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.”
This one has been around for a long time, but it’s a very useful model and can be used in many ways.
The Monkey Trap is supposed to be a real thing, a real trap used by primitive tribes to outsmart monkeys. Traditionally the trap features a narrow necked jar which is either tethered to the ground or weighted down. Scattered around the jar are treats the monkey would like but there are more inside. The monkey reaches inside the jar, closes its fist around one of the treats and, with a closed fist it cannot extract its hand past the neck. The monkey is stuck, because of its unwillingness to relinquish its grip on the treat – its own stubbornness, greed and narrow thinking trap it in position. The story was used by Tolstoy in ‘War and Peace’ to describe the French’s unwillingness to discard their loot on the retreat from Moscow. Robert M. Pirsig made use of the same story in ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’. There’s even an episode of the Simpsons where Homer thinks he can reach inside a vending machine to steal a can of drink, the fire brigade have to free him but a fireman points out to him that all he had to do was let go of the can and his hand would slide out.
Therapists are attracted to this neat little story; it’s a literal example of the pitfalls of not ‘letting go’.
I can think of a number of ways it relates to training. In a way it’s another example of the necessity of ‘emptying your cup’, but, to me, it’s a much more interesting model.
I can see it relating to the problem solving involved in fighting, about the unwillingness to depart from set formulas to solve the problems your opponent is presenting you with. I also see a warning to those of us who have many years behind us in training. I know it’s easy for senior instructors to rest on their laurels and start to believe their own propaganda and particularly to trade upon their association with the stars in the Wado firmament (the ones still with us and the ones departed) but this can have a detrimental effect. In these cases it is possible to get stuck with your hand inside the jar, by being unwilling to let go of perceived status attached to such associations. It’s a matter of judging what’s important to you. By hanging on to such shiny baubles as a form of comfort you miss the opportunity to engage with the wider world and in particular to follow the path of development that got you to where you are in the first place. A monkey stuck in a jar, or a case of wilful arrested development? You decide.
This is not about politics (though it may start out like that).
It used to be said that if a man is not a Socialist when he is seventeen then he has no heart, if he is still a Socialist when he is fifty he has no head. This does not mean that you are supposed to swerve from left to right as you mature, personally I don’t subscribe to the tribalism of ‘left’ and ‘right’ anymore, they are both two cheeks of the same backside.
Socialists abhor hierarchies, while at the same time feeling it is necessary to utilise them (contradiction?).
Humans by their very nature have a desire to set up hierarchies, even where they do not exist.
Imagine a man who could balance ping pong balls on his nose; would he be content to be the only person who could do that? I doubt it; instead he would present it as a challenge to other jugglers and balancers, who would, inevitably, be able to repeat the trick thus rendering his ‘achievement’ as mediocre. So he then manages to balance two balls on his nose, one on top of the other; seemingly impossible and sets himself up as King of the Ping Pong Ball Balancers! A hierarchy is created – out of nothing. I suppose a good question would be; would ping pong ball balancing put food on the table? There lies another discussion.
In all hierarchies there are winners and losers and people in between and there is supposed to be mobility; not like the old feudal pyramid, more like a ladder.
The people on top give you something to aspire to – unless you are hopelessly stuck on the bottom and then you either resign yourself to failure and give up, or you become a festering ball of resentment, which is not healthy.
These people on the very top are there for a reason. To briefly examine that, it might be worth making a quick reference to French and Raven’s six bases of power. This was formulated in 1959 by social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven.
- Base 1. Legitimate power (or inherited power) – the person in charge has the right to be there.
- Base 2. Reward – You are rewarded by letting that person assume the position.
- Base 3. Expert – That person is the most skilled, so they should be on top.
- Base 4. Referent – the person is seen as the most appealing option because of their worthiness.
- Base 5. Coercive – The fear of punishment keeps this person on top.
- Base 6. Informational – (added later and very apt to today) The person on top controls the information that people need to get stuff done.
Every boss I have ever met considers that ‘Base 3’ is why they are there, with a liberal dose of ‘Base 4’ of course.
Everything you have ever done and gained a feeling of positive achievement from existed within a hierarchy, and that of course includes martial arts training. If the hierarchy is working well you have confidence in the system because opportunities arise from engaging in it, you reap the rewards of your own efforts.
Ambitious people tend to form their own hierarchies and strive to become king of their own tiny little hill, and we see that in the martial arts all the time – everyone wants to King of the Ping Pong Ball Balancers.
Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung & Ueshiba Morihei.
Recently I have been reading a biography of Swiss Psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung and something just jumped off the page at me.
Jung suffered a prolonged mental breakdown between the years 1913 to 1918, but what happened to him during those years did not drag him down into an irrecoverable pit of despair and degeneration (as had happened with Nietzsche), he instead used his own condition to explore the workings of his mind, and in the process of doing so discovered significant and profound insight that he then wanted to share with the world, an unfolding of the mind. To me this sounded familiar.
In 1925 an energetic and obsessed Japanese martial artist called Ueshiba Morihei also underwent a significant change. In his culture it was described as an enlightenment; an extreme physical and psychological episode, during which certain ‘realities’ were revealed to him, motivating him to disseminate the message to all Mankind – the message was Aikido.
Henri Ellenberger wrote about such episodes in his 1970 book, ‘The Discovery of the Unconscious’, he described them as, ‘Creative illnesses’. Interestingly Sigmund Freud (Jung’s mentor) also underwent a similar breakdown and revelation. Amazingly, all three of these men experienced these episodes at the same time in their lives, between the ages of 38 and 43. To me this all adds up.
There is a common process here; all of these individuals had gone for a total emersion into their chosen disciplines; they had all stretched the boundaries further than anyone had ever gone before. In Japan this kind of process usually involved a retreat into the isolated wilds, which included meditation (introspection) and physical hardships.
If you look for it this pattern is all over the place; it’s a human phenomenon, part of what Jung was to call the ‘collective unconscious’.
Iconic American musicians of the early 20th century retreated to the ‘Woodshed’; Robert Johnson had his enlightenment at the crossroads at midnight when he ‘sold his soul to the Devil’.
The ultimate model of near breakdown and Enlightenment is the Buddha, but there have been many other figures from different traditions. I’m not so sure it all ended up in the right area, after all we only hear of the successes, never the failures. Or we hear of historical examples who have been adopted as successes, but whose lives, when looked at through modern lenses, may well tell another story – I am thinking of St Teresa of Avila as one prime example; I wonder what a Jungian or Freudian psychoanalyst would have made of her?
I have recently been reading Jordan B. Peterson’s ’12 Rules for Life’ and I have watched a few of his lectures online. Peterson is a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Toronto and has some quite interesting things to say. His views on Order and Chaos chimed with something that had been going through my head for a long time.
Way back when I was a university student I attended a lecture on ‘Apollo and Dionysus’ that got me thinking. As you may know Dionysus (Bacchus) was the god of wine, darkness and of wild hedonism and chaos, a real fun guy. While Apollo was the god of reason, order, light, a total bore; the ‘Captain America’ of superhero gods. The logic of this was creating models of duality; virtually the same as the Taoist Yin and Yang, which is a simple circular motif of two halves, one black, one white separated by a curving line.
For the purpose of explanation ‘Order’ and ‘Chaos’ are the most useful terms.
The realm of Order is everything we know; where rules are followed, structures are in place, it is comfort and to some degree also complacency (but more of that later). Whereas Chaos is unpredictability, it is the gaps between the laws that protect us; it is what happens when things break down, small scale and large scale, ultimately expressing complete anarchy.
I witnessed a minor version of chaos recently on a Tube train in London late at night. The majority of the passengers were abiding in the world of order, following social protocols, but a small noisy part of drunken people came into the carriage, not following the rules; nothing significant happened but to me they were like illogical, fuzzy minor condensed version of chaos, anything could have happened, the potential was there, just by the presence of chaos.
Peterson says that it is healthy to not just acknowledge chaos but also to engage with it. The complacency that comes with order ultimately would just result in you staying in your room. Progress comes from stepping out into the world and moving away from your comfort zone and putting yourself in more unpredictable positions (chaos).
Look at what we do in martial arts training.
In a very simplistic way we discipline ourselves through the most orderly, regimented environments imaginable, we convince ourselves we are training for chaos, and, in a way we are, but not necessarily in the way we think. Violence is an extreme embodiment of chaos and should not be taken lightly, but it is a complex issue full of wild variables. Just think of one of the worst scenarios; multiple attackers, unfamiliar environment, motivations unclear, limited light, all parties befuddled or fuelled by alcohol – it’s a mess. But this is an extreme.
Let’s go back into the Dojo; here are some examples of engaging with chaos that lead you towards more positive outcomes.
It starts out very simply, where you pressure-test your training in more manageable ways.
In a formal setting there is scope for tiptoeing into the chaos zone; e.g. if you work kihon gumite but the Torime doesn’t know what the second attack is; you could gamble, but it’s better to see if you can resolve the problem through your conditioned training.
Every time you take part in sparring; there are rules but essentially you are engaging with controlled chaos.
In my Dojo we have been working for a long time now on devising new ways of pressure-testing our reactions to attacks, creating opportunities to really work our conditioned responses, one method we use is called Ohyo Henka Dousa, a method of continual engagement with an attacker’s intent.
To go back to the Yin Yang symbol, Peterson says that the curving line between the two areas is a line that we should tiptoe along, occasionally deliberately allowing our foot to stray into the zone of chaos and very much acknowledging that it is part of our lives – something that can be used for good.
What information is your body giving you? Are you truly your own best critic?
When we are desperately trying to improve our technique we tend to rely on instruction and then practice augmented by helpful feedback, usually from our Sensei.
But perhaps there are other ways to gain even better quality feedback and perhaps ‘feedback’ is not as simple as it first appears.
If we were to just look at it from the area of kata performance; if you are fortunate enough to have mirrors in your training space (as we do at Shikukai Chelmsford) then reviewing your technique in a mirror can be really helpful. But there are some down sides. One is that I am certain when we use the mirror we do a lot of self-editing, we choose to see what we want to see; viewpoint angle etc.
The other down-side is that we externalise the kata, instead of internalising it. When referring to a mirror we are projecting ourselves and observing the projection; this creates a tiny but significant reality gap. It is possible that in reviewing the information we get from the mirror we get useful information about our external form (our ability to make shapes, or our speed – or lack of speed.) but we lose sight of our internal connections, such as our lines of tension, connectivity and relays. We shift our focus away from the inner feel of what we are doing at the expense of a particular kind of visual aesthetic.
You can test this for yourself: take a small section of a kata, perform the section once normally (observe yourself in a mirror if you like) then do the same section with your eyes closed. If you are in tune with your body you will find the difference quite shocking.
Another product of this ‘externalising’ in kata worth examining is how easy it is to rely on visual external cues to keep you on track throughout the performance; usually this is about orientation. I will give an example from Pinan Nidan: if I tell myself that near the beginning of the kata is a run of three Jodan Nagashi Uke and near the end a similar run of three techniques but this time Junzuki AND that on the first run of three I am always going towards the Kamidana, but on the second run of three I will be heading in the direction of the Dojo door, I come to rely almost entirely on these landmarks for orientation, thus I have gone too deeply into externalising my kata; it happens in a landscape instead of in my body. Where this can seriously mess you up is if you have to perform in a high pressure environment (e.g. contest, grading or demonstration) your familiar ‘landscape’ that you relied heavily upon has disappeared, only to be replaced by a very different, often much harsher landscape, one frequently inhabited by a much more critical audience. A partial antidote to this is to always try and face different directions in your home Dojo; but really this is just a sticking plaster.
Another quirky odd anomaly I have discovered when working in a Dojo with mirrors is that during sparring I sometimes find myself using the mirror to gain an almost split-screen stereoscopic view of what my opponent is up to, tiny visual clues coming from a different viewpoint, but it’s dangerous splitting your attention like that and on more than one occasion I have been caught out, so much so that I now try and stay with my back to the mirror when fighting.
Another visual feedback method is video. This can be helpful in kata and individual kihon. In kihon try filming two students side by side to compare their technical differences or similarities. If you have the set-up you could film techniques from above (flaws in Nagashizuki show up particularly well).
There are some subtle and profound issues surrounding this idea of ‘internalising’ ‘externalising’, some of it to do with the origin of movement and the direction (and state) of the mind, but short blog posts like this are perhaps not the place for exploring these issues – the real place for exploring them is in your body.
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.