Showing posts with label mindfulness. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mindfulness. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

States Of Mind: Heijoshin

Photo Copyright 2015 Grigoris Miliaresis

This one is for Scott Halls.

From the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary
へいじょうしん【平常心】 (heijshin)one's usual frame of mind; self-possession; composure; equanimity; an imperturbable [unperturbed] (frame of) mind.平常心保つ remain self-possessed [unperturbed]; preserve one's composure [equanimity];  keep one's cool平常心を失う lose one's composure [equanimity,  cool].
Encyclopedia of Japanese Martial Arts   pg. 143
  1. BUDDHISM - an impartial mind and, by extension, a tranquil mind. Literally, a “normal” mind.  2. MARTIAL ARTS - The normal or tranquil state of mind which must be maintained when one is under attack. In other words, one must remain relaxed and self-confident.

Digital Dictionary Of Buddhism
The mind lacking artifice and mistaken discrimination, the natural condition of sentient beings

Heijoshin 平常心 can be a tough term to understand because it is often hidden behind complex Buddhist explanations.  The term is made up of 3 Chinese characters, but is really a combination of two words. The first two characters combine to make the common term “heijo” 平常, which simply means “normal.”  The last character is read “shin’ in this usage, but when it stands alone is read “kokoro” , which is the word for the mind, including the emotions and other parts that are usually labeled as “heart” in English.  The Japanese don’t make the mistake of separating the logical and emotional parts of the mind into separate entities.  They recognized long ago that the mind is all of the logical and rational bits mixed up with the emotional bits, rather like a plate of spaghetti with sauce on it after the noodles and sauce have been stirred together.  They can’t be separated.  It would be pointless to try.

In Buddhist terms it is the normal mind without any attachments clouding it. However, since this blog is about budo rather than Buddhism, we’re not going to get into that.  For me, heijoshin is something of a culmination of some of mental states I’ve talked about in the past. Mushin is often seen as limited, a state of mental flow that can be achieved from time to time, but doesn’t last, and certainly isn’t normal.

Fudoshin, the immovable, imperturbable mind described so eloquently and bafflingly by the Zen Buddhist monk Takuan Soho isn’t as remote and ephemeral as some flow state that we touch from time to time. An immovable mind isn’t disturbed by what happens, doesn’t get stuck on any one thing that comes along, and isn’t distracted by every shiny new idea or event.  
That’s a big part of heijoshin, the normal mind. The normal mind on a normal, boring day can move along with the activity of the day without getting caught up in any of it. Heijoshin includes more than just being imperturbable though. The normal mind in Buddhist theory, as I understand it, is one that also isn’t attached to any preconceptions. It is the normal mind we are born with, one that is not cluttered with preconceived notions, that doesn’t impose it’s own expectations on the world, and one that doesn’t color what it sees with prejudices and prior judgements.

Miyamoto Musashi wrote 常の心 which is often written 平常心in modern Japan (Musashi’s Japanese from the early 1600’s is much more difficult for 21st century Japanese to understand than Shakespeare’s English is for the average American high school student).  His phrase can be read toko no kokoro or tada no kokoro or  tsune no kokoro.  Toku means “constant, unchanging.” Tada is “ordinary, common, usual, unaffected.” Tsune is the “usual state of things.” All these together are are a good equivalent for heijoshin.

Heijoshin is the “normal mind.” Like mushin, the “normal mind” isn’t any more normal than the “no mind” of mushin is really the absence of the mind. In budo, heijoshin is the fully developed mind that isn’t disturbed or unbalanced by actions or events. It remains calm and unruffled regardless of what happens.  I don’t know about anyone else, but to me that is a very abnormal mind. All of the normal minds around me (and too frequently this includes mine) get upset and disturbed by the unexpected.
Heijoshin then, is a very unusual mind. A person with heijoshin mind maintains the same calm, balanced and unruffled manner regardless of whether she is slicing up vegetables with a knife or cutting down foes with a sword. It takes a well trained and highly experienced mind to maintain a calm and unruffled condition even in the heat of battle.

This is where all that training we do comes into play. It’s common to hear people criticize kata practice for being stiff and formal, and especially for not teaching people how to adjust and adapt to the unexpected. On the contrary, I’ve found kata training to be exceptionally good at developing students awareness, calmness and mental flexibility.  Precisely because so many factors are known in kata practice, students have the mental space to really learn to read their partner’s body and movements and learn to spontaneously adjust to differences in timing and spacing.

In koryu, you don’t get to be on the receiving end of the kata until you have significant experience on the doing side learning to read your partner.  This is important, because once you are on the receiving end of the kata working with beginners, anything can happen. Beginners mix up kata and do the unexpected with great frequency. Having a solid grounding in being able to read your partner’s stance and movement is the first step in developing a heijoshin mind. The senior is responsible for handling whatever the junior does, and quickly learns to do this causally. It’s just part of the training.

As the intensity of practice in kata increases, the student has to become more and more calm in the face of that pressure. Developing a heijoshin mind is one of the goals of classical budo practice. There are lots of stress and shocks built into budo practice. Over time, the student should gain greater and greater composure and equanimity. Certainly it is not unusual to see senior level students deal with a junior mistakenly switching from one kata to another part way through the first kata. Or getting accidentally banged with a stick during practice without acknowledging that anything untoward or painful happened until after the kata is finished.
Great Martial Arts Equipment, Clothing and Media

That is heijoshin in action. Even when startled, shocked or hurt, the student maintains composure and continues on with the appropriate action.  As students progress, the amount stress needed to disturb their heijoshin increases. Students are able to remain calm and unflustered.

In addition, students learn to recognize when they are trying to impose their preconceptions and expectations on a situation. This often happens when students decide when or how fast their partner will attack and then move at the wrong time. They have to learn to turn off their expectations and just respond to what their partner is really doing. Sometime these lessons hurt because if you decide what your partner is going to do, and she does something different, you end up catching a stick with the side of your head (this hurts and is to be avoided.  I have some experience with this form of learning).

Calm. Imperturbable. Relaxed. Without expectations. Tranquil. The Buddhists call this heijoshin, normal mind. For the rest of us it is an exceptional mind, and another goal of training.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

There Are No Advanced Techniques

There are no advanced techniques.  Really.  Early in my budo career, I was looking for the secret techniques and mysterious skills that would make me able to do the things my teachers did that seemed like magic. But what looks like magic is really just the basics done phenomenally well. It was hard to convince myself that Kano Jigoro's famous answer to the question of “What is the secret of Judo?” was entirely truthful. When asked about the secret of Judo, Kano replied simply “Practice, practice, practice.” This is not an inspiring answer for a kid who wants to be able to effortlessly throw people across the room.  

Sadly for all of us who are seeking the magic, it seems to be true. Whether I'm working on Judo or kenjutsu or iai or jo or my current nemesis kusarigama, careful, considered, focused and aware practice seems to be the real secret. More and more often, my own students look at something I've done with them like it's impossible, which is something I fondly remember thinking about my own teachers. It's a reaction I never have anymore though. Even when I can't begin to do what my teachers are doing, I can see how they are doing it and I can see the path to being able to do it myself.

Last week I was working on some taijutsu with an Aikido teacher and friend. Jim can do incredible things to your balance and make you fall down with the subtlest of movements. It's a very different technique than what I do in Judo, but I can feel what he's doing. The principle of what he does is clear. He is taking my balance (in Judo we call this kuzushi) and then drawing me in a direction where I can't support myself. I have to fall down. What makes it magic is that Jim does this with the least amount of movement possible. My Judo techniques have long been built on very large movements, but the principle is the same. Now I'm working on bringing a little bit of Jim's magic into my Judo.

It won't happen with mindless repetitions of techniques though. You can repeat a technique as often as you like, and you won't learn anything from the repetitions or get any better. You have to be fully engaged in your practice, and mentally looking for slight differences in your technique that will make you better. That's practice. Just doing something a hundred or a thousand times won't make you better. It will make whatever you are doing more solidly anchored in your body. If you are repeating poor technique, it will make it that much more difficult to change and improve your technique.

To get better at Jim's throws from a wrist grab, I didn't repeat what I already knew. I didn't repeat the big movement Judo techniques that I have been doing. I slowed down and focused on exactly what was happening to my partner when I moved just a little bit. I focused on feeling exactly when my partner's balance shifted from being supported by his frame to relying on me to keep from falling over. It was just a tiny bit of weight that was transferred to me, so little that I doubt my partner even realized he was using me to stay up. Once that happened though, all I had to do was turn my wrist over and he fell down, because I was withdrawing my support of his body. Jim can do this at full speed. It takes me several slow seconds to do it. By being aware of what is going on and practicing it slowly, I can develop the sensitivity to do this faster and faster over time.

One of the keys to making this work is to know what I'm looking for, and then focusing on developing that skill and sensitivity. If we just go to the dojo and quickly repeat the techniques we already know, we won't improve much. We have to be willing to slow down enough that we can focus on making changes to our technique. That's when practice really begins.

Up until last February, I had what is a fairly strong Hiki Otoshi Uchi strike in Shinto Muso Ryu. Then I had the chance to train with one of the senior teachers in our group. I was lucky enough to watch him correcting a junior and demonstrate his technique over and over for my fellow student. What a fantastic opportunity for me! As I watched, I could see small differences between how he was swinging the jo and meeting the sword and they way I was doing the technique.

The technique is the same one I’ve been working on for years.  There is no magic here, just a more subtle, smoother use of the jo that results in a powerful, inexorable technique requiring far less effort than what I’ve been doing.  It’s up to me to increase my understanding of this fundamental technique that I started learning on my first day of practice.  It’s not magic.  It’s not a special, advanced technique taught only to senior students.  It’s simply a fundamental technique done really, really well.

This is true of everything I have done in budo.  When I wrote about Hikkoshiso Sensei tossing me around the Judo mat by waving his hands, I wasn’t referring to any special, advanced technique.  What he does is an extremely effective application of the basic principle of kuzushi.   What Hikkoshiso Sensei did to me is very similar to what I’m beginning to understand in my friend Jim’s technique, and both are extensions of the first principle of technique in Judo, which has been referenced in every Judo practice I’ve ever attended in any of many different countries.  It’s not a secret.  Hikkoshiso Sensei and Jim are just applying a basic principle extremely well.  The same goes for that Shinto Muso Ryu teacher.  He wasn’t doing anything secret or arcane.  He was doing the third technique taught in Shinto Muso Ryu amazingly well.  

None of these people have any secrets.  In truth, they are doing exactly the opposite of keeping secrets.  They put what they have learned through practice out there for students and fellow budoka to see and learn from.  One of the first steps is to stop thinking of it as secret magics, and start thinking of it as an attainable skill.  Then it’s really all about the quality and quantity of your practice.  It’s easy to wish that Kano Sensei’s secret had been something beside “Practice, practice, practice.”  

There aren’t any special techniques only taught to advanced students.  We keep practicing and step by step the advanced techniques appear.  Except that they aren’t advanced techniques.  They are the basics done so well they seem advanced.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Mindful training

I write a lot about how to train in kata, and uke's role in pushing and stressing their partner by changing the speed, rhythm, timing and intensity of the kata.  I tell people to never train anything more than once.  My point with all of these is to develop the skill at a higher level than just automatic.  Whenever we do something, we should be fully engaged or we aren't training well, and we aren't learning good budo.  This article is a great discussion of the proper mindset for training and learning anything.  "Going From Good To Great With Complex Tasks"

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)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Mindful practice

Kata practice in koryu is tough. Even knowing exactly what your partner will do doesn’t make it easy. Unfortunately, you don’t know precisely when or how fast or how hard or how committed your partner will be when they do the next technique in the kata. Working with a good partner who controls and varies their speed, timing strength and commitment are what bring the two-man kata of koryu bugei alive. A great deal is said about mushin, or “no-mind” as a goal in the martial arts. In order to bring kata alive as above, I think mindful training is critical.

Mushin has been described well by better martial artists and writers then I. It’s a mental state that is a goal of training. What I don’t think I’ve seen enough of is a discussion of the mental state during training. It’s good to know that the goal of training is to achieve the lofty state of mushin, but with what sort of mental state, with what mind-set should we approach training? Most of us, myself included, need more mind in our training, not less.

We need more mindfulness in our training. By this I don’t mean we need to be thinking about all the nuances and possibilities of what we are doing while we are doing it. That’s what the beer session after keiko is for. What I’m talking about is more like the zanshin that one is supposed to show at the end of kata, after the action is concluded but before the kata is officially over. In iaido, we’re always watching to make sure students don’t drop their focus after the last cut, and just saunter through the chiburi, noto, and return to the starting point. This remaining focused on the situation at hand, without letting outside thoughts or distractions move your focus is the mindfulness I’m looking for throughout practice.

It’s a lot easier to grab a students attention in jodo practice and keep them mindful through a whole kata than it is in iaido. All you have to do is change up the timing a little bit when their attention wanders and nearly hit them. Some students, like me, are stubborn about being stupid, and we actually get hit. That surprise when the senior partner comes through your defenses because you were giving him less than 100% of your attention is usually enough to keep you focused until the end of practice. The trick is to have this focus from the start of practice and to not lose it.

When I think of mindfulness, it’s not that one is full of their own mind, but rather one’s mind is full of one thing. That one thing is whatever you’re doing. In koryu bugei training, that one thing is almost always a kata. Focusing on a kata, filling your mind only with the immediate action of the kata is a lot tougher than you would think. Especially considering that the sadistic old men I train with seem to like nothing better than whacking you if your attention wanders and leaves an opening for them. With that kind of motivation, it should be easy to practice mindfully. For some reason, even with the threat of yet another whacking, it’s still difficult to stay focused on just the immediate instant.

One of the dangers of kata practice is that it can become rote. After all, everybody involved knows what’s going to happen next, and after that, and after that until the end of the kata. How much attention does it require to dance through the steps of the kata when everyone knows what those steps are? It doesn’t take much attention at all to dance through the steps of a kata. It can be done while planning dinner and a corporate takeover. To do it right though requires nothing less than your whole mind.

If your partner is good, you can’t have even one corner of your mind off thinking about dinner plans. There is a reason that in koryu bugei the senior partner is always on the losing side. That’s the teaching side. The senior’s job is to control the speed, timing, intensity and other variables of the kata so junior can learn as much as possible and stretch themselves to new levels. When the senior is good, they don’t leave any room for the junior to be anything but mindful.

Mindfulness is another one of those things in any way that can be carried out of practice and into life. The tea ceremony folks are probably the best at bringing mindfulness to ordinary life, because their training is focused on an ordinary activity. They have to learn mindfulness without the threat of getting hit with a big wooden stick. In budo practice, if we are lucky, we have the advantage and disadvantage of training with someone who will hit us if we aren’t mindful. This is useful because it can teach good focus very quickly. I’ve noticed though, that this focus can be very particular, showing up only when someone is liable to be hit, and absent the rest of the time.

Mindfulness shouldn’t require the threat of getting hit to achieve. One of the goals of training is to be able to discipline the mind to mindfulness at any time, regardless of the activity, the location, or the presence of a partner with a big stick. Watch any good budoka, and they show mindfulness from the moment they start in the dojo, not from the moment kata starts. Being mindful throughout practice at the dojo should be practice for being mindful all the time. Great budoka exude this focus all the time, inside and outside the dojo.

Mindfulness is not something that is just for the dojo. It is a skill, a way of approaching things and focusing on one activity that should extend from the dojo into everything we do. Mindfulness is one of the practices, one of the benefits of any way that should permeate our lives. My cooking is better when I’m mindful of what I’m doing in the kitchen. And I know it’s useful in the dojo when that little, old man with the stick tries to whack me.

Mushin, well, that’s a goal I’m still aiming at. Mindfulness is something I can work on right now.