For many of us, our bodies seem to get in the way of thinking: our backs hurt, our stomachs grumble hungrily, and our eyes get tired. That’s why I was intrigued to learn that a guy known for his intellectual horsepower like Josh Waitzkin—a former child chess prodigy and the subject of Searching for Bobby Fischer—believes body awareness is the key to his mental discipline.

Waitzkin was interviewed by entrepreneur and author Tim Ferriss (The 4-Hour Workweek; Tools of Titans) on his podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show. Though he no longer competes in chess, Waitzkin practices Tai Chi push hands and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. At one point, he even became world champion in the former.

Going from the cerebral world of chess to the muscle-and-bone world of martial arts might seem like an odd transition, but Waitzkin doesn’t see it that way:

In my teenage years I started integrating [Tai Chi] meditation into my [chess] practice. I got very good at increasing my somatic awareness, my physiological introspective sensitivity. I could feel the subtle ripples of quality in my process… I think [that tactile component] is hugely important in mental disciplines.

But why would increased “somatic awareness”—that is, awareness of his body—help Waitzkin (or you or me) with the mental challenges posed by something like chess?


Entering into “flow”

In a series of posts, I’ll explore some ways that Lonergan’s philosophy of human intelligence can put what Waitzkin discovered in his chess, Tai Chi, and (as we’ll see later) professional consulting practices in contact with both a helpful theoretical framework and a centuries-long intellectual tradition, running from Aristotle to Lonergan.

For Waitzkin, being attuned to his body is essential to thinking at the highest possible level. At its peak, this bodily attunement and high-level thinking meld together into what Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls “flow.”

In a game of chess, Waitzkin says, flow is hugely important. There is an objective situation: as pieces move around the board, you either have an advantage or a disadvantage. It is important to stay mentally at the front of the unfolding situation. If you get stuck on the idea that you have the advantage as your position shifts to a slight disadvantage, you will begin to misconstrue the board, distort your strategy, and ultimately lose the game. Jiu-Jitsu has a similar dynamic, though there are more visceral consequences for getting behind what is really, concretely going on in the moment. Flow is staying completely absorbed in that present, unfolding moment.


Learning through your body

In addition to his martial arts practice, nowadays Waitzkin makes his living consulting and training high-level investors in the world of finance. He helps them learn how to learn—better, faster, more effectively, and more creatively than 99.9% of other investors.

What does he do to lift them to this level? First, he takes them to the gym. But Waitzkin is not primarily interested in making sure his clients are physically fit (though undoubtedly this has cognitive benefits), but moving them toward some kind of mindfulness or contemplative practice to keep their minds out front in their complicated, high-stakes fields.

Waitzkin has them begin with interval training, raising and lowering their heart rate on a stationary bike, say. As clients begin to get the hang of consciously easing back from high-stress heart rates to more normal BPMs, Waitzkin introduces technology that allows real-time biofeedback (not just heart rate, but respiration, pulse oxygen levels, and more). From there, he moves clients away from the gym and toward what we might recognize as traditional mindfulness and contemplative practices.

Ultimately, he wants them present to what’s going on in their bodies as it is happening—even when things are stressful, tense, or very subtle:

When we’re thinking about cultivating [this] awareness, I think a lot of this relates to a return to a more natural state—this isn’t so much about learning as un-learning; getting out of our own way; releasing obstructions. I think about the training process as unobstructed self-expression… It is most foundational to develop a mindfulness practice, to cultivate the ability to sense the [subtlest] ripples of human experience.

Now, in the interview, Waitzkin only very quickly explains how this helps his clients develop as learners and as optimal, creative performers in their fields. Even then, he uses much of the jargon he’s developed as shorthand in his practice. He talks about clients making intuitive leaps, “deconstructing” (that is, analyzing) these into technical material, turning that “technical material” into a foundation for new levels in a kind of pyramid of knowledge. But how do intuitive leaps, analytical knowledge, and mindfulness practices that focus on the body fit together to help his clients learn how to learn at the highest possible level?

For that, we are going to turn to Lonergan’s philosophy of understanding. It will help us see what might be going on in Waitzkin’s emphasis on “somatic awareness” when trying to solve difficult intellectual problems under stress in real time. Continue reading in the next post.