Is the altered state of consciousness achieved
by masters of karate and the other martial arts accompanied by distinct physiological
changes? And is it these changes that enable them to do such extraordinary things
as drive bicycle spokes through their flesh, walk on hot coals, lie on sharpened
swords, and hold molten lead in their mouths without experiencing any pain?
Saturday morning. Nearly two dozen researchers, photographers, and friends were gathered at the Biofeedback Research Institute with a menagerie of electronic instruments, cameras, electrodes, and movie lights to find out how Joo Bang Lee, a 34-year-old Founder of Korean Martial art Hwa Rang Do, was able to drive a bicycle spoke through the fleshy part of his upper arm without feeling pain.
Mr. Lee had come to the United States from Korea to visit his brother, Joo Sang Lee, who runs a Hwa Rang Do school in Huntington Park, California, and together they had agreed to participate in the first of a series of experiments conducted by the Biofeedback Research Institute (with the help of Black Belt Magazine). This experiment was designed to study the physiological parameters of a technique of pain control mastered by the Lee Brothers through the Eastern approach of Hwa Rang Do. What physiological and/or psychological changes occurred that enabled Mr. Lee to feel no pain as he was actually driving this spoke through his arm? Could normal subjects be trained, perhaps, through a Western technique known as biofeedback, to duplicate these changes and thereby learn a technique for pain control?
In general, the concept of biofeedback is premised upon the growing body of knowledge coming out of research laboritories around the country that a man is indeed able (as the Eastern traditions have been demonstrating for thousands of years) to bring under conscious control the functions of the autonomic, or what up until now has been referred to as the "involuntary" nervous system. Biofeedback involves the use of electronic instruments which pick up and amplify physiological functions of the body of which we are not even normally aware, such as blood pressure and brain waves. These measurements are then translated into a recognizable signal, such as a light or a tone, and "fed back" through our conscious sensory system (e.g. our eyes or ears). Somehow, once a person is made aware of, let's say, his heart rate, he can very easily and quickly (with repetition and practice) learn to control it.
In research laboratories around the country human volunteers have been trained to control some autonomic functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, brain waves, muscle tension, hand temperature and sweat gland activity.
EASING OF PAIN
At the University of Colorado Medical School, for example, two young psychologists, Dr. Johann Stoyva and Dr. Thomas Budzynski, havd had considerable success in teaching their patients how to relax specific muscles that tense up and cause certain kinds of tension headaches. With intensive and serious certain kinds of tension headaches. With intensive and serious training the easing of pain has been immediate and impressive.
In Baltimore Dr. Bernard T. Engel, a psychologist, and Dr. Eugene Bleeker, a cardiovascular specialist, have conducted biofeedback training sessions with eight patients suffering from premature ventricular contractions (PVC's), a dangerous irregularity of theheartbeat involving the heart's main pumping chamber. With exciting success, these patients have learned to speed up, slow down and narrowly regulate their heart by force of mental discipline alone.
And what about all this furor in the popular press over "alpha waves" and brain-wave biofeedback? People are learning to produce and regulate certain brain-wave rhythms as easily as children learn to walk. And just like walking - or any learning situation - it takes lots of practice and plenty of tumbles.
It seems Mr. Lee has learned, through the technique of Hwa Rang Do, a method for control of pain. Could the technique of biofeedback training be used to accomplish the same end? If persons could be taught, for example, to prduce brain waves associated with a relaxed, non-anxious state of mind and at the same time be taught to overcome and control their "involuntary" anxiety - their fear of pain - then surely they could at least learn to appreciably reduce, if not completely eliminate, the "pain" itself.
Hershel Toomim, director of the Los Angeles Biofeedback Research Institute, and Jeff Stevens, a bright young psychiatrist and clinical director for the institute, were immediate allies to the project. Toomim began working on a way to measure a variety of physiological functions on Mr. Lee while he was actually performing the bicycle-spoke feat. Certainly the body systems that would be of special interest to watch would include heart rate, bood flow, brainwaves and muscle response.
It would be easy to measure these functions on someone sitting quietly in classic lotus posture, softly meditating, but what about on a strapping, young martial art expert whose warm up meditation involves tremendous muscle tension and ritualistic movement? The quiet little changes in the autonomic system must be measured by hypersensitive electrodes. Any movement, even an eyeblink, will throw the record off by showing what is referred to as "muscle artifact." Muscle artifact only indicates that there has been movement. It is not an indication of activity change in the nervous system.
Movement, obviously, could not be eliminated from Mr. Lee's performance. The best that could be done was to be certain that the electrodes were all securely anchored, then, in the periods of quiet, hope for the best. Thus, armed with the most modern,"paste 'em up" methods available - scotch tape, masking tape and electrode cream - all was ready.
TWO OF THE FEW
Erik Peper, a biofeedback researcher, and Gay Luce, co-authors of the New York Times Magazine article on biofeedback, "Mind Over Body, Mind Over Mind," suddenly, after a month-long trip to India, turned up in Los Angeles the day before the experiment. In 1971 Peper had heard of an Ecuadorian who practiced unusual control over pain and bleeding. "This man repeatedly had been hung from hooks inserted under his shoulder blades and had walked through fire, all without damaging his flesh and with little or no bleeding. He did not report subjective pain. The opportunity arose to study him and to investigate the physiological and psychological techniques he used to control pain and bleeding," according to Peper in his paper,"Developing a Biofeedback Model: Alpha EEG Feedback as a means for pain control." If anyone was well equipped to help with the analysis and interpretation of the results of his experiment, it was Gay Luce and Erik Peper.
The Lee Brothers, respectfully dressed in grey Western suits and ties, stood quietly while the electronic tumult went on around them. Joo Bang Lee speaks no English and his brother, Joo Sang Lee, only enough to order breakfast and teach his classes. Martial Arts Instructor Mr. Chan-Yong Kim was our translator. He is a gentle, thoughtful man who took time and effort to translate carefully.
Lights were set and reset. Instruments were shuffled about, tested and retested. The Lee Brothers changed into their gi (the outfit worn by karate practitioners), and Joo Bang Lee settled down into classic lotus posture amidst electrodes, wires and the ironic embranglement of Western technology.
Erik Peper hooked up the five channels to record brain waves. Hershel Toomim pasted electrodes on Lee's left arm to measure blood flow (did Lee direct the blood flow away from that arm during penetration to reduce bleeding?). Beryl Bender attached three electrodes along the same arm to measure what the muscles in that arm did during the experiment. After a trial run, so that everyone would have an idea of the movement involved in Mr. Lee's performance, and a strategic positioning of the photographers, everything was ready for the experiment to begin.
Mr. Lee performed a ritualistic arm and body movement, went into what seemed a highly disciplined, well-directed concentration, and threw every muscle in his body into extreme tension. From what I am able to remember, the EMG (muscle tension) reading was off-scale, or in excess of 120 microvolts of tension for the duration of the experiment. We could not put the EMG record through our print-out EEG - and electroencephalograph hooked up to write down the results of all our measurements - since all the channels were being used for other measurements. Therefore, EMG had to be recorded manually.
Lee then yelped his kiai, the cry always heard just before a martial art feat. His brother, acting as assistant, pulled the flesh of the lower arm away from the muscle, and Joo Bang Lee stabbed the bicycle spoke through several inches of skin. At this point, Lee was motionless for several seconds while accurate physiological measurements were taken.
To further demonstrate his concentration and ability to feel no pain, Lee moved into a standing position, and a galvanized tin bucket filled nearly full with water and weighing about 25 pounds was attached to the spoke. Lee lifted the bucket and held it up for several seconds. Then the bucket was removed, the spoke taken out, and Lee returned to his lotus, eye-open post-meditation position.
After extricating Joo Bang Lee from the maze of wires and electrodes, the assemblage returned to the front reception room for an exchange of questions. What had he experienced? How did he explain what he was able to do? Did he feel any pain? Any pressure?
Hershel Toomim began explaining,"Tension, muscle artifact, things like that tend to obscure the other readings. But during the actual penetration the record is very good. The blood flow record is not clear. Electrode placement is critical. It must be right over the artery. When he rotated his arm, stretching the skin a bit, the electrode went off. We tried to tape it in place so that it would stay, but it didn't make it."
Erik Peper explained that "his eyes-open record (the base-line reading taken before beginning the feat itself) looks like a normal record. The subject I had before, during the time that he was actually doing it, was relaxed. His record was relaxed. In this case, I would almost have to say he (Lee) is doing an act of focusing - mental focusing; whereas, in the case of my past subject, he flipped his consciousness. Yes, there was a great deal of alpha present in the record of my past subject."
Then the questioning came around to Lee himself. According to Kim, the translator speaking for Lee, the experiment went something like this: "When I am arranging my body in my preparation, I start my concentration with abdomen power, bringing the energy up into my arm and letting this energy flow out into the arm. It is at this point that I insert the spoke...My conmcentrated mind is on the activity itself; I am not really bothered by my surroundings. I would have to say that my mind and body are together and then separated from the place where it would hurt and put somewhere else." Erik Peper explains this seperation as the disassociation technique: Lee separates his attention from what he is actually doing. Kim, still talking for Lee, said, "During penetration, I am aware of what is happening because I am doing it, but I do not feel anything. I don't even realize that people are around me. No, I do not feel any pressure."
"Where is your focus? Can you explain any further?" Peper questioned.
"Well, it's a pretty complicated matter which involves an understanding of Oriental philosophy," Kim declared. "The fundamental power is at the bottom of the abdomen, a space about three inches square, just below the navel. This is "ki". "In Hwa Rang Do is is called kihae and corresponds to the ki and chi of other forms of martial art. Literally translated, it means "spiritual ocean." Once you concentrate on that square, you can move the energy into any part of the body. The concentrated mind can be applied to anything he does, and when it is applied, he no longer feels it; he dosen't exist in the world. So then, it is very much like this "emptying the mind," or this "point of no consciousness," about which you have asked.
Kim continued, now speaking for Lee again. "My mental direction of energy is an effort to bring my concentration into a very small area. In other words, I draw a round circle and then bring that circle into a very small, tiny spot. The only thing that exists for me is that spot of focused energy and I can then fit that spot into any particular place."
How then does all this tie in with the brain-wave records taken on Lee and the results of past experiments? To the biofeedback researcher, who has read most of the papers that have been written on the physiological effects of various forms of meditation, the state of meditation seems generally to be accompanied by a slow, alert, quiet, non-thinking, non-focused type of brain wave rhythm known as alpha. However, in Lee's case, there was no slow down of brain wave activity. His record shows a predominance of the of the high frequency, focused rhythm of normal waking consciousness known as beta. Therefore, it appears that Lee is not in a state of consciousness similar to a state of meditation as we know it.
In looking at the "Electroencephalographic Study of Zen Meditation" conducted by Akiro Kasamatsu and Tomio Hirai of the University of Tokyo in 1966, the adept practitioners of meditation showed almost continuous alpha waves during meditation (normally associated with a state of relaxed alertness in ordinary subjects). This revelation was particulary startling in the case of Zen monks because their eyes were open. One almost never sees alpha rhythms in the eyes-open condition of ordinary subjects.
Lee's technique for pain control is obviously different from that of classic Eastern meditators. Zen masters and yogis, who are able to preform many of the same feats found in martial arts demonstrations and can walk on hot coals or puncture the flesh with swords and spokes, employ a technique of deep meditation. This involves a complete metabolic slowdown, including a predominance of low-frequency alpha and theta brain waves. They are not focused and are not actively avoiding the pain. They seem to be "somewhere else."
According to Dr. Jeff Stevens, "I think the most interesting thing about this experiment is that during the time in which he was sticking the poke in himself there where little change in any of the measurements that we made. Everything remained at the same level. It was as if it didn't happen to him. This is significant from the point of view that it gives a kind of a picture of focusing and would indicate that the mechanism of his being able to do this was different from...let's say, the methods of classical meditation. This indicates that perhaps he wasn't in, let's call it, a "trance," in the standard way that we talk about "trances." If it was a trance, it was certainly a different kind of trance.
"In the brain-wave production, for instance...there was no alpha in his record, no appreciable alpha as he was actually doing it," continued Dr. Stevens. "There was some alpha earlier in the experiment when he closed his eyes in his preparatory meditation. Alpha tends to be associated in the past experiments with a state of being someplace else, of being not there and not focused.
"Alpha is a non-focused type of brain rythm. It is a normal rythm of the brain and it appears when you are relaxed. The deeper the relaxation, generally, the more the alpha...here we didn't see alpha. We did see some slow waves. I don't know what they mean, but the significance is that he was focused. You can't get alpha with focusing."
Thus, it appears that the ability to be insensitive to pain is, in this case, dependent upon Mr. Lee's ability to focus on the Danjun, or "red field," the three-inch-square area below the nevel that is the energy source in Hwa Rang Do. "Red" implies luck, active, genuine, and "field" implies a cultivated field (as opposed to wild, undisciplined). This "active discipline" then is condensed to an intense, tiny spot of energy which is the entire field of cencentration. It is as if there is no room in the conciousness for the sensation of pain. It is active elimination. It is different from the passive willing of alpha elimination and biofeedback training. It seems to be "making it happen" as opposed to "letting it happen," as is the case in classic meditation. It is a superb concentration in an active sense. Zen masters and yogis, on the other hand, employ what also seems to be superb concentration but in a passive sense. There is frequent reference among the subjects of past similar experiments to "being someplace else."
Thus of the part of Lee's brain that can be measured, it must be said that it is "present and focused." But what of the vast regions that still defy measurements? What of the intricacies and complexities that still seem light years away from our understanding? The approach of Hwa Rang Do is one way to teach man to "turn off pain" or, in other words, to cope with the deleterious effects of the ever-increasing complexities and chaos of modern technology - one approach to self health. Zen meditation is, obviously another. Biofeedback, perhaps another. In any case, the key seems to lie in the ability to become increasingly responsible for one's own condition, to be ever consciously expanding one's awareness of the self and the self's relationship to the universe.