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Zen is Action : A Zen Master on the essence of performance

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We met a Zen Master to discuss with him the synergy of personal fulfilment, sense of meaning and high performance in a competitive environment like pro sports. 

 
I have been in touch with eastern philosophies since I can remember. When I was 12 I found a book about Feng Shui in my parents room and set up my own room according to Feng Shui principles. I did Yoga when I was 14 and started meditating at around the same time. No one else of my friends did it and its weird how those ideas found me. It was basically just because I found a couple of books about that stuff and instantly felt it resonating with me.
But I am not a big believer in the full adoption of eastern belief systems. I think while many are very very valuable, some of them are detrimental to oneselves, to being successful in competition, to economy and ultimately also to society.
 
 
Let us ask the tough questions:
 
  • Why do the „spiritually Enlightened“ basically remove themselves from society? They should be the pinnacle of eastern understanding. But why do stop contributing to society? Do they really stop, or are they contributing by not participating? Is Enlightenment an egoistic move? Is it the ultimate altruistic move? Are they truly fulfilled or just resentful to society?
  • Where are the Eastern Martial Arts Grandmasters in the World Championships of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)? MMA is mostly dominated by athletes from the United States, Brasil and ex-soviet countries. Why is that if the Eastern Martial Arts are so great?
  • Why do (in general) western societies strive and eastern societies struggle?
 
Those are some brutal (and obviously oversimplified) questions, but we ultimately have to ask them, if we want to find the best of both worlds. Which beliefs are beneficial to the individual? Which beliefs are detrimental to the individual? What about society? Are some beneficial to the individual, but detrimental to society? Are the ones that are beneficial to the individuals fulfillment detrimental to his performance in a competitive environment? 
 
With our team at ALLOUT Performance we were always very sensitive to the PRO’s and CON’s of different belief systems. In my opinion we struck a nice balance between these two philosophies up to this point. With more experience we discovered more and more questions about the optimal interplay between „western“ and „eastern“ philosophies. Thats why we ultimately decided last year to hook up with a Zen Master to point us in the right directions. We had some fundamental questions about the optimal unification of eastern (especially Zen) and western ideas when it comes to simultaneously combining four major goals :
 
  • To be the best athlete one can be
  • To be valuable to your tribe (family, friends, and team)
  • To be valuable to society
  • To feel fulfilment and a sense of meaning
 
 
It was a short conversation and only the first of many, but let us look at my biggest take-aways from our first discussion with a Zen Master. 
 
I actually wanted to publish the conversation in full, but we shared many sensitive stories from the competitive environment. We might do a full publishable podcast with him in the future.
 
 
 
 
The difference of Eastern and Western Warfare
 
 
Zen Master (paraphrased) : „In Eastern warfare a general tells his soldiers to take hill number 42 and he will tell his soldiers exactly how to do it. Then they storm the hill and will commit their lives to it without ever asking „why?“. In western warfare the general will tell his soldiers why its important to take over hill 42. He then will pick the smart soldiers to do the strategising, the creative soldiers to find alternate routes, the brave soldiers to do the fighting, and the good communicators to be squad leaders.“
 
The only way to find out which strategy is better is to go to hill 42 and let those two armies go at it. But at this moment I am not too interested in the outcome, I am more interested in it from the perspective of an individual in each group.
 
 
While some might think eastern philosophies are generally suited to „find yourself“ this example illustrates just the opposite in my opinion. The western approach to warfare appreciates individual strengths and weaknesses. It puts people in positions where their chance of individual success, and thereby group success, is maximised. 
 
“What are you good at? What do you love to do? Well good, then do just this and you will be of value for the group!“
 
This is a very individual approach. On the other hand the eastern approach in this example is very collectivist. It is an interesting thought experiment to find relationships between this individualistic vs. collectivist example of warfare and the capitalist (west) vs. socialist (east) philosophies in economy or the principles of athletic development in the West vs. the East.
 
 
Devotion and Responsibilities 
 
The fascinating thing in the eastern approach is the level of devotion that is necessary to make this approach work. „Devotion“ is a big concept in the eastern philosophies. Devotion to family, devotion to ones master, devotion to nature and devotion to the gods. When I spend time with Hindu families I can see and experience how this devotion gives the people great fulfilment and joy. This works if devotion goes ALL….THE….WAY….
Because if something shitty happens, like the master treats the student badly, or if nature treats the people badly via earthquakes or similar, then devotion cannot stop or misery will result. What you will find fully devoted people saying are things like „Its the gods will and in the end it will all be good“. They will be able to say this just after their whole existence got wiped out by an earthquake. 
So in my opinion the philosophy of „devotion“ can only function if its embedded in a deeply spiritual framework that has no end. 
Because imagine trying the concept of devotion without this framework. What happens if devotion stops short? At some point people will get pissed. Pissed at the decisions of their superior, pissed at „how things are“, or at the latest get pissed if external circumstances disrupt their plan/process. 
 
The possible downside of the „devotion“ concept is that it is basically outsourcing responsibility. A key mantra of devotion is „What will be should be“. This belief almost completely denies the possibility of being able to change outcomes („what will be“) with your actions. So when your down 1 point in a tight game, you think it is valuable to have the thought „what will be should be“, or should you rather approach this situation with „I will do my very best to change this situation in my favour“. 
 
We can be certain that the second approach is more favourable if you want to win a game. But is it also more favourable to be a valuable human to your tribe, to society, and to be fulfilled and happy?
 
And this brings us to the Zen Masters second point :
 
 
Zen is Action 
 
Zen Master (paraphrased) : „Zen is Action! The creative process is a path to your own fulfilment and thereby to others. It is a process of creation. In full connection with life and not outside of it. You take a disciplined approach at doing what you love. This is the „Do“, which is „The Way“. This will inspire others. You are a role model, whether you like it or not. We are ALWAYS role models.“
 
We talked a lot about the „Do“ in the context of team sports like ice hockey. IcehockeyDO is the process of individual expression for each player. In the game he can fully immerse and express himself through movement and competition. The sport and the competition helps the player to find himself. The sport teaches him how to interact with others and be of value to others and society. He can only do that if he fully immerses in the DO with love and discipline. 
 
Some players are motivated by love, some are motivated by fear, some are motivated by anger or resentment from childhood, but it really doesn’t matter what their motivations are, because IcehockeyDO will help them all to find inner peace THROUGH expression, THROUGH engagement, THROUGH discipline, THROUGH movement, and THROUGH competition. It does not have to start with love, but the „Do“ will lead to love for the process. Zen is ACTION!
 
Zen is ACTION and Coaching is using the medium of the activity/sport to spark the creative process in the athlete. The sport and the competitive environment let the player express himself, find himself, be a role model to society and thereby being able to :
  • Be the best athlete he can be
  • Be of value to his tribe
  • Be of value to society
  • To feel fulfilment and a sense of meaning
 
May the FLOW be with you all!
Gerrit Keferstein, MD

Gerrit Keferstein is a Medical Doctor specialised in Performance & Functional Medicine. He is most known for his work on the optimisation of recovery and adaptation in elite athletes.

Tags : martial artszeneastern philosophywarfarefulfilmentperformancebuddhismhinduismsocialismcapitalismcompetitionphilosophyperformance docperformance medicine

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