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Maturing in Kung Fu: The Flow State

For those of you who follow my blogs, you’re familiar with a few of my last articles outlining some principles of kung fu.  For those of you who are new to my website, allow me to share links to the articles I’m talking about (in the order they were released):

What I’d like to do now is expand on that conversation by highlighting another principle: Nim LikNim Lik translates “mind force” or “the force of [one’s] idea/intention”.  While the translation may leave one with a limited understanding of what the principle is, to understand it more fully one should consider what psychiatrists and neurologists call The Flow State, for they are, technically, the same thing.

Wing Chun Posture IllustratedI recall, after learning the routine of Siu Nim Tao (the first empty-hand form of Wing Chun kung fu), a lesson where my sifu (i.e., teacher) began to test my motions and structure under various forms of pressure (i.e., a force exerted by an outside force upon my structure for an extended period of time).  During this class I found it difficult to maintain the integrity of structure and motion that my sifu (and I) expected.  My motions no longer matched the form as I knew I should perform it.  When I inquired why, my sifu began teaching me of Lop Nim (i.e., establish an idea/intention in the mind) and Nim Lik.

While I had learned the idea of each motion, my mind was all over the place.  My body was not mindful – everywhere and all at once.  Consequently, when I was faced with an outside pressure (not just force) the integrity of my be-ing diminished.  Now, for those of you already practicing martial arts, you know that any condition like this is detrimental to survival in combat, and should be overcome through training.  Well, that’s what I did.

During my training I came to Nim Lik.  It is, as I mentioned earlier, the Chinese way of saying what psychiatrists and neurologists call The Flow State.

Mihaly Csikszentmihályi and his fellow researchers began researching flow (i.e., the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity) after Csikszentmihályi became fascinated by artists who would essentially get lost in their work.  Artists, especially painters, got so immersed in their work that they would disregard their need for food, water and even sleep.  Thus, the origin of research on the theory of flow came about when Csikszentmihályi tried to understand this phenomenon experienced by these artists.

photo of head bust print artwork
Photo by meo on

Psychologists have found that one’s mind can attend to only a certain amount of information at a time.  According to Csikszentmihályi’s 2004 TED talk, that number is about “110 bits of information per second”.  That may seem like a lot of information, but simple daily tasks take quite a lot of information.  Just decoding speech takes about 60 bits of information per second.  That is why when having a conversation one cannot focus as much attention on other things (e.g., try talking to someone about dinner while doing chi sau).  For those involved in a fight, be-ing able to process everything necessary (while not that unnecessary) while expressing one’s intentions with integrity can be a matter of life or death.  Developing to the point where we can adapt to the reality and relationship of our situation is of paramount importance.  (This is why we face our limitations to overcome them.  Right?)

The Flow State is a condition whereupon we find ourselves, wholly, involved in a task.  It has been characterized by Csikszentmihályi, Kendra Cherry and other professionals as follows:

  • Intense and focused concentration on the present moment;
  • Merging of action and awareness;
  • A loss of relative self-consciousness;
  • A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity;
  • A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered;
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience
  • Immediate feedback;
  • A sense that one will succeed; and,
  • Feeling so engrossed in the experience, that other needs become negligible.

According to scientific findings, when human muscles are in relax state and are moving at steady speed, they can sustain greater pressure than when they are tensed up.  This is why when one jumps off something and lands tense, while they may land on their feet – they end up injured; while, the one who jumps off the same platform and lands in a relaxed state (on their feet) recoils.

Knowing the structure and mindfulness that optimizes ourselves, we can begin to train in a way that challenges that condition and our mind’s intentions so we can build stamina and strength in be-ing.  For those who never challenge themselves like this, they may learn all of the forms (or katas) a martial art system has to offer and still not be able to fight; while, a beginner who has learned one or two of the many forms offered in a martial art system may learn to fight better (than the aforementioned) if they are applying themselves to this type of training (i.e., the flow state).

Empower yourself to life!™

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