Saturday, April 21, 2007

Peak Experiences

Discipline and perseverance are terms that are closely associated with the martial arts, and rightfully so. Real martial arts are never easy, and sometimes the hardest thing about them is just managing to show up for class after a hard day, making our time spent there feel like drudgery. But has anyone ever had a training session where you just feel like tearing up the joint? I don't mean to vent anger or anything negative; in fact, quite the opposite. Sometimes we have a day that makes us feel like we're riding the crest of a wave, that we're so full of energy and enthusiasm that nothing can stop us. Research has shown that under optimal conditions, the human body is capable of self-induced euphoric states. You may have heard of the term "runner's high", but this effect is not necessarily confined to any specific activity. When we're in this zone, the body taps into a special reservoir that produces a class of chemical messengers that includes beta-endorphins, norepinephrine, and serotonin that can enhance physical and mental well being.

Exercise induced euphoria bears a similiarity to what transpersonal psychologist Abraham Maslow referred to as peak experiences. According to Maslow, a peak experience bridges a gap between the performer and the performance; the sense of an ego or "I am" becomes blurred with the task, in addition to feelings of strong positive emotions and timelessness. Maslow's research was influenced by Eastern thought, so the correlation between peak experiences and the martial arts seems relevant. For example, various mind states that are found in the martial arts, such as mushin (no mind) and fudoshin (immovable mind) come from the sense of oneness that could result from the Maslowian peak experience.

What it all comes down to is that when we train, we want to feel good and at one with what we're doing. And when that happens, we lose our sense of self, time stands still, and everything falls into place of its own accord.



Blogger Rick Matz said...

There have been instances when I practice zhan zhuang, where I feel like I could stand for 100 years. In fact, there have been several times where I've stood until I fell down. It's an interesting experience.

7:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another good read, thanks John haha

I have difficulty explaining things like this sometimes.

8:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been thinking a lot about this same type of feeling. We often call it your "best feeling." Just different words to describe the same concept: when you are fully in the moment, your ability to execute technique improves exponentially.

The question then becomes: how do you achieve this state? Can it be taught? Or is it something that comes with diligent practice? We spend a lot of time in our dojo seeking this state of being, using technique to test our progress.

A thoughtful post, as always.

3:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're always right in sync with me John! I didn't make it to karate last week. I went last night and tonight my husband was remarking what a different person I am when I attend karate regularly. It's so true. It centers me and makes everything else tolerable.

I just had a conversation with my instructor about mushin no mushin. Very hard to do.

8:29 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...


In karate we would practice holding shiko dachi (deep wide stance) for extended periods to develop stamina. It's not really for meditative purposes (although it could be), but my understanding of the zhan zhuang method is that it takes quite a while to get used to.

Thanks, Eddie!

Thanks, Dave.

The question then becomes: how do you achieve this state? Can it be taught? Or is it something that comes with diligent practice?

Who knows? I know that sounds a bit facetious, but usually these events - whether you call them "best feelings" or satori - just happen when they're ready. According to Maslow, the main prerequisite is detachment; so if you're attempting to train for or work towards a peak experience and expect it to occur, you'll invariably come up short.

In John Stevens' book Invincible Warrior, there's a story about the O'Sensei out in his garden one day after an arduous training session when he succumbs to a PE of cosmic proportions. Maybe you're familiar with this tale. Some of those stories about Ueshiba are really out there!

Black Belt Mama:

Karate sessions can work wonders that way. They can be almost therapeutic.

In non-MA terms, mushin is like when you're driving down the block and suddenly something darts out in front of you - you slam on the brakes. You don't think about hitting the brake pedal, there's no time for that. You just do it. That's mushin. Of course if somebody is trying to take your life, the ability to respond in a flash - without reflecting - can indeed be very hard to do.

12:11 AM  
Blogger Miss Chris said...

I'm very familiar with exercise induced euphoria. Before beginning karate, I was a workout-aholic. Weights, weights and more weights. I just loved that high. When I started karate, I found that same high. I would drag myself to class and arrive home with a ton of energy.

10:56 AM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Miss Chris:

Before beginning karate, I was a workout-aholic. Weights, weights and more weights.

As a long time recreational weight lifter I can relate to that. I still train with weights and I always will. Karate training has a different kind of effect for me, so I find that the two activities complement each other.

10:42 PM  
Blogger Colin Wee said...

Exercise induced euphoria bears a similiarity to what transpersonal psychologist Abraham Maslow referred to as peak experiences.

In my past life, when I was a national representative in archery, one of my best performances came in a regional shoot where I had the good fortune to enter 'the zone' - and where all the other archers were struggling with harsh weather conditions. Time seemed to travel differently. My inner focus could not be more perfect - I could almost feel where the arrow was going to hit before it hit the target, even at distances of 90m. I'm not certain that this is linked with exercise or physical exertion. I think the zone comes about through loads of mental preparation and focus.

I believe exercise induced euphoria may be more linked to natural opiates the body produces during elevative and maintained physical exertion. This is one of the reasons why I quite like jogging. After about 500-700m you feel like you can continue on forever.

A challenge to martial artists is to reach the zone during sparring or practicing but not get tunnel vision to think that there is only one opponent you're facing. Situational awareness needs to be heightened in order that you don't get clocked by the guy next to you or behind you.

Hope this post makes it through.



1:56 AM  
Blogger Mir said...

I've felt this kind of 'Peak experience' when I enter into a kata, and immerse myself in it. Time stands still, and nothing exists but each movement which seems to happen on it's own.

I've had similar experiences as a musician playing violin. You become one with the music, and all feels "right".

8:20 AM  

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