The Mindful Athlete
Updated: Apr 23
The roots of martial arts are Buddhist. The monk Ta Mo traveled from India to China in 527 AD to see Emperor Wu of Liang. He taught the monks of the Shaolin Temple the 18 Buddhist Fists, which turned into the Five Animal Styles of Shaolin, from which all other martial art forms descend.
I presented at a dojo in Los Angeles last summer and shared meditation and regulatory techniques for dialing down stress, improving concentration and focus, and controlling primitive emotions. It's easy to stay calm on a meditation cushion; it's harder after getting punched in the mouth.
I was an amateur boxer once. I loved the rawness of it, the discipline and brutality, the beauty of form, the intensity of present moment is-ness, and the power to remain calm and relaxed in the ring. Most people shy away from pain and violence. Fighters embrace the suck!
Meditation enhances a fighter's awareness. When we enter the ring, all the neural circuitry and molecules that trigger the fight-flight response are primed. Acute stress leads to dynamic changes in the brain. The mind is in a heightened state of alertness, and the body is juiced on adrenaline, ready to fight. This primitive response was designed by nature. The fighter intentionally puts himself in harm's way. Before touching gloves, he must inhibit the fear response.
You will find no greater opponent than your own undisciplined mind. It is unruly and difficult to restrain. And you will find no more cunning an adversary than your ego. Ego fights dirty. Now touch gloves.
“When you look into the signs of war, you find they are in the mind. " wrote the Chinese general Sun Tzu in the Art of War. "When there is unexpressed anger in the heart, this is already war!" One must train hard to transform one's inner dragon.
In the Dhammapada, an ancient Buddhist text, the author writes: "A wrongly directed mind brings greater harm than any enemy, a rightly directed mind brings greater good than any other relative or friend. The one who conquers himself achieves a victory which can never be undone, a victory greater than that of the mightiest warriors."
Rickson Gracie, considered one of the greatest Brazilian Ju-Jitsu fighters of all time put it more simply: "A strong body is a good asset; a strong mind is a very good asset."
In contemplative circles, violence is often regarded as reprehensible; non-violence is the ideal. This is too simplistic. Absent malice, hatred, anger, or ego a stiff jab is just a stiff jab. My opponent and I are challenging each other to dig deep. There is no ill will behind the punches- just a crisp sting. Absent ill will, we can transcend anger, fear, and hatred in the ring. The ring is a blast furnace where we smelt out impurities.
Meditation, as part of a training regimen, can offer the fighter an advantage, keeping us grounded in the present and in a flow state. In a flow state, it feels as if there is an absence of a doer and a sense of effortless control. One can maintain calm in the midst of a flurry of punches. “Jiu-jitsu puts you completely in the moment, where you must have a complete focus on finding a solution to the problem," Gracie said. "This trains the mind to build that focus, to increase your awareness, your capacity to solve problems.”
Research suggests that a grape-sized section of the brain called the insular cortex is especially fine-tuned in top athletes, helping them anticipate upcoming pressures to adapt quickly. The insula “can generate strikingly accurate predictions of how the body will feel in the next moment. That model of the body's future condition instructs other brain areas to initiate actions that are more tailored to coming demands,” Sandra Upson wrote in an article published in Scientific American. In the ring, this might translate into timing a counter-punch, pivoting inside to cover block and stifle an opponent's offense, or waiting for an opponent to wind up and throw before stepping inside and catching him with a hook to the liver. And there is nothing like a blow to the body to test the accuracy of one's predictions and mental models.
Meditation can enhance these qualities of processing. Experienced meditators or those who received mindfulness meditation training demonstrated better information processing speeds in an attention task (Moore, 2009) or vigilance task (Ching, 2015), suggesting the beneficial effect of mindfulness training on basic levels of cognitive function.
If we train the mind as intensely as we train the body, there is less anxiety, and less mental processing diverted away to worrying or rumination. These changes occur at the structural level. There is less activity in those regions that manufacture worry and fear.
More mindful athletes neutralize negative self-talk. Marathoners and ultra-runners, for example, suppress both the physical and psychological markers of fatigue when running (Jacobson, 2014) and ignore distractions caused by task-irrelevant information in order to optimize running performance (Cona, 2015). Furthermore, given that stress has been shown to influence executive functions (Henderson, 2012) and that mindfulness training appears to reduce stress (de Vibe, 2017), it is also possible that mindfulness enhances athletes' executive functions and performance via stress reduction. Indeed, meditation practices have been observed to reduce psychological stress responses and improve cognitive functions (Singh, 2012).
Stepping into the ring to fight someone there to inflict pain triggers the fight or flight response. Molecules and brain circuits prime the body. Absent negative storylines, fighting becomes play. I wasn't boxing to bring home Olympic gold or win a belt; I just loved the sport. When what you fear most becomes play, confidence grows. You learn to remain still in the midst of chaos. "The biggest gift I received as a martial artist is without question the capacity to be at peace," wrote Gracie.
Meditation improves pain tolerance. Experiencing throbbing as throbbing or heaviness as heaviness is one thing, pain catastrophizing or labeling sensations as "bad" adds a layer of what psychologists call secondary pain. Mindfulness training changes one's physiological response to pain (John, 2011; MacDonald, 2017). For example, Solberg et al. (2000) observed that lactate concentration decreased significantly following mindfulness training, and both John et al. (2011) and MacDonald and Minahan (2017) suggested that mindfulness training decreases salivary cortisol associated with stress. With mindfulness training, we learn to be aware of the signals and feedback that some call pain without judgment. Absent the unnecessary mental chatter, pulsing is just pulsing, throbbing is just throbbing, sensations are just sensations.
Here, we are training nocioception and interoception. Nocioception refers to the body's ability to detect pain and mobilize a defense response. It occurs when a nociceptor fiber detects a painful stimulus on the skin or in an internal organ (peripheral nervous system). The detection of that signal is “picked up” by receptors at the dorsal horn of the spinal cord and brainstem and transmitted to various areas of the brain as sensory information. There are 2 main pathways to carry these nociceptive messages to the brain, the spinothalamic and spinoreticular tracts. The spinothalamic tract transmits pain signals that are important to localizing pain, for example, when you get clocked in the mouth and your lip starts swelling.
The second pathway—the spinoreticular tract—is important in the emotional aspects of pain. Interoception is the sense that answers the question: "How do I feel?" In the ring, swelling, bleeding, and pain are to be expected. The brain registers the hit, but then ignores the pain allowing the fighter to focus and block, slip, or counter the next threat.
Evidence suggests that the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is involved in the processing of pain. The ACC acts as a mediator between the "rational" and "emotional" areas of the brain. Studies also provide evidence that the insular cortex receives nociceptive information. The connectivity of the insula to other areas of the brain may play a complex and multifaceted role in the modulation of pain. Connections of the insula with the prefrontal cortex (the cognitive part of the brain), ACC (the mediator), and amygdala (the emotional seat of the brain) can allow painful information to be integrated with information related to working memory, affect, and attention. In the ring, the process unfolds something like this: you get punched in the mouth, the body sends a signal to the brain localizing the pain, you register a swelling lip, the brain assesses the damage and determines no serious injury. Getting hit is to be expected in boxing (working memory reminds you), so you remain nonplussed (affect/attitude), shrug it off, and reorient attention back to the moment. Excitatory neurotransmitters responsible for providing energy, motivation, and focus work in tandem with inhibitory neurotransmitters which filter out unnecessary signals to minimize the pain. The ACC signals the release of endogenous opioids to modulate or numb intense pain. And the amygdala may trigger an off-switch for pain, the CeAGA neurons (Hua et al., 2022). All of this unfolds in thousandths of a second.
Interestingly, if I am accidentally elbowed in the lip outside of the ring, a different process may unfold. The mind may construct a different narrative of a similar experience (getting hit in the mouth with the same intensity). My response might be different. I might stop whatever I'm doing, wince, and reach for my swollen lip in pain. In the ring, the fight doesn't stop because Little Johnny got hit in the eye.
Meditation is a path to egolessness. In the Fighter's Mind, Sam Sheridan wrote: “From my very first real fighting experience in Thailand, I saw that the best fighters were the most humble. But much like jiu-jitsu, you start to see it as a ‘chicken-and-egg’ problem. Is it that great fighters lose their ego? Or is it that you cannot become great unless you lose your ego? Your ego keeps you out of the zone? Guys who can naturally control big egos do better?”
One's greatest rival is ego. Many champions have been TKO'ed by their outsized egos: their careers destroyed, earnings lost, marriages ruined, bodies broken, their peace and joy stripped from them. There is no more ruthless or destructive opponent. You can't square off and go toe to toe with the ego. It's too cunning and powerful. It knows all of your weaknesses.
Ego cannot abide long in the present moment, however. Fighting brings us into the present moment. We prime the stress response and can leverage it. One becomes hyper-vigilant, focused. If we can leave our stories and ego outside of the ring and abide in the moment, we enter into a flow state.
One does not have to spar or fight to awaken this response. Exercise is also a stressor. When I was younger, I loved working out as much as I enjoyed sparring. I learned to meditate in my late teens, but began to practice earnestly after I met a coach who integrated meditation and sports. He was a professor at UC Berkeley and trained Olympic athletes. I don't remember his name, but his lessons stayed with me. He offered a course which I could not afford, but I did attend his free introductory class. I learned progressive muscle relaxation, body scanning, and visualization to improve focus. There is ample evidence to show that coupling mental imagery with physical training can improve performance (Slimani, 2016). Mental imagery is widely used by athletes to improve motor performance without overt motor output.
Zen Master Shinzen Young also produced recordings for athletes which I devoured and listened to prior to working out. He, too, encouraged body scanning and mental imagery. The brain is predictive (Ridderinkhof, 2015). Visualization or kinesthetic motor imagery helps athletes refine their motor skills. Visualizations are simulations. Brain regions involved in the simulation partially overlap with brain areas involved in overt motor performance including the posterior parietal cortex, the cerebellum, the basal ganglia and the premotor cortex. Even if an athlete is sitting still on a bench with eyes closed, scans show brain activation in motor regions during visualization. In other words, the brain responds as if one were engaged in the activity.
In another paper published in 2020, the authors offered the following suggestions extracted from their research:
To achieve the best results, visualisation techniques should include the five major senses (touch, hearing, sight, smell and taste) and should consider key aspects such as perspective, emotion, environment, task and timing. Mental rehearsal (or visualisation) is powerful because the subconscious processes the experience as a real one (by firing those neurons that are responsible for skill acquisition), makes the person calmer and more adapted to stressful situations, and can speed up the learning process.
I stopped boxing after my speech started slurring. Boxing traumatizes the brain. Doctors call it chronic traumatic encephalopathy. I wasn't hip on neuroscience when I was young. Sorry, brain. But I still enjoy shadow boxing and working the heavy bag today.
These days, I run, swim, kayak, and cycle; I do yoga, calisthenics, and high intensity interval training; I lift weights. I dance. Meditation remains a part of my training regimen. It's good for body and mind. To be fully present in any physical activity, whether running or pumping iron, lifts my spirits. I am fully embodied, fully alert, fully present, celebrating the gift of movement and the joy of life.
Wishing you good health all the days of your life.