6 Science Books That Martial Artists Should Read

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

OnKillingWhat 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

RiseOfSupermanWhat 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

Becomingbatman

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.)

 

4.) Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger by Jeff Wise

ExtremeFear

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.

 

5.) Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes–and What We Can Learn from Them by Mark McClusky

FasterHigherStrongerWhat 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.

BuddhaBrainWhat 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.

 

BOOK REVIEW: The Warrior’s Path James Sidney (ed.)

The Warrior's Path: Wisdom from Contemporary Martial Arts MastersThe Warrior’s Path: Wisdom from Contemporary Martial Arts Masters by James Sidney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

My upfront apology: Having drafted this review, I noticed that the book comes off sounding like a bunch of old folks being curmudgeonly about the current generation. As I read this book, that wasn’t the feeling I got. Therefore, it may be a matter of the points that resonated with me, and be more reflective of myself than the martial arts sensei (teachers) who have chapters in the book. [That being said, young readers be forewarned that your generation does get blasted upon not only in this review, but by the sensei in question.]

Fifteen prominent martial arts teachers offer their insights in this book. The group is in many ways homogenous. All fifteen teachers are practitioners of Japanese gendai budō (the modern-day martial arts that developed after the Meiji Restoration [1868]; as contrasted with kobudō or koryū bujutsu, i.e. old school martial arts). All of these martial artists were born in the 1910’s and 20’s and began their study of martial arts in first half of the 20th century.

These teachers are a bridge between the founders of these arts and the arts as we know them today. In a few cases, they are also bridges between kobudō and modern martial arts. For example, Hiroshi Tada was a student of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido. While we think of O-sensei (Ueshiba) as a gendai budō practitioner because he founded a modern school, he was brought up on kobudō. Furthermore, students of Gichin Funakoshi (the Shotokan karate founder), Jigorō Kanō (the Kodokan judō founder), Hironori Ōtsuka (the Wadō-ryū karate founder), and Dōshin Sō (the founder of Shōrinji Kempō) are represented.

This book is particularly important in that several of the teachers in it have passed away since the book was published. Time is receding for this generation’s thoughts to be saved for posterity. A cursory google search revealed that at least four of these teachers have passed away: Hidetaka Nishiyama (2008), Tatsuo Suzuki (2011), Keiko Fukuda (2013), and Ron Nobuto Omoto (2013.) However, some were more well-known internationally than others, so there may be a few others that passed on without attracting the attention of English-language websites. However, the youngest of them is 84 (the oldest believed living is 97), and so it’s safe to say there may not be many more chances to hear these people’s wisdom.

I’ve pointed out the homogeneity of this group, but there’s also a diversity about them. Practitioners of karate, judō, aikidō, shōrinji kempō, kendō, kyūdō, and Atarashii Naginata are represented. Despite the notoriously male-dominated nature of Japanese martial arts, at least there are two women’s voices in the mix. While all of the artists are of Japanese ancestry, they’re not all Japanese by citizenry. There are two Americans and two Canadians among the bunch, and one individual who was born in China. There are also individuals who were born in Japan but moved abroad to places like France and Brazil to spread their art.

There are a few themes common across multiple of the commentaries. It might be tempting to dismiss some of these points as the “back-in-my-day” sentimentality of the aged, but their experiences are sometimes too similar to lack veracity.

First, several of the teachers said there was much less doggedness in recent generations than in their era. People come into the dōjō (a martial arts school), dabble a little, and–if they’re not constantly entertained by new and fancy techniques–they quit. As a result, there are many practitioners who possess a vast repertoire of technique, but they aren’t skilled in any of it—and even more who get nowhere. The theme was that there is no fast-track to success in budō, one has to work at it day in and day out. It should be noted that all of these individuals were born before 1930, and yet were still teaching / training in 2003 when the book was published.
Second, this generation devoted considerable effort to developing the mind as well as the body. With the availability of better nutrition, training equipment, and sport science, young martial artists may be physically fitter than ever on average (I’m talking about competitors not those using martial arts as a fat camp), but they are also mentally weaker than ever—with limited attention spans and emotional control. Present-day martial arts students often give little credence to the value of training the mind or carrying a martial arts mindset outside the dōjō. Several of the teachers in this book mentioned practicing Zen or some other form of mental exercise, and some emphasized the importance of carrying the clarity and intention of the dōjō about everyday life.

The problem with this is that the martial arts become a young man’s game, and there becomes a lack of experience. A student does a martial art for a few years and then abandons it because his or her physical athleticism isn’t going to increase. This decreasing physical capacity translates into becoming a weaker martial artist. The only way to grow in the long-run is to become mentally stronger, more self-confident, and having better emotional control.

The problem is that this mental strength and confidence often becomes confused with arrogance or cockiness. But as Nobuyuki Kamogawa (kyūdō) points out, the problem with arrogance is that one can’t see one’s weaknesses—and, thus, can’t grow. While Japanese arts may seem overly-formal (and there can be truth to that), it shouldn’t be forgotten that part of what this formality does is (potentially) build mental discipline and humility.

I think Toshiro Daigo best summed up the problem of not living the art. He said, “But to young Japanese people, judō becomes judō when you put on your judō costume. So without the costume, judō doesn’t exist.”

Third, judō, karate, and kendō teachers bemoaned a shift away from the pursuit of victory by decisive technique (e.g. the the ippon.) Over time, there has been an increased reliance on building up a win by minor points. In judō this may mean trips instead of throws; in kendō it means going for the forearm rather than the head. In other words, competitors have become more risk-averse and less bold. Concern about this is two-fold. For one thing, there’s a worry about the dilution of these arts, but there’s also concern about the sport becoming less interesting to watch and thus losing its following.

Related to the previous two criticisms is a concern about training to build champions, while forgetting to forge good students. This was emphasized not only by some of the sport-oriented art teachers, but also by Hiroshi Tada. Tada, as an aikidō practitioner, is in the unique position being the only one of the teachers to practice a non-sport martial arts system.

Fourth, several sensei suggested the importance of learning for oneself. One of the teachers, Rod Nobuto Omoto, was an uchi deshi (live-in student), and he—as in the old days—spent a lot of time doing chores while getting little to no training. The point is not so much to criticize the younger generation, but to inform them that they must take the reins of their martial arts practice. This may come to a surprise because the educational experiences they are most used to is having information handed to them in as learnable a form as possible.

Fifth, there was a general disdain for the idea of thinking of one’s art as being inherently superior to all others. Masao Takahashi (judō) and Mitsusuke Harada (karate) both made this point. Harada proposed that abject faith in the superiority of one’s art encourages the development of martial artists who cannot defend themselves. If you think your system is inherently best, you may begin to rely on that illusion of superiority rather than on the advancement of your own skill.

Sixth, the importance of mutual benefit was emphasized throughout. Of course, for the judo practitioners, the idea of jita kyoei (self-perfection, mutual benefit) is one of the two Kodokan budōkun (martial arts maxims.) [The other being seiryoku zenyo, or maximum efficiency.] Shigeru Uchiyama said that the belief in Shōrinji Kempō (whose practitioners are also Kongo Zen pupils) is that of “…living half of your life for yourself and half for others.”

A couple of other points that caught my attention were brought up by individual teachers.
Keiko Fukuda expressed concern about women being trained in the same manner as men, and, thus, using too much strength. The 9th dan was concerned about injuries resulting from this over-reliance on strength. This is an interesting point which I hadn’t given much thought. No doubt it’s a controversial point as well. It’s hard for me to comment about whether Fukuda is just old-fashioned and a product of her time and culture (which is, I’m afraid, highly misogynistic) or whether her point is valid. However, I’d be willing to give her the benefit of the doubt as she was an extremely impressive woman.

Lest one think that these are all just traditionalists trying to keep the traditions alive, consider a quote by Yoshimitsu Takeyasu that speaks otherwise. “Not all traditions are good but we have to identify the ones that should be kept.” Rod Nobuto Omoto said simply, “Tradition is not important.” However, I think Omoto’s point is more nuanced than it seems (and perhaps more Taoist) in that what he seems to be saying is that if you make the tradition important it becomes about the tradition and not the what lies beneath the tradition (e.g. values, etc.)

Omoto also offered a great deal of thought-provoking insight into death. It was clearly a topic that he’d reflected on not only as someone coming to the end of his life, but also as one who practices budō.

I think this is an important book for martial artists of all stripes. However, I think that even non-martial artists might learn a thing or two from the insights of these old masters.

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