When you study a martial art, a sport, or a musical instrument, the majority of your study is repetitive practice. Sure, you may learn a new kata or a new kick, but then you practice it over and over and over, and you keep practicing the old one. You may learn a new play or strategy, but you don’t continue to spend hours on the layups and free throws. You may learn a new sonata, but you still run your scales.

The point of the repetition isn’t that you need to keep trying until you get it right, but that you need to keep doing it right until it doesn’t take effort. After you’ve correctly assumed defense stance 7 a few thousand times, there’s no pause when your opponent’s saber takes a quick cut for your helmet. When you’ve run that same play for the last two months, you see the gap in the defensive pattern before either team has had a chance to think about it – you get the ball to the open man. A master musician doesn’t have to play the piece from memory – they play it by feel, since memory is too slow.

The point is that through conditioning, we learn to respond automatically and correctly, without thought or conscious assessment. Of course, people have natural reflexes, too – some more than others. A real talent is someone who seems to have this conditioning already inborn – their reflexes and reactions are naturally reliable.

I think morality is along the same lines. Our family and parents model behaviour for us when we are young; when we are older, we learn to make snap judgements about situations – to know what is right or wrong. We value the moral athletes – our elders – who know the good and the bad of a situation without even having to know all of the details. They’ve learned to “feel” a situation without having to think about it.

Some of us train and refine our moral judgement, either by studying a school of morality until it is engrained into our person, or by throwing ourselves into all kinds of situations and finding our way through them.

So…. I’d like to decondition my reflexes, you know? I don’t want to have a reflexive response to a moral quandry – I want it to be based on reason. I don’t want to worry about how my initial reactions are coloring my decisions. I don’t find myself in too many situations where I need a reliable snap judgement. So how do I unpractice?

Is that what zen is?

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