I want to know applications of meditation for martial arts. Specifically, I am asking if meditation can help me to enter a flow state (be in the zone).
Yes, meditation can improve reaction time. This has been directly studied scientifically.
There were also significant decreases in reaction time after meditation practice. The percentage decrease in reaction time during meditation was 22%, while in subjects untrained in meditation, the percentage decrease was only 7%.
Novice meditators were tested on the PVT before each activity, 10 minutes after each activity and one hour later. All ten novice meditators improved their PVT reaction times immediately following periods of meditation, and all but one got worse immediately following naps.
Two groups, each composed of 25 college students matched for age and sex, were compared on their performance on a reaction time test. The experimental group (meditators) and the control group (nonmeditators) initially responded 100 times to a light stimulus and then either meditated for 20 minutes (experimental group) or rested with eyes closed for 20 minutes (control group). After the 20-minute interval, 100 more trials were presented. On the first set of trials the meditators showed lower reaction time than the nonmeditators. Results on the second set of trials showed an increase in the speed of performance in the meditators and a deterioration of performance in the control group. The implications of this finding of improved reaction time in meditators are discussed.
It's an interesting question.
There are lots of different kinds of meditation. The kind that keeps your mind in the here and now is what might benefit reaction times.
The main thing to realize about reaction times is that you will be slower if you're relaxed, stressed / anxious, not paying attention, or not interested in what's going on. You want to be in the zone where you're not stressed, not thinking about anything other than what's going on right now, and you're not overly relaxed either.
This kind of meditation can help you manage your mind's proclivity to wander, rather than focusing on what's going on right here and now.
Meditation will never be able to prevent the thoughts from coming into your mind in the first place. It's mostly just going to give you some skill at recognizing when stray thoughts are coming in, acknowledging them, and then getting rid of them quickly so that you can go back to the here and now.
Is this going to give you an edge over those who don't meditate? Maybe. But the more you do athletics of any kind, the more likely you'll be able to do this on your own without ever meditating at all. It will come as you realize that your mind was wandering when you should have been paying attention. In martial arts, that means you learn real quickly to pay attention after the first few times you get hit or get distracted.
No, there's nothing "magical" about meditation that will improve your reaction times beyond this. People think it can give them some kind of a super-human ability to think much faster or to allow the answers to come more quickly, without having to consciously think about them. It's not true. It's just going to help keep your mind from wandering.
The "super-human" kinds of things that you might have heard about has more to do with listening to your intuition, what your gut is telling you. You just have a feeling that something is the right choice of action, but if you're asked to explain it and defend that choice from a rational perspective, you can't even begin.
This might seem obvious to someone who has a very intuitive personality. Intuitive types don't spend a lot of time thinking about choices and making sure it makes sense. They just act on their gut, because their personality type prefers to do that.
But to non-intuitive types, this ability is elusive. It's not in their nature. So those kinds of people would benefit a lot from learning about intuition and how to cultivate it and use it as a tool. It's a skill, basically. It can be learned.
I mention intuition, because that's what will improve reaction times the most. If you have to think about what to do next while sparring someone, it's going to be too late. You'll get hit before the answer comes to you.
In fact, a study that I read showed that the more you learn, the slower your reaction times will be. That was with regards to athletes, especially boxers. That seems counter-intuitive, so why is that? It's because there are more variables to consider. If you've never learned about those variables, your brain won't take any time to consider them. So it's a weird fact that the more skilled a fighter becomes, the slower his reaction time will be. They make up for this a number of other ways, though. For example, by rehearsing and visualizing their strategy ahead of time so that they don't have to think about it when the time comes. They become more intuitive fighters over time as well.
I talk about reaction times a bit more at my answer here.
Hope that helps.