The Mind and Martial Arts Pt.1

It is widely considered within fight science circles that actual combat is more than seventy percent mental (attitude), and less than thirty percent physical (capability). Very often, a battle is won in the mind before even a single blow is landed, or a single shot is fired on the battlefield. This is why psychological operations (PSYOPS) feature so prominently in modern warfare tactics. They lay the foundation in preparation for ground forces, by instilling fear, confusion, and doubt in the enemy’s mind, in order to weaken his will to fight. In some cases, they may even cause the enemy to lay down his weapons, so bloodshed is not even necessary. Once you know the opponent’s mind, and can manipulate his reactions (including inaction), you control the play and the outcome.

In the military strategy classic ‘The Art of War’, Sun Tzu states, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself, but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle”. Chen Wangting (military general and founder of Taijiquan) wrote a similar theme in his Martial Poem, “Nobody knows me, while I alone know everybody”. Through dedicated practice of Taijiquan solo forms (Taolu) and training push-hands (Tui Shou) with partners, we come to know ourselves – our bodies, our internal Qi, our strength and our abilities. Through contact we develop ‘Listening Energy’ (Ting Jing) – the ability to feel or ‘know’ the opponent, and sense his intentions and act before he is able to execute them. (Wing Chun training is very similar except that it follows straight-line principle.)

However, no amount of training in class can prepare anyone mentally for a real-life encounter, facing an individual, or gang, that intends physical harm, or worse. Even with full contact tournaments, participants are protected from real harm by the referee, set rules, and “illegal techniques” (that are not forbidden on the street where anything goes!). Classes and seminars may simulate training for street scenarios, but, nevertheless, they remain safe environments, and will not offer the threat level, ferocity, brutality, or extreme violence guaranteed to present itself in actual situations. Also, during partner training, while there may be accidental or agreed upon contact, it will be light, and controlled, as we do not want to hurt or injure our partners. Even if we train with extra padded gloves and protective head and body gear that allows for more forceful contact, we will still exercise restraint and refrain from using all-out full force. In a street situation, however, with no ‘safety zone’, no rules of conduct, and no mutual understanding, there has to be different intent, or mindset, behind the strikes and kicks, and joint locks etc. Actual ‘venom’ (the intention to do harm) must be ‘injected’ into the technique, delivered with penetration power for maximum impact and full effect. There can be absolutely no holding back. Class is officially over. When a situation becomes real it is not a game anymore, and cannot be treated at all lightly. Your very life can be on the line. There can be no margin for error!

Once we are actually threatened, we will all experience some level of fear, which is only the ‘Fight-or-Flight’ response, hardwired into our DNA, from our ancestors that had to flee savage beasts, and defend against marauding hordes etc. This is actually nothing of which to be ashamed. The most decorated military heroes all say that anyone claiming to know no fear in the heat of battle is either a liar or deranged. The greatest championship boxers in history all experienced fear before stepping into the ring, as no doubt did the Roman gladiators centuries before that. When the adrenal glands dump adrenaline, the result is any combination of increased heart rate (pounding), dizziness, nausea, paralysis, shaking legs, sweating, and shortness of breath, stuttering, faltering voice (or higher pitch), dry mouth, and even vomiting. Qi (vital energy) will have become disordered and chaotic, as the Mind, being the ruler of Qi, has become hyperactive and overwhelmed from sensory overload. Fright can lead to overpowering paralysis at the most crucial moment, rendering some even incapable of picking up a phone and dialing 911! During a physical attack this inability to act decisively invariably leads to defeat, submission or victimhood.

Cus D’Amato (Mike Tyson’s trainer) famously said, “Let fear be your friend”. We must channel this energy and use it to our advantage, so that we can perform to our highest potential. However, the real key to applying this knowledge lies in understanding breath control and its relation to internal Qi. If the passage of Qi is uninterrupted, and flow is regulated and smooth, the body will perform optimally. (This is why a master of Chinese martial arts would also have deep knowledge of Qigong.) The mind in a state of tension causes the muscles to work against the antagonistic muscles, leading to movement and techniques that are stiff, clumsy, slowed, and lack full striking potential. The moment you recognize the symptoms of adrenaline, the mind must focus on the Dantian (lower abdomen), and maintain conscious deep, steady breathing. This produces an immediate reciprocal effect on calming down the mind, simultaneously bringing internal Qi back to balance within the channels and flow smoothly. ‘Centering’ allows Qi to return to the Dantian for storing and using. Once the state of equilibrium is restored, the body (tools), mind (intent) and Qi (power) become unified, to maximize effectiveness of the techniques.

The foundation of all traditional Chinese martial arts lies in stance training. This is essentially ‘Jing Gong’ (Stillness Training Qigong). Taijiquan features Zhan Zhuang (Standing Pole), Wing Chun’s First Form is Siu Lim Tao (Way of Minimizing Thoughts) and Shaolin Gongfu features Ma Bu (Horse Stance). Some understand these only as training the legs (and Bone Qi), as the root and source of strength and power, as well as internal training for health. But this is not the only purpose. All the aforementioned skills, essentially, train the mind, to be intently focused and fully present, yet still, calm, and settled as a placid lake, and patient. This leads to heightened awareness of one’s own internal body and ability to regulate Qi. Training the mind in this manner also increases awareness of the external world, our environment and nature, and especially a heightened sensitivity to read the opponent’s energy and intentions from micro expressions. This is the opposite of what those untrained experience as ‘The Red Mist Descending’ or ‘Tunnel Vision’, during threat/ survival mode. No subtle information can be detected when the mind is clouded by anger or fear. Mindfulness is the state whereby mind is not fixed, or fixated, not occupied by thought or emotion, and ultimately open to absorb and process all the information presented. Without thought and judgment, we are free to interact with an opponent without hesitation and impediment. Then, we are able to feel intuitively, and let go to trust in our instinct, and in the training we have undergone. In the moment of truth, the martial artist does not think of the opponent or himself. He forgets about techniques and fixed patterns, so, ultimately, it is not the martial artist’s hand or foot that strikes, but his subconscious mind!

Mindfulness achieved through Stillness Training should be applied to form practice (Meditation in Movement) and then to partner training, during Tui Shou (Pushing Hands) or Chi Sau (Sticking Hands), and to free-fighting (San Shou/ San Da). High-level understanding is applying this skill of care and awareness to everyday life – whether exhilarating activity or mundane chore – so that everything and every moment is experienced with mindfulness. A truly skilled martial artist will then handle a real life encounter and actual combat, regardless of severity, with Everyday Mind, the same as preparing tea or sweeping leaves, with no thought of winning or losing, and treat life and death indifferently.

Unfortunately, the majority of martial arts students today neglect this vital aspect of training, for different reasons. Many consider Stillness Training “unnecessary” and a “waste of time” (!). They prefer to concentrate solely on techniques and fitness instead. If “unnecessary”, would not the ancient Chinese that were far wiser, more inventive, pragmatic, and intuitive than we are today have figured this out, especially over hundreds of years of refinement? Meditation, not only prepares the mind for combat, it also replenishes Qi and heals the body, promoting health and longevity – of which modern martial artists know nothing (and will pay the price dearly in old age!). The human mind today is so restless and impatient, addicted to frenetic activity, excitement and stimulation that it has already lost its balance. And so, when forced to stand or sit still, the stubborn, petulant mind rebels and resists the situation, unable to find relaxation, peace and emptiness, without which self-knowledge and wisdom can never be attained. And so, many today find this training tedious and excruciating, hence, “a waste of time”. It is all just a matter of perception. Once we can just let go, and surrender, the experience of deep stillness and going within can be heavenly versus an ordeal, and we gain greater and deeper insights into our essential being.

The mistake many martial artists make is to assume that the meditative state means being lethargically inert, and as such, it will lose them their competitive edge. So, in their eyes, meditation is a liability to combat or sports winning mentality. This is a falsehood based upon lack of knowledge and experience, as the very opposite is true. In this state, the mind actually works faster and more efficiently, unrestrained by expectation and a fixed plan. Chinese and Asian warriors would all meditate before combat to remain mentally sharp, so that the physical skills acquired from their training were not blunted by emotion, and impatience, and with the body and mind attuned, and in harmony, the tools (limbs) will work in accordance with the training. The effect is less like a sloth and more like a cat waiting to catch a mouse – still, relaxed, composed, concentrated, and in a state of readiness. When the cat pounces, there is no hesitation. It moves swiftly, and with deadly accuracy. As Sun Tzu said, in the Art of War, “The opportunity of defeating an enemy is provided by the enemy himself”, which is why patience and awareness are needed, to strike at precisely the right moment that opportunity presents itself. This is how an older martial art master of legend could defeat a gang of bandits. The gang would possess the advantage of youth, strength, speed, and numbers, but he would have experience, mobility, accuracy and timing, and most importantly, knowing/ sensing, in addition to internal power through honed skill.

The word ‘Fighting’ implies struggle. High level skill is not fighting against the opponent, at all, but rather becoming one with him, blending with and leading him by following, and overcoming, much like a surfer rides and conquers a big wave, all without effort. With inferior skill, and insufficient practice, there is greater reliance on strength, and using brute force against force, which becomes taxing and exhausting the longer a fight is protracted. Perhaps this is why so much emphasis is placed on cardio-vascular training today? It is important to be fit (“Train Hard/ Fight Easy” as the saying goes), but the high level masters understood and mastered breath control (Qigong) and how to use less energy to defeat an opponent using greater force. (“One Ounce Deflects a Thousand Pounds” is the Taijiquan maxim). Chen Fake (famed 17th generation Chen Taijiquan master) stated that a bout should be won decisively before one can count to three! According to Sun Tzu, “What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease”!

To be continued…………….

– Adam Wallace