Monday, June 6, 2011

Finding Yourself in the Art

Nidean Dickson

To practitioners, martial arts are not just a sport but a lifestyle that is identified with an ancient art transforming each individual’s way of life and image of self. This essay aims to outline and analyse how peak experience and transcendence is achieved through the practice of martial arts blending both theoretical concepts with personal experience. Initially, peak experience will be understood through Abraham Maslow’s theory that underlines the significance of unity and self-awareness in reaching a transcendent experience. Peak experiences give rise to the absorption of the self in the activity. This is experienced in martial arts through the achievement of no-mind or mushin that is reflective of Zen Buddhism precepts. In correlation with achieving no-mind, the practitioner also evokes flow that Mihayli Csikszentmihayli outlines as the fusion between the loss of self and control of bodily experience. Intrinsic to achieving flow is the Eastern ideology of ki energy that relies heavily on breath, meditation and focus to embrace inner energy that produces flow. The development of a peak experience in martial arts deems it as a sacred practice in correlation with transcendent aspects fused with ritual. Thus, these several elements intrinsic to martial arts practice are predicates to the spirit and transcendent experience each practitioner aims to achieve. As an embodied practice the connection between the body and mind in order to achieve a transcendent experience is indistinguishable.

Maslow’s peak experience expresses the self in alignment with the world through the experience of profound happiness that shapes a mystical or transcendent experience which is often found in martial arts. According to Vrinte (1996, p.246) peak experiences are “moments of intense ecstasy, wonder, awe and delight, with an expansion of human consciousness.” This expansion of the human consciousness and feelings directed towards awe and wonder are often derived from the feeling of unity and integration prominent in peak experiences. Maslow (1961, p.255) comments that this fusion during peak experience is “the greatest attainment of identity, autonomy, or self-hood… as it is simultaneously a transcending of itself, a going beyond and above self-hood.” By identifying the experience as outward or beyond previous conceptions and consciousness, Maslow identifies the relevance of the immersion of the self in the experience to attain a relationship or experience with the transcendent (Ravizza, cited in Smith & Bar-Eli 2007, p.124). For martial artists, this experience with the transcendent and immersion of the self that connects the body and mind is prevalent in the concept of spirit. The peak experience for the martial artist is concerned with the need to “follow the path of the spirit rather than human conventionality” (Breed 2006, p.6). The spirit derived from spiritus meaning “life principle…involves the integration of affective, cognitive, and physical elements, making it impossible to isolate the spiritual from physical” (Nesti & Robinson 2007, 23). Ellison (cited in Nesti & Robinson 2007, p.24) expressed the intrinsic role of the spirit as a vital function in identifying a deeper purpose by seeking the transcendent. As a practitioner of karate for the last ten years, I find it hard, if not impossible to distinguish between spirit and peak experience as both require me to search beyond myself through the fusion of the body and mind. I often associate my spirit with the warriors from the origin of my art, the samurai. I immerse myself within the bushido, the way of the warrior (Nitobe 1969). In turn this transforms my mind, followed by my body, into the mind of a samurai and allows me to unknowably honour an art rather than practice a technique and effectively perform outside of myself. However, the ability to attain a peak experience relies heavily on the capability to achieve a state of no-mind or mushin.

Mushin identifies a particular state of consciousness associated with Zen principles that highlights the necessity of a controlled state of mind during the embodied experience of martial arts to achieve a peak or transcendent experience. The central aim of mushin is to reach a state of consciousness that releases the mind of thought. Keenan (1989, p.287) argues that there are two elements to the state of mushin, “the absence of thinking and the release of spontaneous creativity.” Evidently, a significant amount of training is required in order to achieve this state as the mind and the body need to be align so that the mind is “free to think less about these things and can enter a state of heightened awareness” (Ledwab & Standefer 2000, p.61). The intrinsic relationship between the body and mind to achieve this state highlights the importance of a martial arts practitioner to equally train the body and mind. Often breathing is an intrinsic component in training the mind in having no thought. In my experience, at the beginning and end of every class we enter mokuso. Mokuso is often related to meditation of the mind that forces the student to focus on everything within the dojo (place of training) through deep breathing from the hara (lower abdomen/stomach) (Kanazawa 2006, p.45). By meditating, mushin becomes more susceptible to the practitioner allowing the interconnectedness between the body and mind to occur which is the goal of Zen Buddhism (Cohen 2007, p.9). Evidently, by achieving mushin the practitioner disregards thought and instead embraces reaction and sensory experiences (Brett 2008, p.47). The attainment of mushin allows the practitioner to embrace the spirit and form a relationship with the embodied experience that allows it to transform into a transcendent nature that relies heavily on the consistency of training to develop flow.

The state of mushin allows martial artists to achieve flow or complete absorption with the activity that in turn results in reaching a peak experience. Maslow (1961, p.256) touches on flow as an element of peak experience which is described as “the feeling of grace and the look of grace that comes with smooth, easy, effortless fully functioning, when everything clicks or is in the groove.” This is corroborated by Csikszentmihalyi (cited in Iwaniec 2006, p.193) who states that flow “is the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sake of doing it.” Flow is similar to peak experience in several senses including the characteristic of pure happiness, achievement of an altered state and unison between the mind and body. However, flow is more relevant to the activity in that it requires goals, skill perception, feedback, concentration and control (Donaldson cited in Csikiszentmihayli & Nakamura 2011, p.148). These components of flow allude to the need for repetitive, consistent training to achieve this in practice (Orlando 1997, p.96). Consistent training and embodiment of the art will enable the spirit and flow to be immersed in the practitioner or conversely, the practitioner immersed in the flow. McNoughton and Levine (2004, p.253) explain the intrinsic goal of flow by comparing Western and Eastern principles stating that “Western technique tries to strengthen the self…whereas Eastern methods aim for disappearance of self (melting into the universe).” The ability to blend the body and the mind with the universe is an essential element in achieving a peak experience which highlights the significant of flow in reaching an altered state of consciousness. Although the embodied experience is vital to achieving flow and achieving the feeling of melting to the universe, there is also an internal process that accompanies body movement in the form of energy.

A key component in martial arts training that blends the body with the mind to achieve a peak experience and create flow is the concept of ki energy. The roots of ki energy are found in Chinese culture that identifies the need to strengthen energy to develop flow (Frantzis 2006). Ki can be translated as “vital energy…living essence…which means the cultivation of the energy within a person’s body with the goal of increasing and controlling energy’s circulation” (Myers, 2005). Ki energy is developed through breathing meditation exercises such as mokuso but also through cultivating an energy force in the form of a kiai or shout of spirit/power (Lowry 2002, p.150). Ki energy allows practitioners to merge the self with the universe providing an essential connection and attunement with the self, body and universe adding another layer to the achievement of embodied flow (Wiley 1995, p.55). Lowry (2002, p.37) summarises the effect of ki stating that “it is a method of renewing a sense of oneness with the natural forces of the universe and allowing this spiritual energy to free flow through the physical body.” Often the culmination of mushin, ki and flow in an embodied experience in martial arts is most prominent in kata. In the most basic definition, kata are fight sequence patterns (Thompson 2008, p.55). When I perform a kata, I aim to tell a story that is often related to the meaning of the kata by becoming one with the kata rather than presenting the kata. A higher level ranked kata, Seiunchin, literally translates to meaning “rising storm” or “storm with the calm” (McCarthy & Lee 1987, p.62). The moment I enter the state of this kata I immediately feel as if I have entered a different level of consciousness where I am no longer myself but I am the warrior, fighting the fight that the kata portrays. I use the interpretation of the storm to build my spirit and actions based on the reality it possesses for example, slow movements represent the clouds and thunder rolling in and the fast movements represent lightening flashes. Breathing and kiai’s (spirit shouts) are imperative to my ability to step outside of myself and embrace another persona or reach a new state of awareness during the kata. At that present moment I am in the zone, I am alive in the flow and often it feels effortless during kata but tiring at the conclusion. Evidently, kata is a masterpiece that does not necessarily rely on skill but rather spirit, flow, energy, concentration without thought, presence and absence that blends the practitioners mind and body with the tradition of the art. Ultimately, many martial arts movements exemplify the meaning of a peak experience that forges the practitioner to develop a relationship with the art and the sacred.

The interconnected relationship between martial arts and transcendent or peak experiences deems the practice of the art as sacred and ritualistic in accordance with Emile Durkheim and Arnold van Gennep. Durkheim’s distinction between the sacred and profane categorises the sacred as “a system of rites, beliefs and social practices” (Morrison 2006,p.426). These rites, beliefs and social practices were aligned with several postulates to consider something as sacred including the need to specify prohibitions, be distinguished from the profane and entailing a unifying principle (Morrison 2006, p.426). Evidently, there are several precepts and rules involved in martial arts that alter between styles and organisations and each practice seeks unison between the individual and the art as a vital relationship to the practice. In correlation with Durkheim, van Gennep identified the transition between significant phases as an essential element of ritual prominent in important rites of passage. Van Gennep (1960, p.3) argues that for every rite of passage “there are ceremonies whose essential purpose is to enable the individual to pass from one defined position to another which is equally well defined.” The concept of liminality is vital to Van Gennep’s theory as it embraces three phases including the initiation, the crossing of the threshold and reassimilation (Teather 1999, p.60). Evidently, these processes and beliefs are derived from the state of awareness the martial artist will experience as the sacred in every day. In martial arts the dojo, place of training, is considered a sacred space for training and upon entrance and exit each practitioner will bow in and out of the door paying respect to the space they have their experience in. The dojo is the place where practitioners perfect their art in the pursuit of progressing, not necessarily in rank but in skill level and in spirit. Progression in rank or a grading is often the most commonly known ritual associated with martial arts which exemplifies the concept of crossing the threshold or liminality. A grading requires preparation, permission and a series of ritualistic elements including performing the required techniques and an initiation to a new ranking which relates to the etiquette and principles that the practitioner needs to be aware of. The belt and gi (uniform) are also symbolic elements in the ritual that have unique individual processes of tieing and folding as part of the preparation for every class. However, mental preparation to endure and perform during the grading is often most important. Consequently a peak experience is most prevalent during a grading as it is an external representation of the crossing the liminal state by blending the body and mind with the embodied experience that produces transcendent qualities for the practitioner. Thus, in accordance with Durkheim and van Gennep, martial arts encompass several ritualistic elements that invite the cross over between thresholds emphasising the distinction between the sacred and the profane for martial artists. Evidently, for a practitioner, martial arts are considered sacred due to the ritualistic elements that are fused with the embodied experience that transforms the practice from the profane to experience transcendence or a peak experience.

Martial arts fuses the body, mind and spirit together allowing practitioners to reach a peak experience. In alignment with Maslow’s theory of peak experience, martial arts allows the practitioner to attain an altered state of awareness or transcendent experience through consistent training. This consistency relies on the immersion of the self within the activity for it to be completely embraced and embodied. This fusion is only achieved by training the mind in Zen related principles allowing the body to be unified with the mind through sensory experience. Thus, the autonomy of the mind in conjunction with ki energy gives rise to the flow the practitioner can now access to as a way to be completely immersed in the experience. Evidently flow transforms the practitioner to an altered state of awareness through the unison of the mind and body with the universe. Hence, a transcendent experience in martial arts may be considered sacred in congruence with the ritual elements of the art that reject the notion of martial arts and a sacred ritual being mutually exclusive. Therefore, an altered state of consciousness is attainable in martial arts due to the intrinsic nature of the fusion between the body and mind and ultimately creates a sense of the sacred due to the unison between the self and the universe that escalates into a peak experience.

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