Revised on Oct 17, 2017 with editing and additional references.
Several years ago, I came across an insightful book The Open-Focus Brain by Dr. Les Fehmi and Jim Robbins [Fehmi]. The possibility of the “Open-Focus” concept improving my kendo piqued my interest. According to his biography, Dr. Fehmi holds a Ph.D. in psychology from UCLA, has worked with sports teams such as the Dallas Cowboys and the New Jersey Nets and has certification as a “speed and explosion specialist”. And according to the book cover, the principles described therein could help enhance sports-related performance. I describe here the open-focus concept and its relation to 無心 (mushin) and kendo. The break-down of the article is as follows.
- What is “Open-Focus”?
- Open Focus, 無心 (mushin), In-the-Zone and Flow-State
- How to Achieve Open-Focus?
- How to Achieve Open-Focus in Kendo?
- The Benefits of Open-Focus in Kendo
- Wrap-up & References
What is “Open-Focus”?
The authors note two general states of mind or approaches to “paying attention”.
The first is a “narrow-focus” approach where our mind is sharply tuned to a particular task, sensory input or thought. It is associated with an emergency mode of paying attention, higher heart rates, higher respiratory rates and greater energy required to maintain this heightened state. Based on his neurofeedback studies of the brain, Dr. Fehmi found that the narrow-focus approach tends to illicit brain waves with higher frequencies referred to as beta waves (13 to 50 Hz).
The second is an “open-focus” approach where our mind is diffuse, non-focused and relaxed yet still alert – not attuned to any particular task, input or thought. It tends to illicit brain waves with lower frequencies referred to as alpha waves (8 to 13 Hz). 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 – unfettered by thoughts, worries or fears.
Open-focus, 無心 (mushin), In-the-Zone and Flow-State
I believe that these terms refer to the same state. Mushin translates to “no mind” or the “absence of mind” in English. Minoru Kiyota equates mushin to the flow-state in [Kiyota02, p. 2] and the following description from [Wiki_Mushin] reads like one for open-focus:
[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. It is not a state of relaxed, near-sleepfulness, however. The mind could be said to be working at a very high speed, but with no intention, plan or direction. [Wiki_Mushin]
How to Achieve Open Focus?
The answer to this question is rather remarkable. When Dr. Fehmi initially “tried” to generate alpha waves, he failed. However, when he eventually “surrendered” and gave up trying, he discovered to his surprise that he was able to generate strong, clear alpha waves. He developed a set of exercises to help induce this state [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 of his examples to meditate 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?
With practice, he and students of his exercises were apparently able to move into or maintain the open-focus state at will.
How to Achieve Open-Focus in Kendo?
We could practice the open-focus exercises mentioned above and become more skilled at moving into that state. We can also probably accomplish this by applying the well-known saying in kendo:
遠山の目付け [enzan no metsuke] – Gazing to the mountain in the distance.
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. This has the desired effect of relaxing the eyes (also referred to as “Soft Eyes”) and diffusing 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].
It is important to note an underlying and perhaps obvious premise. We need to be able to execute movements and techniques automatically and effectively. And this comes through practice. Apparently, “Chiba Masashi sensei used to practice a continuous set of 3000 suburi every day [KendoInfo04].”
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 [KendoInfo04]
What are the Benefits of Open-Focus 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 can become harder to “read” and can avoid telepathing our intentions to the opponent. For example, if we are intent on hitting kote, our eyes and kamae may reveal this to the opponent. Second, I believe our reaction time can be faster. When I remember to practice with open-focus, it seems that my body can perform, for example, oji-waza during kihon-geiko 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). This is probably quite related to becoming a clear mirror:
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 (8 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, fears or emotions that may hinder us from being or performing at our best.
I have only recently started applying the open-focus approach to my kendo practice with the aforementioned benefits. Part of the challenge is in remembering to adopt this mindset and making this a habit. I anticipate it will have additional benefits in life outside of kendo, too.
[Fehmi] Les Fehmi, Jim Robbins, The Open-Focus Brain – Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body, Trumpeter Books, 2007.
[KendoInfo04] Geoff Salmon, “Getting lost in the moment,” KendoInfo.net, May 2004.
[Kenshi247_11] George McCall, “Pursuing the spirit and modern kendo (part 3), Kenshi247.net, Mar 2011.
[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”.
 From a neuroscience perspective, the control path starting from the visual sensory input to eyes, to the brain and eventually to the muscles is likely shorter and faster in this state. There is likely less processing (or thinking) at the brain enabling a faster response time to the point where we may function with so called “muscle memory.”
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