Several years ago, I came across an insightful book: The Open-Focus Brain by Dr. Les Fehmi and Jim Robbins [Fehmi]. The possibility that the “Open-Focus” state could improve my ability to spar in keiko and shiai piqued my interest. According to the book cover, the principles described therein could “optimize mental and physical performance” (as well as help heal the mind and body). And according to his biography, Dr. Fehmi had worked with sports teams such as the Dallas Cowboys and the New Jersey Nets, has certification as a “speed and explosion specialist” and holds a Ph.D. in psychology from UCLA. I describe here the Open-Focus concept, its potential relationship to 無心 (mushin) and application to kendo. The break-down of the article is as follows.
- What is “Open-Focus” and “Diffuse Attention”?
- Diffuse Attention and 無心 (mushin)
- How to be in Diffuse Attention?
- How to be in Diffuse Attention in Kendo?
- The Benefits of Diffuse-Attention in Kendo
- Wrap-up & References
Notes: 1) The concepts discussed herein has applications to budo in general and other martial arts such as aikido, judo, karate, kyudo and tae-kwon-do as well. 2) Updates: Added a link to a third video on Dec. 4, 2020. Revised on Dec. 13, 2017 with major edits to include “Diffuse Attention” and additional references.
What is “Open-Focus” and “Diffuse Attention”?
Open-Focus is a flexible way of “paying attention” [Fehmi] [Macdonald] [Kopec]. The authors describe four particular modes: narrow, diffuse, objective and immersed in the section “Styles of Attention” starting on p. 46 [Fehmi]. In this article, I focus on the first two.
In narrow attention, “we can concentrate our attention on a limited field of experience, excluding peripheral perceptions from our awareness [Fehmi p. 48].” Our mind may be sharply tuned to a particular task, sensory input or thought. It can also be an emergency mode of paying attention associated with higher heart rates, respiratory rates and energy requirements to maintain this heightened state. Based on his neurofeedback studies of the brain, Dr. Fehmi found that the narrow attention approach tends to illicit brain waves with higher frequencies referred to as beta waves (13 to 50 Hz).
In contrast, in diffuse attention, “no particular target of attention stands out.”* “[I]n its extreme form it is inclusive,…, giving equal attention to all internal and external stimuli simultaneously [Fehmi p. 49].” Our mind is not attuned to any particular task, input or thought. It is relaxed yet still alert. This form of paying attention tends to illicit brain waves with lower frequencies referred to as alpha waves (8 to 13 Hz) with phase-synchronicity. In this state, the author discovered that
My muscle tone softened, and I moved with a newfound effortlessness and fluidity… Anxiety evaporated. I felt extraordinarily present, centered, poised, open, lighter and freer, more calmly energetic and spontaneous. I laughed and smiled more. Untoward events no longer threw me the way they had before. … I was in the zone” [Fehmi, p.31].
This is generally the state we wish to be in where our body moves with ease, our strikes are effortless and smooth and our mind is clear – free from thoughts, worries or fears.
* Comment dated July 25, 2018: I recently learned of “Open Monitoring Meditation” [Lippelt] and it seems very similar to diffuse attention.
Diffuse Attention and 無心 (mushin)
I conjecture that these terms may refer to the same state of mind. Specifically, paying attention with a diffused approach. Mushin translates to “no mind” or the “absence of mind” in English. Takuan Soho describes mushin at great lengths as a non-focused mind spread everywhere in the section “Where One Puts the Mind” pp. 10-12 and in subsequent sections in The Unfettered Mind [Takuan]. For example,
The Right Mind is the mind that does not remain in one place. It is the mind that stretches throughout the entire body and self. The Confused Mind is the mind that, thinking something over, congeals in one place [Takuan, p.12].
Not stopping the mind is object and essence. Put nowhere, it will be everywhere. Even in moving the mind outside the body, if it is sent in one direction, it will be lacking in nine others. If the mind is not restricted to just one direction, it will be in all ten [Takuan, p.12].
And the following description from [Wiki_Mushin] reads like one for diffuse attention:
[Mushin is] a mind not fixed or occupied by thought or emotion and thus open to everything . . . achieved when a person’s mind is free from thoughts of anger, fear, or ego during combat or everyday life. There is an absence of discursive thought and judgment, so the person is totally free to act and react towards an opponent without hesitation and without disturbance from such thoughts. At this point, a person relies not on what they think should be the next move, but what is their trained natural reaction or what is felt intuitively. [Wiki_Mushin].
A few notes. For a more comprehensive comparison of mushin and diffuse attention (and Open Focus), I suggest taking a look at a set of illustrative quotes that I have extracted from [Takuan] and [Fehmi] and listed in Quotes on Mushin, Flow and Open-Focus. Additional information on mushin can be found in “Resources on Mushin-no-shin (the Mind of No Mind).” For those more familiar with the term “flow-state”, Minoru Kiyota equates mushin to the flow-state in [Kiyota02, p.2].
How to be in Diffuse Attention?
The answer to this question is rather remarkable. When Dr. Fehmi initially “tried” to generate phase-synchronous alpha waves in twelve two-hour sessions, he failed. However, when he “surrendered” and gave up trying in his subsequent session, he discovered to his surprise that he was able to generate them clearly [Fehmi, p.31]. This seems in line with ancient and current teachings of surrender, letting things flow and the acceptance of events and life.
To help induce this state, he developed a set of exercises [Fehmi, p. 63-70] via objectless images to foster “an awareness of space, silence, and a sense of timelessness” [Fehmi. p.39]. Here are a few examples of his exercises to contemplate on:
- Can you imagine the space between your eyes?
- Can you imagine the surface of your tongue?
- Can you imagine the space inside your ears?
Typically, they consider the space between two objects. By practicing these exercises, Dr. Fehmi and his students were apparently able to move into or maintain the diffuse attention state at will.
Here is a nice 9 min. video by Joel Dames [Dames] with exercises to develop diffuse attention and Open Focus. The Open Focus specific portion starts at 1:30min.
How to be in Diffuse Attention in Kendo?
We could practice the Open-Focus exercises mentioned above and become more skilled at moving into the diffuse attention state. However, I believe that we can also accomplish this by applying the well-known saying in kendo:
遠山の目付け (enzan no metsuke) – Gaze to the distant mountain.
I recall sensei’s advising students to avoid looking intently at one particular part of the opponent such as the kote or eyes, but rather looking through a person and seeing the entire person and environment – as detailed in [KendoInfo_Enzan] and in “The Gaze in Strategy” in The Book of Five Rings [Musashi, p.14]. This approach, also referred to as “Soft Eyes,” [KendoNotes_SoftEyes], helps relax the eyes and diffuse our attention.
Incidentally, the book describes a similar way of “looking” where we relax the eye muscles while also paying attention to areas in the periphery around an object of initial focus:
I noticed that the brain-wave training broadened my attention; I took in the world visually in a very different way. I now perceived larger scenes without focusing on any one element and with much less effort [Fehmi, p.34].
And Elizabeth Locke describes a similar way of “looking” with Open Focus in the context of visual arts and in a slightly different manner:
I’m back here open – seeing everything simultaneously without isolating anything. … Open Focus. Because from that vantage point you’re actually seeing holistically. … You’re holding the whole context to see what the parts are doing in relationship to the whole without ever losing the whole. – in the video [Locke] at 2:37min.
It is important to note an underlying and perhaps obvious premise. We need to be able to execute movements and techniques automatically (without conscious effort) and effectively. And this comes through practice. Apparently, “Chiba Masashi sensei used to practice a continuous set of 3000 suburi every day [KendoInfo_Moment].”
If we do aspire to reach a state of no-mind in our keiko, the answer lies in constant repetition of the basics. – Geoff Salmon (7th Dan) [KendoInfo_Moment]
What are the Benefits of Diffuse Attention in Kendo?
The benefits are probably well-understood by most people in kendo and athletics [Kiyota02, p. 2]. Here’s several practical and psychological benefits that I am aware of in the context of kendo.
First, we may become harder to “read” and may avoid telepathing our intentions to the opponent. For example, our eyes and kamae may no longer reveal an intent to strike a certain area. Second, a study of ten novice mediators showed at least short-term improvement in reaction times for psychomotor vigilance tasks after forty minutes of meditation [Kaul]. Indeed, when I remember to practice with diffuse attention, it seems that my body can execute, for example, oji-waza much more quickly and easily. Third, it seems to help increase my awareness and sense of the opponent. For example, there are times when I can perceive a (usually weaker) opponent’s intention to initiate a strike (perhaps due to changes in facial expressions or body movements). Perhaps this may be attributed to the mind becoming like a clear mirror (which is also related to the “immersed” mode of paying attention addressed in the book):
Mochida [Moriji (10 dan)] sensei’s spirit had become a clear mirror – if you thought about striking him that thought would be reflected in his heart and in that instant he would strike. This is because he pursued kendo with his spirit. – Morishima Tateo (8th Dan Hanshi) [Kenshi247_11]
Lastly, prior to and during matches, shiai‘s and shinsa‘s it can help us be more calm – free from thoughts, distractions, anxiety, emotions or any of the four sicknesses shikai (surprise, fear, doubt, hesitation) [KendoInfo_Shikai] that may hinder us from being or performing at our best.
A few notes. First, I feel relaxed and calm when paying attention to my sensory input and thoughts with diffuse attention – in and out of kendo. Second, for those interested in meditation, Copthorne Macdonald comments on Open Focus and the similarity of its effects with those of two forms of meditation techniques (Vipassana and Dzogchens) in the section “Spiritual Practices and Open Focus” [Macdonald]. Joel Dames describes an audio version of the vision attention training in [Dames_AttentionTraining]. Lastly, for more information on Open-Focus, here’s a couple of videos on YouTube describing Open Focus:
- This video by Elizabeth Locke [Locke, first 4 mins] describes Open Focus in the context of art and also describes enzan-no metsuke.
- Dr. Les Fehmi has a few videos on Open Focus (which I have not yet watched). Here’s the first one in the series [Fehmi_Video].
- Alison O’Leary has a nice intro and experiment toggling between narrow and open focus [LiveTrue_OpenFocus].
[Fehmi] Les Fehmi, Jim Robbins, The Open-Focus Brain – Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body, Trumpeter Books, 2007.
[Kaul] Prashant Kaul, Jason Passafiume, Craig R .Sargent, Bruce F. O’Hara, “Meditation acutely improves psychomotor vigilance, and may decrease sleep need,” Behavioral and Brain Functions, 6:47, 2010.
[Kiyota02] Minoru Kiyota, Kendo: Philosphy, History and Means to Personal Growth, Shambhala, 2002 (Book). Section 2 of Chapter 1: “Mushin: An Altered State of Consciousness”.
[Lippelt] Dominique P. Lippelt, Bernhard Hommel and Lorenza S. Colzato, “Focused attention, open monitoring and loving kindness meditation: effects on attention, conflict monitoring, and creativity – A review,” Frontiers in Psychology, Sept 23, 2014 (PDF, 5 pages).
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