longer need to maintain any kind of split between thought and action. It’s when thought and action form a single whole that you’re free to be something, fully, and being fully human, acquiring a full and human intuition of what you’re on earth to do, is, for me, the only way to be truly free.

Contrast this with the freedom so often held as an ideal today: The freedom to choose. The more choices you have, the freer you are—so it’s insinuated. But the kinds of choices whose number can be arbitrarily increased—How many vacuum cleaners are on the market? What’s the best ham at the deli? How many men are on the ballot?—are the kinds of choices whose proliferation will crowd your thinking and add noise to your life. And soon you will find yourself accommodating your life to your acquired need to make these choices, over and over again, to feel in control of things, rather than living in order to become who you truly are.

I think it’s people who view freedom this way who fear death the most. – Think of what I’ll be missing! – Whereas if you’re sure of who you are, of what you’re on earth to do, you can’t help but do it, intuitively, and the time when it must end will always be far off.

What Do Conspiracy Theories Have To Do With Ant Farms?

I notice a significant increase in the popularity of conspiracy theories recently. Some are byzantine, with such outrageous claims it’s a wonder they ever gained currency. And they seem to be gaining new adherents by the day.

Conspiracy theories are nothing new. But why do they seem particularly salient today? Being a part of a group of believers, either in a religion or a conspiracy, provides connection to others and affirmation from a community. In a time of isolation, those are particularly valuable.

But I think the biggest reason for the popularity of conspiracy theories today is that there is something happening to our world that we don’t understand and can’t control. An invisible illness is spreading globally and mutating steathily. Its origin is unknown. The date it all ends is unknown. Any control we have over it is partial at best. And it’s affecting nearly every person on earth in one way or another.

As ghoulish as it is, believing that some group of evil humans unleashed this on us intentionally is more comforting than believing that COVID arose purely randomly. At least we could find those evildoers and punish them, and then maybe it stops! Believing the sickness isn’t serious provides an even greater comfort…the terrible things that seem to be happening around us aren’t real! Everything is fine!

It is hard to accept someone is doing something awful to us on purpose, but at least it would preserve the illusion of human control. That we have no control and are being buffeted by random chance and a natural world that is indifferent to us is even scarier.

Someone is shaking our ant farm!

Or so we think. But in reality we are subject to an earthquake, this time of the biological variety. We don’t fully understand what’s happening, but we know something is.

Conspiracies also gained currency after 9/11. I suspect this is because people found it more comforting to imagine our government was in control, even in a malevolent way, than to believe that a small group of unknowns from the other side of the world could strike at the heart of our nation at any time.

What’s the solution? I’m not sure there is one, other than time. Distance from the events will give us perspective. But in the mean time, let’s remember that we are affected by randomness every day. Not everything has a pattern, a discernible cause, or a smoke filled room filled with evil, cigar chomping men behind it. Sometimes things just happen, and we have to respond the best we know how.