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.

5 thoughts on “The Paradox of Hidden Simplicity

  1. Hi Massimo, I like this post a lot. My thoughts are similar that the ultimate aim of simplicity comes only from total understanding of the complex. It sounds like a ‘zen’ way of thinking. As martial arts teachers can we, or should we try to help our students ‘short cut’ the complex? Or should we just help them on the journey of understanding the complex?

  2. My personal way of teaching: the basics should be taught as well as getting into the most complicated moves. Without this teaching students will not learn. At the same time if we inspire simplicity they might find their own way to achieve it. I like to think that: “a master should show you the way… it’s up to you if and how to walk through it”.

  3. I agree, the goal is simplicity, but that doesn’t mean it’s simple to get there. Another way I think about it is: Simple does not mean easy – it just means you can do stuff well enough to make it simple. Something simple to a teacher could very well be incredibly hard for a beginner.

    After years of training, there re certain ideas and movements that I find simple. Saying to a student – It’s simple, just move here – can actually for them be a very complicated manoeuvre. But after some practice it will be simpler, and therefore easier.

  4. Hi massimo
    I also agree with your comments.
    In WSL Ving Tsun we always try to keep things Simple Direct and Efficient.
    However, that’s not to say that it is easy to achieve this end, especially whilst someone is trying to punch your teeth down your throat.
    For sure, acheiving Simplicity in your technique is difficult, but usually this comes down to truly understanding the idea behind the idea. Once again this brings us back to properly understood basics.
    Ving Tsun, like all ‘internal’ Chinese martial arts, is based on the correct structural alingmnet of the body, this makes the body work more efficiently, hence powerfully, faster using less energy etc.
    We also need to consider Efficiency of the application – i.e. nearest weapon nearest target and making the attack / defence travel down the quickest path or shortest distance.
    Of course we also require beliefe in our system. This comes from the knowledge that acting in specific way, which is apparently simple and yet which is probably not the most ‘natural’ or intuative response will work. This ability comes ultimately from previous experiences of a given thing working in the required way under many circumstances.
    I guess this is why we have drills in Ving Tsun, to help break down, understand and isolate concepts or principles shown in the forms and practise them under increasing levels of pressure, until they are absorbed or assimilated into our personal system.
    Wong Shun Leung always said that if you wish to improve your Ving Tsun, make it more Simple, Direct or Efficient. This, as you say is not always easy to achieve but as coaches, it is part of our job to deliver this idea.
    Personally, I can now teach people to be more effective fighters, with a far deeper level of understanding, more quickly than I used to be able to.
    This shows me (I hope) that my own understanding and skill is still developing and that my coaching abillity is also improving.
    I’m glad you posed that quandry, it helped me think this through!

  5. Now all I need to do is improve my spelling 😉
    Sorry about the errors, I was writing as the thoughts tumbled out.

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