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?