Awareness makes budo work. Without it, it doesn’t matter how good your maegeri or your uchimata is. You’re going to get clocked before you can use is. Being aware tells us what’s going on and what to be prepared for so we can deal with it when it arrives. It’s so important I considered including it as one of the fundamental principles of Budo. I didn’t because it is a skill built on and with the principles I discussed in earlier posts (Structure, Spacing and Timing). Without an understanding of those, awareness can’t happen. WIthout awareness though, you’ll never get to use the skills you’ve spent so much time developing.
Awareness is a combination of the knowledge of structure, spacing and timing combined with being cognizant of the world you are moving in. If you don’t understand structure, spacing and timing, it really won’t matter how much you pay attention to the people and things around you, because you won’t be able to interpret what you see. If you understand these things, but don’t pay any attention to what you are seeing and don’t apply your understanding to the world, it won’t matter what you’ve learned because you aren’t using it.
A lot of people talk about being aware of the world around us, but what are we looking at and why are we looking at it? Just being aware of what’s going on around you is useless if you don’t have a framework with which to evaluate what you are seeing. Understanding your own structure lets you see what’s going on in others' structures. Understanding spacing tells you not just what is good spacing for you, but what is good for someone else. Knowing when the timing is right and wrong for you to act enables you to understand those moments when you are vulnerable to someone else.
When I was first learning the kata Seigan from the Kendo Federation Seitei Jodo set, my teacher explained that shitachi (the sword side) and shijo (the jo side) should begin moving towards each other simultaneously. I thought he was a little bit crazy. How was I going to be able to see exactly when shitachi would move? I watched senior people do the kata, sure enough, they did move together. I was sure they were signalling each other somehow. How else could you know exactly when to move together?
As I practiced with Kohashi Sensei week after week though, I began to recognize subtle changes in her body that would happen just before she stepped off. They weren’t big changes by any means, but I could see that her balance changed just slightly as she prepared to move and so I could match her starting movement with my own. It seems pretty obvious now what I’m looking at, but it took time to develop an understanding of structure and movement. At first I just “knew” that shitachi was going to move, but I couldn’t have told how I knew. Now I can talk about things like a slight change in the relationship between shoulders, hips and feet. I can see that shitachi has shifted her balance forward just enough that her leg muscles have to work to hold her from moving forward. Her center of gravity has shifted just a slight bit in front of her feet.
Now I don’t just “know” when shitachi will move, I know why I know and know what is happening with shitachi, and I can apply that knowledge to other kata and situations. As I develop my understanding of what is useful and effective structure, I understand more about what my partners are doing, what they can do, and what they can’t do from moment to moment. All those lessons about how to stand upright and balanced, and how to carry your weight so you can move immediately inform everything I see now. I can see when a partner isn’t loading her weight correctly. I understand that if my partner is slouching, she can’t breath properly, so she’ll get tired quickly. I can see when she is ready to attack or if her balance has shifted back.
Spacing, ma’ai 間合, is another aspect of awareness. We’re all aware of it when someone stands too close to us in public. We feel uncomfortable. We might even be aware that we feel uncomfortable because someone is too close. As we develop an understanding of ma’ai and get comfortable with our budo though, this changes. I’m an old judoka. It didn’t take too much Judo practice to change my sense of what was too close for comfort. After doing Judo for a while, you could be leaning on me and it still wouldn’t bother me.
In Judo, we spend a lot of time training standing techniques while holding on to our partner. This is awfully close. Then when we hit the mat, we’re glued to each other, rolling around with our bodies stuck together as we fight to pin, choke or armlock our friends and partners. As we get more and more at home with this much body-to-body contact we stop feeling like people stand too close in other situations as well. After all, I can’t throw or choke you until you get close.
This is not necessarily a good thing (though it does tend to unnerve jerks who like to intimidate people by standing too close because judoka just relax at that range, since you’ve moved into our attacking comfort zone). Being aware of spacing means adjusting what are safe, dangerous and active distances based on a host of different factors. In kata and sparring, good ma’ai is one you can attack effectively from while your partner cannot. A lot depends then on the partner. How tall are they? How long is their reach? What kind of weapon are they using? Long sword? Short sword? Staff? Jutte? Something else?
Being a judoka who is comfortable even when people are touching you doesn’t make you aware. Being aware means understanding how quickly someone can cover the distance between you and her. This is more complex than being aware of structure, because how someone is standing influences it. Are they facing you square on? Have they turned to the side (hanmi)? Where is their balance placed on their feet? Is their balance divided between their feet, or over just one foot? These all change how quickly a person can cover the distance to you. If her weight is divided between her feet, you partner has to first shift her weight to one driving leg before she can go smoothly. If her weight is settled on just one foot though, and that leg is not straight, she can start moving by simply pushing with that leg.
Being aware of the spacing and the quality of the space takes time to develop and it’s an awareness that is difficult to deploy. As I was learning what is a safe spacing, I got caught more than a couple of times by teachers when I thought I had plenty of space, and they kindly laid a bokuto or jo on my head before I could react. They understood the spacing beautifully, and they were kind enough not to raise a bruise as reminder of how much I had to learn. With practice this understanding can become highly refined. I’ve seen weapons pass within a centimeter or less of experienced swordsmen who didn’t even blink. They understood the spacing so finely that they could see that the weapon wouldn’t touch them.
Once you can read spacing well, then you can really be aware of it. Until you understand it and can read it though, you can’t really be aware of it. Once you become aware of it, then you can start manipulating the spacing, but that will have to be another post.
Each of these elements in awareness is progressively more difficult to describe. Structure is relatively easy to describe. Spacing can be awkward because good spacing, safe spacing, vulnerable spacing and every other kind of spacing are not fixed quantities. You can’t say “if someone is 5 feet or 10 feet or 15 feet away, you’re safe. It depends on how fast they are, how prepared you are to move and what kind of weapon they might have. When you start working with weapons, you spend a period of time getting hit when you think you are safe because you don’t yet understand the ma’ai of weapons and how fast someone can enter. Just having someone describe it for you is not sufficient to understand or learn ma’ai.
Timing is even more difficult to put into words, though I keep trying. Knowing when structure and spacing come together to make someone, including yourself, vulnerable is when you begin to understand timing. You can see when someone’s shifting their balance, or better still, when they are preparing to shift their balance, and act in that moment when they are committed to action in one direction. At that moment your partner cannot respond to you. They have to finish their first action before they can respond.
Good timing is about sensing those moments. You can’t really develop it until you understand structure and spacing. Once you have those mastered, you can develop an understanding of timing because you can see how they come together. Timing is about being there when spacing and structure intersect in a way that is good for you and bad for your partner. Sometimes you have to set it up, as when judoka will give their partner a little push to solicit a reaction. Better is when you can sense your partner’s movement and work with it.
Sense her attack and cut through her sword. Draw her out and cut into the opening left after her sword has passed through. Fill the space as your partner retreats so there is no opening for her to return to. Each of these things is about seeing when and how your partner can attack and then using that knowledge.
When you get to this level, then you have a framework with which you can evaluate and make use of the information your senses provide. In the dojo, understanding structure and spacing and how they go together to create optimal moments for attack is what we train for. Outside the dojo, knowing how to read someone’s structure to know how they intend to move, if they are tense or angry or relaxed or concealing something is an application of the same knowledge. Knowing when you are vulnerable or when someone has changed their spacing to make it possible for them to attack is something that can be used inside and outside the dojo.
It’s not enough to say, “Awareness is important.” or “Maintain zanshin.” You have to know what you’re being aware of. You need to know what to look for when you maintain zanshin and keep your mind on the job at hand and don’t relax. That only comes from mastering the essential lessons of structure, spacing and timing.