The Paradox of Hidden Simplicity

If you look around you, if you think about the world surrounding us simplicity is where everything starts and ultimately where the main goal for most is: this is described very well in John Maeda’s “The Laws of Simplicity” that I encourage you all to read.maeda

We have today many devices that somehow make our life simpler: think for example at a GPS satellite navigator.  At first sight a small box with a colour screen where you tap your destination in and it guides you precisely where to go.  That is amazing and it could have been part of a science fiction movies until a few decades ago.  It is now an easily accessible toy, affordable to most in our so called civilized world.  If we look at other technologies we have similar examples everywhere.  Any computer using a standard GUI (Graphic User Interface, like MS-Windows , Mac-OS or KDI on Linux) allows a user to do very complex task by simply moving, dragging objects or making intricate graphs: these GUI allowed masses of users to approach computers when, until 20 years or so ago they were domain of a much fewer experts.

In both the above cases the apparent simplicity gained have required thousands of man year of work and development to achieve what looks like a simple operation.  Think about the network of satellites that have been put in orbit to allow precise tracking of object on the Earth’s surface.

Now I know some of you are asking: “what is this all about? This is a martial arts blog!”.  Well yes I know and I was initially inspired about this issue while I was watching, some time ago, a short video showing a master performing a form of Tai Chi Chuan.  It looked all so smooth, simple and effortless until I tried just to replicate a few moves when I felt clumsy and useless.  I felt in a similar way when I began learning Wing Chun years ago.  The basic concepts are aiming at simplicity; however when I tried to apply the correct alignment of limbs and body it seemed everything but simple.  This suggested me this idea of the hidden simplicity and its paradox.

Things tend to evolve to from a rough, simple and primitive beginning into more and more complex entities.  This applies to anything from life forms to man created machinery and, topic of this blog, martial arts.

Martial arts all have a simple moves, the so called basics.  These are essential to learn how to properly stand, move around, apply the correct force to techniques and how to counter them when subject to an attack.  In most cases evolution, preference of the inventor and other constraints have pushed many martial arts toward different levels of complexity.

Once you achieve true mastery of one style you start realizing that at the top simplicity is essential but what looks simple when performed by a real expert it is in reality the evolution and improvement of techniques that, just at the best of their perfection, look simple.  That’s what I call the Paradox of Hidden Simplicity.

Bruce Lee stated that the very essence of Jeet Kune Do is not to add to the style but to throw away everything that is not essential and simplify as much as possible your personal set of techniques.  Simple is easy and more immediate.  More immediate will require little or no thinking (and therefore less time) to be used.  It will simply work and apply to a number of situations.  I agree with good part of this concept but I still believe that to achieve simplicity you need first to train complexity, feel at ease with it and then work toward your own simplicity.

I see two flaws in the absolute application of that principle therefore I state that:

  • Training “controlled” complexity will create more brain connection and help you to be at ease with a much broader number of situations that otherwise might be overwhelming.  This kind of practice will also help you training the whole body and muscle groups, keeping them all fit and ready for action.
  • As an extreme definition simple might mean “train just a single punch” and make it work perfectly; this is proven to be not ideal because you might get in a situation when that single punch cannot work, for example if you injure your hand or arm and that is when trouble starts.

So my conclusion is to aim at simplicity as much as you can but incorporate complexity in your routine: the aim is simplicity, achieved from simplifying complexity, once you have fully achieved it.

At that point you will also be in a situation where what you do looks simple but novices will find it difficult and complicated, confirming the paradox of hidden simplicity.