Do You Have A Monkey Mind?

I recently wrote about how to keep calm in the face of danger, which was basically about silencing the mind so that it does not distract you too much when you really need it to stay calm.  Shortly after that my Sensei, Paul Mitchell, started talking about the “monkey mind” in one of his classes.

Now maybe I’m insecure, but I wondered if he meant me at first!

However, it is an old Chinese phrase for when the mind wonders, or when you are trying to silence it and random thoughts keep popping in to say hello.  Like a mischievous monkey, the mind cannot be properly controlled.  It can be very difficult to stop those random thoughts coming in, not matter how hard you try.

Me struggling with my monkey mind!

Don’t you just love Chinese phraseology.  As discussed in my previous posting, giving the mind something else to focus on is one of the best ways to deal with this monkey mind and help to banish these random thoughts.  This can be kata/patterns/forms etc.  It is easier in the begining to focus the mind with movement.  Doing it when you are still, as in meditation (moksu) for example is much harder.  However, when we do get to this stage, we start by focus on our breathing.  When we can focus on breathing to the exclusion of the random thoughts, then we can start to even cut out the focus on breathing and just let it happen.  This is when we start to develop a tranquil mind.

Do the Chinese have a phrase for this?  Of course they do.  You feed your monkey mind a banana!

How To Keep Calm In The Face Of Danger

I asked the following question on my Facebook page:

“Many martial arts include meditation of some sort. Does this help us in combat? Or is is just part of being a better person?”

As I have a lot a high grade and intelligent martial artists on that page, I got quite a bit of intelligent feedback as I expected.  However, I personally think it goes a little bit deeper than most people give it credit for; both for combat application and for making you a better person.

Starting with combat application however, most experienced people will tell you that fighting is actually more mental than physical, so there’s the first big clue.  Many say its about 90% mental.  However, this concept is not often explained in depth.

If you face somebody in a real street situation and your mind is on the point of panic, you won’t be able to think or focus.  This will manifest in your physical movement as your body becomes tense, your techniques become short and choppy and all sense of timing, rhythm and distancing disappears.  Worse still, you might just freeze altogether.

It not just important that you maintain calmness under pressure, it is essential.  Regular training in martial arts teaches us to do this mainly by subjecting us to regular pressure training.  Even if its just the pre-arranged fighting sequences, as the attacker increases the intensity of the attack so the defender has to react faster and more accurately to avoid being hit.

Of course this can be taken to a higher level with scenario training which is common in reality based martial arts training.  But some form of meditation is also often used to calm the mind before and after training.  Karate has it “moksu” at the end (and sometimes the beginning) of each class and I’m sure many other martial arts have their own equivalent.

Calmness of mind is easy when kneeling (or sitting) in a nice quiet dojo (training hall), focusing on our breathing under no pressure at all.  But how exactly does this help us when some great big muppet from hell is screaming in your face “who the F**k you looking at”, you’ve just had an adrenalin dump and your legs are turning to jelly?

I’ll come back to that in a moment.  Have you ever noticed that you often have a little voice inside your head?  Have you noticed that unless you consciously control this little voice it is usually negative, telling you that you can’t do something or you will fail.  Ironically, most people know that it is there, but 99% of the time they are completely unaware of it.  When something goes wrong and that little voice “oh no, this always happens to me”.  Did you stop and consciously think that thought, or did it just materialise automatically?  If we’re honest, it usually just materialises without us giving it a second thought.

When somebody cuts up in their car how often does that little voice shout out a string of expletives questioning the other drivers parentage?  Again, was that a conscious thought, or was it just automatic?

For most people (if we’re honest), it is just automatic with no conscious consideration.  But does that reaction help us in any way?  Does it do anything in any way shape or form to make the situation better?

No, of course it doesn’t.  If anything it makes us feel worse.  So why do we have this mechanism inside our heads that automatically responds to situations, usually making them seem even worse?

OK, back to Mr Muppetfromhell.  What will that voice be saying when confronted by him?

He looks real big”.  “Oh god, he’s going to kill me”.  “I’m a black belt, this will be so embarrassing if I get beaten up”.  “Should I run”.  “Will he chase me”?  “What if I hit him and it doesn’t stop him, he’ll be even more angry”.

And so it goes on and on.  As with the other examples, does this voice help you or hinder you?  Do you have any real control over it, or does it just happen automatically?

You really need to silence that “nutter” inside your head.  The more dangerous the attacker that confronts you, the more difficult this is to do.  Ironically, the more dangerous your attacker, the more essential it becomes to be able to do this.

This is where the meditation (moksu) comes in.  This is why you focus on your breathing in an attempt to silence your own personal little nutter.  This can also be done with kata/forms too, which is often described as a moving meditation.  However, if you’re a high grade, try to think back to when you were a beginning.  Whether it was kata or moksu, did you find it really hard to focus without that little voice coming in, saying things like:

“My knees are aching kneeling here”, “how long will this last for”, “that was a good session”, “I scored a good roundhouse kick against Charlie tonight”, “I could murder a pint of beer after that session”.

Sound familiar?

How many of you have those thoughts, (or can remember having them) when you meditate/moksu?  If you can’t silence the voice in those peaceful conditions, how on Earth do you expect to do it in the face of Mr Muppetfromhell when he’s frothing at the mouth?  But over time, often a number of years, many learn to do it.

However, most people are not aware that part of the reason for meditation/moksu is to silence the voice (your personal nutter), never mind being aware of why that is important in combat.

I’ve recently been listening to an audio book by Andy Shaw called Creating A Bug Free Mind.  Although it is not a martial arts book, it has a direct read across (as described above).  In it, he gives you an exercise to do to see how in control of your own mind you are, which I would ask you to try.  The real life combat applications (as described above) will become apparent.   Simply think of any happy memory.  It can be a promotion, first date, birth of a child, holiday, absolutely anything that makes you feel good and happy.  Now try to hold that thought and that thought only for just 15 seconds without any other thoughts coming into your mind.  Please stop reading and try that now!
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I’ll guarantee that most people will not able to hold that happy thought for just 15 seconds without another thought interrupting.  I would guess that many of the higher dan grades can do it due to their years of training.  If you are an instructor and you can do this easily, then I suggest that you ask your class to do it and you’ll probably be shocked how many can’t.

So now hopefully I’ll have changed a few minds as to what the meditative side is for and what you are actually trying to achieve through it.  Understanding what the point is, goes a long way to helping achieving it more quickly.  It might also help to understand why many senior martial artists include Tai Chi and Chi Gong as they advance.

So if actual fighting really is 90% mental, how can we control our minds in a real fight, when we can’t hold a happy a thought for 15 seconds?  How do get that control over your mind so that you can hold a thought for 15 seconds or more?

There are ways that this can be achieved quite easily (without years of meditation).  I can’t really do it justice in a few blog postings, as it took me several chapters to really get my head around it.  However, if you go over to Andy Shaw’s website, you can download the first 5 chapters of Creating A Bug Free Mind completely free.  I’ll tell you in advance, this book is heavily marketed, but it really is one of the best self development book I’ve ever come across and it will show you how to silence that voice.  This can be done in days or weeks rather than years.  As such, I believe that it will really accelerate your martial art training.   I’ve used the example of Mr Muppetfromhell screaming at you, but it applies just as well to friendly sparring in the club, or focus on your kata/forms.

 

Martial Arts & Psycho Cybernetics (Part 2)

This post continues from Part 1, looking at how some elements of the book, Psycho Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz applies to martial arts.

The author, Maxwell Maltz, makes the compelling case that our brains act as a goal driven mechanism that works on negative feedback to achieve our desires.  Now before people jump up in arms at the use of the phrase “negative feedback” when modern day political correctness and education tells that we should always be positive, bear with me while I explain.

If you’re driving a car down a completely straight road and you line the car up parallel with the road, sooner or later you’ll start getting nearer and nearer to the centre of the road or the curb, so you need to adjust the steering in order to keep going straight.  This heading for the curb is the “negative feedback” telling you to make an adjustment to keep you going on the correct route without having an accident.

It is like a baby learning to walk.  At first they keep falling down.  Then they manage a few step and learn from it.  The more they fall down (negative feedback) the more they learn to adjust their steps to prevent it happening again.  Negative feedback in this sense is essential to tell us when we are going off from our true path or goal.

However, once the driver adjust the steering he/she does it automatically and forgets about the slight variance of their car’s path; just as the baby forgets about the falls once it has learnt to walk.  So it is with all aspects of learning, including martial arts.  Once we become adept at a technique (walking, driving, jumping spinning kick) we forget how we did it wrong.  In fact the wrong way starts to feel un-natural to us.

Problems do set in however, (with any facet of life), when people start to focus on the negative feedback instead of the correction that it should indicate to them.  Ever heard somebody say, “Oh I’ll never be able to do that”.  They are focusing the negative feedback instead of using it to prompt them in the desired direction.  When we have a goal in life, we should pursue it aggressively.  I don’t mean knocking people out of your way to get there, but you should be very pro-active and determined in achieving your desired outcome.

This applies to every single aspect of your life, be it physical, spiritual, emotional, relationships, business, martial arts, whatever.

This is one of the strengths of traditional martial arts training, as it always teaches you to you strive for perfection of technique, gradual improving bit by bit taking you up in small bite size steps (grading syllabus).  For any able bodied person who trains hard and regular, getting the coverted black belt is achievable.  Many people who are not fully able bodied have achieved their black belt.

Now I know that many will say that the the belt does not really matter . . . and . . . well . . . they’re right.  That said, it is a very significant and tangible symbol of success and achievement.  Whether we train for combat, or sport, or just for the art; we train our minds to accept the negative feedback and to move forward.

In fairness, many endeavours can have a similar effect on the practitioner.  Martial arts however do deal with facing up to violence.  The fear of violence is one of our most hard-wired primal instincts.  To quote a wise friend of mine, Dave Hayward:

Acts of violence are the single most terrifying thing that can happen to us or those we love. The type of training we partake in gives us the confidence and ability to deal with it. I believe this is what makes the martial arts holistic as we learn to deal with and conquer fear by dealing with the worst fear of all.

Martial arts are geared up (as David says) to conquer our worst and most primal fear.  Furthermore, they are designed to overcome this most basic animal instinct within us in a methodical step by step manor (grades) which is designed to set us up for success.

Psycho Cybernetics also quotes from a published article by Prescott Lecky:

Lecky has said that the purpose of emotion is “re-inforcement”, or additional strength, rather that to serve as a sign of weakness.  He believed that there was only one basic emotion – “excitement” – and that excitement manifests itself as fear, anger, courage, etc., depending upon our own inner goals at the time – whether we are inwardly organized to conquer a problem, run away from it, or destroy it.  “The real problem is not to control emotion, but to control the choice of which tendency shall receive emotional reinforcement”.

This has an obvious relevance for us as martial artists.  Whether in a competition, or (god forbid) you are assaulted by a real street predator, you will feel that excitement.  It will usually be accompanied by adrenalin.  We must train ourselves to use that excitement to re-enforce our courage and our determination to get away safely (whether by running or fighting).  We mustn’t let this excitement overly re-enforce our feelings of fear and panic.

Maxwell Maltz relays an example of an old time boxer, Jack Dempsey, who apparently used to get so nervous before a fight that he couldn’t shave and couldn’t sit or stand still.  However, Jack Dempsey did not interpret this nervousness as fear; instead he used it to fuel his blows in the match.

This is what we as martial artists must also do.  Traditional martial arts do this by repeated exposure to somebody putting pressure on us at training, whether by free sparring or pre-arranged drills getting faster and more determined.  Reality based training does of course accelerate this process (as per part 1).

Daoist Nei Gong: New Book By Damo Mitchell

Damo Mitchell was born into a family of martial artists.  His father, Paul Mitchell (who is my Karate Sensei & Tai Chi teacher) and his mother, Chris, introduced him to Shotokan Karate & Yoga at the humble age of 4.

His studies led him through many styles and various weapons, until he settled to focus on internal Chinese martial arts.  Damo has travelled to the Far East to seek out the very best of teachers and has studied not only the internal marital arts, but Qi Gong, Daoist Yoga, Nei Gong (internal change) and a whole range of related disciplines.

Since 2005 Damo has been a professional martial arts teacher who spends his time travelling, teaching and writing.  He founded the Lotus Nei Gong Association and has already had several books published.  Having trained under him myself, I can honestly say that he is a phenomenal teacher with a remarkable ability for his age.

He has a new book coming out which is due for release on July 15th.  For anybody interested in internal arts, this is to be highly recommended.

The following description is taken from the Lotus Nei Gong Association Newsletter:-

July 15th is the official release date for Damo‟s new book on Daoist internal practices.  It is being released by Singing Dragon in the UK and the US.
Students within our school have all noticed that there is very little information on Nei Gong available in English.
This book will serve to fill the gap in information as it matches exactly the methodology taught by Damo Mitchell and his senior students in Lotus Nei Gong classes.
The book contains an overview of the entire process of Nei Gong as it is understood by Damo as well as looking in detail at several important foundational practices. These include, aligning the body, developing a healthy breathing pattern through the practice of Sung and beginning to awaken the energy system.
The book also contains a detailed explanation of the Ji Ben Qi Gong exercises which are fundamental to Nei Gong as well as numerous photographs of Damo performing the movements.
A large degree of the book is dedicated to Daoist philosophy in order to show how arcane Daoist theory was the seed from which the internal arts of Daoism sprung forth.
Towards the end of the book are various sections which discuss the abilities which can be drawn from Nei Gong practice and the start of the alchemy process which enables a practitioner to systematically break down their acquired nature and so “return to the source”.
This book is available to pre-order from either Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com as well as directly from the Singing Dragon website.  Some sites offer pre-order discounts as well.
Release Date: July 15th 2011
“This book drills down into the golden core of the ancient Chinese art and science of internal self-cultivation known as “chi gong,” or “energy work,” and after reading it, you’ll understand why chi gong is the best way on earth to protect your health, prolong your life, and clarify your awareness of both aspects of the “Three Treasures” of life–mortal body, breath, and mind; and immortal essence, energy, and spirit. Known simply as “nei gong,” or “internal work,” this inner alchemy may be learned and practiced by anyone. Written by a dedicated practitioner who verifies scholarly research with personal experience and illustrates ancient theory with contemporary practice, this book provides the Western mind with a clear-cut introduction to chi gong that informs as well as inspires the reader to practice.”
Daniel Reid
Author of Guarding the Three Treasures

 

To order from the UK
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Martial Arts & Psycho Cybernetics: Train For A Crisis

On and off over the 6 months (when I actually get the time), I’ve been reading a fascinating book called Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz.  It’s a great book about how the brain works and how to use your own brain to get the best out of life.  I’ve also been struck several times on how much of it applies to martial arts.

One chapter, Crisis Into Creative Opportunity, is particularly applicable.  There are few crisis more immediate than that of being violently assaulted.

Here’s an extract from that chapter:

Although we may learn fast, we do not learn well under “crisis” conditions.  Throw a man who can’t swim into water over his head, and the crisis itself may give him the power to swim to safety.  He learns fast, and manages to swim somehow.  But he will never learn to become a championship swimmer.  The crude inept stroke that he used to rescue himself becomes “fixed” and it is difficult  for him to learn better ways of swimming.  Because of his ineptness he may perish in a real crises where he is required to swim a long distance.

This is where advocates of reality based martial arts should be sitting up and paying attention, as much of their training is more psychological than physical, to hard wire the brain to act under the most extreme circumstances.  The scenario based training where the aggressor shouts, threatens and swears at the defender are intended to induce an adrenalin rush, (to create the the feeling of a crisis).  It is known that under emotional pressure (adrenalin dump), blood goes away from the brain and it the muscles (ready for flight or fight).

However, with the lack of blood to the brain, the defender is not able to think as clearly as usual and will therefore tend to rely on remembered experience.  If the last experience of being attacked led the defender to cower and cringe, then that is what the defender will probably do again.

The scenario based training is designed to put the defender into an emotional/adrenalized state and hard wire (or “fix”) a different response, which the defender can fall back next time the blood is drained from their brain.

This type of training is akin to throwing somebody into water over their head to teach them to swim.  In light of the paragraph above from Psycho Cybernetics, what conclusions can we draw?

Well firstly, this type of training will get very fast results.  But just like the guy who is thrown into water over his head does not learn to swim well, they do not really learn very much in the way of self defence skills.  The main thing they learn is that when the crunch comes, they will fight back ferociously.  In many cases that will be enough, as many street predators are just looking for an easy target.  If they can see that their intended target is going to fight them ferociously (however badly), many street predators will move on and look for somebody else.

However, if you are picked on by an experienced street fighter and who just wants to fight no matter what, then this type of training is limited.  A street fighter is used to “training” in this emotional/adrenalized state.  So this type of scenario training just means that the defender will fight back without cowering or backing down.  It does not mean that they will in any way be a superior fighter, or have any other advantages.

This type of training therefore is ideal for somebody who just wants to do a short course and get good results and does not want spend years training at a martial art.

But what about the person who does want to become very good at martial arts; someone who does want to take self defence skills to a much higher level?

Maxwell Maltz says to be really good in a crisis, we should practice without pressure.  He also writes in Psycho Cybernetics:

Dr Tolman found that if rats were permitted to learn and practice under non-crisis conditions, they later performed well in a crisis.  For example, if rats were permitted to roam about at will and explore a maze when well fed and with plenty to drink, they did not appear to learn anything.  Later, however, if the same rats were placed in the maze while hungry, they showed they had learned a great deal, by quickly and efficiently going to the goal.  Hunger faced these trained rats with a crisis to which they reacted well.
Other rats which were forced to lean the maze under the crisis of hunger and thirst, did not do so well.  They were over-motivated and their brain maps became narrow.  The one “correct” route to the goal become fixated.  If this route were blocked the rats became frustrated and had great difficulty learning a new one.

Another example given was that of fire drills.  Those who practiced fire drills in a controlled manner were more likely to safely get out of a burning building, than those who had to find their way out under crisis conditions of that fire.

So as martial artist who want to react well under crisis conditions, we have to first learn in a non-pressure environment.  Once a technique or drill is learned, we can of course always up the pressure later.  In fact it would be foolish not to.  However, always training under high pressure hard wires and fixes responses in the brain which makes it difficult for the trainee to respond to should the circumstances suddenly change.

My Sensie, Paul Mitchell teaches over and over to practice movements slowly in order to perfect them.  As perfecting technique takes a very long time, whilst hard wiring a response under pressure gives very quick results, there is a clue to how you should train.  Most of it should be relaxed with a small (but regular) amount of pressure training.

It would seem no accident that most people who teach reality based self defence have a background in traditional martial arts, thereby covering both aspects.  Kevin O’Hagan who is a world renowned teacher of reality based self defence has said that traditional martial artists always pick it up fastest.

It also explains why Tai Chi is considered a higher level of martial art which martial artists should progress to (not start with).

Although Psycho Cybernetics is not a martial arts book, I would seriously recommend it to anybody who is interested in self development.  I’ve certainly found it eye opening.

 

From the UK

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Keeping a Beginner’s Mind

The article below was written by Paul Mitchell, my Karate Sensei and Tai Chi teacher.  It’s a brilliant insight into the mental approach to your training whatever your style.  Paul has always had a very practical approach to martial arts and teaches for real self defence, not just scoring points.  Having said that, he is also a great believer that martial arts are a great form of self development.  Practical streetwise martial arts (“Jutsu”) and self development (“Do”) do not need to be separated.  In fact they each works best with elements of the other blended together.

The article below was written for the Lotus Nei Gong (Tai Chi association) newsletter, so it is primarily from the Tai Chi perspective.  That said, it can just as well apply to any martial art.


Really, this article is just a few rambling thoughts of a martial artist that has trained daily for 30 years and yet still calls himself a beginner.

In Japanese martial arts there is a saying that came from someone who truly understood the martial way: Keep a beginners mind. Sounds easy enough but remember a beginner is always ready to take advice and is always enthusiastic. Day in day out, week in week out, year in year out and decade after decade to jeep training with this concept in mind may not always be so easy.

Then of course we have to look at that concept of ‘following the martial way’. To a non-follower of the way it would seem quite likely that to train daily in a martial art, studying the philosophy and practice of combat would cause a person to become aggressive and confrontational. The truth is that (if studied correctly) martial arts make a person peaceful and well-rounded. The only true fight is internal, the war is against your ‘inner demons’ and lets be honest with ourselves, we all have some of those.

My favourite martial saying is: The fist and Zen are one. Still makes me smile, still just a beginner.

I sometimes say to my students that the only reason we have wars is because the world is run by ‘white belts’. If one truly understands conflict then one avoids it at all costs.

Up until this point I have not distinguished between external and internal martial arts. To me they completely compliment each other, they are indeed two sides of the same coin. Many people studying the martial arts refer to themselves in terms of one art: I am a karate practitioner, I am a Taijiquan practitioner etc. To me there are only martial arts, not styles. Although I have my core systems of Yang Taijiquan and Shotokan Karate I simply think of myself as a martial artist. To limit oneself in any other way seems to contradict the term ‘art’. An artist by my way of thinking should be a free thinking, free flowing, freedom loving individual. To limit the art is to stunt our personal growth in free flow.

I loved the article written by my dear friend Neil Lodge (editors note, see September 2010 newsletter) where he stated that he found Taijiquan so uplifting because it emphasised principles other styles simply touched upon. Principles such as meditation, breath control and Dan Tien rotation. I agree wholeheartedly and reading it made me once again…feel like a beginner.

I have currently studied Karate for 30 years and Taijiquan for half of this time. Although I love both arts I recognise that for me, Taijiquan starts where Karate left off…From the beginning in ‘external styles’ we are taught to be substantial. This means that you study to be strong and forceful. You train to become fast and strong, both physically and mentally. This can be painful, has its moments, but if done slowly, gradually and correctly this process is surprisingly enjoyable! As one progresses through the grades to brown and eventually black belt/sash the martial artist (as this is what the student is training to become) practices more technical, more subtle techniques which aim to make him more ‘insubstantial’. Instead of meeting force with force an advanced practitioner aims to deflect and neutralise incoming force. Eventually it becomes very difficult for anybody but other experienced martial artists to lay a hand upon you. Some good advice is to always assume your opponent has a knife. Good advice I feel as it helps to reinforce the idea of being insubstantial and avoiding an incoming force. This is the point in a persons training where Taijiquan needs to enter their martial path.

Every practice in Taijiquan and its related exercises in Qi Gong and Nei Gong, pushing hands and other two man drills is designed to help the martial artist become more insubstantial. Over time one learns how to lessen the use of their external force (generated by muscular power) and begin to use their internal power which, I feel, is such a complex subject that it warrants several more articles on this subject alone!

Obviously, as practitioners of Taijiquan our study is not just related to martial arts in their narrow sense but the study of conflict on every level. Realisation of this makes approaching resolution of fighting (literal, internal and cosmic) anything but narrow.

Final words of advice from this rambling beginner…Keep practicing…