Tom Church on How learning martial arts helps increase creativity
"Do external things distract you? Then make time for yourself to learn something worthwhile; stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions. But make sure you guard against the other kind of confusion. People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time - even when hard at work."
Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Roman Emperors wrote this in Meditations, a practical guide to Stoic philosophy I devoured years ago. There and then I decided to take something up, an activity I could focus on outside of work, direct my energy through and learn something from. I tried Salsa, Tango, Swing, as well as CrossFit, running and rock climbing, but finally settled on a little-known Brazilian martial art called Capoeira.
The first time I tried Capoeira something strange happened. Instead of concentrating fully on the move we were practicing - an esquiva lateral - my mind drifted to tea, of all things! But not just any tea, Chado, the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
Chado is a meditative ritual in which you concentrate fully on each step of making tea. You can do it at home by giving your complete attention to putting the water in the kettle, turning it on, taking out a mug, putting in a tea bag, pouring the water in, allowing it to brew and serving it to a guest. It's simplicity is its beauty. As Soshitsu Sen, Grand Tea Master XV said,
Tea is nothing other than this:
heat the water, prepare the tea, and drink it with propriety
No Twitter or distraction, use the act of making tea as meditative practice. It was a bizarre moment in class, but as a kick came over my head and I escaped by moving into a low crouch, I remembered the shape of steam rising from the tea pot the first time I experienced Chado when traveling across Asia.
It would be the first of many instances where Capoeira connected disparate parts of my memory together to form new ideas, new understandings, new viewpoints. And this has helped hugely in my creative work.
I write a creative design blog called Screams where I pull inspiration from multiple disciplines including literature, history and philosophy with areas such as art, design, music and photography. I stir them together and draw out new ideas. Capoeira has helped me develop this skill with its unique characteristics of combining fighting with dancing, music and philosophy.
A circle is formed (called a roda) with two or more people playing musical instruments at the front. One instrument, the berimbau, is a stringed bow that controls everything. How you play, how you move, how you fight all depends upon the berimbau. You have to listen and respond. Two players enter the roda in a circular motion (perhaps with a cartwheel) and begin to play a jôgo de Capoeira (a game of Capoeira). Steeped in history, Capoeira is considered a game. Something fun and friendly. As such the point is not to knock-out or pin down your opponent but to dodge and evade their attacks, respond with your own and position yourself towards a single take-down. You learn to play like a game of chess, predicting movements and thinking three steps ahead. It combines the practice of visual observation with listening, moving and strategic thinking.
- However, don't think it's just a game. Used in a fight, Capoeira can be deadly.
Along with writing a creative design blog I'm also a suit tailor. For London's top hedge fund managers, CEOs and corporates I craft bespoke handmade suits with a small Yorkshire firm. Capoeira, with its spins, kicks and flips has helped me develop a new understanding of the relationship your body has with clothing. It sounds waffly but knowing how the size of an armhole impacts your movement but also vulnerability has a big impact. Being able to spot subtle differences in someone's behaviours - John stands upright, Mark slouches, David leans left - is the difference between a suit feeling like a straightjacket or a silk scarf.
- You can see some of Capoeria's impact more directly in the work of the creative design agency I'm a Director of, FullScream. Take a look at this fashion film we made and watch it until the end.
You will have experienced the frustration of a plateau. You take up a new skill, project or business idea and work hard at it until three months in you hit a brick wall. An obstacle. You reach the peak of a learning curve and begin to plateau, not making progress for weeks. What I've found with learning a martial art such as Capoeira is that it helps you overcome these by training you to see the opportunity in obstacles (something Ryan Holiday writes about in The Obstacle Is The Way). It helps you be more creative in your thinking. You exercise and join different parts of the mind together and see things in a connected way. Slowly it all comes together.
As Mestre Acordeon, the founder of contemporary Capoeira, said to me when discussing similar thoughts, "Grain by grain the chicken gets fed."
You can follow Tom on Twitter @tomchurch