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
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.
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.
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”.
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.”
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Former boxing champion Vernon Forrest was shot and killed in Atlanta, Georgia on Saturday July 25th. The incident occured at a local gas station where Forrest was robbed at gun point and killed a few minutes later when in pursuit of the robber.
This is an extremely unfortunate event; one that every martial artist and fighter should take note of.
Forrest, 38, is best known as the first man to defeat Shane Mosley (an extremely dominant force in the boxing world). Forrest was also a member of the 1992 Olympic boxing team alongside Oscar De La Hoya. Achieving a professional record of 41-3, Forrest was able to attain the ranks of welterweight and junior-middleweight champion.
On Saturday the 25th Forrest stopped at an Atlanta gas station to refill the air in his tires. His 11-year-old son was in tow, whom Forrest allowed to enter the gas station itself. While refilling, Forrest was approached by a gun-wielding assailant and was robbed of his Rolex and championship ring.
As the robber made his escape, Forrest retrieved a firearm from his vehicle and began pursuit. The chase went on for roughly 3 blocks where the assailant was able to slip away. Forrest, still in close pursuit, encountered another individual, according to police lieutenant Keith Meadows:
“Forrest comes around the corner and he encounters another individual who we believe has a gun in his hand,” Meadows said, adding that Forrest and the second person “exchange words” before Forrest “realizes that this is not the individual who actually robbed him.
“So he turns to walk away and it was at that point the subject shot Mr. Forrest a number of times in the back,” Meadows said. – Yahoo Sports
Here we have a sports fighting phenom – strong, fast, confident, and effective. On top of that, he was reportedly a great father and humanitarian outside the ring. Yet despite all that he still fell victim to a classic case of street violence.
No matter how much ground-n-pound, kyusho, or sparring we do, we can never be sure how things will unfold on the street. Furthermore, if we let our anger and self-confidence take ahold of us, we might exacerbate an escapable situation.
No one can be blamed for Forrest’s death besides the assailants. However, it is becoming more evident that Forrest made questionable decisions in dealing with his situation. The first of which was making the choice to stop. Trainer Emanuel Steward had this to say:
“I always preach to my boxers to never stop for gas late at night when you don’t know your surroundings,” Steward said. “Vernon did, and his natural instinct as an athlete was to go after his assailant. He’s going to fight back. The problem is everyone, it seems, has a gun.” – Freep.com
Awareness and proper planning are very underrated tools for self defense. No matter how skilled or well armed you are, Steward is right – it seems like everyone has a gun.
The second issue was Forrest’s decision to chase after his possessions. I can only imagine what kind of sentimental value the championship ring must have had, but it was replaceable. As that robber ran off so did the immediate danger to Forrest and his son. Unfortunately, street justice wouldn’t have been served, and Forrest seemed like the kind of man who wanted to punish wrong doing.
Who can say they haven’t felt the same way at some point?
We need to take stock in our training and realize the importance of the mental side of body, mind, spirit. We need to be able to quickly choose when fighting is necessary and utterly required to protect ourselves and others. This is extremely difficult, especially when combined with the quick chaotic nature of true violence.
The third issue was Forrest’s disengagement from his eventual killer. When Forrest lost site of his robber, he encountered another individual who was allegedly wielding a firearm. The two exchanged words, and Forrest realized that this wasn’t the guy who robbed him. After that, he turned his back to walk away, and was shot repeatedly.
I don’t know what was said, but there is absolutely no reason to trust this random, armed individual enough to turn your back or drop your guard even for a moment.
When it comes to violent events, hindsight is easy. We can do shoulda-woulda all day, but the fact is those split second decisions determine the final outcome of the event. Perhaps we can store Forrest’s untimely death in the back our minds so that we might learn from it.
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It’s a mystical business we’re in. As you know, the martial arts were born from Asian mystics and passed on to a select few remarkable individuals. Mastery over the arts will grant you superhuman powers of telepathy, iron body, and no touch techniques.
Or so we’re told on occasion.
A lot of people are surprised at the level of flimflam that is around today, and are shocked that people buy into such “astounding” feats (like this one and this one). But if you think martial arts chicanery is new, think again. Consider the 70’s and 80’s when martial arts were just starting to reach levels of high national exposure. Bruce Lee had come and gone and left a tumultuous blend of eclectic “masters” in his wake.
One of those wannabe’s was a man named James Hydrick, or “Sum Chai” as he liked to be called.
Hydrick began his rise to fame in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he started his first martial arts studio. Therein he taught students how to control and enhance their mental abilities. Through a series of impressive physical stunts (like jump kicking a basketball net) and mental demonstrations (like making heavy bags sway without touching them), Hydrick became a local phenomenon.
In 1981 Hydrick’s true star was born when he appeared on a show called “That’s Incredible”. On the show he demonstrated his best techniques and astonished audiences worldwide:
Hydrick’s combination of physical fitness, Bruce Lee persona, and mental abilities caused him to become a sensation. It didn’t stop there though:
“The tabloid newspaper The Star quickly ran an article on Hydrick labeling him “The World’s Top Psychic.” The glowing account labeled Hydrick’s powers as “incredible and staggering.” Other newspapers revealed that Hydrick could cure headaches and colds with a touch and answer questions before they were asked. A scientist and electrical engineer from the University of Utah after much testing also concluded that Hydrick’s psychic powers were indeed authentic.” – Unexplainable.net
Here was a man that seemed to bridge the gap between the real and unreal. University-proven and publicly displayed, what was there to doubt about Sum Chai’s powers?
Unfortunately there was one man floating around who kept a close watch on claims of this nature. His name was (and still is) James Randi. Aka the Amazing Randi. A professional magician turned seeker-of-facts, Randi routinely busted metaphysical hustlers, faith healers, and mentalists. He went so far as to create a $10,000 dollar prize for anyone who could demonstrate supernatural powers under controlled circumstances. (Later Randi would up the ante to 1 million dollars and establish his own educational foundation).
Taking note of Hydrick’s dramatic rise in popularity, Randi requested a demonstration on the “That’s My Line” television program wherein Hydrick could first demonstrate his abilities, and then try to recreate those results once Randi put down some simple scientific parameters. Watch what happens, and do take note of the host whom you might recognize:
Unseen in this clip are a few more details. First, Randi offered an alternative solution to the packing peanuts, in case they were indeed somehow ruining the psychic connection; he asked Hydrick to where an ordinary medical mask over his mouth and nose. Hydrick flat out refused. Furthermore, Randi had in place a sensitive microphone that was aimed at Hydrick’s mouth during a rehearsal the day before. During the test, Randi was able to detect strong gusts of air coming from Hydrick, even though they were visually undetectable.
Certainly Randi was no fool and had no concern about losing his money that day. He also went on to explain his theory as to how Hydrick operated: “Hydrick was simply blowing the page over, and he spun the pencil around by the same means. Not immediately evident are these facts, however: First, the blast of air from a half-open mouth takes time to get to the props, and Hydrick made sure he turned his head away from the pencil and the page after giving a sharp puff of air, so that he was facing away when the action occurred. Second, one blows not directly at the prop but at the table surface” – James Randi
The rolling dowel trick as seen in the “That’s Incredible” clip was also easily explained. The wood on which the dowel moved was slightly concave. As the dowel would reach the far end from the initial roll, it would slow down, allowing Hydrick to mentally “stop” it. Then he could draw it back since the dowel was naturally inclined to roll backward. The concavity was so slight however that the friction of the wood would allow it to stop at the close end without settling back into the middle.
Seemingly foiled, Hydrick began to realize his time was limited and that he had to make one last effort to regain his fame. A few month’s after “That’s My Line” he agreed to another test, this time with magician and investigator Danny Korem. It was during this interview that footage of Hydrick’s martial arts operation and personal physical prowess became available. It was also the last straw for his credibility:
In a move that is actually quite surprising for con-men, Hydrick fessed up to the ruse. He explained his system and his personal background.
As many manipulators and con-artists do, Hydrick came from an imperfect childhood wherein he was starved for attention. he also fell into crime and used his abilities to preserve his own safety in jail. It was this combination of want and reward that led him to create Sum Chai.
Currently Hydrick is serving jail time as a registered sex offender in possible connection with his kung fu students.
Certainly James Hydrick can serve as an excellent study in the mystery of the unknown and the willingness of people to believe. Furthermore, we should take this incident as a stern warning when studying the arts to question what we see and attempt to understand why we do what we do (and how we do it). Lastly, we should be very careful as to what claims we make, as James Randi is still alive and ready to make us prove it.
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