This man had a PTO (Power Take-Off) on his bicycle to convert pedal power to a grindstone. He sold and sharpened knives, scissors, and assorted cutting instruments.
When one has a passion for an activity, it’s easy to get tunnel vision and miss out on the many avenues of information by which one might improve oneself. I’ve done many posts on martial arts books, but I thought it might be useful to do one about books that aren’t about martial arts per se, but which have none-the-less contributed to my thinking as a martial artist.
1.) On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by LTC Dave Grossman
What it’s about? Psychologically, it’s a lot harder to kill another human being than one might think. Even when one is a combatant in a just war, the reluctance to kill–even one’s sworn enemy–is intense. Grossman examines the roots of this reluctance, what methods have been employed to get soldiers over it, and what the cost of doing so is.
The book also goes into a topic one might find surprising: video games. Not to give too much away, but military researchers discovered that getting infantrymen to kill required conditioning them to shoot targets that look human. This resulted in moving from bulls-eye targets to silhouettes, pictures of humans, and even Firearms Training Simulators (i.e. FATS, systems that run shoot / no-shoot scenarios on a screen, like an interactive movie.) It turns out that shoot-em-up video games may contribute to a child’s conditioning to be willing to shoot another human being.
Why it’s a good read for martial artists? Martial arts vary radically in realism and relevance to combative situations, but it’s easy for students of the martial arts–even martial arts that seem “hardcore” and self-defense oriented–to have unrealistic notions about the realities of combat. As François de La Rodefoucauld said, “One cannot answer for his courage when he has never been in danger.” By reading this book one might, perhaps, begin to rethink one’s assumptions, and change how one prepares to defend oneself and others.
Further reading on related topics: I’ve heard good things about the works of Rory Miller–particularly Facing Violence and Meditations on Violence, but I haven’t gotten around to reading his books yet. If you have, please feel free to comment with your thoughts.
2.) The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler
What it’s about? Kotler examines a state of mind that is widely call “flow,” and how extreme athletes are tapping into flow to achieve unprecedented advances in performance. There are a number of ways by which this state of mind can be defined, e.g. neurochemically (i.e. a neuro-cocktail of serotonin, anandamide, endorphins, dopamine, and norepinephrine), neuroanatomically (transient hypofrontality), neuroelectrically (high theta / low alpha wave–i.e. between meditation and resting wakefulness), or psychologically (intense concentration on a challenge that’s just beyond one’s present skill level.)
Kotler proposes that risk is an important trigger for entering a deep state of flow, and that this is why extreme athletes are proving so much better at achieving these states (and translating them into radically increased performance) than many other groups who seek to master flow.
Why it’s a good read for martial artists? It should be noted that not only is flow not a newly discovered state of mind, but it sounds a lot like the state of mind that martial artists have sought for centuries in the practice of their arts–often in conjunction with disciplines such as Zen or Vajrayana Buddhism. What is new, which makes this book worth reading, is an understanding of the science behind flow states. By moving beyond the hazy mix of truth and falsehood embodied in systems of spirituality, one may be able to find a way to more reliably increase one’s performance.
Further reading on related topics: Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances is a book that is co-authored by the granddaddy of flow research Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
3.) Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero by E. Paul Zehr
What it’s about? (Arguably, this is a martial arts book, but I’m including it because one wouldn’t get that from the title or blurb.) This book’s central question is whether a real life person could achieve the level of crime-fighting bad-assery that is the Batman, and–if so–what combination of genetics, training, and conditioning would be required. It also addresses what would be the cost in terms of wear and tear on one’s body and how long one could be expected to maintain said abilities. (Also, for the martial artists of feminine persuasion, how Batgirl or Catwoman might fair in combat against Batman.)
Why it’s a good read for martial artists? There is tons of great information relevant to martial artists about the toll of extreme practice and regular fighting on one’s body (e.g. concussions, broken bones, etc.), what the limits of human performance are, by what means those limits are approached, and how realistic it is to have an unreciprocated policy prohibiting lethal weapons.
Further reading on related topics: Actually, if you know of any books on related topics, I’d love to hear about them. There are a number of such books, but they’re on textbook pricing (i.e. insanely expensive.)
What it’s about? This book is about the mental and physical effects of mortal peril, and why some people’s performance excels under dire threats while other people just let themselves die while cowering in a fetal ball. The book asks what we can all learn from those people who manage to keep their heads about them when death seems certain.
In the interest of full-disclosure, as of this writing I’ve not completed this book. I just started it and am only in the second chapter. However, so far it’s been both informative and interesting.
Why it’s a good read for martial artists? Much like On Killing, I think this book may be valuable because there are many martial artists with daydream-induced misconceptions about how they will perform in dangerous situations. This book may help one evaluate one’s true state of preparedness, and discover how to go about making changes to improve one’s level of preparedness for a worst-case scenario.
Further reading on related topics: If you want a scholar’s account, the book Anxious by Joseph E. Ledoux may be more your style. (Wise is a popular science writer.) I see that Ledoux is cited a lot in books I’ve been reading as of late, but I can’t say I’ve read any of his books yet. However, I know he’s widely regarded as one of the foremost experts on fear. It looks like his book isn’t so much on mortal peril as Wise’s book, and covers all kinds of anxiety and fear.
What it’s about? The super-long subtitle says it all. It’s about how athletic performance is being improved by bringing scientific methods to the study of sports, and–as the second half of the freakish subtitle suggests–it explains how amateurs can put this information to good use. There are some methods used by elite athletes that aren’t at all suitable to the run-of-the-mill martial artists (e.g. don’t consume mass quantities of baking soda.) However, there are other approaches to nutrition and training that are readily translated to amateurs without much downside.
Why it’s a good read for martial artists? You may or may not think of yourself as an athlete. I can hear some martial artists saying, “I don’t practice a sport, I’m a martial artist. I deal in lethal combat, not games. yada, yada, yada…” Maybe so, but fitness, nutrition, and conditioning matter. If you want to be able to hold your own against more skilled opponents, you need to improve your capabilities and capacities. Fitness matters. If you think technical proficiency will get you through any situation, you haven’t run up against someone who is both technically skilled and highly fit–and when you come up against said person, your disillusionment will be swift.
Further reading on related topics: As with the Becoming Batman book, most of the books on this subject are textbooks and are outrageously priced. If you know of other books in this vein, I’d love to hear about them.
6.) Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson et. al.
What it’s about? This book turns the lens of modern science on the serene, immovable state of mind that martial artists have historically sought out through Buddhist and yogic systems. It discusses how Buddhist practices help people to be more cognitively effective and less prone to emotional manipulation or disturbance.
Why it’s a good read for martial artists? If one reads the works of warriors–ancient and modern, one will discover that the greatest warriors place a premium on the importance of the mind.
Consider the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi was exceedingly successful in defeating his enemies by making them angry. He would show up late and behave disrespectfully, and he would make his own mind imperturbable. This allowed him to easily defeat warriors who were considered at least his equal in terms of technique.
Further reading on related topics: There are many books that look at similar questions. Zen and the Brain is probably a better book in terms of the amount of information / insight provided, but it’s a much more daunting read. I wouldn’t put the latter in the category of “pop science” as much as just “science.” (Zen and the Brain is also a much older book.)
These are my recommendations, I’d love to hear about yours in the comments section.
What’s interesting about this batch of statues at Nek Chand is that nobody wears shorts in India (let alone short shorts.) If you see someone in shorts, you can be certain they’re either a tourist or part of a very specific demographic (i.e. 20 to 25 year olds of middle / upper-middle class backgrounds whose all-time favorite television show is either “Big Bang Theory” or “How I Met Your Mother.”)
Incidentally, the Nek Chand Rock Garden is the highlight of a trip to Chandigarh, and shouldn’t be missed. It’s a labyrinthine park made out of recycled materials. A lot of these materials–particularly for the early phases of the project–came from the villages that had been torn down to make room for the new city. On the order of fifty villages were razed so that India’s premier planned city could come to fruition.
I went to a talk at the Rangoli Metro Arts Center last night entitled, Foresters’ Elephants. The talk was hosted by a group called “Friends of Elephants,” and the panel of speakers were all Conservation Officers in South India who were responsible for public lands home to Elephants.
The discussion offered some intriguing insight into state and local politics in India. But the best explanation of the night came from the Chief Conservator of Forests for Kodagu in a story that could be titled “A Third Roti.”
The Conservator explained that, as a junior forest officer, he’d been assigned to a remote station. His housing took the form of an old decrepit colonial era building. This house had a vermin infestation, and the hungry rodents would get bold as he and his wife slept and would nibble at their fingers and toes. Of course, this made for sleepless nights. To solve this disconcerting problem, the Conservator took to getting a third roti with his meals. [For my India-inexperienced readers, a roti is a circular flat bread that’s a common element of meals in many parts of India.] Putting the third roti out for the rodents negated the rat’s need to engage in the mutually terrifying act of nibbling on the forest officer or his wife.
I don’t know if the story is true, and–if it is–whether it’s truly the Conservator’s story. It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that it’s a great use of story to make a point. The point in this case is that a solution often needs to take into account the fundamental needs of the “adversary.” In other words, regulation and punishment can’t always provide the solution–especially when basic needs are not being met. One could try to scare the rodents away or one could set traps (potentially at risk to oneself), but if the rats are driven by hunger they might find the risk worth taking. The problem that he was addressing was the need for wood for fires, fence posts, and other needs. This caused people to enter public forests, putting themselves at risk of running into wild elephants.
The idea of trying to find a third roti for problems really resonated as an approach to creative solutions.
Taken as we traveled beside the Tirthan River at the beginning of our Tirthan to Sainj trek in GHNP Ecozone.
I’m back from my wanderings in Himachal Pradesh with a boatload of pics and experiences. The highlight of the trip was the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP.) I’ve attached some sunset pics taken at a cliff near our campsite at Dhel. I’d highly recommend GHNP… unless you’re one of those asshats who strews his garbage randomly or who likes to carve his name or initials in anything and everything–living or stone. (In which case, kindly please stay home in your trailer and watch you satellite TV. You wouldn’t like it at all.)
My blog will be on a three-week hiatus while my wife and I are trekking in Himachal Pradesh.
I’ll be back posting sometime around the beginning of July.