This is based on a session by Gey Pin Ang and Dr Caroline Gatt – “Knowing and Transforming Selves” – at a conference called: The Mindfulness Turn in Martial, Healing and Performance Arts at the University of Huddersfield on Saturday 19 November 2016. This free event was jointly hosted by the AHRC-funded Martial Arts Studies Research Network and by the Centre for Psychophysical Performance Research and the Mindfulness and Performance project at University of Huddersfield.



Caroline gave a brief lecture covering two big questions:

  1. How should we think about other cultures when we’re learning about them – for example through academic research, or studying a martial art?
  2. Where exactly is our mind located?

Caroline and Gey Pin then facilitated a physical improvisation to illustrate these questions . . .


1. How should we think about other cultures when we’re learning about them?

Caroline researches and lectures in Anthropology – the study of various aspects of humans within past and present societies. But she finds it frustrating at times. On one level it’s an incredibly exciting subject, as it’s all about people and culture. So the research itself is rich and fascinating – it’s built on personal experience, relationships and so on.

Yet the only way to have your work properly recognised and respected, is to somehow reduce all that richness into a formal academic thesis. Caroline explains that a lot of depth and colour often ends up being lost as a result.

Caroline also wrestles with the relationship between “them” (the culture being written about) and “us” (the researcher’s own culture) in anthropology.

On the one hand, it’s not right to treat the other culture as if it’s something completely foreign, which we can’t really hope to understand or identify with.

But if we just completely ignore the differences between cultures, on the basis that we’re all one humanity, that’s not right either.

These are familiar debates for martial artists studying an art from another culture.

For example, the blogger Mir writes:

I have noticed some articles available on the internet disparaging the concept of including various Japanese rituals such as bowing, sitting in seiza, mokuso, sempai/kohai relationship, and other such things in a North American Karate club.

The main idea that these articles are saying is that since most North Americans are not Japanese we should not try to imitate them, but to show respect in a “Western” manner such as shaking someone’s hand, or calling out “yes sir” instead of “Osu”.

Caroline dreams of finding a new, more flexible and fluid way to talk about “we” in anthropology – to unite the researcher’s own culture with the culture being studied, while not ignoring the differences between them. She’s keen on approaches where the researcher works in genuine collaboration with the culture in question.

In her quest for answers, Caroline has teamed up with super-creative theatre practitioner and academic Gey Pin Ang to explore some possible answers.

Together, they’re seeking to find ways to “loosen” anthropology up.


2. Where exactly is our mind located . . . ?

Caroline talked about how Western culture tends to think that the “mind” is separate from our body – and somehow located inside our brain. But we’re increasingly realising that this is too simplistic. For example:

  • The idea of the “extended mind” argues that our whole body and even our external environment play an important role in how we know things.
  • Gregory Bateson argues that our mind is “ecological”. It spreads across bodies to include artefacts, other people and so on.
  • Edwin Hutchins coined the phrase Distributed Cognition to describe a kind of shared mind across a close-knit group of people. He looked at a massive navy ship and the way all its staff worked together to navigate the ship into the harbour. For example the lookouts communicate with the navigator, who communicates with the engine crew.

This reflects the typical experience of practising a martial art, where we’re used to close collaboration with a partner or group. Manipulating your partner’s body and mind are integral skills; and we can also use various weapons, the opponent’s clothing and so on as natural “artefacts”.

So most of us know that the traditional Western distinction between mind and body doesn’t really work any more. But Caroline said: actually it’s amazing how it still lurks under the surface. Even using words like “mindfulness” or “embodiment” can reinforce the distinction.

But the fact is that our body and mind don’t easily separate out.

For example, Caroline explained that Capoerist and academic researcher Greg Downey has looked at how learning Capoeira can change the body, which becomes: more able, stronger, and more limber.

It can also change the brain. For example, the Capoerist learns to use the vision in different ways, including the skilled use of peripheral vision – which leads to actual physical changes to the brain’s neural pathways.

And this is where it becomes impossible to maintain that the body and mind are separated. The training and the physical / neurological changes affect who we are as people, and how we see the world. Downey writes:

If one learns to look in a specific way, the world will appear differently than it might through another style of seeing; a different profile of information will be or can be derived from the environment.


  1. Improvisation
Gey Pin Ang, University of Kent. Photo by Marcella Scopelliti

Caroline was then joined by Gey Pin Ang, and the two women facilitated an extended group physical improvisation, loosely based on the two themes that Caroline had outlined.

To be honest, I struggled to see the “point” of this exercise, as didn’t get anything out of it personally. However, others found it inspirational and exciting, comparing it to a drumming circle or an orchestra. So I asked Caroline and Gey Ping about it afterwards.

What were they trying to teach us – or get out of it as researchers?

They explained that it didn’t really have a “learning objective” as such. Caroline thoughtfully said:

Dr Caroline Gatt, University of Aberdeen

On a basic level we were illustrating something about collaboration and depending on each other – how you can’t control the other person/people, and yet you can’t let go either.

But after that – I don’t really want to know what it was about, at this point! I just want to try out lots of things, and at the end pull out the bits that work.

This absolutely made sense, and I wish Caroline and Gey Pin the very best in their research adventures. Yes, most of us value working from a syllabus in the martial arts; and even our improvisation is generally grounded in the structured repertoire we study. But perhaps there’s a place sometimes to just play and explore with no specific goal in mind – and see what emerges, in our desire to discover uncharted territory in answer to life’s big questions . . .