The Art of No-Mind: Letting Go In Order To Win. Musings about Zen, martial arts, and League of Legends

Introduction

Traditional japanese martial arts, such as Karate-do, Aikido and Judo, have been affected greatly by Buddhism, specifically the Zen Buddhism sect as far as philosophical matters go. Just by taking a look at the goals of each of the aforementioned arts, one is bound to find more similarities than differences. That isn’t to say that those arts are the same, but that an undeniable correlation exists between them and Zen. Let’s take a short look at that correlation. Karate-do means the way of the empty hand, with emphasis on the word empty as mentioned in Zen doctrines and teachings. Aikido and Judo teach one to go with the flow, a concept prevalent in Zen as well.

The above observations are nothing but a short and abridged version of the actual correlations. A more in depth look isn’t the purpose of this writing. Instead in this article, I will try to present and interpret some basic philosophical principles and teachings of Zen and martial arts and how they apply when practicing for a competitive game, be it a sport or a competitive video game. Specifically, borrowing from my martial arts practice, my League of Legends experience and some books on Zen and martial arts I will attempt to demonstrate how some fundamental Zen principles can apply to a competitive game.

Enter the No-Mind

When you have continuously made great efforts and have accumulated discipline without really noticing, you will have left aside the thought of doing things well, and will have attained the realm of No-Mind/No-Thought. …Your actions will be like the machinations of a wooden puppet. At such a time, you will not be self-conscious and your mind will not be occupied with what you are doing. Thus, in ten out of ten times, your body, hands, and feet will make no mistakes. But if your mind slips in even slightly, you will miss your aim. When you have No-Mind, you will hit the mark every time.

No-Mind, however, is not a state of having no mind at all. It is simply your ordinary mind.1

The pinnacle of a martial artist, as seen in Japanese martial arts, is achieving the state of No-Mind or ‘Mushin’. Mushin is achieved when a person’s mind is free from thoughts of anger, fear or ego during combat. Thus, that person is completely free to act and react towards an opponent without distraction, hesitation or impediment of judgement. He reacts swiftly and instinctively. This is somewhat analogous to flow experienced by artists deeply in a creative process.

In a game like League of Legends achieving such a mind would mean a skyrocketing to personal skill. However in order to do that, one should go on and master the fundamentals. Last hitting, harassing in lane, champion match ups, the potential of your champion, skill combos, roaming, objective control, item builds, etc are all training goals that must be approached separately. Before one goes around making plays, they should practice and master the above. And by mastering, I mean reaching a state of mind where intuitively, one can tell what the correct decision is and take it with no hesitation. In other words, when practicing competitively for a game like LoL, the fundamentals much become second nature to the players and they must be able to execute them adequately if not flawlessly while not letting their own self get in the way.

To sum up, Mushin happens when the mind is unobstructed and flows freely throughout the whole self. 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. Once that is achieved in your art/game the goal is to further extend this state into other aspects your everyday life. Retrospectively, we could argue that we are training in order to let go of our training. But more on that below.

Getting Rid of Sickness

To think only of winning is sickness. To think only of using the martial arts is sickness. To think only of demonstrating the result of one’s training is sickness, as is thinking only of making an attack or waiting for one. To think in a fixated way only of expelling such sickness is also sickness. Whatever remains absolutely in the mind should be considered sickness. As these various sicknesses are all present in the mind, you must put your mind in order and expel them.

…In the martial arts it is a sickness if you do not leave the mind of the martial arts behind. If you will only use your ordinary mind and take up the sword , the sword will be used with freedom.
…Not being surprised by anything, the ordinary mind will be good for everything.2

Sickness, as mentioned here, can be interpreted as any kind of obsession. Whether that obsession concerns victory, fame or simply showing off, the need to get rid of this sickness is one of the fundamental goals of Zen and the traditional Japanese martial arts. Once it rids itself of these excess thoughts, the mind reverts back to its ‘ordinary’ state. Zen maintains all people are able to achieve this and, by doing so, attain freedom.

How would this affect a competitive LoL player, or, by extension, any kind of competitor? From my experiences, I can attest to becoming fixated on goals and results. When I first entered the world of martial arts, my goal was clear : I wanted to be the strongest. I was here to win, and would train non-stop to the points of exhaustion. Yet whenever a competition came up, I’d be too fixated on winning to perform effectively. The pressure I’d put on myself would make me so nervous I couldn’t properly execute even basic techniques. During one of those fights I injured my leg, which took me out of the sport for two years. My obsession had made me become my own worst enemy.

My injury gave me time to reflect on this, and when I came back I had shifted my focus to the art and enjoyment of the sport itself. Steadily I began to improve again and recover my strength. My goal to better my skills was now a general guideline for me, rather than an unhealthy fixation. I simply focused on practicing the moves: kicking and punching, blocking and parrying. When my next fight came I didn’t get worked up over winning or losing, and instead concentrated on the fight itself. The results, according to spectators, were nothing short of spectacular. This time I lost by a small margin. But the result didn’t matter. I fought and that was enough for me. Next time I may win. I just have to keep fighting.

Similarly in LoL, people can get overly concerned about their and others’ rating, division, number of wins, etc. It’s important to note that while in martial arts you alone are responsible for your performance, LoL is played alongside others. It is much easier then, to shift blame for bad games entirely to teammates. You don’t need to look far to find forum posts talking about ‘elo hell’, the fabled matchmaking range where it becomes nigh impossible to advance due to unskilled team-members.

I too believed that I belonged in a higher division, that my teammates were holding me back and that the system didn’t work. But in ranting over my rating and my teammates, I committed the same error that had almost ended my practice in martial arts. What was foiling me wasn’t the rating or my teammates, but me obsessing over them. When this dawned upon me, I decided to rededicate myself once more. I went back to the basics, focused on my own performance and played for the joy of playing. I slowly improved and, over time, my rating went from bronze to gold. While it is not that big of a deal, I am quite pleased with myself. It is where I belong currently because for all my practicing in this game, I still have a lot to learn.

If I were to give people one simple advice that would be to stop being fixated on their rating. They should play the game for the sake of it. The only guideline on their mind should be improving and even that should be for its own sake. Nor for an abstract rating. That is such a simple thing to say, yet it is quite hard to do. Even if you know how you must act and why, you can still get stirred by your emotions, which is completely natural. Heck, even the pros can make that mistake from time to time. For example, take Cloud9, currently the best of the North America LoL teams. About 8 months ago they had the chance to qualify for the regional LoL championship. They had a solid advantage for most of the game. However, for a few minutes they lost their focus in the game by thinking of what lies after victory. That was disastrous and in the end cost them the match. In their case, their “sickness” was being concerned about the future. What can you do for cases like this? Well, the best thing you can do is to consciously practice and strive for improvement until you are able to get cured of your “sickness”, whatever that may be.

To summarize, “sickness” is any obsession one may have. By discarding that “sickness” one can elevate his art/game to new heights.

Conclusions

All in all, before one starts winning, they must first make the fundamentals of the game a part of their selves. But most important of all one must abandon their obsession of winning. While this may sound like quite a contradicting thing to do, should one focus on playing the game and improving in it for the sake of it, winning will come. This is one possible interpretation of Zen. By abandoning one’s fixation on goals, they are free to achieve them. In a way, Zen can be argued to teach people how to pursue their goals, whether those are winning or living life to the fullest, by letting go of them. A valuable lesson indeed.

1Munemori, Yaguy. The Life-Giving Sword: Secret Teachings from the House of the Shogun. Trans. William Scot Wilson. Shambhala, 2012.

2Munemori, Yaguy. The Life-Giving Sword: Secret Teachings from the House of the Shogun. Trans. William Scot Wilson. Shambhala, 2012.

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Grand Theft Auto V: Bringing back the classic, in a modern way

Developer Rockstar Games is back yet again with another installment of its epic series in Grand Theft Auto V.  Many things that the player has learned to love, and hate, about these games are back.  One thing could be said about Rockstar games is that they know when to keep things as they are, and they also realize when things need improving.

First off, the massive expansive land of San Andreas is back with a few touch ups and improvements.  Spanning from sea to shining sea, San Andreas offers the player hours of exploring and even more time with side missions and events.  Anything from land, sea and air races, to various sports such as golfing and yoga, to visiting a local strip club, to owning and managing your own restaurant; whatever it is you feel like doing, you will most likely be satisfied in the delivery.  You may even, and very well often, feel bewildered by the immense amount of activities to try out.  (You may even find yourself stopping back at an old house from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas).

Skydiving in GTAV is truly inspiring

Skydiving in GTAV is truly inspiring

The addition of having three characters to play as is new to this series, and is possibly the largest leap from the last game.  At first glance, it would seem as though the three characters are simply recycled characters from past games, (and strong arguments could be made for that case), but after a few hours of game play, you may find yourself actually changing how you play depending on which character you are currently controlling.  The main difference between characters, (besides Trevor’s personality defects), is their abilities; an aspect of the game that Rockstar Games seemingly pulled straight out of their Red Dead Redemption series.  Michael has the ability to slow down his aim to have a more precise shot; Franklin’s ability comes into use when he is driving, to allow for a more controlled handle of the car in a slow motion reaction time; and Trevor’s ability allows him to take an increased amount of pain, and in return, cause more pain to his victims.  When playing as Franklin, you may want to drive fast cars, go skydiving, and even search for treasure, and when playing as Trevor, you may find yourself pouring gasoline on the nearest car and seeing how long you can survive with a bounty on your head.

From left to right, (Trevor, Franklin, and Micheal)

From left to right, (Trevor, Franklin, and Micheal)

Driving seems to be much improved since the last game in this series as well.  Cars don’t slip and slide across the road with a slight nudge of the wheel.  Franklin’s ability comes in handy more than you’d think as his slowed down reaction time and steadily handling will all but guarantee a safe travel.  Not to mention the possibility to flip the car back over when it is upside down which was not offered in the others GTA games.  This doesn’t simply stop with land vehicles; the mechanics for helicopters and some of the planes as well, fly almost by themselves, (So long as the character chosen has a high flying stat).

Now onto the some minor gripes that did appear throughout the play through.  Glitches were few and far between, and there was nothing entirely horrible that need mention mechanic wise.  There are a few frame drops here and there which is an obvious, and expected problem with a game this massive; not to worry though, because they will correct themselves almost immediately.  If you are one of those people that severely abhors the use of drugs, sexuality, and violence in video games, simply do not pick this one up.  It goes way beyond its previous reaches, and may even go too far in some moments.  There is one mission involving Trevor where the use of torture is forced, giving the play no option but to participate.  It went so far that I even thought about placing the controller down and immediately selling the game.  That being said, simply try to prepare yourself if you want to continue with the story.

Trevor's torture mission...

Trevor’s torture mission…

That isn’t to say that the story goes without spectacle.  The story here is actually one of the things that will keep you coming back for more.  It is enthralling in the pickup, straight through the end titles, and will keep you coming back for more, even after the main story is complete.  The characters, for the most part, serve their purpose in giving the player outlets to this newly formed world.  They all three are likable in some ways, and disgusting in others.  That’s just one thing that Rockstar Games thrives at, along with creating comical, yet undeniably insane and intense missions, one after the other.

Grand Theft Auto Online on the other hands has simply underwhelmed me in the greatest way.  Straight off the bat with the first mission, my game froze on me three times in a row, essentially forcing me to place the controller down and come back another day.  Even after making it past the first mission, trying to find a match with other players could be so frustrating that you may never want to come back to GTA online again.  This seems to be a problem with the massive amounts of players trying to access the servers all at once, a thing common with most online multiplayer, but one not welcomed lightly on my console.  For this player, exploring the single player world a bit more might be the only option until the online mode has been severely updated.

Overall, Grand Theft Auto V has striven for a more enjoyable game than we’ve ever been introduced to before.  In almost all of its aspects, it becomes better and better by giving the player more options.  If it weren’t for the online problems, I would say that this game might even be close to perfect.  If you are looking for a massive single player game with 35+ hours of fun, then this is a great game to pick up.  If you are anticipating the online mode, you might want to wait for the hype to simmer a bit.

 

Joseph Monfoletto