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 Mind of the Guru by Rajiv Mehrotra

The Mind of the Guru: Conversations with Spiritual MastersThe Mind of the Guru: Conversations with Spiritual Masters by Rajiv Mehrotra

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon Page

The Mind of the Guru is a compilation of 20 interviews with various teachers and spiritual leaders. While most of the individuals are from Indian spiritual traditions or offshoots thereof, the author makes concerted efforts to represent a range of religious and spiritual traditions.

The list of interview subjects is impressive and includes: The Dalai Lama (Tibetan Buddhism), Thich Nhat Hanh (Zen), S.N. Goenka (Vipassana), BKS Iyengar (yoga), Deepak Chopra (medical doctor and spiritual pundit), Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (Art of Living founder), Desmond Tutu (Christianity), and The Aga Khan (Islam.)

The book is at its best when these gurus are discussing their thoughts on development of the mind and spirit. Obviously, there is a lot of this type of discussion as that is the expertise of most all of the assembled teachers.

A brief forward by The Dalai Lama sets the theme of the discussion. His Holiness states that in Buddhist tradition one becomes a teacher because one has students. Consider this in contrast to traditions that fallaciously believe the title of teacher is granted from above. A master teacher may grant a teaching licence, but that’s just a piece of paper unless someone shows up to one’s lessons. He then goes on to say that one should abandon teachers who act in an unwholesome manner. This, too, is an important point. Having invested oneself in loyalty, it can feel like betrayal to leave a teacher who no longer suits one.

His Holiness is the lead chapter interviewee. In the early part of the chapter, he presents many thoughts on Tibetan mind science. “Mind science” may seem like a strange term, but there’s an important part of Tibetan Buddhism that deals not with deities and conceptions of morality, but with understanding and improving how the mind operates.

If one comes from a tradition in which science and religion are in tension, this may seem unusual, but there is a definite scientific approach (observing the mind and playing out experiments with it.) One doesn’t see a rift between science and religion in Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, His Holiness says that if certain parts of the religious tradition were proved not to exist, they would have to be abandoned. (For those beginning to raise objections, shown to be unlikely and disproven are two different things.)

A second Tibetan Buddhist, Sogyal Rinpoche, addresses the topic of death, and lends the book one of my favorite quotes: “If you are worried about dying, don’t worry, you will all die successfully.”

The first part of this five part book also includes interviews with Thich Nhat Hanh and S.N. Goenka. The former talks about mindfulness and the “interbeing,” and the latter describes the Vipassana approach to meditation and its development. Interbeing is a term coined by Hanh to address a being who is connected to all things. For those unfamiliar with Vipassana, it’s a meditation practice that emphasizes 10-day intensive meditation retreats. There are many retreat centers where this is practiced around the world, including one in the city in which I currently live, Bangalore.

The second part deals with the unity of mind and body. BKS Igenyar, head of a self-named branch of Hatha yoga, opens the chapter with discussion of his background and approach to yoga. Deepak Chopra talks about the intersection of science and spirituality. David Frawley talks about Ayurvedic medicine as well as some more “out there” subjects, such as astrology.

I hadn’t heard of two of the three interviewees in part three, Swami Ranganathananda and Mata Amritanandamayi. However the third interview was Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a guru well-known internationally for his soft-spoken teachings that combine yoga with a secular spiritualism rooted in Hinduism but not explicitly advocating it. Swami Ranganathananda is from Ramakrishna’s order, which was a secular spiritualism movement rooted in Vedantic traditions but embracing diversity of belief. Mata Amritanandamayi is one of only two women interviewed for the book, indicating women haven’t achieved equality in guru-hood just yet–for all the talk of enlightened thinking. (This is not a dig at the author, who probably went out of his way to include these two to have diversity in gender as well as diversity of tradition.)

The fourth part adds to the diversity by opening with an interview with Sufi Muslim, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. Sufi is the mystical branch of Islam. (Mysticism meaning a belief structure in which God is considered to be part of one and is accessed by mindfulness and introspection. This in contrast to the largest strands of the world’s major religions in which God is conceptually something distinct from the self and is an entity to be worshiped. Most major religions have mystical elements or a mystical branch, including Christianity and Islam.) This interview eases us away from the traditions that are either of India or have their roots in India. (By that I mean that Buddhism has its roots in India, though, for example, Zen is different from Buddhism as practiced in India today.)I say “eases us away” because the mystical nature of Sufi would not create much cognitive dissonance in yoga practitioners, Hindu spiritualists, or Zen monks, but, instead, shares much common ground.

The second chapter in part 4 is that by the other female guru, Radha Burnier, who is a practitioner of Theosophy, which means “divine wisdom.” This modern development is secular in that it doesn’t advocate a particular religion, but rather engagement to fix societal problems and eliminate biases and divisions. In the interview we get a hint of the divides that plagued this organization.

Part four is rounded out by interviews with Swami Parthasarathy and U.G. Krishnamurti (not to be confused with Jiddu Krishnamurti, who probably would have been included in this book if he hadn’t died in the 1980’s.)The former speaks about the end of knowledge and the latter about his role as an anti-guru, rejecting traditional approaches to thinking about spirituality.

The fifth part of the book is entitled “The Ethics of Engagement” and I’m afraid it’s where the wheels roll off. It has six excellent authorities, Desmond Tutu, Baba Amte, Ajarn Sulak Sivaraksa, Swami Agnivesh, The Aga Khan, and Karan Singh.I don’t criticize the selection of interviewees, but what happens here is that the chapters predominantly become about politics and policy. Some of this discussion is present throughout the earlier chapters, it’s a point that the author/interviewer finds either intriguing or salable. For example, he asks The Dalai Lama about the politics of Tibet and China, but only after much wisdom is shared.

Here is my–sure to be highly controversial–view on the subject. Wise people show the least wisdom when they’re speaking of politics and policy. I understand why readers may want to hear their thoughts, and I know that as leaders they shape movements in these domains. However, their thoughts on such subjects rarely pack the wallop of value they do when they are talking about subjects like improving one’s mind or living a moral life–subjects on which they have great authority.

What happens when the wise talk about policy is the same thing that happens when most people do, they fail to understand the complexity of the issues and they end up making a lot of “have our cake and eat it too” statements. The most common of these is that we need to: a.) raise all the poor to a certain standard of living (a noble cause), b.) eliminate attachment to materialism and consumerism (also a fine cause, no one should be addicted to “stuff.”)

As one trained as an economist, however, when I see these statements issued by the same person in the same interview, I laugh. We have no idea how to achieve these two things simultaneously; anybody who tells you they do is living in a dream world or is deceiving you. If everybody decided tomorrow that they didn’t need a bunch of new gadgets and widgets, this wouldn’t help pull the poor out of poverty. On the contrary, it would lessen their opportunities to raise their quality of life. Conversely, if you want to pull people out of poverty, they have to produce and sell things that other people want. Rising incomes result from rising productivity, and rising productivity comes with rising production–but someone has to buy that increased production. If you have a way to truly get around this dilemma and it’s one that economist haven’t thought of before and which hasn’t either been proved wrong or internally inconsistent, I will personally lobby for you to be nominated for next year’s Nobel Prize in Economics, and would place a bet on you to win.

I will say that some of the authors seem more savvy of the political and societal domain than others. For example, Mata Amritanandamayi says, “Even if we remove all nuclear weapons from our armories and transfer the to a museum [that last bit is, admittedly, a really bad idea], it wouldn’t bring an end to war. The real nuclear weapons, the negative thoughts in our mind, should be eliminated.” In other words, you can’t fix society’s problems through dictates, particularly when those dictates are in contradiction.

One of my lesser complaints with the book is that the author sometimes asks leading questions (i.e. he subsumes a conclusion in the way he forms the question.) However, almost invariably the speaker sets the record straight, but it makes one wonder about how the message is shaped by the interviewer.

There may be a little too much cultural self-congratulation going on throughout the book for some. There’s a primacy fallacy theme throughout the book that India had everything perfect until it was infected by Western ideas. This isn’t to imply there aren’t fantastic ideas and cultural developments that have come out of India. I wouldn’t have read the book if I didn’t believe there were, but there was also the caste system and some other fairly giant issues of institutionalized injustice like women essentially being sold off into marriage.

An example of this bias can be seen in the talk of Swami Ranganathananda. He says of Socrates, “Had he been in India, he would have been honored and worshipped.” Yeah, if he were of the right caste, maybe, but he also might have been bludgeoned to death in a fashion far more brutal than having to drink hemlock.

Overall, I would recommend the book. It is an impressive collection of teachers and all of them have something intriguing to offer in food for thought. One just needs to go back to The Dalai Lama’s Forward and not be so awe-inspired that you fail to look critically at the message of each.

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