A Mindful Approach to Martial Art Performance
by Rodney King
The qualities of your movement are a manifestation of how your thinking mind expresses itself through your body at that moment. Your body moves as your thinking mind moves.
This means that as a coach, you can gain insight into your clients’ mind by observing their postural expression and movement. In the same light, you can change the quality of your own thinking mind by the intention behind how you use and express your body.
Body and mind work as a feedback loop. They are interrelated, and not separate as the French philosopher Descartes proposed in his famous mind-body split. How you choose to move your body and express yourself can change the quality of your thinking mind. And it works the other way, too: The quality of your thinking expresses itself through your body. The way we feel is the way we think. Feeling and thinking are embodied, and will be expressed in movement or postural expression in some way.
For example, in martial art sparring, our thinking mind may label a feeling as “anger.” That emotion may then be automatically expressed through body movement directed at one’s sparring partner. In other words, while a feeling may arise, and may be interpreted by the thinking mind as anger, it is then held, and will likely be expressed, through the expressive body.
However, this expression of anger through body action, can have unintended consequences through the feedback loop back to the thinking mind.
For instance, if the burst of physical aggression (driven by the feeling your thinking mind has defined as “anger”) does not have the desired outcome, either in neutralizing the opponent’s movement, or is not reacted to (the opponent fails to panic or pull back his attack), the feeling you initially labelled as anger may change to frustration, loss of confidence, or even fear. This, in turn, becomes a somatic state, affecting present and future movement, thereby becoming embodied, feeding back to one’s mental state, causing even more psychological conflict.
This understanding is backed up by the work of psychologists Carl Jung and Wilhelm Reich. They noted that one’s neuroses (or mental blocks) are recreated every moment through our current attitudes. However, as Sigmund Freud pointed out, our attitudes are rooted to a large degree in our past, and it is the attachment in the present to our past memories that then create the neurosis or mental block we are experiencing now.
Clearly, in martial arts one wants to perform at one’s best. Especially in sparring, where making a mistake could result in injury. Knowing that the way you are thinking will be expressed in your movement, and that your movement will in turn affect your mental state, what then is the most desirable approach to achieving peak performance?
To perform at your best requires first that you give up the illusion of control. This may seem paradoxical at first. Surely, if you are “out of control”—mentally, emotionally, or physically—in sparring, finding a way to control your mind, emotions, or body, should result in better performance?
Yet the opposite is true.
Let’s take thoughts for example. Thoughts are not real. All thoughts are approximations of what we think is real. Our thoughts are contingent on previous thoughts we have had. In other words, our thoughts are deeply embedded in our personal embodied history.
If you are sparring, but you feel your edge slipping, you might have thoughts about why this is happening. While these thoughts might seem to be related to what is happening now against your opponent, those thoughts are in fact related to, or triggered by, a similar or approximate experience you had previously. Your current thoughts, then, may not be related at all to your current sparring experience.
For example, let’s say you were bullied as a child, and now face an opponent that approximates your image of what bullies look like. There is a very good chance that your embodied history of that image will affect the outcome of the sparring match you are now involved in. So when someone feels fear or anxiety, etc., and then interprets those feelings in their thinking mind, it is almost always related to some previous embodied history.Your thinking mind takes you out of the present moment, and in doing so, disconnects you from your body.
The more you seek to control your thinking mind, your emotions, or even your body, the more out of control you become. You begin to attach to the story line happening inside your head, which takes you further and further away from the actual experience you are engaged in now. You could attempt to change the negative thinking you are engaged in to a more positive one, but this may only further intensive the negativity. Despite your best intentions, whenever you try to turn a negative into a positive, it still reinforces the negative because by its very nature the “positive” has to be contrasted with its opposite. If you use your thinking mind to interpret what you are feeling as “fear,” and then you tell yourself “I am not afraid,” the context of that statement reflects back to “I am afraid”—otherwise, why would you be saying to yourself, “I am not afraid” unless you are actually afraid to begin with? That’s the paradox.
I propose, therefore, that to perform at your best in sparring (or anything, for that matter) it is best to give up the illusion of control. Bruce Lee knew this all too well when he noted: “emotion can be the enemy, if you give into your emotion, you lose yourself. You must be at one with your emotion, because the body always follows the mind.”
Being at one with your feelings and your thinking requires a completely different approach to peak performance. You need to be mindful of your thoughts, emotions, and movements, without trying to control their outcome.
To be mindful, as psychospiritual teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn defines it, is “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, as if your life depended on it, non judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 2006).
What stands out for me is the phrase “as if your life depended on it.” This is an apt metaphor when discussing sparring (and, of course, in real-life self-preservation encounters it is often more than metaphor!). When sparring is a practice aimed at performance on the mat or, in more extreme cases, as a foundation for self-preservation, mindfulness could make the difference between life and death. In less extreme, and much more common instances such as sparring in the studio, sparring can bring up intense emotional and mental responses, where second guessing oneself could lead to injury.
To approach sparring from a perspective of “as if your life depended on it” means to completely immerse oneself in the experience. It involves paying full attention to what is happening in the present moment—and not judging one’s performance as it unfolds.
This is what the Samurai meant by surrendering to death (both literally and psychologically).Togo Shigekata, a Samurai, proclaimed: “One finds life through conquering the fear of death within one’s mind. Empty the mind of all forms of attachment, make a go-for-broke charge and conquer the opponent with one decisive slash.”
Shigekata knew all too well that attachment to thoughts, emotions, and one’s physical performance can lead to defeat. Here, Shigekata’s notion of “empty the mind of all forms of attachment“ serves as a mindful approach to sparring. To die to the past and the future, to be present, non-judementally, being fully in the sparring experience as it unfolds now, is to accomplish the “conquering of fear of [making mistakes] in ones own mind.”
Mindfulness training, or what I call mindfullness-in-action allows you to center in the present moment. It assists you to develop the capacity to uncouple from your thoughts and emotions, to self-regulate your attention, and to expand your personal awareness.
Mindfulness-in-action, the act of being present, non-judgementally in sparring, opens you to self-awareness, making you aware of your automatic behaviors. As you learn a new way of relating to your thoughts and emotions, the practice of mindfulness-in-action will lead to changes in behavior—from automatic to mindful—that will lead to more functional performance in sparring.
The purpose of mindfulness-in-action is to develop your ability to notice your internal processes (thoughts/emotions/sensations/feelings) non-judgmentally, and then have the ability to re-focus on purpose to the task at hand. By giving up control, you find the stability of peak performance in the present moment.
Mindfulness-in-action allows you to remain focused in the present. One of the important benefits of learning to be mindful in action is that it will allow you to recognize distractions when they occur and then use your mindful attention to re-focus on performance cues that bring you back to the task at hand—which means to be fully present in the moment while you spar with the person in front of you.
Mindfulness-in-action is not a form of relaxation, nor is it a form of positive thinking. Its main premise is to promote and enhance self-awareness. Mindfulness facilitates the capacity to notice and be free from habitual reactions.
Mindfulness is not a way for you to avoid your in-the-moment experiences, but rather to become more aware of your experiences as they occur moment by moment. Again, as Jon Kabat-Zinn notes, mindfulness is “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, as if your life depended on it, non judgmentally.”
Mindfulness-in-action, is an “active” approach that allows you to fully experience your sparring, without being mindless, which is to be caught up in irrelevant thoughts and labeled feelings, that take you away from the only time you really have control, which is right now!
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