Showing posts with label zanshin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label zanshin. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

States Of Mind: Mushin

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis


As much time as we spend on physical training, budo really isn’t about the techniques. It’s about the mind. We’ve got all these techniques and kata for training the body, but the sneaky secret is that these are training our minds at the same time. That list of words in Japanese above are all words having to do with the mind. The first 3, zanshin, mushin, and  fudoshin are fairly common in the budo world.

What you’ll notice is that all of them include the character kokoro 心, which is read shin (sheen) when used in combination with other characters. Zanshin, mushin and fudoshin are all mental states. Zanshin, as I’ve written, is about staying aware. Mushin, which is usually translated as “no mind” and “fudoshin” which is often translated as “immoveable mind” are two more traits and states of awareness that are essential to development as a martial artist.

I’ll be honest, when I first encountered these ideas, reading about them in English left me more confused than enlightened. “Mushin means no mind.” I read that sentence, or one very like it, in at least a dozen different books. Not one of them really succeeded in communicating what this term means in martial arts.  I have to admit as well, that the first several times I tried to read a translation of Takuan Soho’s Fudochi Shinmyo Ryoku, which is the major text on fudoshin, I read a lot of words but got nothing from them.

These are short words that describe sophisticated and subtle mental states that require a long time to develop and appreciate. The best I can do is try to explain how I understand them now.  I hope my current understanding is worth something to others.  At the same time I hope I can move further along the path of understanding these as I train. So if I come back in a year or 5 or 10 and say something different, don’t tell yell “But you said….”  Congratulate me on furthering my understanding.

Mushin and fudoshin get described with some of the most contradictory language around.  Mushin is written 無心, and literally translates as “no mind.” Fudoshin is written “不動心” which is probably best translated as “immovable mind,” but which Takuan describes by saying:

Although wisdom is described as 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.
    Takuan Soho, The Unfettered Mind. William Scott Wilson translation

A mind that is no mind, and and immovable mind that does not stop at all. This kind of language makes no sense at all.  At least it didn’t for my first decade or two of budo training. Mushin and fudoshin are mental states that are developed through hours and hours of training. Like most things having to do with our minds, these are complicated.

One of the first complications is that character for mind used in both mushin 無心 and fudoshin 不動心 that I pointed out at the beginning. The character 心 (pronounced “coe-coe-roe” and written kokoro in romaji) contains characteristics that in the Western tradition have been split in two. In English we talk about the mind as the seat of logic and intellect, and we talk about the heart as the seat of the emotions.

The Japanese don’t make the mistake of trying to separate the intellect and the emotions. They recognize that these are not separate things, but two parts of a greater whole. Intellect informs emotions, and emotions affect intellect. This should be obvious, but our cultural inheritance obscures it. When we talk about mushin and fudoshin though, we are definitely talking about both the intellectual and the emotional parts of us. We just don’t have a word in English that encompasses all of this.

Mushin means “no mind.” That’s pretty unimaginable. No mind? Isn’t that like being in a coma? No, it’s not, and that’s the problem I have with the term mushin. It’s not about being mindless. It may be closer to the way people are using the term “mindful” lately, but that’s not a descriptor either. Mushin has several layers to it, but I think it can be understood, even when you still have thousands of hours of training to go before you can consistently achieve it.

Mushin starts, not with no mind, but with a calm, clear mind that doesn’t impose itself. That’s the first step. Let your mind be quiet so it’s not imposing assumptions on the situation, and not trying to force any particular course. If you are making assumptions about your opponent or if you insist on following a particular course in the middle of a fight, you’re in trouble long before you close the ma’ai. 

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis

Calm down, relax, breath (remember how I said that “All I teach is how to breathe and how to walk?). Be calm and let yourself see, hear and feel the entire situation. Instead of making a plan and figuring out what to do, just be there. When people talk about “no mind” the idea is to let the conscious, chattering, clutter of thoughts go and just be there. It’s not that you have no mind, but that you let go of the mile-a-minute constant chatter of unconsidered thought that modern life encourages and makes so difficult to escape. Mushin is impossible when you’re always on the smart phone and surfing the web and listening to the radio or watching television all at the same time. You have to loosen the grip of those things on your mind before you can quiet it.

If you have to have things from outside stimulating your mind all the time, it can never calm down enough to approach mushin. Once you let go of all that though, and your mind calms down, then you can work on mushin. It’s complicated though, because mushin in budo also demands a fairly high level of technical mastery. If you have to think about any aspect of your technique, then you’re not at mushin. This means that mushin in conflict can only be achieved after you acquire sufficient technical skill that you can act without thinking about any part of the action.

The good news is that you can work on the mental and the technical sides of the problem. Take some time to unplug and turn off the electronic chatter.  Get used to the sound of your own breathing and become comfortable with not chasing every thought and stimulus that you encounter. Lose the litany of what ifs.

Once you quiet your mind, you can start to get to mushin. For me, part of mushin is a deep layer of consciousness that isn’t influenced by all the little thoughts. This the layer of mind you want to be working with. It’s still and calm and smooth. It lets you reflect a situation accurately without imposing yourself on it. If you don’t impose your ideas and assumptions, you can act appropriately for the situation. A quiet mind can respond to what is really happening instead of to a preconceived assumption.

Calm and relaxed.  Photo Copyright 2014, Girgoris Miliaresis

When people write that mushin means “no mind” the immediate impression is that mushin is about not having an intellectual mind. It is just as much about not being emotionally active as it is about not being intellectually active. The intellectual mind has to quiet and relax, become calm and still. The emotions have to become calm as well. Until you can quiet the emotional side of your mind as well as the intellectual, you won’t have mushin.

Trash talk is common because many people never learn to let the emotional side of their heart/mind calm down and become still. Again, breathe and stop hanging on to your emotions. It’s not that you don’t have emotions. That’s not what mushin means. Your emotions don’t color the situation. Your ego can say you shouldn’t let this women push you around, or that that guy is a pipsqueak, or those folks deserve a comeuppance. All that just gets in the way of clear perception and can make you react to things that aren’t really there instead of responding to the situation, to the world, as it really is.

Our emotions and thoughts will run us ragged if we let them, with thoughts flittering from politics to friends to work to the lousy roads to the beautiful sunset to the song on the radio to the guy who just cut us off to the hot car going in the other direction to….

The heart/mind can go nonstop as long as you’re awake if you allow it. Letting it go takes practice.  I was going to say it takes effort, but that’s the wrong direction. You’re not fighting with yourself. You’re just not clinging to the surface chatter. It’s not easy, especially now that we have devices to entertain us 24 hours a day. The first step is to allow yourself to not be entertained all the time. If you’re always distracted by TV or radio or the internet or Facebook, you never have the opportunity to develop mushin.

Oddly, the more you let go of the chatter and the distractions, the less you want them. It was probably easy 150 years ago with no TV or radio or MP3 players or even record players. Everything was relatively quiet and distractions were exciting because they were so rare and added some spice to life rather than distracting us from living it.

Mushin isn’t the absence of a heart/mind. The intellect and the emotions are still there. They aren’t the big show though. Once the intellect and the emotions are quiet and calmed, your mind can smoothly see the world as it is and you can respond to reality rather than all the chatter going on. Mushin is the absence of your ideas and emotions being imposed on your perception of the world.

I'd planned on writing about fudoshin in this post too, but I ended up with more than I expected about mushin, so I guess that will wait for now.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Awareness, Zanshin, or just plain Paying Attention

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.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Beginning And Ending, Let The Middle Take Care Of Itself

A guest post, shared by Kim Taylor

Can't remember where, but somewhere in the old iai teachings is the instruction to teach the beginning and the end and not worry so much about the middle of the kata. Make sure the students work on the approach and on the disengage rather than concentrate on the actual technique in the middle. In other words, what we call zanshin is the most important part of the practice. I've got to agree with this. As an aikido student and teacher I can be awfully sloppy about the approach and the finish of a technique, it's something I've spent 34 years trying to fight.

With the kata based arts it's easy to make the approach and disengage part of the performance, even though it, technically, doesn't matter if we approach from three steps or maintain concentration as we back off for five. It's the part in between that has the differences from kata to kata, the bookends tend to be the same for all. This attaching of beginning and ending to the technique tends to make it easier to pay attention to them.

But why is that a good thing? Simply put, it makes you better, it makes your practice more realistic, more vigorous and less dangerous. When you are sloppy on your approach and attack it's much more dangerous to do the techniques at full speed and force. A sloppy attack means surprises, it means an off balance attacker, it means more chance of getting clocked from an unexpected direction. In short, it means you have to practice with a lot of your attention and energy reserved.

Having a set approach of a certain number of steps during which you are expected to pay close attention to your partner means that you aren't going to miss the attack. You will be concentrating on the small movements that mean the attack is beginning. You are paying attention as your partner enters the attack distance which is a very good thing, knowing where the "safe line" is may someday save your nose from being spread across your face.

Being ready to move means that your partner can attack with full speed without the risk of mistakes due to miscommunication. It means you are safer because you're ready.

The disengagement is also a useful phase, who knows when a partner is going to "teach you a lesson"? With full attention given to the movement out of combat range you will cut down the worries about being hit after you figured the technique was done.

At its most basic, zanshin gives permission to your partner to try and take your head off.
So teach the beginning and the end and let the middle take care of itself. Your students will be ready, they will be safe and they will push themselves to learn the middle by cranking up the intensity within the envelope of attention you have created for them. If half of your teaching time is spent trying to get them to crank it up or crank it down, the learning curve will be shallow. Set the stage and let the learning happen at its own speed.

Copyright Kim Taylor
All rights reserved
August 27, 2014

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"

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Staying Aware: Zanshin

気 を付ける、残心、中心する、意識, 無心、ki wo tsukeru, zanshin, chushin suru, ishiki, mushin, paying attention, staying alert, being focused、awareness.

These are terms that everyone has come across in budo training.  Some, like ki wo tsukeru and zanshin are heard regularly, others aren’t heard as often but are just as important.  Budo is all about physical technique though, so why should we spend our time on mental areas like these?  Physical technique is great, but it is the mind that is the true weapon and how we train that is even more important than how we train the body.

Many of the things that change average technique to great technique are not technical.  They are mental.  Doing things like controlling timing and spacing begin with mental awareness and focus.  I don’t care how good your technique is, if your timing or spacing are off, the technique is worthless.  Understanding timing and spacing is mental.  It’s about awareness and focus.  This is where practice gets interesting.  Learning another armbar variation, or another way to do kiriorshi frankly doesn’t teach you very much that can be applied anywhere except in the very closely defined realm in which it is learned.

Learning to let go of all the stuff cluttering up your mind so you can pay attention, stay alert, be focused and aware of the world is tough stuff.  I’m still learning how to do it.  One of the nice things about budo practice is that the correction is usually really fast when you lose focus and let your alertness, your awareness, go.  I’ve gotten hit in the head more than once because I wasn’t paying proper attention.  The physical practices should lead us into the mental ones.  

In budo we often talk about zanshin 残心 and mushin 無心。  You’ll notice that the last character is the same in both words.  It means heart/mind and represents “the psyche; the mind; the emotions” (definition form the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary).  In zanshin, the first character is for something that remains, that is left, that stays.  The idea is one of staying aware, staying alert, your mind remaining on the situation at hand.  In koryu bugei, as well as in kendo and many other modern budo styles, the idea is that the kata doesn’t end when the action ends.  

You have to stay aware and focused even after the fight is finished.  Even though you have ostensibly won, you can’t just relax and let  your focus go rushing away.  The action might not be over yet.  What if your adversary has friends who come along suddenly?  Or what if the adversary isn’t quite finished? If  you just relax, drop your guard and start thinking about how glad you are that the fight is over, you will be surprised by anything that comes next.  The Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu kata called Yaegaki is a great example.  The kata assumes an adversary directly in front of you.  Once she has been dispatched, you start to sheath your sword.  When it’s almost all the way back in the saya, the adversary rallies to take a swing at your leg.  If you have relaxed, you won’t be able to respond in time to save your leg.  If you are still aware, if you are practicing zanshin, you can.  

All koryu bugei kata that I am aware of require that the student practice maintaining awareness, zanshin, even when the action is over.

Really though, the training is to be aware from well before the action starts.  In kneeling kata like Yaegaki or the much less complicated Mae, the kata doesn’t begin when the action starts.  It begins at the moment you start to kneel.  In paired kata, such as in  kenjutsu, the kata starts as soon as you bow to your partner, and it doesn’t end until you’ve moved apart and bowed to signal the end.  I have memories nearly as vivid as the bruise I got one day when my attention wandered after the action of a kata was finished and my partner, the instructor, recognized this and caught me in the solar plexus.  I had dropped my attention because we were “done”.  Except that we weren’t.  We were still close enough together to be immediate threats, and I should have been maintaining zanshin.  I wasn’t, it was clear to my partner, and he gave me a gentle reminder.

Zanshin is focused awareness, but it’s not so narrowly focused that you forget about the rest of the world.  You have to be aware of what is around you at the same time that your attention is focused on your adversary.  This is the mental extension of the metsuke that I wrote about previously.  With metsuke, you want to keep you keep focused on your adversary, but you can’t lose your peripheral vision and awareness of your entire opponent.  If you only look at his weapon, you miss what he’s doing with his body.  If you only look at his face, you don’t know what he’s doing with his weapon.  The saying in budo is enzan no metsuke 遠 山の目付, or roughly, “looking at a far mountain”.  The idea is that your gaze is focused on one point, but your peripheral vision is still active and taking in the whole of the scene.  In budo, the idea is that you are focused on your partner but you can still see his entire body and weaponry in your peripheral vision.

This focused awareness, in my experience, is something like this.  Your attention is fully focused on your partner, but you are still aware of your surroundings as well.  In the dojo you don’t want to move into the way of another group who are also training, you don’t want to run into a wall, and you don’t want to hit anyone you aren’t training with at that moment.  I first experienced this type of awareness at judo practice.  During randori (open grappling practice in this case), the mat would be filled with grappling pairs, most standing, and a few on the ground.  I had to be completely focused on what my partner was doing while at the same time being aware of the people around me on the crowded mat.  

At first I had trouble just keeping my attention on my partner. I would drift back into my own mind thinking about what to do and immediately get thrown.  I didn’t have enough awareness to encompass my partner and the rest of the people on the mat.  Fortunately, my partners generally did.  Gradually my ability to focused improved, and then my awareness started to expand.  I learned to be aware of the world around me without taking my attention off of my partner

This is a part of zanshin. You have to maintain your focus on your partner without losing your awareness of the rest of the world.  In solo iai practice, the reasons for this can be made explicit; they adversary may not be finished, or there may be other adversaries still around.  It’s more difficult to model this in paired kata, but the aikido training technique of multiple attacker randori can do a good job of this.  You have to remain aware.  Zanshin.  残心.

This whole line of thought was kicked off by a piece I read in which the author talked about trying to make a list of things to do while she did dusted the dojo.  Since dusting didn’t require her focus or real awareness, she tried to do other things like make to-do lists with her awareness.  One of the long, slow lessons I have taken from studying budo is that whatever I am doing, just do it.  I don’t have enough awareness to spread it out to multiple activities and do any of them well.  The more I practice just doing one thing and being aware of what I am doing, the better I get at it.  

This is a lesson that is not unique to budo, but is fundamental to any of the Ways.  In fact, it’s one that is probably better taught in other Way traditions such as shodo and sado than in budo.  In calligraphy and tea ceremony, the practice of focusing on what your are doing, and only what your are doing, is right out in front.  In budo it’s awfully easy to get tied up in the cool techniques and dealing with an opponent and forget to be focused and aware of what we are doing.  

Zanshin is helpful in just about anything we do, even simple, mundane tasks such as dusting.  I find that the simple tasks get done faster and better when I am mindful of what I am doing.  If I let my mind go flitting wherever it pleases, I miss details of what I’m doing and end of doing a poorer job than I can.  But the other benefit of doing simple tasks mindfully is that I am practicing being mindful and aware of what I am doing.  The more I practice this with simple tasks, the easier it becomes with more difficult, complex tasks (like trying to catch the tsuka of sword while the swordsman is trying to hit me with the sword).  And as I get better at mindful awareness in the dojo, the better I am at applying it throughout the rest of my life.

That’s the thing about training a Way, whether it is budo or sado or shodo or kado or any of the others.  The training is not just about the particular isolated skill of fighting or making tea or writing pretty characters or arranging beautiful flowers.  It’s training for all of life.  In this case, it is training our mind how approach and deal with any task, to be focused and aware of what we are doing, but not so absorbed that we forget the whole world.  We have to remain aware.

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.