Showing posts with label focus. Show all posts
Showing posts with label focus. Show all posts

Monday, September 18, 2017

Focus and Tunnel Vision

We didn’t make a sound as we stared at each other. The room around me faded as I focused on my partner. I advanced into combative ma’ai and swung my sword at her head. She dodged and counter attacked, driving my sword down. I pulled back and away, trying to re-establish an effective spacing for using my sword. She punched me in the gut with her staff as I pulled back and then came in hard with a strike to my head. I dodged back and to the side.

Which isn’t quite the way the kata is supposed to be done. However, if I had done the kata the orthodox way and moved straight back, I would have stumbled over a chair and some bookshelves.  Being focused on my partner didn’t mean that 100% of my attention was consumed by her attempt to make a large dent in my skull. I still had to be aware of my surroundings. Many of the dojo where I have trained are in multipurpose rooms, and several are rather small.  I’ve trained in dance studios (watch out for the piano at the end of the room), gymnasiums (be careful because the folks playing basketball on the next court lose control of the ball from time to time - if the ball  doesn’t hit you, the players might run you down trying to get it back), church meeting halls (pianos, chairs, bookshelves, carpet and the odd church member wandering through on some other business), and don’t forget all the back yards and parks with trees, lawn chairs, free range kids and dogs). There are lots of things you have to be aware of besides your training partner.

We all know that not being focused is bad. Let your attention wander in the middle of kata or sparring and you can find yourself being whacked over the head with a large stick. But too much focus is just as bad. When everything fades from your awareness but your partner, you can easily run into a wall or furniture, that piano in the back of the room, hit someone training alongside you, or worst of all, hit someone who isn’t even training and doesn’t realize that it’s not safe to walk close to people swinging swords and big sticks.  (It’s incredible how many people think it’s perfectly safe to run in front of someone practicing with a sword or staff.)

Like so much else in budo, there has to be balance. You focus enough to handle your partner, but your awareness must be broad enough to deal with the rest of the combative environment. Too much or not enough - either can lead to disaster. Focus is a great thing, but too much focus becomes tunnel vision. Kendo people talk about enzan no metsuke 遠山の目付, “focusing on a distant mountain”. Don’t get so caught up by the detail in front of you that you lose sight of the whole picture.
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If you are busy watching any particular detail, it’s difficult to see anything else. Focus on teki’’s sword and you lose sight of her feet. Focus on her feet and you lose track of her hands. What do you look at? What do you focus on? Nothing? Everything?

The whole point of enzan no metsuke is that you don’t let your vision become stuck on any particular point. By focusing on a distant point, your focus becomes softer and wider, taking in the whole of teki without being stuck on any particular point. With your focal point so distant, your peripheral vision takes in everything near to you. You can see her movement and the tip of her weapon and know what her hands are doing all together because you are seeing all of them.

The reasoning here is similar to that of fudoshin 不動心; if your mind stops on any one point it can’t entertain what happens next, creating weakness. If your eyes are locked on any one thing, you can’t see anything else that might be coming at you. In addition, if your eyes are stuck on something, your mind will be stuck there as well.

Under stress, we can develop tunnel vision. In this natural reaction to stress, we lose awareness of our peripheral vision, resulting in a tunnel that only shows the object of our focus. This level of focus might be useful in extreme circumstances, perhaps when you’ve been wounded and need to ignore the pain to continue fighting. It kicks in a lot lower level of threat than that, and opens you up to getting taken from behind or tripping over obstacles you would otherwise avoid. Teachers of martial techniques were aware of this long before anything that could be called “budo” arose. Practicing to not get stuck looking at your opponent and missing everything else became a part of martial training and continues in both classical and modern budo traditions.

The broader lesson is that excess focus is also dangerous in life outside the dojo and beyond the field of combat. Life isn’t all about any one thing. Life is about a lot of things; family, work, personal development, friends, hobbies. It’s easy to get caught up in what we are doing and forget the rest of the world, whether what we are doing is budo, or chess, or work, or a beloved hobby. Too much focus on any of those and you will start to neglect other important parts of your life.  Budo teachers aren’t the only ones who have noticed the dangers of tunnel vision, but they are among the few who practice not having it.

In the iai style I train in, Shinto Hatakage Ryu, there is an action at the end of each kata that, among other things, helps break tunnel vision if it develops. At the end of the kata, after the action is completed, we shift our body to one side, stand, and then purposely shift our point of focus. Other iai schools have similar practices.

Do you get tunnel vision when you train? Do you have tunnel vision in some other area of your life? How do you break away from it and keep your focus balanced?

Monday, July 6, 2015

Going To Seminars

Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

I hosted a budo seminar last weekend. It was attended by a small, focused group of experienced budoka from a range of disciplines. Seminars can range from very good to OK to a complete waste of time and money.  This  was close to my ideal of what a good seminar should be.

Budo is a physical activity that is exceptionally personal. At lower levels a lot can be learned from just seeing techniques demonstrated. Students can pick up movements and concepts from teachers even if they don’t experience what is being done. At higher levels though techniques become progressively more subtle and difficult to perceive the important aspects of what is happening.

There are lots of reasons for attending seminars. Most of them don’t have a lot to do with improving your skills. That doesn’t make them bad reasons, they just don’t have much with to do with getting better.

One reason that has motivated me to go to seminars even when I was unlikely to get anything else out of the seminar is just to see someone great. In Hindi, the act of going to see a great teacher or expression of divine is called darshan, This seems like an appropriate way to describe going to a seminar with the primary goal of seeing a great exponent of an art I study. The great practitioners and teachers have transcendent skill and technique. It’s a privilege just to be able to see them express their skill in person.  I’ve been to a few seminars for this reason, and a couple of times I’ve had the great good fortune to feel these teachers’ skills personally. The lasting memories from these experiences are ongoing inspiration for me. I’ve had the opportunity to see and feel people who are the best in the world at a few seminars.

Sometimes I go to seminars just for the social fun. I know the seminar is unlikely to offer me anything special in the way of new insights or ideas, but the opportunity to hang out with a crowd of other brain-addled budoka can be irresistable. On these occasions the training is an afterthought, and can even get in the way of the real point of the trip, talking with old friends and new ones. Being able to freely talk with people who share my passion is rare and wonderful.

Some of the other reasons for attending seminars besides developing your own skills are less exciting. For those of us who belong to one of the big budo organizations that use dan tests administered by panels of judges, there are a couple of useful reasons to go to the seminar. Organizational standards are set by committees, and I’ve yet to see a committee that could sit down, look at the existing standards and say “Yup, those guys last year did a great job. We can’t improve on what they’ve done, so let’s leave it alone and go get a drink.” Never happens. Which means that if you are testing, you need to go to the organization seminar and find out how they are doing things this year. Not a particularly inspiring reason to go to a seminar, but if you need to grade, you’d better do it. Go, find out what the judges are supposed to be looking for, and then do it.

On the flip side of seeing what the organization is asking for this year, those big, organization sponsored seminars are usually lead by the same folks who sit on the grading panel. That makes them a chance to be seen by the judges and let them get familiar with you and your skills. Judges are human after all, and if they have seen you practice and are familiar with your skill level, you increase you chances of passing when the test comes around. And there is always the chance that you might catch a personal comment or two during the seminar.

I know people go to seminars for the wrong reasons as well. I don’t enjoy dealing with people like this, but they are always a risk at an open seminar. These are the people who show up to show off. The want everyone to see how good they are. Every moment on the mat is a chance for them to  display the wonder of their technique so the rest of us can appreciate their greatness and tell them how awesome they are. They drive me nuts because you can count on them to not pay attention to what the instructor is trying to teach. Instead they will do every technique the way they like so their partner can feel the clear superiority of their technique and everyone else can see how good they are.  

Worse, the show-offs are there to prove how good they are to every one of their training partners. Anything the teacher asks that might present them with difficulty or challenge is ignored in favor of the way they already do things. I hope that Sensei sees them and intervenes if they do have trouble with a technique, because their response will almost always be to crank up the raw force to make their partner react, even if they can’t do the technique. Forget about trying to figure out the lesson being taught and figuring out how to apply it. They aren’t at the seminar for that. Show-offs are there so everyone can see how great they are, and if their partner won’t cooperate by falling down easily, they will drive their uke down with raw force.  

That makes these people even more dangerous than absolute beginners. Beginners are liable to substitute strength for the technique they don’t yet have, but that’s a stage everyone goes through. After you’ve been through it, you usually have enough skill to protect yourself from the mistakes of beginners. Show-offs though have some technique, but when that isn’t quite enough, they amp up the strength as well, which is a lot more dangerous than the innocent pushing and pulling of beginners. Watch out for show-offs.

Over the years, I’ve been to lots more seminars than I can clearly remember. What I’ve learned is that I don’t enjoy the really big seminars for anything other than socializing. Once the floor gets crowded, real learning and exploration is often lost in crush of fellow budoka and the effort to not get hurt. Anytime people are getting thrown around in a crowded room, or sticks are being swung without lots of space, I spend most of my time making sure I and those around me aren’t getting hurt, and relatively little time focused on improving my skills. I’m not big on organizational seminars either, though I recognized their necessity and function, they aren’t the seminars are really enjoy and get the most out of.

That’s why when I planned my own budo gathering a few weeks ago, I tried to implement all the features I’ve found most enjoyable and which contribute the most to a great learning experience.

One of the most important features of a really great seminar for me is that it be relatively small. This is tricky unless you have a wealthy sponsor, because seminars cost money to run and teachers deserve to be properly compensated for their time and effort in sharing their understanding. Ideally, I like seminars that are around 20-25 people. There are a number of reasons for that size. First, it means that the instructor will be able to work with everyone multiple times throughout the seminar. She won’t be stuck at the front of the room demonstrating something and then having to helplessly watch as the crowd tries to replicate it.

With a small seminar, the teacher can provide hands on corrections to everyone there many times. I can’t overemphasize how important this is. Budo is an inherently personal activity that is learned directly from the teacher, whether it is koryu budo where the teacher is expected to act as uke for the students trying their techniques, or a training paradigm like aikido, where students are expected to learn by feeling their teachers’ techniques. Either way, without that direct, one-to-one experience, it’s nearly impossible to truly understand the higher levels of the art. Small seminars give teachers the chance to share one-on-one throughout the day.

On the flip side at small seminars, students not only get to work with the teacher, but they get to train with everyone in attendance and be part of many different responses and explorations of what the teacher is offering. I like to get to know my training partners. In a small seminar, you can do that. When I go to big seminars, I find that I either end up working with the same 2 or 3 partners the whole time, or I never work with the same person twice. I enjoy working with different people, but I also like getting to know people. Small seminars let me do both easily.

A few things I like at any seminar are a focus on a limited number of key points, having time to make notes between lessons, and having a little review at the end of each session to reemphasize the lessons ideas covered. These are all things I learned when I was teaching school as full time occupation.

It’s important to keep the major points being covered and emphasized to no more than 5, and I think 3 is even better. There’s a good reason for this. Our brains can only hold that many ideas at one time without dropping the others.  As soon as we go over 5 individual points, our brains start dropping stuff, and it becomes difficult to hold onto anything. A good seminar focuses on just a few key points or principles and approaches them from a variety of directions and means. We all learn differently, so approaching a principle from a variety of angles gives all the participants a chance to examine the lesson from a perspective that’s best for them.

The other advantage to staying focused on few keeps points and attacking them from different angles is that students can gain a better, more complete grasp of the points. I’ve been to classes and seminars where the teacher introduced a dozen or more important points. I got nothing out of these experiences because the were so many points that I never had a chance to get a firm handle on any of them, and there were so many different ideas presented that I had trouble even remembering what had been presented, much less any details.

I’ve also learned to appreciate breaks spaced so I can make useful notes. An hour of focused learning is about all I can handle and hold before my mind needs a break to absorb what’s happening.  Everyone is different, but I find that for me, a five or ten minute break every hour to make some notes and mentally organize what I’ve been learning is helpful. The note making process helps me organize and anchor what I’ve learned, and gives me some references for use later when I’m practicing.

A good seminar doesn’t happen just by having a nice venue and a skillful person leading it. It takes planning, preparation and an instructor who is not only a skilled practitioner but also a skilled teacher. Seminars that are too crowded make it difficult to learn. Teachers who throw too many points and principles at participants do them a disservice, since we can only hold so much information before it all starts to spill out of our heads. A modest sized seminar, with a teacher who focuses on just a few key points, and gives me time to make some useful notes is a wonderful thing.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

States Of Mind: Fudoshin

A while back I wrote about mushin 無心, usually translated as “no mind” in English.  It’s an aspect of the mental development we strive for in budo.  Another aspect is fudoshin 不動心, which is usually translated as something like “immovable mind.”  It’s quite a concept, and the main source for most of us who are not Japanese is a letter from the Rinzai Zen monk Takuan Soho (1573-1645) to the sword master and daimyo (regional lord) Yagyu Munenori. The letter is known as the Fudochi Shinmyoroku 不動智神妙録, and a convenient version of it with the original 17th century Japanese and modern Japanese side-by-side can be found here. I used a copy of the translations by William Scott Wilson in the volume THE UNFETTERED MIND as the source for English translation.

The budo community has adopted the term quite strongly, but reading the actual letter reminds you that this was not a conversation between two martial artists.  Though the main portion of the letter deals with the concept of fudoshin, Takuan is giving a lesson in the value of the Buddhist teaching regarding fudoshin, and not in how to do martial arts. The letter even includes a section where Takuan is remonstrating Yagyu Munenori for being proud of his ability as a dancer and Noh performer.  For all that, what Takuan has to say about fudoshin is certainly of value to those of us who study budo. He took the term fudo, from the name of one of the Bodhisattva, Fudomyo,不動明王, literally “immovable wisdom lord”.  Lucky for budoka this bodhisattva is a fierce warrior bearing a sword for cutting through ignorance and rope for binding demons, and not a merciful, gentle bodhisattva like Kannon.

Fudomyo-o. Photo Copyright Grigoris Miliaresis 2015

Takuan was a Zen Buddhist monk, so of course he had to speak in seeming contradictions.  Early in the letter he says

Although wisdom is called immovable, this does not signify any insentient thing, like wood or stone. It moves as the mind is wont to move: forward or back, to the left, to the right, in the ten directions and to the eight points; and the mind that does not stop at all is called immovable wisdom.

 A mind that moves as it is wont, and “that does not stop at all is called immovable wisdom.”  Takuan comes from Rinzai Zen, a sect that loves koan, and this feels a lot like a koan.  It’s not, though you have to do a lot of thinking and reading of the letter to get it.  Clearly, given that he say “the mind that does not stop,” Takuan is not talking about sticking your mind on one thing and making it unmoving, even if he does call it  “immovable wisdom.” So what on earth makes it immovable?

When I read it in Japanese, immovable wisdom, or fudochi is written 不動智, which is far too close to the word for real estate,  fudosan不動産 for me to easily separate the two  Real estate implies something that not only doesn’t move, but something that can’t be moved by human power.  I got stuck on the immovable part, and had trouble grasping “the mind that does not stop at all” portion. Without both though, you can’t really grasp fudoshin.

The mind of the common man sees something and stops on whatever catches his mind’s attention. Even in English we use use words that point up this condition.  We say that something “catches our attention.” If our mind is caught, it stops.  If our mind stops on something, it is caught. Takuan uses the example of looking at the leaves of a tree to describe the effect.

“When the eye is not set on any one leaf, and you face the tree with nothing at all in mind, any number of leaves are visible to the eye without limit. But if a single leaf holds the eye, it will be as if the remaining leaves were not there.”

For the budoka, this is critical. Takuan goes on for quite a while about the mind getting stuck in different things; in our hand, our sword, the opponents sword, even which attack we want to use.

If our mind can get stuck, it’s not immovable. It still seems like a contradiction. This contradiction goes away when we give up the association of unmoving with immovable. If you walk up to an M1 Abrams Battle Tank, you aren’t going to be able to move it with your body.  For you, it is immovable. But the tank itself is amazingly mobile and agile.  Immovable is not unmoving.

We don’t want our mind to be caught by any particular thing.  With mushin, we are not imposing our ideas and preconceptions on the world. Fudoshin goes beyond that. With fudoshin you are not imposing your preconceptions and assumptions on the world, as that would be one trap where your mind got stuck on something from within you. Beyond that, your mind cannot be captured by what your opponent implies, suggests, feints or does. Takuan puts it “Glancing at something and not stopping the mind is called immovable.”

Takuan Soho's Grave in Tokyo. Photo Copyright Girgoris Miliaresis 2015

You can see something your opponent does, but you’re not trapped by it. If she moves her sword, you see movement, but you don’t get caught by it and miss how she changes her footwork. You see her move to your left, but you don’t become fixated on trying to figure out what the move means.  You accept it and move on.  Your opponent cannot catch your mind and fix it in one place. Your opponent cannot move your mind.

Your mind is moving, but immovable. In kata training, even in Aikido (all those prescribed attack and response drills are kata. Really.), there are many places where the action can branch in any of several directions. If you are fixated on one, perhaps the primary action of the kata, you can get walloped by one of the other branches. This is a particular trap in any sort of training drill, whether you call it a kata or not.

It’s a prescribed drill.  You and your partner both know what you are supposed to do, and you do it. Simple. A very simple trap. Your mind gets caught on what is supposed to happen. Then your partner does something easily imaginable but not what they are “supposed” to do, and you get walloped with the floor, or a stick up side the head, or some other equally unpleasant result. One example is a common Aikido technique, iriminage. There is a point where uke is directed down towards the floor. In the drill, uke stands back up instead of staying down, and is then thrown when they rise. What if uke doesn’t stand up? What if uke scoops nage’s leg as she is going down and throws you? This option can be blocked, but you have to be aware that it exists and not get stuck on what is supposed to happen. In kenjutsu, there are plenty of feints and movements to draw your partner off balance. Koryu arts are filled with startling kiai, stomps, and motions whose main purpose is to move your mind away from the real attack and fix it on something unimportant.

If your opponent can move your mind, you have lost before she is close enough to do anything to you. This is what you want to avoid.  It’s not enough to master mushin. Mushin is only part of  the mental battle. With mushin, you aren’t trying to force your preconceptions on the situation. Mushin doesn’t stop your foe from trapping your mind with her tricks and subtle distractions from the real threat though  You want to be immune to traps that will catch your mind and stick it in one place, making you vulnerable from every other angle.

If you are doing that iriminage mentioned above, you have to do the technique, but you can’t focus on it. You have to let your mind move along each of the options for uke, and negate them. You can’t get stuck on any one of them though.  For your mind to stop moving at any point is to lose because at the next branching uke can reverse the situation and attack you at a point you aren’t defending.  

My Shinto Muso Ryu teacher is brilliant at trapping my mind. He can change his stance, or adjust his balance or take an unusual breath and pull me into that action, then he attacks whatever point is open because my mind is fixed in a place of his choosing. I’m getting better. He used to trap my mind every time. I don’t know what the percentage is down to, but every once in a while I finish a kata with him and realize that I didn’t get caught by something he did. I’m making progress.

Mastery of your mind is a journey, just like everything else in budo. It is after all, bu-do 武道, martial way. We don’t get there all at once.  First we learn some physical movements, then we start adding in mushin when we can manage it, and later we begin to learn to let our mind float free in a state of fudoshin. Neither bound by our own intent, nor caught by our foe’s, our mind floats here and there, in our hands, at our sword, at our enemy’s eyes, and then upon their sword, at their feet, then back to our feet or arms or weapons. Never stopping, never caught, always moving to be aware of everything without fixating on anything. Fudoshin doesn’t happen instantly, but with plenty of mindful practice, it will grow and you will relax. Instead of being tight because your mind is focused on your legs and how you hold the sword, you’ll be loose and aware of how your opponent holds her sword, how she stands and how she moves, adjusting your sword and your stance and your position naturally without focusing on what you are doing, and without focusing on what she is doing.

Takuan said “Completely forget about the mind and you will do all things well.” That is fudoshin.

The Story Of Keiko Fukudo, Judo's Only Woman 10th Dan
Mrs. Judo: The Story Of Judo's Only Woman 10th Dan

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. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Never Practice Anything More Than Once

I saw someone comment that :

“my Sa Bom Nim says, "You can't learn something until you are ready to learn it." That's why repetition is so important in the martial arts, because you never know when that "learning moment" will arrive. Doing that technique thousands of times was what made you ready to learn the new setup. “

I used to do thousands of repetitions of individual techniques and movements.  I thought it was essential to mastering the techniques.  I would set my mind on autopilot and do the same technique over and over, thinking I was building speed and consistency.

I can’t say about speed for sure, but I can speak to the consistency part of that.  I was building consistency.  I was teaching myself to always do the technique a the same level of skill.  I wasn’t improving myself, I was nailing my skills to the ground where I was at.  My father is a music teacher, and he has always said “Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Practice makes permanent.” However you practice something is how you will do it.  A thousand repetitions of a technique done one way, make it a thousand times harder to do it another way.  You will always do it the way you practice it.  Any errors in the technique you are repeating will be reinforced and that much tougher to correct.

One of the few things I know about my technique is that it’s not perfect.  I don’t want to be doing things tomorrow the way I am doing them today.  I want to be doing them better.   So I don’t do lots of repetitions of my techniques any more.  I try to do every technique one time only.

This is a pretty radical sounding statement for someone who trains classical Japanese martial arts, with a teaching methodology built upon the continued practice of a small set of techniques and kata.  It’s true though.

Each each time I do a technique or kata it is a unique event, never to be repeated.  Now one of my goals is for my mind to never go on autopilot.  I try to always be fully present when I practice.  I want to be completely mindful of what I am doing.  By being aware of what I’m doing with each cut and in each kata that I do, I can make every cut and every kata unique.  I can sense that I am using my hips one way or another, how I’m gripping the sword, what sort of rhythm I’m moving with, how I’m breathing.

If my practice of the kata is a unique event where the combination of all these factors and many more come together to create a single, unique, expression of the kata, then with this awareness of the kata, I can change elements of my action to make my next expression of the kata both unique and, hopefully, better.   To do this though, I have to be mindful.  

The best practice is mindful, aware and always looking for ways to improve what you are doing.  SImple repetition means that you are just programing yourself to do the kata at whatever level you’re currently at.  It ingrains your current mistakes into your body and makes them permanent.  Mindful practice never does the same kata twice.  Mindful practice seeks to improve with every action.  If I’m not really aware of what I’m doing, I can’t change it.  To change things, we have to be aware.  When you do a kata, be aware of your hands, your feet, you tanden, your hips, the location of your head, the rhythm of your breath.  All of these are important. If you are aware, you can experiment with how you use all these elements of your body to improve the kata.  And even if a particular mix of elements isn’t an improvement, you’ll be learning.  You’ll know about another combination that you want to avoid.

I try never to do the same kata twice.  If I’m repeating the kata, I’m stagnating.  It’s only when I mindfully do new things that I can really improve.

(How I balance this with mushin is fodder for another essay)

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.