My intentions are to present a book review and at the same time expand it to look at the potential implications for martial artists of this very interesting theme.
For anyone who has not discovered the ideas of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi get hold of his book. ‘Flow – The Psychology of Happiness’.
This came to me from a very roundabout route. Initially I was curious about Mushin no Waza, (technique of no-mind), a concept many Japanese martial artists are familiar with; but further research lead me on to ‘Flow States’. Musicians might describe this as working ‘in the groove’, or ‘being in the pocket’, psychologist Abraham Maslow called it ‘Peak Experience’, being so fully immersed in what you do, in a state of energised focus almost a reverie. It’s all over the place with sporting activities. Csikszentmihalyi describes it as an ‘optimum experience’.
I should say at this point that it’s nothing mystical or magical, although some would like to describe it as such. As with magic – magic ceases to become magic once it’s explained. I know that once the illusionist’s sleight of hand technique is revealed we all feel a little disappointed and the magical bubble has burst, but if explanation leads to greater understanding it’s a loss worth taking. So it is with Csikszentmihalyi’s book; he unpacks the idea and neatly describes the quality of flow experiences as well explaining the cultural and psychological benefits.
In a nutshell, flow states happen when:
Whatever activity you are engaging in creates a state of total immersion that you almost lose yourself within the activity.
The identifying qualities include:
- Total focus (excluding all external thoughts and distractions).
- The sense of ‘self’ disappears but returns renewed and invigorated once the activity has concluded.
- Time has altered, or becomes irrelevant.
- The activities must have clear goals.
- A sense of control.
- Some immediate feedback.
- Not be too easy, and certainly must not be too hard and entirely out of reach.
Now, I challenge you to look at the above criteria and ask yourself how these line up with what we do in the Dojo. I would bet that some of your most valuable training moments chime with the concepts of the flow state – you have been there. Many of us struggle to rationalise it or find the vocabulary to explain it, but we know that afterwards we have grown.
This ‘growth’ is vital for our development as martial artists and human beings. This is what they mean when they describe martial arts as a spiritual activity; but ‘spiritual’ devoid of religious baggage, but ironically in traditional martial arts there is generally a ritualistic element that sets the scene and promotes the mind-set necessary to enable these flow state opportunities; so I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss this side of what we do.
Csikszentmihalyi says that flow experiences promote further flow experiences; i.e. once you have had a taste of it you yearn for more, not in a selfish or indulgent way but instead part of you recognises a pathway to human growth and ‘becoming’. We become richer as these unthought-of experiences evolve; we become more complex as human beings.
What is really interesting is that flow states are not judged upon their end results; for example the mountaineer may be motivated by the challenge of reaching the top of the rock face but it is the act of climbing that creates the opportunity and pleasure and puts him in the state of flow and rewards him with the optimal experience that enables him to grow as a human being. So, not all of these experiences are going to be devoid of risk, or even pain and hardship, they may well be part of the package.
Another aspect is that in the middle of these flow experiences there is no space for errant thoughts, if you are doing it right you will have no psychic energy left over to allow your mind to wander. In high level karate competition the competitor who is ‘in the zone’ has no care about what the audience or anyone else might think about his performance or ability; even the referee becomes a distant voice, he is thoroughly engaged in a very fluid scenario.
How many times have you been in the Dojo and found that there is no space in your head for worries about, work, home, money, relationships. You could tell yourself that this ‘pastime’ just gives you an opportunity to run away and bury your head in the sand, but maybe it’s more a case of creating distance to allow fresh perspective.
If Otsuka Sensei saw Budo as a truly global thing, as a vehicle for peace and harmony, then consider this quote from author and philosopher Howard Thurman, and apply it to the idea of Flow;
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Not a book about martial arts at all, but one that relates to the martial arts.
Professor Michael Puett is a Harvard professor who lectures on oriental philosophy. His classes are oversubscribed and often host around 700 students (how is that even possible?). The popularity of the lectures comes out of the promise that these lectures will change your life!
Puett repackages the teachings of Confucius, Mencius and Lao Tzu, etc. for a modern age and presents the ideas of these ancient Chinese teachers in a transformative way. The book contains material from the lectures compressed into themes and chapters making it all very accessible.
Confucians and Neo-Confucians have always had bad press because they have been blamed for Chinese rigid class and social structures, reinforcing gender discrimination and even promoting insular selfishness within the society. This is all a bit lazy for me. The rigidity of the last years of the old Chinese national structure, pre-Mao, was epitomised by the Civil Service exams in which the applicants were expected to memorise huge amounts of the ‘Classics’ to demonstrate their worthiness. Although this served the Chinese well in the earlier centuries the decaying husk it turned in to just proves how things go when they develop into ‘institutions’ and lose their meaning becoming fossilised relics of what may have originally been fresh intelligent philosophies on how to live the good life.
This re-packaging of ancient Chinese philosophies gives a refreshing perspective on ideas that are woven into most oriental martial arts and we can easily discover these ideas within Japanese Budo. Have you ever wondered about how ritual is used within Japanese martial traditions? Puett’s unpicking of the importance of ritual in Confucius’s ideas is a revitalising breath of fresh air that blows away the fustiness of institutionalised ‘rites’.
Mencius (372 BCE – 289 BCE) comes across as the voice of reason and has always been a particular touchstone of mine. His views on humanity, development, growth and spiritual cultivation all fit in neatly with the ideals of the man of Budo.
Puett challenges us to think differently, he questions some of our very basic assertions and asks us to re-frame our references; this was refreshing and made me think that perhaps some of my own assumptions need a more rigorous grilling.
The section on Chi is a real myth buster.
His explanation of spontaneity and how it can reach a high level only after prolonged prior training follows the exact model that most martial artists adhere to.
It is a very thought-provoking read and deliberately breaks free from entrenched ideas about how with think the world should work. Definitely worth more than one read-through.