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creativity / life / learning

Shuhari | The Gateway to flow & creativity

. 6 min read .
Background Artwork by Mikael Gustafsson
Supplementary Listening

Shuhari(守破離) is a Japanese concept found in martial arts. It outlines the 3 stages every apprentice must pass from in order to achieve mastery.

Shuhari is not only relevant to martial arts but to any knowledge pursuit; from learning how to play the violin🎻, to astrophysics🔭, snowboarding🏂 or baking🥐.
They all follow the same 3 phases that the students of those crafts have to go through in order achieve mastery:

  • shu () “obey” — Follow the rules.
    Learning the fundamentals from external sources. The first principles, theory, philosophy, techniques, heuristics and skills. These are repeated over and over until solid knowledge foundations are ready for further knowledge to be built upon.
  • ha () “detach” — Bend the rules.
    After years of practice and of accumulation of knowledge, the rules become second nature. This is when the student starts questioning the rules and is in fact ready to start bending them when necessary. The student can start innovating as well as teach the rules and discuss the subject in depth. Gradually, the student’s idols seem less and less god-like and he discovers that with time, there is less and less he can learn from them.
  • ri () “separate” — Break the rules.
    The mystical step of transcending one’s craft. The craft has become an ingrained part of the student. She is now able to sustain the deepest kinds of engagement during which she is able to be fully absorbed in the activity (flow). This level of familiarity allows the student to be driven by a different force of wisdom other than conscious thought, which allows her to transcend and break rules.
    At this point, the student is able to use creativity to push the boundaries of her craft. The student has now become a master of the craft.
    The journey becomes monastic at this point. The master is concerned with her own work and improvement. Her own experience is now much more meaningful and full of learning than anything external. New students of the craft, now study the master as a case study of the craft itself.

Where Philosophy, Psychology & Spirituality meet

It is extremely interesting to note how this concept of the journey of the student, leading to an enlightened state is not only found in Japanese martial arts. Though disguised under different concepts, we can observe parallels to Shuhari in western philosophy, eastern spirituality and modern psychology.

🏛️ Western Philosophy | Nietzsche

Nietzsche’s 3 stages of metamorphosis in order to get closer to becoming an ‘ubermensch’ (translated to over-man; the enlightened human) in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

  • Camel | Absorb knowledge & many points of view. Embrace reality.
  • Lion | Stop following and start questioning. Identify points where you disagree. Defy what you deem not true. Break away from society’s expectations and seek to live according to your truth.
  • Child | Boundless energy and curiosity for exploration. Creative play and vitality. Liberation. Flows gracefully in the flux of life.

☁️ Eastern Spirituality | Di Ren Tian

The equivalent Chinese concept describes the 3 stages in a more poetic way:

  • di (earth) | Absorb the fundamentals.
  • ren (human) | Foundation ready. Now time to ‘truly’ learn.
  • tian (sky/heaven) |Flowing with the elements. No conscious thought.

Ψ Modern Psychology | Competence Stages

  • Conscious incompetence | Realisation of how little one knows.
  • Conscious competence | Moderately knowledgable.
  • Unconscious competence | The skill is now “second nature”.

🇫🇮 Scandinavians

A.R. Minkkinen’s Helsinki Bus Station Theory eloquently illustrates the exact same journey:

Buses starting from Helsinki and going to far-away places in Finland all depart from the central station. The first part of the route is the same until the buses get out of the city. For the first 10 stations, you are sitting on the same bus with the same people going the same direction. This is the shu (obey) phase. You have to lay the foundations. You are not original. You are mimicking the masters. At this point, some people are afraid because they think that they ‘don’t have it’ or they are not ‘creative’ enough. ‘What to do?’ asks Minkkinen..?

Stay on the bus. Stay on the f*cking bus.
Why, because if you do, in time you will begin to see a difference.

In time, when the bus goes out of the city, you will take the first turn, you will have reached ha(detach). If you continue on the route it will deverge more and more taking you further and further from the other routes. This is ri (separate). when your work will finally feel authentic and original. This is developing a signature style. But this only happens if you stick to it; if you stay in the bus.

1| Flow

Whether you call it ri🏯, tian☁️, ubermensch🏛️ or unconscious competenceΨ; transitioning to that last mastery level enables us to experience the deepest levels of engagement; flow.

You can see flow in every pursuit: dancing , cooking, writing, designing, coding, composing, playing instruments, strategising, weight-lifting, running. Some call it being in the zone, finding the groove, being in one’s element, losing any sense of time, losing one’s self in the activity, out-of-body experience, being present. It is all the same thing and the higher you climb up the levels to mastery, the more intense that flow becomes.

The craft and the self become one and so creation through the craft becomes a pure form of self-expression. It is very close to what Maslow had been working on during the last years of his life but never managed to publish; the final level of human needs: Self-transcendence.

2| Creativity

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist” — Pablo Picasso

Creativity is by definition bending(ha) and breaking the rules(ri) you learned in the beginning of your journey(shu).

This means that the more you move closer to mastery, the closer you get to a capacity to be original, to innovate and have breakthroughs. Because you have reached the edge of the discipline and with that, the edge of what is possible today. Of course this ignores any effects of crystalized intelligence (synapses become stiffer as we repeat patterns and we become blind to possibilities).

This is as true for crafts we classically deem as ‘creative’, like painting, sculpting, writing, choreography, videography, acting, architecture etc. as it is for conventionally non-creative disciplines like physics, business, gardening, basketball, mathematics, coding, gymnastics and so on.

It is also true for non-human AI agents. Deepmind’s AlphaGo -an Artificial Intelligence agent specialised in the game of GO- climbed so high up the skill ladder that, through Move 37, displayed what some called ‘out-wordly creativity’.

The shokunin's journey

Students don’t have original ideas nor a novel point of view nor a strong sense of style nor a signature when they first start. It is not that they are not talented or ‘not made for this’. They simply didn’t put in the hours yet.

Again, this is something as true for the novice scientist, to the junior in business to the newbie artist. We need to stand on the shoulders of giants first. We need to spend time copying first, then move to the stage of transforming and finally graduate to the state of combining.

Copying is a young piano player replaying Mozart Sonatas, a karate student replicating the movements of a master or a writer rewriting a chapter from the classics.
Transforming is getting something existing and adding a twist to it.
Combining is a cook combining Mexican cuisine with nordic ingredients, a sculptor mixing pop art and Renaissance techniques or a data scientist using artificial intelligence to auto-generate 3D models.

If you want original ideas, if you want to be a visionary, a leader, a true artist, you have to put in the hours first. You have to go through the hardship of the initial levels. You have to learn the rules, the moves, the motions and then you have to have the courage to depart from the herd and start breaking them. You have to be willing to fail, be disappointed, be wrong. You have to be willing to suck.

Ira Glass couldn’t have said it better:

Creativity gets supercharged as one goes up towards mastery. The more deliberate work you put into your craft, the higher up you climb towards mastery, and the higher you are the more clearly you can see the landscape.

“In ri, we completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws.” — Endō Seishirō

It all starts and ends with work

One of the most rewarding lives we can all hope to lead is one of intense engagement (FLOW) and of self-expression (CREATIVITY).

We are not born creative nor are we born with predefined passions.
That means that we are not given that life; it is in our hands to build it.

In order to earn this life of flow and creativity we have to go through immense amounts of work and pass through all the stages of the student.

If it was easy, everybody would have it.
But it is in our hands to make it happen.
It is worth pursuing? Your call. I say: Hell Yeah!