Black Belt Brain

Musings on movement and the mind.

Be Present Here and Now

Live in the moment where and when you are.

A man wanders across a busy parking lot paying no attention to the cars (and one bike!) passing on either side. He’s too busy texting. A woman walks through an intersection despite the flashing red hand while an alert driver swerves to avoid her. She’s busy listening to music on her iPod. A parent is working on her computer while her kids wait for her to check on them for bedtime. She’s busy with just a few more emails.

Our lives are filled with plenty of distractions and more await us just over the horizon. Some we get put upon us and are hard to avoid. Many, though, are self-inflicted. We put them on ourselves and almost seem to seek them out with our behaviors. It’s like we feel we have to feed our compulsive hunger to multi-task at every possible opportunity.

I was thinking a lot about this recently. Someone asked me why I continued to train in martial arts over the past 30 years. They wanted to know what it was about martial arts that engaged me so much. To be completely honest, it’s a question I hadn’t paid all that much attention to. I just started when I was 13, became fascinated by the sublime combination of gross physical power and fine motor control that is needed for martial arts, and have just kept on trucking.

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But why have I continued? What is it about martial arts training that can be different from, say, running, clogging, Pilates, or whatever activity. Certainly there are many similarities across different physical activities. Why haven’t I devoted 30 years plus to something else? The answer will emerge throughout this post. But first I want to consider a bit more about attention and multi-tasking.

The concept of our attentional resources and multi-tasking is an entire area of research. For example studies have shown that cell phone use can lead to a fourfold increase in the risk of a crash during driving. Part of this has to do with the attention demands of speech and the idea of “inattention blindness” and part just generally to multi-tasking.

Conversation—both verbal and typed—contain motor acts that involve listening, reading and attention. It turns out that listening takes up less of the activity in our brains than does speaking and getting ready to speak. While we are listening to someone on a phone, preparing to talk, and then actually talking we are constantly trying to figure out where the person is. That is, we form a kind of mental image of where the person is physically.

Maintaining this image takes up a lot of the processing power in our brains. The ancient parts of our brain are constantly searching for who we are talking to but cannot “see” them. A study at the University of Utah by James Watson and David Strayer looked at this kind of “dual task” interference.

Participants were in a driving simulator (main task) and then used a hands-free cell phone (secondary task) to have a conversation. While using a cell phone 97% of the people responded slower to applying the brakes when the person ahead of them did so abruptly. The interference created a clear effect on reaction time. Part of this has to do with the fact that the multi-tasking and dual task interference made it impossible for the participants to be present fully in the act of driving.

Our predilection for distraction is amplified incredibly by our use of technology. Technology allows us not only to be distracted by things happening in front us but also by imagining being somewhere else. We text to someone who can be half a world away. Our minds seem to float with the messages as they zip along the ether. This only amplifies the fatiguing effect of multi-tasking. It’s like bits of ourselves are constantly being taken here there and everywhere. But what anchors us?

To be effective in martial arts you have to be completely present in the moment. In real martial arts with true self-defense applications there is no room for thinking about later. Even a second beyond what you’re doing may not exist if you fail to act now. Even in controlled training environments, responding to real and present dangers requires clarity of thought and action. There is no room for extra musing on things not needed for the task at hand.

I realize now that it is this clarity of thought that has been a driving factor for my continued practice. When I train I feel like I have had a kind of “reset” and that a lot of preoccupations and middling mind chatter that we all experienced have been flushed from my brain. I realize that doesn’t sound like proper neuroscience jargon. But it really does represent the kind of observable sensation that goes on with entraining the activity of billions of neurons in the brain.

My own experiences in martial arts have meant I have daily training in activities that force me to be present both where I am and when I am. Multitasking is quickly pushed to the side when you are facing someone who is going to attack you. You must be fully engaged in the one task at hand—dealing with the threat—and not thinking about what show to watch later. Even in practice the mindset must be that without 100% attention to now there is no later.

We talked about this in a related way in my earlier post “Stop thinking so much”. This aspect of mindful practice that creates the martial arts mindset of “mushin no shin”, mind of no mind. But even if you don’t do martial arts you can still seek the clarifying nature of activity we’ve discussed here.

If you go for your run listening to your iPod, try turning it off. Listen to the sounds of the birds, traffic, whatever there is around you. Immerse yourself in the environment you are part of while you pass by. Use your eyes to truly see what you are passing. Look for new details previously unnoticed on a familiar trail. Take in the smells—the good, the bad, and the ugly—of things you pass.

All of this can help clarify your thinking, center yourself, and be refreshed for the challenges faced in all aspects of your life. Many of those challenges cannot be avoided but they can be managed better. Managed more effectively by a refreshed you. This you is enabled by your mindful practice of being alive in the world and fully present in the here and now.

It’s an old idea that’s worth reflecting upon—here and now—in our modern age.

© E. Paul Zehr, 2012

E. Paul Zehr, Ph.D., is professor of neuroscience and kinesiology at the University of Victoria and author of "Becoming Batman" and "Inventing Iron Man."

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