My favorite character in “The Matrix” movies is Seraph, a tea-sipping martial arts expert who fights flawlessly and radiates tranquility. He appeals to me because I am, by nature, an uncoordinated and high-strung worrywart. Indeed, for most of my life, learning how to control my mind and emotions has been just as much of a goal as learning how to control my body. I can’t claim to have achieved inner peace, but over years of studying everything from neuroscience to Zen, I have learned a lot about what it takes to achieve and maintain mental equilibrium. Of course, just like the idea of blocking a punch, the theory is much easier than the practice.
Seraph’s Zen composure didn’t just facilitate lightning-fast combat techniques, it also allowed him to remain calm and serene, regardless of what was going on around him. Apparently, that quarter-second gap between thought and action isn’t just for fighting. Meditation instructor Tara Brach calls this “the magic quarter second,” and suggests that, in this tiny gap, we can find freedom from our “subcortical loops” of negative thoughts. Apparently, the natural life span of an emotion is 1.5 minutes. Our emotions normally lost last much longer, because we feed them with thoughts. By stopping the flow of thoughts, we can effectively short circuit negative emotions.
In order to stop the flow of thoughts, we must first become aware of them. Tara Brach uses the metaphor of weather: the same way a meteorologist identifies and tracks storm systems, we can dispassionately take note of our own emotions. By doing so, we create a separation: instead of identifying as the emotion (e.g. “I am angry.”), we identify as the observer of the emotion (e.g. “I am feeling angry.”). The distinction may seem subtle, but it’s at the heart of what’s called “mindfulness meditation,” which is essentially a more contemporary take on traditional Zen meditation.
While the original Zen masters spoke of the mind in quasi-spiritual terms, advocates of mindfulness meditation tend to focus more on neuroscience. Since different parts of the brain do different things, the goal is to train the mind like a muscle, in order to use more of the prefrontal cortex (the source of “executive functions” like impulse control, decision-making, and problem solving), rather than being at the mercy of the emotion-driven limbic system underneath it. The key to mindfulness is maintaining awareness of the mind. By noticing when we are getting agitated, we can have the presence of mind to shut the mind off, short-circuiting the subcortical loop of thoughts and emotions that spiral us into fits of rage, panic or despair.
At least, that’s the theory. I’ve been practicing mindfulness for a long time, and I can tell you that it’s easier said than done. Have you ever been upset, gone to the gym and had a good workout, and noticed that you are in a much better mood? Partially, this is because of the mood elevating hormones that are released during exercise, but also it is because it is very difficult to focus on a challenge in physical task while continuing to feed a negative subcortical thought loop. Research has shown that we can really only focus on one thing at a time. By occupying the conscious mind with something other than what we are upset about, by occupying the conscious mind with something other than what we are upset about, we free the unconscious mind from generating the unhelpful thoughts that feed the negative emotion. The best way I can describe this is that, after it happens, I am still fully aware of whatever was bothering me, it just doesn’t bother me as much. The challenge, I have found, arises in two types of situations. Often, they occur together. First of all, there are many times when we simply cannot take a break. Whether we are at work, in an unpleasant social situation, running late and stuck in traffic, sick, injured, or in any other of an infinite number of mellow — harshing contexts sometimes there’s just no escape. Along the same lines, most of us do not respond completely irrational. If you’re upset about something, there’s probably a perfectly legitimate reason for it. Indeed, NOT feeling angry or sad when it’s justified, is the sign of something going wrong in the brain. The more justifiable the feeling, the more difficult it is to shut off the thoughts that support it.
According to Tara Brach, there is no magic bullet for this problem. The answer is simply quality practice. The more you cultivate a mind like water, the more powerful your ability to do so under stress will be.
Once again, the intersection of neuroscience and martial arts becomes obvious. If you are able to stay calm when somebody attacks you, it will probably be easier for you to keep your cool when you’re obnoxious coworker starts doing that thing he does that drives you crazy.
Returning to the world of martial arts, I am reminded of a concept called Heijoshin — loosely translated as “peace of mind” — most closely associated with Iaijutsu, Japanese sword fighting. According to the late, great Iaijutsu master Masayuki Shimabukuro’s book, “Flashing Steel,” “It is perfectly natural to feel anger, joy, disappointment, love, and the full range of emotions. Heijoshin, however, allows us not to be controlled by these emotions … It means not allowing circumstances to control your emotions, nor emotions to confuse your judgment.”
Heijoshin is most closely associated with the sword arts because, in theory, somebody who fights with a sword must be prepared to die at any second. However, that knowledge cannot paralyze the fighter, because that would ensure a fatal defeat. Instead, knowing full well what is at stake, he must must develop the ability to remain unaffected by his environment. This is, essentially, the same goal that mindfulness meditation strives to achieve, and very closely related to Mushin. Unlike mind like water, however, peace of mind is not just about response, it is also about preparation. The true master has Heijoshin at all times; not just in combat. To return to an earlier example, one way to manage the stress of running late and being stuck in traffic is to short-circuit your subcortical loop by shutting off your unhelpful thought processes. Another way would be just to leave earlier. If you aren’t in a hurry, the traffic won’t bother you as much.
This type of approach — avoiding conflict in the first place — is at the heart of the most famous treatise on combat ever composed: Sun Tzu’s “Art of War,” in which the author advises, “The ultimate achievement is to defeat the enemy without even coming to battle.” Interestingly, Shimabukuro takes the written form of “Martial Art,” and breaks down the ideogram Bu — “Martial,” revealing that it is comprised of two characters: Tomeru — “Prevent,” and “Hoko” — Conflict. Thus, one could make a case that “Martial Art” actually means “Art of Preventing Conflict.”
In “Matrix: Reloaded,” Seraph tells Neo, “You do not truly know someone until you fight them.” Perhaps we do not truly know ourselves until we fight our instincts, training our brains to achieve tranquility with the same effort we train our muscles to achieve coordination.
“The ultimate objective of martial arts: to help each individual reach his or her full potential, and thereby improve society as a whole.”
— Masayuki Shimabukoro (8th dan Eishin-Ryu Iaijutsu, 8th dan Shito-ryu Karate-do, 7th dan Muso-Ryu Jojutsu)