Posted By Matthew

An Exploration of the Traditional Martial Mind

I recently encountered a work of remarkable clarity and impact. If you have a chance, please indulge this lengthy post as I believe the subject matter resonates in an important way with the growth and life of traditional martial artists.


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First, allow me to provide you with a list of human characteristics. Consider them out of context:

* Being capable of self motivation and assessment
* Being inclined to set challenging goals and work patiently toward them
* Having the ability to create impact and influence, affecting change in others
* Having a high skillset for pattern recognition and mental retention
* Being able to analyze and anticipate actions and situations
* Having self confidence and a sense of persistence in the face of difficulty

Would you agree that this is an excellent list of abilities for martial artists? Would you also agree that acquiring these traits is crucial for long term success in the arts, and something that many traditional schools focus on?

I think they are, personally.

But the catch is I didn’t create this list, nor was it designed for martial artists. Instead, these were factors that scientist Daniel Goleman found amongst successful people in the competitive business marketplace. Furthermore, he determined that IQ alone was not enough to bring about these characteristics; the true mark of exceptional individuals was their emotional and social intelligence (EQ and SQ).

But what is emotional and social intelligence, if it is so important? The short answer is this: emotional intelligence is the awareness and ability to manage one’s emotions in a healthy and productive manner. Social intelligence is the ability to cope and adapt to a group environment and interact with other individuals. But, as you might suspect, they both run much deeper than that.

Goleman suggests that being able to assess and improve your EQ and SQ can substantially alter (and improve) your ability to thrive in the modern world. He also believes that there are existing practices (like meditation) that are invaluable to the process of improvement.

Some people are born with high emotional and social intelligence, but the majority aren’t. Furthermore, we live in a culture that places a low premium on compassion and happiness (hallmarks of high emotional intelligence), and instead focus on financial success and pleasure.

Watch Dr. Goleman’s intriguing video to fully understand his research into EQ and SQ. It’s about an hour, but if you can find the time (sacrifice that episode of big brother!), I think you’ll find it worthwhile. The rest of this post isn’t dependent on you watching the full video, but it will help. To learn more about Daniel’s theories and work, check out his books on Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence.

We all agreed (didn’t we?) that the traits listed at the beginning of this article are extremely desirable for martial artists. In order to attain those and many other valuable attributes, we have to improve our emotional and social intelligence. Although the studies presented in the video focus on meditation (which we will dive into later), it is my belief that traditional martial arts can satisfy the same needs, and build in combination with that a means for physical growth.

(body, mind, and spirit).

Let’s Start With The Obvious…

Here’s something you already know – martial arts can make you fit. Training involves every muscle group and challenges your body in ways that no weight machine could. Furthermore, you can learn how to defend yourself and stay alive (and last time I talked to Darwin, that’s the fastest track to success in life).

But what you might not know is that physical activity is also good for neurogenesis. Contrary to popular belief, the human brain has the ability to create new neurons and braincells throughout adulthood. Healthy physical activity aids in neural production, along with releasing endorphins and providing natural avenues for stress release.

More to the point in this particular context, traditional training provides you with a way to confront stressful and dangerous situations.

As Dr. Goleman explains, the amygdala is the emotional center for the human flight/fight/freeze response. As he puts it, “the amygdala is a hair trigger”. When presented with a stressful situation, the amygdala  triggers the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal access and causes us to revert back to our primal instincts. When something is perceived as very urgent, we suffer what’s called an  “amygdala hijack”, and often wind up reacting in ways we never thought we would (think ‘scared stiff’, or ‘blind rage’).

When suffering from an amygdala hijack, a person is rarely in complete control of their emotional and cognitive abilities. Their capacity to make rational decisions is greatly diminished and the time it takes to create good solutions is slowed dramatically.

That being said, the amygdala isn’t alone in the decision making process of the brain. When it creates an emotional impulse, that impulse is sent to the Prefrontal Cortex (as shown in the picture above). The PFC assesses any other external stimuli in the area, checks in with the IQ and other rational parts of the brain, and ultimately creates a decision.

What determines how well a person is able to act under stressful circumstances is how well they can handle amygdala hijacks and utilize their own brain structure to it’s optimum capability.

When analyzing the communication between the amygdala and the PFC, it’s important to distinguish between the left and right PFC lobes.

If during an amygdala hijack the right lobe of the PFC becomes heavily engaged, a person is likely to fall into a state of depression, anxiety, fear, or panic. On the contrary, if the left lobe is utilized, they will feel in control, centered, focused, and confident. The left hemisphere has natural amygdala inhibitors which regulate input and allow a person to behave much more effectively.

As you can imagine, the more left-dominant you are, the more stable and “emotionally intelligent” you can be. To put it in a martial art perspective, the less gripped with fear/doubt you are, the better your body can utilize its techniques and make sound decisions. Any veteran of sparring can tell you that panic is the quickest way to defeat. Just imagine how valuable quick thinking, emotional control, and a quiet mind could be in a martial environment.

As stated earlier, few people are born left dominant (although those that are can consider themselves lucky). In fact every person has a natural resting rate of right-to-left dominance. People that are right dominant are often diagnosed with clinical depression. The desire, therefore, is to be as left as possible.

the good news is this – the brain has something called neuroplasticity. That means the actual neuron structure of the brain can be molded and changed. In order to use neuroplasticity to improve left PFC functioning, individuals need to practice and actively engage in activities that shift their neural structure from right-usage to left.

As I mentioned, meditation is often considered one of the top practices for achieving just that…but how did the scientists come to such a conclusion? Research has revealed two main human tendencies that build good neural structure:

1. Self Awareness and Mastery. This entails the confronting and analyzing of negative emotions when they occur, and understanding that decision-making is a combination of external stimuli and emotional training. In essence, what Bong Soo Han stated in the book “Zen in the Martial Arts”: “you cannot run away from fear in the dojang”.

2. Managing Emotions. When negative emotions do arise, the properly trained mind can integrate and handle those emotions. The leftside PFC can inhibit otherwise detrimental cases of agitation, impulsivity, and flash anger. Or, as one very well known karateka put it: “the karateist who has given the necessary years of exercise and meditation is a tranquil person. He is unafraid. He can be calm in a burning building.” – Mas Oyama

An Example!

Let’s put it all together. If the amygdala is shooting out uninhibited negative impulses, the PFC cannot be free to analyze a situation in a healthy, effective way. There can be no focus on the primary goal at hand.

If in a fight one competitor is 85% preoccupied with the fear of getting struck and the other competitor is only 5% distracted, you can be certain that the competitor with 95% focus on his objective will have a significant edge. Even if the fearful practitioner is stronger and faster, he will be constantly behind the decision cycle (or OODA Loop) of the better practitioner.

You may like the idea of a calm, left PFC mind (aka mushin), but if you are a fretful, right-dominant person, you cannot achieve the skill you see in others who are further along the martial path. In order to achieve your maximum efficiency and enter a flow state – you must shift your training to coincide with the idea of producing high levels of emotional and social intelligence.

Social Intelligence

We talked about the emotional side of things, but what of the social? What does being able to network at a party have to do with becoming a better traditional martial artist and person?

In a work environment, like where Dr. Goleman gave his presentation, the benefits of social intelligence are obvious – you can interact, discuss, and debate with your coworkers in a productive manner. But in regards to the combative arts, being able to read the intentions of opponents is just as critical as knowing how to punch.

We hear a lot about the ‘sixth sense’ developed by martial art adepts. The ability to read opponents and get inside their head. Dr. Goleman presents a more tangible but equally astounding version of that concept. He explains that we all have “an array of neurons that allow us to mirror what another person is doing, feeling, or intending.” Known as mirror neurons, these small fibers play a big role in the overall behavior of every human.

Goleman gives an example in his speech: whenever a zoo attendee raised his arm to lick an ice cream cone near a captive monkey, the neuron in charge of that monkey’s arm would fire. The monkey saw what was happening and experienced a simultaneous mental reaction. This phenomena  can occur in situations as subtle as perceived emotion or intent.

Now let’s put it into a martial context:

“You and your opponent are one. There is a coexisting relationship between you. You coexist with your opponent and become his complement, absorbing his attack and using his force to overcome him.” – Bruce Lee

“When someone hits you, he is extending his ki toward you and it starts to flow when he thinks he will hit you – even before his body moves. His action is directed by his mind.” – Aikido Adept in ‘Zen in the Martial Arts’

Developing sensitivity to our own social ‘pangs’, and having a quiet enough mind to hear it, can benefit in remarkable ways.

If You Don’t Got It, How Do You Get It??

Like I mentioned above, very few people come readily equipped with a left PFC mind and social acuity. It takes practice and development. One of the best ways to train, according to Dr. Goleman and Dr. Richard Davidson, is meditation (I told you we’d dive more into it!).

While Dr. Goleman touches on the concept, it is Dr. Davidson that provided strong, breakthrough evidence that the lifestyle of Tibetan Monks produces huge advancements in left PFC activity, emotional and social brilliance, and overall mental excellence.

If you’d like to view Dr. Davidson’s work for yourself, check out his speech entitled “Be Happy Like a Monk” (Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Q&A here).

Davidson gathered roughly a dozen extremely qualified monks (ranging between 10,000 and 62,000 hours of meditative practice each) and hooked them up to complex brain scanning equipment. He then monitored their activity when in various forms of meditation, ranging from seated zazen to other (unspecified) methods. He also subjected them to emotional stimuli such as the sound of babies laughing or women screaming in terror.

Davidson was able to watch the function of their brains and how they reacted and recovered to startling “events”. The results were undeniable – left PFC activity was sky high, and their brain structure was able to recover and adapt to unpleasant stimuli much faster than a normal person.

Just as astounding was a find mentioned by Dr. Goleman – new meditation practitioners experienced improvement in their left PFC circuitry in as quickly as 8 weeks.

It can be said confidently that meditation, whether inside or outside a belief system (meditation is not necessarily connected to religion), can be extremely beneficial. But what about the skills of a martial artist…what about MOBILE meditation?

Getting Down To Brass Tax – The Ancient Wisdom of Old Style Training

Have you ever heard the idea that kata (and other martial practices) can be used as mobile meditation? Once a karateka practices a kata thousands of times, the moves become ingrained in muscle memory and no conscious thought is needed at all. The person’s mind is free to visualize, focus, or do nothing.

Could it be possible that the phenomenal mental gains of meditation can be combined with the physical benefits of martial training, creating a perfect breeding ground for personal development? I can’t say for sure because I am not a master of anything. But I would like to offer up some comparisons that you may find convincing.

In his book “My Journey with the Grandmaster”, Sensei Bill Hayes discusses a time in which he experienced what I consider high level meditation and even enlightenment through kata.

A brief summary: Bill Hayes found himself in a foul mood one night, and on his way to training he could tell his motivation and balance were off. Upon arriving he decided to spend time alone in a small dojo aside his instructor’s main dojo. He sat down dejected, but soon after, his Sensei Eizo Shimabukuro appeared in the doorway and told him to do kata Sanchin. In an unspoken way he suggested that it might help with whatever was clearly ailing Mr. Hayes. Shimabukuro Sensei then left.

Although he wasn’t sure why he was doing it, Sensei Hayes faithfully stood up and began his practice. He practiced, and practiced, and practiced. Eventually he found his mind and attitude melting away into the kata, and he experienced a level of mental and emotional acuity that he had previously never felt.

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One of the strange side effects Dr. Davidson found in the monks he tested was a lessening in pain aversion. He stated: “although it may seem masochistic, they learned to love the pain”. Similarly, Bill Hayes said this about his Sanchin experience: “I watched my body turn when it was supposed to turn and even the muscular aches caused by the constant tensing and retensing of my body seemed to bring me pleasure and then float away.” This also speaks to the out-of-body-experience described by many meditative practitioners.

Hayes Sensei also stated: “[After many repetitions] I had more energy than when I had first started the kata. That had never happened before but Osensei had mentioned that such a thing was good. I was strangely happy inside. I started to grin as I did the kata. then I laughed out loud. I could hardly hear myself due to the high winds, but I could not contain my happiness.” This resonates with Dr. Goleman’s experience when he encountered a monk named Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche: “[Rinpoche] told me he was in the middle of a shower – but not in the usual sense. The shower, he told me, had run out of hot water midway. When he called the front desk, he was told to wait several minutes and there would be more hot water. In this situation, I probably would have been peeved. But as Rinpoche told me this, he was laughing and laughing.” Seemingly strange bouts of joyfulness overtook both men in situations where normal people might feel dejected.

If we combine the out-of-body autonomy of Sensei Hayes’s movements with his emotional transformation, we arrive at what Joe Hyams (author of “Zen in the Martial Arts”) considers to be a core meditative paradigm: “The zen of martial arts deemphasizes the power of the intellect and extols that of intuitive action. Its ultimate aim is to free the individual from anger, illusion, and false passion”.

As most karate practitioners know, Sanchin is a heavy breathing kata. While many times the breathing is hard and rather aggressive, it doesn’t have to be. In fact, focus on breath is one of the most effective ways to center and balance oneself. As Joe Hyams says: “I have found the [zen breathing] technique especially useful in stressful or anxiety-provoking situations when my breathing becomes irregular and fear distorts orderly thought processes, which tend to immobilize both my body and mind.” I can’t say for certain that Hayes Sensei was performing zen breathing, but he certainly was using breathing as a focus mechanism, which invariably had the same positive effects on him that Hyams suggests. In Hyams description we can almost read a line-by-line protocol for switching the brain from right PFC to left.

Some readers may still be a little unsure about how such a sedated activity like seated meditation can possibly be relevant to the rigorous mindset of a karateka.

Consider this explanation from Dr. Davidson: “Meditation is a broad term, much like ‘sports’. Meditation can mean different things. Among the experts that we tested, rather than a slowing of the brainwaves we actually see a speeding up. The gamma signal is the fastest brain rhythm recorded in the human brain. It’s associated with focused attention and alertness. Rather than producing a physiological subdued state its rather a state of very active acuity and alertness and awakeness.”

During his repetition, Bill Hayes stated that he was eventually able to focus on a single pinpoint in the room which grew and surrounded him. His consciousness zeroed in, but was ultimately able to branch out and awaken to his entire surroundings. This mindfulness of ‘one-thing-but-everything’ is mirrored in a piece of advice given by Bruce Lee: “concentrate all the energy of the body and mind on one specific target or goal at a time. The secret of kime is to exclude all extraneous thoughts, thoughts that are not concerned with achieving your immediate goal”. The extraneous thoughts that Bruce mentioned are exactly the kind of rogue impulses a right PFC would fixate on.

To bring things back full circle, Goleman originally stated in his video that meditation can increase left PFC activity and ultimately improve the disposition and emotional intelligence of a person, who will then have a better chance at succeeding in the work place (and in life). Bill Hayes, after listening to his Sensei and pursuing the ways of introspective kata, experienced Goleman’s kind of results: “over the course of my tours on Okinawa the grandmaster designated me the dojo dai sempai (senior student) and even presented me with promotion certificates, things I had never sought. The marine corps assigned me ever more challenging duties and I did well enough to be selected for higher ranks and assignments, I had begun a process of personal emancipation and metamorphosis”.

Wrapping Together

The mind is a complex place, but we are slowly starting to unlock its secrets. The more we press forward, the more the wisdom of our ancestors is becoming evident.

A keen, emotionally stable mind requires strong left PFC connections. In order to build those connections, people should engage in activities like meditation. In order to physically survive the rigors of both meditation and life, people also require activities like martial arts training. Include a need for social intelligence and ethical wherewithal and you would need a very complex, yet simple system to bring everything together.

It’s my opinion that traditional martial arts training is that system…if we can appreciate it and use it to its fullest capacity.

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Sun Tzu: “To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the highest skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the highest skill.”

Dr. Goleman: “If we have a very well groomed left prefrontal cortex, we can spread feelings [of  joy, comradery, and understanding] throughout our day. We can use emotional and social intelligence to stay ahead of conflict”.

Funakoshi Gichin: “You may train for a long, long time, but if you merely move your hands and feet and jump up and down like a puppet, learning karate is not very different from learning to dance. You will never have reached the heart of the matter; you will have failed to grasp the quintessence of karate-do.”