On Fighting and Meditation

A Fish Called Wanda

In A Fish Called Wanda, Wanda famously finds her partner Otto in his car, pretzeled up in lotus seat, knees on the steering wheel, and asks what he is doing. He explains: "It's a Buddhist meditation technique. It focuses your aggression. The monks used to do it before they went into battle." To which Wanda replies, aghast: "What kind of Buddhism is this, Otto?"

We tend to think of meditation as something calming that helps us relax, find inner peace, be "zen" and really just become an all-round better person. And there are of course plenty of examples of peaceful, almost saintly meditation teachers who harbour and dispense great wisdom and seem to exude a tranquility and contentedness that the rest of us very noticeably lack.

Meditation is seemingly everywhere these days, delivered in many flavours, from a variety of traditional methods to styles with fancy new-age packaging, and becoming increasingly popular in a whole range of contexts, from schools to prisons to companies and top executives. Granted, the aim is usually not so much to help people find inner peace but to increase focus, improve grades or sleep, reduce stress and its associated (massive) costs such as burn-out and sick days, and boost productivity and resilience.

Since the basis of meditation training is maintaining a relaxed state while remaining aware of your surroundings, it's easy to see why meditation has also made inroads in high-level sports. The popular Headspace meditation app has a section with sports meditations as well as a partnership with Nike. Meditation also provides a good basis for visualisation (which we know works) and can be used in combination with other types of mental preparation.

The armed forces, including special forces, also use meditation to help soldiers cope with and process high-stress situations (disconcertingly, some terrorists have had the same idea). And while cynics might argue that it's certainly cheaper than providing proper veteran care, meditation does seem to help with PTSD as well.

Some modern entrepreneurs have even taken it one step further and sell meditation as a "hack" to get into a flow state and achieve "superhuman-like focus", often with the goal of gaining "complete control of your mind and emotions" and thus a competitive edge, be it in "life, business, sports, or combat" — or even the world of crypto currencies.

Meditation, fighting and warfare

You'd be forgiven for thinking that this really is everything meditation is not designed to be, yet historically, fighting and meditation haven't necessarily been a contradiction — for various reasons. The first one is that meditation works as a focusing technique, and it works well — so yes, it will focus your aggression if it comes to that. And being calm or focused isn't quite the same thing as being peaceful — a fact that certainly hasn't escaped the attention of military leaders throughout the millennia.

Aside from the fact that increased mental discipline was supposed to make men better warriors, meditation was conceived as an aspect of a man's personality as a whole, part of a set of attributes that are deemed almost a kind of "moral" requirement to complete or round out the ideal gentleman or warrior. Hence, similar to the ideal of the pious knight in the European Middle Ages, meditating warriors and even warrior monks existed in many cultures. From the Shaolin to the Sant-Sipahi (Sikh saint-warriors) to the Samurai, contemplation and warfare were often not a contradiction but simply different aspects of life.

In Japan, Buddhist monks, including Zen monks, were involved in armed conflict against each other for hundreds of years, contributing to the spread and control of Buddhism and being pulled into warfare on the sides of various clans. Violent feuds between temples were not unusual either, frequently fired up and led by fundamentalist priests. In China, the Shaolin were periodically recruited to fight in wars, often against the Japanese.

Monks and at least some knowledge of fighting aren't limited to Eastern traditions either. While the evidence on the actual techniques used is neither entirely clear nor entirely undisputed, it would seem that Christian missionaries in 7th century Ireland were taught a form of unarmed self-defence called "troid-sciathagid" ("battle through defence") before travelling into "heathen" lands. However, dercad (meditation) was a druidic practice and therefore not encouraged by Christianity, despite the fact that it has its own forms of contemplation, of course.

In Japan in particular, meditation — specifically Zen meditation — has always had strong ties to militarism and warrior culture and was instrumentalised early on because of its recognised ability to increase focus "in order to kill, to act serenely and without question". The Samurai used meditation to increase their focus on the battlefield and dampen their fear of death.

Prior to and during WWII, the Japanese military elite employed zazen (the practice of meditation) "to eliminate or transcend life and death", declaring Zen the "the true spirit of the imperial military" and essentially turning meditation into "combat zazen". In this spirit, the young men recruited or conscripted as kamikaze pilots also received meditation training to reduce or drive out their fear of death, though not always successfully. Meditation training even extended to workers in war-relevant industries. Rebranded as "industrial warriors", they received introductory meditation training from local Zen priests with the aim "to discover, through a thorough-going examination of the self, the origin of the power which enabled them, in their various work capacities, to serve the emperor." They were told that through the practice of zazen, they would be able to "realize infinite power" — oddly echoed across time in the modern-day entrepreneurs quoted above.

Meditation in MMA

Because it increases focus and mental stability as well as out of a desire for fighters with well-rounded personalities, meditation has long been part and parcel of traditional martial arts training. Budo encompasses spiritual and moral aspects, and martial arts traditions like karate, kendo, aikido and others have a strong focus on meditation.

While it is surprisingly difficult to find hard data on MMA fighters who meditate, it's a good guess that many elite fighters would at least have dabbled in or come into contact with meditation at some point, either because meditation is increasingly recognised as a useful tool for high-level athletes or because they originally trained in a traditional martial art.

Names that get bandied about range from the Gracies, Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida to Diego Sanchez, Conor McGregor and Jon Jones. However, it's usually hard to find specifics on what type of meditation they do, how long they have been doing it for or whether it is at all ongoing.

Lyoto Machida is a notable exception here. If you watch his video about meditation on his YouTube channel, it quickly becomes clear that he has a very deep meditation practice. Rather than singling out the benefits of meditation for professional fighting, he talks about being present in any life situation, from washing the dishes to being in a fight, and an overall feeling of being more grounded and connected. And while he credits meditation with helping him win the belt, fighting as such only comes up for a few minutes in the 15-minute video.

Apparently, Machida also introduced Glover Teixeira to meditation, who found it helpful for maintaining perspective in what can be a mentally exhausting sport — from mental resilience to coping with weight cutting: "Meditating helps deal with the loss, deal with the winning. Keeping a level head and grounding yourself." Michelle Waterson credits her Buddhist upbringing for her meditation practice, and it's worth pointing out that like Lyoto Machida, she also has a karate background.

As far as names like McGregor and Jones are concerned, you could be forgiven for doubting whether meditation (if indeed they meditate at all) has provided them with any deeper insights into themselves or a desire to be better people.

Intention matters

New research has indeed shown that meditation doesn't automatically make you a better or nicer person. Nor has this fact gone unnoticed, uncriticised or unreflected within Buddhism itself. As Zen teacher Hogen Yamahata says: "Meditation is not sufficient, it can also make very good killers." Zen in particular has been wrestling for some time with what Zen teachers Geoff Dawson and Liz Turnbull have called "the dark side of mindfulness". Brian Victoria, a former Methodist missionary and now Zen priest and historian, dived deep into these issues in his 1997 book Zen at War.

So what do we learn? Otto was nowhere near as wrong as we thought he was. Meditation works. And like most tools, it can be used for both good and bad, and has been over the course of history.

Ethics are important. Choices matter. At the end of the day, what we make of meditation depends entirely on our aims. Again, this isn't news to meditation teachers throughout history. As Buddhism teacher and writer Vishvapani Blomfield points out, "[...] the Buddha made right understanding the first item in his eightfold path because he knew that everyone is guided by a worldview and underlying beliefs."

So let's keep an eye on that. Because as long as the Ottos use meditation as a tool for war, the Wandas need to question it.

If you liked this article, also check out my previous posts.

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