Showing posts with label concentration. Show all posts
Showing posts with label concentration. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

One Thing At A Time

A while back I wrote that you should never practice anything more than once.  There is a corollary to this, that you should never do more than one thing at a time.  We live in world that bombards us with stimuli and urges us to try to do everything, and do it all at the same time.  Society seems to frown on being quiet and focused.  Multitasking is praised and held up as some kind of ideal form of functioning, when the reality is that far different.  We are all likely to fall victim to it though.  It’s just too easy in modern society, when we can be talking on the phone, working on the computer, eating lunch and texting with our kids all that same time, and I’m as guilty of falling into this trap as anyone is.

The truth is though, we’re at our best when we do one thing at a time.  I was reminded of this while reading a very nice piece about giving things 100%.  One of the great things we work on in the dojo is just doing one thing at a time.  Trust me on this, if you try to do Judo randori and even think about anything else at the same time, you will quickly find yourself flying through the air and the floor leaping up to smack you between the shoulder blades.  You just can’t do more than one important thing at a time.

We work on developing this focus and our abilities every time we’re in the dojo, and hopefully we are applying this and developing it even more when we are not in the dojo.  In the dojo we are trying to learn very complex skills that require coordinating our entire bodies and getting all the parts working together.  The first part we have to train is our mind.  We have to learn to just be in the dojo doing the technique or kata that we are practicing.  We can’t be making a shopping list or planning dinner or figuring out tomorrow’s work schedule or deciding what to watch on TV tonight.  We have to in the dojo practicing.  

We want to let go of all the other things we could be doing, and do this one thing we have chosen to be doing.  Initially, the one thing we are focusing on my be how we walk, or how we hold our head or how we swing the sword.  Over time, with focus (!) we can integrate these things so holding our head in the appropriate position and how we walk become one thing.  Then we get better at swinging the sword so we are holding our head and bodies in good posture while walking and swinging the sword in one action that we are focusing on.  Or it is drawing our partner slightly off her base as we interpose our foot between her foot and its next targeted step while maintaining our own balance, posture and proper movement.

No matter how far I progress, if I try to do more than one thing at a time, even if it is just thinking about something other than my physical activity, my physical activity suffers.  In the dojo, this means I get thrown during Judo or hit with a stick during Jodo or whacked with a sword during kenjutsu.  I’m better at focusing and just doing one thing than I used to be, but I still have a long way to go until I’m satisfied.

The surprising thing is that the more we work on focusing on just doing one thing, the better we get at everything.  With practice our ability to focus and concentrate improves, and it gets easier to let distractions float by without giving them our attention.  As we get better at this, we get better at mastering whatever it is that we are actually doing.  The time in the dojo is concentrated focusing time, whether we are doing judo or kenjutsu or iaido or whatever.  As we get better at focusing that plugs into better training results.  We get closer to achieving the goal of flow, or mushin, where we are just there, doing what we are doing without overthinking it and without being bothered by outside thoughts.

I really recommend “The Art Of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin.  He does a phenomenal job of describing the real work that goes into getting to a state of mushin or flow.  In addition, he is a great story teller who is just plain enjoyable to read.  Getting to a state of flow or mushin is  not an easy process, but he does a nice job of showing how to get there.  If we try to do more than one thing at a time though, it’s an unattainable goal.  Multitasking just takes us down a road that leads further and further from the goal.

Don’t be lured into trying to multitask.  We know it’s a siren song that will wreck learning in the dojo and our ability to get things done outside the dojo.  Multitasking doesn’t work.  Just do one thing at a time, and then you can do it well. 

Friday, January 18, 2013


A friend of mine was commenting on someone’s metsuke, and how she really wouldn’t want to cross it.  I’ve known a number of teachers like that.  My iai and jo teachers are particularly fierce.  Just their glance is enough to make any sensible person back up and rethink their options.  Their whole being seems to fill their eyes and their gaze.  

But what is “metsuke” 目付? Checking in the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary gets you a meaning completely unrelated to the term’s use in budo practice.  There, it is “lower superintendent officer (in the feudal age)”.  Great, a profound budo term has its origins in a bureaucratic title from the feudal age.  Doe this mean it’s really about having a gaze like a low level bureaucrat?  I’m pretty sure that’s not the meaning we’re looking for.
The kanji that make up the term metsuke are and .  is pronounced “may” in this case and is pronounced “tsoo-kay”.   is the kanji for eye, while is the kanji for to attach, to apply (and many other uses).  In this case, it is means something like “sticking eyes to ~” or “attaching your eyes to~”.  That’s what we get from the kanji.  The lesson we can take from this is that reading kanji and trying to understand the meaning without knowing the context won’t give you a useful meaning.

In practice, metsuke is really about what you’re looking at and how you’re doing the looking.  Kendo teachers are fond of the phrase enzan no metsuke 遠山の目付, which they use to describe how to fix your gaze in kendo.  The idea here is that when you look at something in the distance, you perceive things close by in your peripheral vision without focusing on them.  This counters the all too natural tendency to stare at your opponents weapon, or just as bad, your intended target.

Where you look is pretty fundamental.  We humans are exceptionally visual creatures, and for anything beyond the grappling range, seeing is our primary means of connecting with our adversary.  We have to connect with the whole of our adversary, not just the tip of their weapon, or our own.  Beginning students have a habit of staring at the part they think is going to hurt them, whether it is a hand, sword, staff or giant peanut butter spreader.  If they think that’s the thing that’s going to hurt them, they stare at it, and forget all about the person it’s connected to.  Do this, and what you are staring at will hurt you, because you won’t be able to respond in time to what your partner is doing to avoid getting hit.
If you’re looking at your partner’s eyes, you’re going to have the same problem, only worse.  Not only can’t you respond to what she is doing in time, but you can easily be led to even further weakness through eye feints and bluffs. If you’re staring at their eyes, you’ll react when they do something besides look back at your eyes.  The worst part is that staring at your partner’s eyes really won’t tell you anything about what they intend to do if they are any good at all. Kiyama Sensei has quite clearly corrected me on this point.  He says develop the strength and look your partner in the eye.

Enzan no metsuke is a good starting point for developing metsuke, but in the koryu budo I study, my teachers have pulled my metsuke in a lot closer than a distant mountain.  My teachers have me looking at a point a little above the bridge of my partners nose.  They are very clear that I am not to be looking in anyone’s eyes.  With this gaze, I can see my partners whole body at most distances, and I can sense intentions from subtle changes and shifts in posture.  I can respond to attacks without taking my gaze away from this point, so that I don’t become locked onto the attacking weapon, leaving me unaware of what’s coming next.  

This is important.  You can start out well but then have your focus stolen by movement or attack.  Even when the attack comes from an angle, you must maintain your focus on your whole partner and not let it slip away to something peripheral.  The video here is a good example.  While the weapon may come from straight ahead, the left or the right, both people maintain their focus on their partner.  The partner is the adversary and real source of danger.  The weapon is a tool and gains all of its direction from the wielder.  If our focus slips off the person wielding the weapon and gets stuck on the weapon we open ourselves up.  If we are following the weapon and we knock it to the side, we will follow the weapon to the side, leaving ourselves wide open to the opponent who is still in front of us.

It takes a tremendous practice, and often not a few bruises, to learn this focus.  Great practitioners have incredible focus.  You can almost feel the weight of their concentration on you when you face them.  This is what my friend was talking about.  I remember the feeling when I was first studying jodo and training with one of seniors, Kohashi Sensei.  Kohashi Sensei is a tiny woman, maybe 4’ 11 inches (148 cm).  She looks like someone’s kindly grandmother, at least until she picks up a weapon and prepares to attack you.  Then you become the focus of her entire being and the world is blocked out by the strength of her focus.  She is really, truly frightening, so much so that her metsuke becomes a weapon of its own.

Kohashi Sensei’s metsuke is exceptional, but all of the experienced budoka I have met have strong metsuke.  The power comes from their well-developed and practiced concentration.  You are the subject of their focus, and that focus is pure.  There is nothing distracting them.  There is no part of their mind that is wandering about wondering what they will have to drink after they have reduced you to a grease spot on the floor.  There isn’t even a part of their mind thinking about reducing you to a grease spot.  They aren’t thinking about their sword, or yours. They are purely focused on you, and you can feel this.  There is no room in them for distraction.

A person with a developed metsuke has a powerfully honed mental focus, and the strength of their gaze is an outer manifestation of this.  The focus and concentration of their gaze is a mirror for the focus and concentration of their mind.  They are seeing you as the only thing in their universe.  A person who has mastered their metsuke can shut out all the distractions around them and maintain focused concentration on just one thing.  As a student of budo, this regularly means that senior teachers are bringing all of this focus and experience to bear on you.

Over time, as you become proficient enough that you stop thinking about which foot goes where, and what is the proper stance for this situation, and you remember to breathe regularly without having to tell yourself to breath, you begin to be able to focus on your teacher.  To me, this is when you really start learning budo, when you can stop focusing on yourself, and start focusing on the conditions you are dealing with, without letting them overwhelm you.  It’s not something that comes full blown.  One day you’ll have it for half a kata, and then from time to time you’ll manage to hold your focus together through an entire kata.

Metsuke, and the underlying mental focus and concentration takes time to develop.  Without it though, you can never really be proficient at any form of budo, even if what you do doesn’t use the term.  I study metsuke everytime I go into the dojo.  I’m looking at what my teachers are doing, and what my juniors are doing, and trying to figure out how to improve my own.   I’ve also noticed that my peers, the people I started with, have improved their metsuke tremendously over the years. I’m still in awe of the focus and intensity of some of my teachers.  

I’m particularly impressed by those who can project this intensity when doing iaido.  With no partner to provide a focal point, and no weapon actually attacking them, they have to generate 100% of the intensity and concentration from within.  This level of focus is something I’ve only recently come to think I am getting a handle on.  When I first started iai it was all I could manage to move my hands and feet at the same time and not stab myself with my own sword.  Now I’ve learned to visualize my adversary well enough to be able to bring some of the focus I have in paired arts to my solo iai practice.

It’s still a work in progress.  It’s very easy to start looking at your own weapon during iai, since it’s the only thing in your field of vision that’s moving.  Keeping focused on the adversary is always difficult, but when she only exists in your mind, it gets really difficult.  Watch people when they do budo, whether it is solo kata, paired kata, or some sort of sparring.  What do they do with their eyes?  Where are they looking?  Are they giving away control by looking at their opponent’s weapon or eyes?  Are they distracted by something else going on in the room?  Do their eyes move in coordination with their body (this is a tough one to describe.  I’ve done whole practices on this).  If they are doing solo kata, can you tell exactly where their adversary is from the way their eyes, body and weapon work together and focus?  If they are working with a partner, does the combination of their focused attention, body and weapon all come together to create a single barrier between them and their adversary.

Those are some points I’m working on for myself, and I always notice when I see video of myself.  I’m never completely satisfied with what I see in my own practice.   Some of them I get fairly consistently and some need a lot of work.  But that’s budo, and maybe a bit of mental metsuke as well.