This article is “Part 2” of “Finding The Greatness Within You”,
When we properly practice, and study, real martial arts the benefits go beyond what most people realize.
The practice of real martial arts goes much deeper than the experience one has with kickboxing to music or tournament fighting competitions. Maybe you just want to get in shape, or you love competition sports, but it is the deeper philosophical aspects of the martial arts that have allowed it to flourish in times of peace as well as in times of war. It is in the most authentic practice that results in the most profound changes within the student of the art.
So what makes the real martial artist different? It is in realizing that the practice is not just when you are at the dojang but is a part of your every thought process, every consideration, and every action. We practice 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year. Period.
One of the goals of this series of articles is to share some of the science behind the benefits of Kung Fu. Stay with me as I reveal some of the science explaining why the practice changes lives.
It is now known that that stress significantly contributes to nearly every major illness. However, having a constant low-level fight-or-flight response happening in the body effects a person far more than most realize.
When we are under stress, we become more concerned with basic survival, and our ability to think clearly, or to reason effectively, becomes handicapped. When this happens, we are much more reactive to our environment rather than actively shaping our lives. These reactive survival-type responses occur in the most primitive area of the brain called the brainstem which is about the same as the whole brain of a reptile (appropriately nicknamed called the “reptilian brain”).
Another way to say this is that when we are more reactive and less active our consciousness is virtually no better than a reptile on the evolutionary scale of intelligence. And we wonder why we have problems!
What has given us the ability to think and reason far beyond any other species on the planet is the fact that our frontal lobes are tremendous in comparison. It is the part of the brain that gives us our sense of self, and allows us to go beyond basic survival and into the realm of thinking, reasoning, comparing, weighing options, making decisions, learning, imagining, creating, and making any plans for the future. It is where we have a thought of what to do, or what we might like to do, before we do it. It is where purposeful behavior—acting with intent—is processed. When survival is the only concern, these functions are limited or not even possible.
The frontal lobes are also where we experience joy and happiness. This part of the brain has been found to be less active in people who are depressed and more active in people who are predominately happy and satisfied with their lives.
Just as a depressed person can have a hard time making decisions and appear dull emotionally, underdeveloped or damaged frontal lobes can result in an inability to think clearly. An example of this might be the repeating of unproductive actions one may take when in a rut. It has been said that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing expecting to get a different result.
Consider an adult being stuck with a work project or a student unable to complete school assignments attempting to force themselves to get it done by extending the time they sit at their desk or at their computer. This approach often proves to be counterproductive and gets poor results—or not one’s best work. The best solution is a break with some physical activity (get in a short 5-10 minute practice session—loosen up, throw some strikes, or go through a form sequence) and maybe also get some fresh air. This will activate the brain and cause it to “wake up” resulting in a much more productive time when you return to your work.
In the book, “Smart Moves”, author Carla Hannaford, PhD, presents a very convincing theory on how stress and its effects on the brain is the real cause of various learning disability labels such as: Hyperactive; Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD); Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD); learning Disabled; and Emotionally Handicapped. She calls it, “SOSOH: Stressed Out, Survival-Oriented Humans”. It’s a far safer and more effective theory than a need for drugs (methylphenidates sold as Ritalin, Concerta, Methylin, and Metadate; or amphetamines such as Adderall—all of which have recently been linked to a number of childhood deaths and various non-fatal cardiovascular problems).
From her experience, Dr. Hannaford believes the SOSOH label easily covers all the other labels that have been attached to the following patterns of behavior: excessive activity – hyperactivity; having a hard time maintaining focus on any given task; disruptive behavior; learning difficulties; the inability to control behavior that is consistent with social norms; constant talking but an inability to communicate effectively; erratic, non-graceful, unbalanced or poorly controlled movements; and a lack of benevolence (insensitivity to others’ needs and feelings).
According to Dr. Hannaford, “All these behaviors fall within the realm of frontal lobe functioning. The frontal lobes control fine motor movement, inner speech, self control, and reasoning. I believe that people who exhibit these behaviors, my SOSOH group, have been exposed to stressors that require them to be concerned more with survival than reason. Because of this, they lack integrated nerve-net development and myelination into the frontal lobe area of the cerebrum.”
How about a lobotomy?
A lobotomy is a scraping or removal of an area of the brain. In the late 1940s, 1950s, and into the early 1960s (and even later in some places), it was used for psychological disorders.
In a frontal lobotomy, an ice pick is used with a windshield-washer effect to scrape the frontal lobes. In people where this procedure was performed, or in people who incurred damage to the frontal lobe area of the brain due to an accident, whereas they may have been highly active, emotional, animated and purposeful individuals before the damage, they became the opposite after. This is not true when other parts of the brain are damaged where one may experience loss of memory, speech, movement, or perception, but not personality. (Those interested in seeing the results of a frontal lobotomy can watch a dramatic depiction in the movie that won best picture in 1975, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”).
Why am I discussing a frontal lobotomy? How many people in this world have lost their “spark”, are lazy and lethargic, uninspired with a lack of initiative, have a hard time focusing on one thing, dislike change (“can’t teach an old dog new tricks”), are easily angered, lack self control (especially if things don’t go their way), can’t make a decision, experience frequent depression, rarely do anything new or different, rarely learn anything new, and can barely, if at all, plan (set goals) for the future? These traits are quite common in our world today, and they are all attributable to either damaged or underdeveloped frontal lobes—the very thing that most differentiates us from every other species on the planet, and the very thing that makes us functionally human.
So, what can we do about it?
Martial arts and the frontal lobes
In order to create more functionality in the invaluable frontal lobes, we must do the kind of things that cause it to be most utilized. We must regularly perform tasks that engage this area of the brain in order to effectively cause it to grow new connections (the neural nets). And the kinds of things that do just that are ingeniously built into the practice of the most sophisticated martial arts.
From the sense of your “center” and an awareness of your inner environment, including your thoughts and feelings, to your active practice and preparation to mentally, emotionally and physically be better prepared for the worst-case scenario (the knife-wielding criminal in a dark parking lot), your practice results in you becoming less affected by your outside environment and more in control of your inner environment. This inner strength is the greatest attribute one can acquire because it is from this state that we are better equipped to handle stress and can work not from the survival-oriented reactive state, but from the more human creative and purpose-driven state.
From the inner strength development that comes from the practice of authentic Kung Fu (including meditation, breathing, Qi Gong, focused solo practice with vivid imagination / visualization, and partner practice) you are better equipped to experience and handle whatever life throws your way and remain calm, centered, and in control. You will be able to keep everything in proper perspective because you will have a strong root—and connection—to your true Self.
To be fully engaged in what you are doing in the moment at hand is a primary function of the frontal lobes. When we get our minds into focus, and better able to observe our world NOW, the frontal lobes are where this occurs.
According to Dr. Joe Dispenza, in his video presentation, “Our Immortal Brain: Mastering the Art of Observation,” he says: “When people’s intention matches their behavior, or when their behavior matches their intention, or when their thoughts are aligned with their actions, is the moment the frontal lobe is at its greatest moment.”
“When people’s intention matches their behavior, or when their behavior matches their intention, or when their thoughts are aligned with their actions, is the moment the frontal lobe is at its greatest moment.”
Dr. Joe Dispenza
In his presentation, Dr. Dispenza discusses a study that was performed at the University of Wisconsin, where Buddhist monks with extensive meditation experience and a control group (virtually no experience) were hooked up to equipment that reads brain function. What they found was that when the monks focused their attention on something (such as compassion) there was a great amount of activity in the frontal lobes. The area was “lit up.” When the control group focused their attention on something there was little to no frontal lobe activity.
The demonstrated that focus is a skill that could be learned with practice. With regular practice, the frontal lobes will develop, adapt, and become more functional in your day-to-life. How valuable is that? (re-read the “lobotomy” section!).
Meditation, as demonstrated by the monks discussed, is an integral piece of our practice puzzle. Without it, we aren’t truly practicing martial arts. Without a calm, more controlled mental and emotional state, martial arts becomes all about fighting at its worst, or just physical exercise at its best. Meditation is specifically how we learn to discipline our minds to think as we choose instead of by default. It is how we come to know our true selves—our true nature. It is how we learn what it really means to have compassion, and to have the ability to experience, as well as express, unconditional love. These virtues light up the frontal lobes and are essential in its development—the laying down of new neural nets. Without this development, all the traits we know about as functions of the frontal lobes remain difficult if not impossible. A lack of development in the frontal lobe area of the brain is specifically why so many believe they “can’t meditate.”
Why bother? I refer here to a quote of 17th Century French philosopher, mathematician, physicist and inventor, Blaise Pascal: “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”
“All men’s miseries derive from not being
able to sit in a quiet room alone.”
Fine motor skills
Another way our physical practice helps to develop the frontal lobes is through the finer complexities of the art. As our coordination improves we can gradually add more complex physical movements. Standing on one leg is far superior to standing on two legs in terms of complexity. The smaller muscles of the feet have to coordinate with the rest of the muscles in addition to a kinesthetic sense of “center” and physical alignment. This is not an ability one is born with. It comes from doing. If you’ve never tried to stand on one leg then don’t expect it to be easy for you. But it can be learned—by dong it more.
The more refined the movement, the more attention to detail is necessary in order to do it correctly and accurately. The twisting, coiling, and wave-like body movements of Ba Gua Zhang are excellent examples of complex physical movements that demand a high level of muscle control and attention. This focused attention on extreme muscle coordination and control is precisely what is again engaging the frontal lobes the most and will continue to result in new neural nets being laid down. Remember, learning something new and working on things that you’re not good at is what results in new connections being made in the brain. Continued practice of these skills is what maintains these connections and makes them grow stronger.
There are levels within the practice where students are asked to figure things out for themselves. This can be a daunting task especially if the only experience one has is with following the direction of others.
Well, just as the saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” if the student has not fully understood and internalized the theories and principles of the practice, they can only copy and not create.
Creativity is a skill just like any other, and the more we work on it the better we will become. Going through the experience of coming up with your own valid ideas and applications (valid based on the standard of the principles) is what results in further neural nets being laid down within the brain which would then make creativity easier in the future. With this experience and development, you can then better rely on and trust yourself. You’ll be able to figure things out when all the necessary circuits are in place.
When he knew that he was going to die soon, Tai Shizu (Great-Grand-Shifu Lu Shui Tian) said to Shizu (Grand-Shifu Park Bok-Nam), “I am not your Shifu; nature is your Shifu.”
We can only “know” what is valid based within our level of understanding nature—which must include the nature of reality itself (more on that in Part 3, next issue). Incidentally, what we “know” to be true at one level of understanding may very well become invalid at the next level.
In studies with rodents, researchers found that the most new and surviving nerve cell growth occurred as a result of ‘cross-crawl’ movements (running on a running wheel, much like we might strike with the left hand while stepping with the right foot) when the rodents performed the exercise voluntarily. When forced to perform this task the rodents actually lost nerve cells! 1
In monkey experiments, researchers found that, “Neural connections can be altered and grown only if there is full attention, focused interest in what we do.” 2
These examples lend support to the fact that you’ve got to enjoy the practice in order to reap the rewards. You practice just to practice. If you lose balance, getting upset with yourself is not going to make your balance any better. If you forget a movement, anger won’t help. Only letting go will allow the process to run its course. When you are practicing correctly you are fully engaged in the moment at hand—which doesn’t include the mistake you made prior to NOW, or the possible outcome of the next movement, technique, etc. It is what it is—period.
Let it go and move on. Be completely focused on NOW.
If you are constantly questioning yourself, getting upset with mistakes or corrections, and simply not accepting the hard fact of where you are at this time without any judgment whatsoever, you are your own worst enemy when it comes to real progress. This lack of progress will not only be experienced in your Kung Fu, but also, and especially, in your life—where it counts the most.
Putting this all into perspective, when you practice properly you are developing the most powerful part of your brain, effectively changing who you are, and ultimately changing your whole experience of this world.
( Note: 1, 2 From “Smart Moves” by Carla Hannaford, PhD)
Originally Published February, 2006