Saturday, March 17, 2007

What's Om got to do with it?

The popular image of meditation goes something like this:

Seated in lotus position, eyes closed, hands forming esoteric signs, the adept repeats the mantra Om mani padme hum and seeks oneness with the Universe.

This all looks and sounds very passive and peaceful (and more than a bit New Age); almost the exact opposite of the stereotype of martial arts as active, violent and blood-thirsty.

But there is more to meditation than passivity and navel-gazing, and there is more to martial arts than beating people up. A significant component of meditation is a state of mind that is essential to the mental side of martial arts, and one that is of great value in everyday life.

So I hope you will join me on a brief tour on the nature and relationship of meditation to the martial arts:

What is meditation?
In reality, the meditative state is almost the exact opposite of being oblivious or pre-occupied. My working definition is:

A state of relaxed concentration on the reality of the present moment.

In other words, it is about being really awake, alive and tuned in to what is going on in and around you. I consider it to be the same as being "in the zone" or in a state of flow.

Anything that leads you to this state can be viewed as a form of meditation.

While it is true that there are many types and techniques of meditation with varying aims and extensions, I take the above aspect as the common foundation. (At least, it is the aspect that I am going to stick to for the purposes of this article!)

Martial arts = Moving meditation
Clearly, in a life-and-death situation, such as being under attack, or needing to take quick action to save someone else in danger, being relaxed, aware, concentrated and undistracted is gold.

So rather than getting a huge adrenalin rush -- the fight-or-flight response -- and going berserk, the martial artist trains to enter a meditative state in which his (or her) every action is swift, accurate and efficient.

The Samurai called this state mushin or no mind, and it is characterized by the absence of fear, anger, pride and cogitation; a feeling of calmness and clarity; and the ability to act swiftly and decisively.

For this reason, any form of martial arts training which seeks to train the mind in this respect can be seen as a form of moving meditation, albeit one with extremely practical application!

So where the practitioner of a sitting meditation technique seeks to extend the meditative state into day-to-day life, the martial artist trains her- or him-self to be mentally ready for life's toughest challenges.

Explicit connections
Legend has it that the Indian monk Bodhidharma brought Zen Buddhism to 6th Century China. Furthermore, he is alleged to have introduced the then-puny monks of the Chinese Shaolin Temple in martial arts techniques to build them up physically and mentally to be able to withstand the rigors of hard-core meditation practice!

Similarly, the traditional aim of hatha yoga is not to become a contortionist and run off and join the circus, but to prepare oneself for advanced meditation techniques.

It is possible to regard meditation as a useful practice to "bolt on" to one's martial art, as a somewhat esoteric form of cross-training, but I believe that it is much more integral than that.

The Inner Game
The most accessible book on meditation that I have found is Tim Gallwey's classic, The Inner Game of Tennis. Without mentioning the M-word, Gallwey gives a compelling introduction to what are effectively moving meditation techniques that work on the tennis court.

Gallwey starts by asking a perceptive question about self-talk: When you criticize yourself for mis-hitting a shot, who is talking to whom?

Side-stepping more loaded labels such as mind/body, left-brain/right-brain, conscious/unconscious, Gallwey calls the vocal critic Self 1, and the listener Self 2. He suggests that Self 1 is a bit like an incompetent boss, while Self 2 is like a harried, but potentially highly able underling. Gallwey's introductory techniques aim to get Self 1 off Self 2's back by giving him something more useful to do.

Gallwey's classic introductory exercise is called "bounce-hit", in which the player is asked to say out loud "bounce" when the ball bounces on his or her side of the court, and "hit" when the racquet strikes the ball. This gives Self 1 something to do actively (say "bounce" or "hit"), while incidentally providing useful sensory input to Self 2 (about the location of the ball).

As a meditation, bounce-hit forces the individual to stop worrying about the past or future and instead focus on the location of the ball right now. It is a great exercise and most people get immediate results. (Maintaining the improvements as Self 1 starts to get self-congratulatory is the next challenge!)

I have personally adapted some of Gallwey's other techniques for teaching martial arts, I think with some success, but that's a subject for another article or -- publishers please note -- maybe part of a book. ;-)

Martial arts, meditation, yoga, excellence in sports, flow: If you are deeply interested in one, research the others. There is a common core that cuts through the lot.

Further notes on Gallwey and the Inner Game
Translating Inner Game techniques to other areas is not all that easy, even for Gallwey! There are several sequels to The Inner Game of Tennis including the follow-up Inner Tennis and the variations: The Inner Games of Golf / Skiing / Music and even Work. However -- for my money -- the original book is the best. (Interestingly, the current boom in life-, business- and executive-coaching has its origin with Gallwey.)

Going in the other direction, Gallwey seems to have derived his techniques from particular Yogic teachings brought to the USA by controversial Indian "guru" Prem Sawat (also known as Maharaji). The consensus seems to be that the techniques taught are real enough, but Sawat himself gets mixed reviews.


Anonymous said...

The sad thing is that I am not in Australia to be your student, but the good thing is that I can be your student on the web.

Daniel Prager said...

Thank-you. Your comment is very flattering, but also a little bit worrying.

A great thing about the web is that you can learn from everyone. The problem is that you can learn from anyone.

Good -- even great -- teachers are out there. The challenges are a) to find them (many are low profile) ; b) tell the from the charlatans; and c) be accepted as a student.

Also: Don't expect your teacher to be perfect, but do look for very high standards.

I wish you the best of luck in finding a great teacher in your part of the world, wherever that may be.

Anonymous said...

Hi. Yes, I have found a great JJ teacher. I am also doing my Taekwondo. Currently a blue belt.

All is good.

And I will visit here often. You are a great mentor (and blogger for that matter).

Oh, and I am in Toronto Canada.