Rikki Tikki Tavi Reflexes

Just a quick note about a quick little childhood hero of mine. I remember, as a child, reading the story of Rikki Tikki Tavi, the brave (and very fast) mongoose who defended an English family’s home (in Indian) against deadly cobra snakes. At the young age of four, I only knew mongooses to be rather large rat/weasel/squirrel – looking pests I would occasionally see running into the bushes or across the street. They looked rather furtive and furry like their distant cousins, the cats. In the story, little Rikki was supposed to be able to fight and win his battles with the poisonous and blindingly fast snakes. I thought that Rikki made for a cute and incongruent little hero, kind of like Disney’s Mickey Mouse as a heroic musketeer.

The mongoose you might spy in your neighborhood was introduced from Jamaica to Hawaii in the 1880’s to control rodents in the sugar plantations. Anyways, when I was a little older, I found out that Rikki’s battles were based upon fact – mongooses and snakes are mortal enemies and such fights do happen, with the mongoose winning more often than not. The mongoose is somewhat immune to the cobra’s poisonous bite. More importantly, the mongoose has blinding speed and reflexes with which to evade and counter-attack his enemy. I used to wonder why cute little mammals like the mongoose and our cats could move and react so quickly, in a way that humans couldn’t.

Apparently, their nervous systems are set up differently from us. A person can practice and gradually improve his/her reaction speed, but it can never match one’s automatic reflexes. Most times, we receive some kind of input (sight, sound, touch, etc.) and the information travels from the receptors over to thought-central (our brain) before our mind dictates a command to react that then travels to the reacting limb. With much practice and repetition, we can make great progress in reducing our reaction time. Sometimes however, we are actually capable of a reflex action that is so much faster – like jerking your hand away from a hot pot before you were even able to recognize the heat. This is if a certain pathway, the somatic reflex arc, is activated. The input signal travels directly to the spinal cord, which then sends the command to the reacting limb…before the message even has a chance to reach the brain. Many martial artists practice various forms of breathing exercises (misogi, zazen, ibuki, etc.) to “clear the mind” or to achieve a state of “relaxed awareness”. Simply put, too much thinking can affect the act of doing. In the same way that too much tension has a negative impact on movement and speed, the mind can greatly slow down or even freeze the reaction process. If only we could move by pure reflex like Rikki. (This assumes that you have slowly, then repetitively practiced the correct motion first, of course…haha)

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