Time Distortion: The Mental Shutter


(Another in a series of articles about psychological time distortion in the martial arts)

Human technology is an extension of our limbs and senses: telephones extend voice, computers are our attempt to recreate our brains, telescopes and microscopes are super-eyes.

As analogues, then, I might be permitted to look at an invention to try to understand the mechanism and implications of Tachypsychia, especially as it exists in the martial arts.

Twenty-five years ago, while studying judo and jiu jitsu with Harley “Swiftdeer” Reagan, he spoke of the human aura, which he envisioned as being similar to an amoebic field filled with floating organelles, surrounding the human body. One part of this was what he called “the Octagonal Mirror.”    Swift’s teaching was that the Octagonal Mirror was directly related to consciousness and time sense, and that the faster you took “pictures” of the reality you were experiencing, the “slower” things seemed to happen.  This would be similar to a motion picture camera: overcrank the film, you get more frames per second, and when you played it back at normal speed, everything seemed slow.  Conversely, if you “undercranked” and took FEWER frames per second, when you played it back, things looked sped-up.  So far so good, right?

This was as good an explanation of the basic phenomenon as I’d heard.   

I tucked that tidbit away for over a decade, until I was introduced to the work of Scott Sonnon.  A VERY creatively inclined martial artist who had trained in the former Soviet Union and been introduced to their concepts of performance, I ordered a few of his products to check him out (I’d been told that he moved like a hero in one of my novels! HAD to check that out. And, yep, his movement was just superbly fluid and powerful) and while the videos were interesting, it was an audio called the “Flow State Performance Spiral” that really caught my attention.  I listened to it about ten times, thunderstruck by the implications.  Briefly, he took the “Octagonal Mirror” concept of consciousness and went full circle with it.  

You see, there is a very well commented-upon phenomenon, where a master and a student are sparring. The student is moving frantically, and the master seems to be moving slowly—but the student cannot touch the master and the master is mopping the floor with the student.   Very cool “snatch the pebble from my hand” style stuff, right?  I’ve had a touch of this personally, when someone watching me move with a student said that “It looked like he was fighting, and you were dancing.”   I suspect that’s edging in on the same territory.

But what Scott said was that you have both external and internal sensory input.  Paying attention to what is happening OUTSIDE you is the Octagonal mirror thingie.  Paying attention to what is INSIDE of you: your emotional responses, pains, physical positions, etc, is not helping you much in this specific sense.  If you have 10 units of attention, and all ten of them are focused on “what is happening” that is a good thing. If eight of them are focused on “oh, wow, that hurt!  I’m getting my ass kicked!  My legs are out of position!” you only have TWO units of attention, or say that you are taking “pictures” at only two frames per second, so the world looks “fast” to you.

So…think about this. If you are sparring with someone and can stay ‘externally focused’ in this sense, all ten units of attention focused on what is happening…while you are specifically hurting him, distracting him, frightening him, forcing him to worry about his breathing, position and so on, you are forcing him to become “internally” focused, using say eight units of attention on what is happening inside his skin and between his ears.  That only gives him two “units of attention” to fight back.

You have ten units. He has two. That means that, in this specific sense, you are processing five times the external input, leading to a serious problem: a relative psychological time five times as efficient and potentially effective.  The result: you seem to have all the time in the world, he is thrashing with all his speed, but you are brushing off his attacks like nothing, but nailing him with everything you do.

You have all the time in the world.

Now, this might be touched on in the “OODA Loop” concept in jet fighter pilot strategy.

Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.  As I understand it, the idea is that the faster plane and pilot will act first, forcing his opponent to react to what has happened, and while the opponent is reacting, you are performing another action.  If you can stay “ahead” of him in that sense, All of his attention is on what you are doing to him, all of yours is on what you are doing to him as well, leaving little of his attention to concentrate on what he might be able to do to you.

Another attention differential, perhaps?   Another piece of the puzzle?  I honestly don’t know.  But some thoughts arise about how these states might apply, IF Tai Chi was designed to teach and implant Tachypsychia:

Relaxation would be key.   Tension creates narrow focus, tunnel vision.  Relaxation leads to soft, wide focus, taking in more information per second.  Tai Chi’s health benefits come from a few basic physiological effects. Balance, proprioception, joint mobility and relaxation are certainly among them.

What if a syntax of practice went like this?

  1. Meditate to achieve a very specific mental state in which time becomes more elastic.
  2. Begin to move very gently (the Tai Chi form) seeking the same state of “elastic time” calm.
  3. When you can integrate the complex movement and physical strain of the form (say, with a low stance) while maintaining that same mental state, you’ve got something interesting.
  4. Now…push hands.  Increase the stress by working with another person.  Still got it?  Good.  Move on.
  5. Now…increase the intensity of push hands.   Perhaps learn a two-man set while maintaining the same internal state, the same soft-focus.  Increase intensity until there is some risk of being hurt.   Learn to relax anyway.   Still good?
  6. Increase the intensity: spar.  Work with weapons.  Perform before an audience, or your master’s master who flew in from Hong Kong.  Can you still maintain that same calm, centered place? Still take in 8-10 units of data?
  7. How about you structure your responses so that you are striking the opponent “dis-assembling” their physical alignment, impinging their breathing, causing muscle tension?   Causing them to “go internal” and freak out, get tense and “un-plastic.”  Now you have something really interesting: you are capable of moving with speed and power, while simultaneously (and if you have structured your practice properly, almost automatically) driving them “down the vortex” of what Scott called the “Flow State Performance Spiral.”


This thoughts make sense to me, and they make sense of things dozens of different masters have said or written of over the centuries.    I would think the applications and possible experiments would be obvious, but one would be Slow Sparring.  Relaxed. Wide focused.  Flow with it. Only increase speed when you can do so while remaining relaxed.


That’s a lot of fun, too.  You know? I’ve been hit full-power in the face as many times as I’m interested in in this lifetime.   Flowing, though?  Playing with the positions while working on breath and balance and relaxation?  I could do that an hour a day for the rest of my life and be a happy guy.  THAT is what I’m going to concentrate on with my students from now on. If they want to go hard, there are schools everywhere that will oblige ‘em.  Go to it!  But this…this new investigation calls to me.  I think there is something there.


I hope you do, too.





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