Sunday, March 15, 2009

Book Reviews

A couple book reviews, both courtesy of my friend, Keith Vargo.


The first one, which Keith lent to me to read, is "Rational Mysticism" by John Horgan, a former science writer for Scientific American and numerous other publications. Horgan begins with a description of a mystical experience from William James: "Mysticism, James proposed, begins with an experience that meets four criteria: It is ineffable - that is, difficult or impossible to convey in ordinary language. It is noetic, meaning that it seems to reveal deep, profound truth. It is transient, rarely lasting for more than an hour or so. And it is a passive state, in which you feel gripped by a force much greater than yourself. Two qualities that James did not include in his formal list but mentioned elsewhere are blissfulness and a sense of union with all things."
As the title suggests, the book is an exploration of mysticism from the standpoint of science and rationality. Horgan interviews a number of scholars, philosophers, theologists, neurologists, and even pharmacologists, and looks at mystical experiences from a great many angles. What was interesting to me were some of the parallels with accounts of mystical experiences in the martial arts - these are usually couched in Zen buddhist terms like satori or kensho. As martial artists, aren't we all searching for a deeper insight into life?
Read this description of a seigan in John Stevens' biography of Yamaoka Tesshu, The Sword of No-Sword:
Yanagita Ganjiro completed the two-hundred-match seigan on the final day of his thousand-day training period. He then practiced five hundred more days in a row and undertook the three-day, six-hundred-match seigan. Blows received from the short, thick Muto Ryu bamboo sword (shinai) were extremely painful. Yanagita recalled: "After the first day my head was full of lumps and my body covered with bruises, but I did not feel weak. On the second day I began to suffer. I thought I would have to give up halfway. I managed to continue and near the end of the day I experienced 'selflessness' - I naturally blended with my opponent and moved in unhindered freedom. Although my spirit was strong my body was weak. My urine was dark red and I had no appetite. Nevertheless, I passed the final day's contests with a clear mind; I felt as if I was floating among the clouds."
Tesshu used the seigan as a way to make his students confront death - not death at the hands of one's opponent, but rather death due to exhaustion. Completing the seigan forced the student to push past barriers of pain to reach a new level of awareness - a mystical experience characterized by "blending" and "unhindered freedom".
Horgan interviews neurologists who have this to say about mystical experiences:

Newberg and D'Aquili divided all methods for achieving unitive experiences into two categories: top-down and bottom-up. Top-down methods, which included meditation and prayer, achieve transcendence through relaxation, by focusing and calming the mind. Bottom-up techniques, which include dancing, hyperventilation, chanting, and vigorous yoga, approach the same goal through excitation. Each method taps into a different componenet of the body's autonomic nervous system, which regulates heartbeat, blood pressure, respiration, metabolism, and other physiological functions. Top-down methods exploit the so-called quiescent component of the autonomic system, which limits the body's expenditure of energy and maintains its equilibrium. Bottom-up methods exploit the arousal component of the autonomic system, which triggers the body's fight-or-flight response, causing adrenaline to be pumped into the bloodstream, boosting heart rate and respiration.
If either the arousal or the quiescent component is pushed far enough, the one activates the other through a "spillover effect," producing a paradoxical state of ecstatic serenity. At the same time, activity decreases in a region at the top and rear of the brain called the posterior superior parietal lobe. Newberg and D'Aquili referred to this region as the orientaton-association area, since it helps us orient our bodies in relation to the external world. Patients whose posterior superior parietal lobe has been damaged often lose the ability to navigate, because they have difficulty determing where their physical selves end and the external world begins. Suppressed activity in this region, Newbeg and D'Aquili hypothesized, could lead to the decreased sense of subject-object duality and the heightened sense of unity with the external world reported by mystics.
The rest of the book is just as interesting, and is highly recommend for anyone interested in philosophy, mysticism, or religion.



Next up is Philosophy of Fighting - Morals and Motivations of the Modern Warrior. This one really does come courtesy of my friend Keith Vargo; he wrote it. It's a collection of articles published in Black Belt over the last 10 years. Keith has done karate, boxing, wrestling, and most recently has practiced Mixed Martial Arts for a number of years at the Takada Dojo, a leading training center in Tokyo, with such luminaries as Akira Shoji and Kazushi Sakuraba. His bias shows somewhat, as many of the articles are about the MMA world, but there is a great deal of interest to general martial artists; even reclusive iaidoka like myself.
One of Keith's recurring themes is the idea of violence, and its place in the modern world. One of my favorite pieces comes from an article called "The Reality of Violence", originally published in 1999.
In the beginning, we were little more than primates with the potential for consciousness. Like most social primates, we spent much of our time fighting with each other over food or access to females. The first human ancestor with anything like our reflective mind was the first one who felt the sting of regret because of hurting or killing one of his own kind. This caused him to reflect on his actions, giving him an interior life new to our species. Finally, this primordial drama is what we are recreating, to some degree, in every modern dojo...

Mr. Vargo then goes on to explore this theory, arguing that warrior Zen is a necessary attempt to return to a sort of primordial state, where we do not reflect on consequences but simply act at a moment's notice. It's a very interesting idea, and one that I had never considered before.
There are a lot of thought-provoking ideas in this book that struck me as novel or unique, and that's why I strongly recommend it to martial artists of all backgrounds. Our shelves are already full of style-specific technical manuals; that's what most books on the martial arts really boil down to, even if they claim, at some point, to be something different. Unfortunately, books that analyze the martial arts on anything like a psychological, philosophical, or anthropological level are all too rare. I hope that this book will inspire others to produce similar works.
If the book has a drawback, it's in the format. It is just a collection of Keith's short (one- or two-page) monthly articles. This makes the book's pacing a bit monotonous, and frequently left me wishing that he could have expanded more on what he was saying. But in terms of giving the reader bite-size chunks to chew on, it's great.
One more note: there is one article ("Defining the Warrior") which Keith Vargo didn't write, but which was included due to an editorial oversight. The article doesn't really match Keith's writing style, and so it stuck out like a sore thumb when I read the book. I trust it will be left out of future editions.