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The Inverse Pearl
by Stephen R. Balzac, Sandan
First published in The Kiai Echo - Fall 2002
I'll worry about all that mystical stuff when I'm 90 years old.
-- Anonymous DZR black belt
It is a grave error to think that the Way of the samurai consists of nothing but a show of strength.
-- Abbot Nikkan to Musashi
Mysticism has been around as long as, or longer, than martial arts. Meditation, used by numerous Religions and in many mystical traditions, has become a part of countless martial arts. Why? Or, to put it another way, why would a samurai, whose life depended on his martial skills, spend time meditating instead of practicing with his sword? Obviously, because he believed it made him a better swordsman. How could that be? What was the physiological mechanism at work? And why, if meditation is an effective training tool, do so many people regard it as mystic gibberish?
To answer these questions, we start by jumping to the 1976 Olympic Games. At those games, the Soviet Union took more gold medals than anyone else, including two Judo medals ordinarily won by the Japanese. What happened? Rumours were rife, mostly that the Soviets had developed some undetectable performance-enhancing drug. Eventually, the word came out that they had some sort of secret "mental training." What were they doing? The answer, at root, was meditation. After WWII, the Soviets had become intrigued by the fact that certain martial artists and yogis could perform amazing athletic feats or survive weather conditions that would kill a fully equipped soldier. They wanted to know how.
The initial response to their investigations was that it came from powers bestowed on those who followed a certain religious or mystical path. The Soviets, however, could not accept this. They were born-again Atheists and refused to believe that religious belief could have any bearing on the physical phenomenon they were observing. As they continued to investigate, they discovered that the mechanism that made the meditation techniques effective was not grounded in any particular religion, but was found in a state of deep relaxation already known to the medical profession, and that this state could be reached through a set of breathing exercises. Physiologically, albeit oversimplified, the right hemisphere of the brain -- which controls patterns, imagery, and intuition -- becomes dominant, and the left hemisphere -- which controls intellect, words, and logic --takes a back seat.
Although scientists in both the Soviet Union and the West were exploring this so-called "relaxation response", the Soviets were the first to apply it to sports in a logical, rigorous, disciplined manner.
Following the 1976 Olympic Games, however, research into applying meditative techniques to sports took off. Research showed that meditative breathing exercises produced certain measurable physiological changes when performed regularly. That was a key point: the relaxation response obtained through meditation is one that the body must be conditioned to, much as the body needs to be conditioned to aerobic exercise. Meditating occasionally, a couple minutes at a time two or three times a week doesn't do it. Meditation requires regular practice, 15-20 minutes at least once, preferably twice, a day.
Another significant discovery was that an athlete who trained to be relaxed, calm, and focused, as opposed to the traditional Western model of tight-jawed determination, was far more likely to achieve a state of total concentration: a level of peak performance in which tension and fear evaporated, every move became effortless, and the athlete appeared imbued with some incredible power. The surge of energy that accompanied an athlete entering this state could even be felt by those watching, and in some cases witnesses would report that the athlete appeared to be able to "walk on water or perform miracles." Athletes refer to this mental state as being "in the Zone;" many martial artists refer to it as "mushin," a state of no-mind, a place where action and perception are one; Kabbalists see it as a place where 'I' does not exist; Zen refers to it as, "a mind of no-hesitation, no-interruption, no-mediacy."
What is even more significant is that very few people are born with the natural ability to enter this state. However, anyone can learn it through dedicated training, practice, and self-discipline. People who master the ability to enter this state at will have, in the words of noted psychologist Abraham Maslow, "...so much to teach us that sometimes they seem like a different breed of human beings." Imagine for an instant what an instructor who can not only enter the Zone at will (a process known as "letting go"), but draw his students into it as well, would be like.
It may well be said that the primary objective of practicing Judo is perfection of character
-- The Esoteric Teachings of Prof. H S Okazaki
So what does all this meditation stuff have to do with perfection of character anyway? Well, it all depends on how you define perfection of character. For many Westerners, that phrase conjures up images of some sort of moral or ethical development. An interesting viewpoint, considering that, taken in context, Abbot Nikkan's statement to Musashi quoted at the start of this article was not a criticism of his killing a bunch of people (which he had just done), but rather a criticism that he had used too much strength in executing his techniques.
Where did the whole concept of the martial arts as a route to perfection of character come from? During the days when the Samurai class was in power, you became a better swordsman for several reasons: first, it was expected of you if you were born into the appropriate social class; second, there was a significant market for people who were extremely skilled at using a sword to kill other people; third, there were plenty of people around who would be only too happy to kill you if you weren't skilled enough to defend yourself. Perfecting one's character didn't enter into it, except insofar as it made you a better swordsman.
With the fall of the Samurai class, however, things changed. Suddenly, there wasn't a market for well-trained, hired killers, or at least not in the same way (i.e. legally). Training people in swordsmanship, or any other martial art, so that they could become very good at killing other people was suddenly not a popular career path for the ambitious (ex)samurai who wished to remain alive, healthy, and out of prison. For those who wished to keep their arts alive, however, something was needed, something that would both give people an incentive to undergo the difficult and often dangerous training and also convince the government to let them continue teaching.
Thus the concept was born that martial arts were a route to the perfection of character. Nor was this simply clever marketing. That no-mind state of the Zone that martial artists sought to obtain is the same as that creative fugue experienced by authors, musicians, painters, sculptors, inventors, etc. When an author talks about how the characters of his story actually wrote the book, he was merely the vehicle, or a painter talks of losing herself in her art, they have successfully "let go." The martial arts thus became a way of training people to enter that state, to become more fully capable, more fully able to achieve whatever they set out to achieve. In other words, perfection of character through becoming a more capable, more confident, more creative, more fully realized human being.
In the Second Scroll of Wen the Eternally Surprised, a story is written concerning one day when the apprentice Clodpool, in a rebellious mood, approached Wen and spake thusly: 'Master, what is the difference between a humanistic, monastic system of belief in which wisdom is sought by means of an apparently nonsensical system of questions and answers, and a lot of mystic gibberish made up on the spur of the moment?'
Wen considered this for some time, and at last said, 'A fish!'
And Clodpool went away, satisfied.
The problem is that letting go is not a simple, formulaic process. Although the base process, the launching pad in a manner of speaking, is pretty much the same from person to person, the final steps and the experience itself, are unique to each individual. As Dr. Charles Garfield observed in his book, Peak Performance (ISBN 0446391158), asking a hundred athletes what it is like gets a hundred different responses.
The difficulty is that the Zone state is not one that is readily describable in words. It is a place where an athlete or martial artist allows his or her intellect to step aside and the right brain to kick in. It's a state of mind where language and words fall away, and intuition and imagery dominate. That's a nice, simple physiological description of a very complex phenomenon. What does it really tell you? Not much. Now imagine trying to describe the experience without even that knowledge. Thus we have the seeds of the mystical tradition, as people attempt to use words to describe an experience that, by its very nature, is outside language. To make it even more interesting, the goal is not primarily to describe the sensation, but to develop tools to get there at will, and train others to do so as well.
Imagine a hypothetical samurai, whom we will, for the sake of discussion, refer to as Samurai Jack. He's got it. He's figured out how to let go at will, and become, thereby, a great swordsman. Students are traveling across Japan to train with him, no easy task a couple hundred years ago. Jack trains some students, doing his best to teach them how to let go and achieve the Zone state, perhaps using whatever tools of mysticism or Zen that he might know. If he follows the typical pattern of that historical period, students would train for a few years and then be sent out with, "Well, you've got it. Go and figure out how to use it." Or, he eventually dies. Either way, he's no longer around.
His students, meanwhile, are wandering around trying to figure out how to duplicate his feats of swordsmanship. "He said he taught me all his techniques, why can't I do it?" they might wonder. They're doing all the meditation and whatever else they were taught, but it doesn't work. Finally, one (or more) figures it out. Samurai Joe can achieve that wonderful state of no-mind that his instructor always talked about. How did he do it? That doesn't really matter. What matters is how he thinks about it. Perhaps he thinks that his sensei did, in fact, teach what he just figured out, but that he missed it or didn't understand it; or perhaps he thinks his sensei left it unsaid as a test. When it comes time to train his students, what does he do? He teaches all the ritual and mysticism that his sensei taught him, plus his own stuff. Perhaps he meets with other of Jack's students and compares his experiences with theirs, and they each take some of things they believe Jack taught and add it to their own repertoire. His students do the same, each generation adding more and more ritual, trappings, etc, to the whole mystical process. After all, they are loyal students, perpetuating the teachings of their instructors. Unfortunately, they don't really understand those teachings. One might argue that so long as they faithfully repeat exactly what they were told, eventually the seeds will fall on fertile ground. Problem is, memories are notoriously unreliable and even if they have it all carefully written down, repeating without understanding has its own problems. As Lawrence Kushner writes in The Book of Words: [ISBN 1-58023-020-2] "Spoken too often, even the holiest reality begins to sound hollow and loses its ability to create anew."
To think about this a different way, a pearl is formed when a grain of sand gets into an oyster. In response to the irritation, the oyster secretes a substance to cover the sand. Of course, that now creates a larger irritant and so the cycle repeats, producing, at the end a pearl: a valuable object with a piece of dirt at the center. In exactly the opposite manner, a simple, valuable concept, learning to enter the Zone, becomes encrusted over the generations with meaningless ritual, tradition, and mystic gibberish until the actual truth at the center becomes virtually impossible to find and the actual meditative tools designed to help develop the mental skills become lost in superstition. Eventually you can't tell the difference between a Zen koan and an ice cream cone.
This deterioration has several effects. At the most obvious level, people exposed to the mystical tradition either throw up their hands in disgust, look for some sort of magic formula to improve their techniques, or spend years wandering a maze of nonsense and become disillusioned. On a more subtle level, it's easy to imagine that many martial art styles are based, at least in part, on being able to let go in order to truly manifest the techniques. If practitioners cannot enter the Zone, then those techniques will not work, or at least will not work effectively. Over time, they could easily come to be regarded as pointless anachronisms and not practiced seriously if at all. Alternately, imagine an instructor who is unsuccessful at teaching the mental techniques. Even worse, his sensei was remarkably good at it. So now the current instructor feels that he cannot teach the techniques effectively, or perhaps he just feels that he cannot do it as well as his sensei. Either way, he now faces a powerful disincentive to teach those techniques. Ultimately, not just the ability of the practitioners but the art itself is diminished.
Only by cultivating a receptive state of mind, without preconceived ideas or thoughts, can one master the secret art of reacting spontaneously and naturally without hesitation and without purposeless resistance.
-- The Esoteric Teachings of Prof. H S Okazaki
That's the goal. The fun, and the challenge, is in getting there. The topics of mysticism, meditation, and mind-body interaction are rich and fascinating. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to find someone who really understands it and can teach it instead of just giving you a fish. This article barely scratches the surface of what's available. For those interested in learning more, a list of references is attached.
References and Further Reading ∞
- Benson, Herbert MD, The Relaxation Response, Avon 1990
- Benson, Herbert MD, Beyond the Relaxation Response, Berkeley Publishing Group 1994
- Deshimaru, Taisen, The Zen Way to the Martial Arts, E. P. Dutton 1982
- Gallwey, W. Timothy, The Inner Game of Tennis, Bantam 1974
- Garfield, Charles A. Ph.D., Peak Performance, Warner Books 1984
- Hyams, Joe, Zen in the Martial Arts, Bantam 1982
- Kushner, Lawrence, The Book of Words, Jewish Lights Publishing 1993
- Matt, Daniel C., The Essential Kabbalah, HarperCollins 1996
- Musashi, Miyamoto, The Book of Five Rings [ 1 ] isbn:4770028016 , Bantam 1982 (trans)
- Pratchett, Terry, Thief of Time, Collins 2002
- Soho, Takuan, The Unfettered Mind, Kodansha International 1986 (trans)
- Steinsaltz, Adin, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, Basic Books 1980 (trans)
- Suzuki, Shunryu, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Weatherhill 1988
Yoshikawa, Eji, Musashi, Kodansha International 1981 (trans)