by Christopher Caile and Deborah Klens-Bigman,
There is an old Japanese samurai saying, "When
the battle is over, tighten your chin strap."
This refers to constant awareness, preparedness for
danger and readiness for action. The Japanese saying
itself focuses on the end of a combat engagement when
it is natural to relax awareness, thinking the danger
is over, when in reality it often is not. "This
concept carries over into the dojo which is not just
a training hall but a place where a certain awareness
of the possibility of serious combat must constantly
be maintained," said John Donohue in his article
The Way of the Sword found in the Learning
section. But, for the serious martial artist this
heightened state of awareness becomes a natural part
of the psyche, something that is automatically turned
on while awake as well as during sleep.
In karate practice when kata are completed students
are expected to stand quietly for a few seconds. This
is zanshin practice -- the maintenance of readiness
for action even though the physical aspect of a particular
kata is finished. In iaido, partners practice kata
with wooden swords. From the moment the opponents
face each other until they finish working together,
the participants practice zanshin. The sense of heightened
awareness allows partners to practice potentially
dangerous moves in safety, by controlling technique.
Zanshin also supports good technique in the kata.
The idea behind partner practice is that technique
becomes second nature, while zanshin continues to
be developed. In aikido, daito ryu aikijujutsu and
many other arts, when a technique is completed (the
attacker often on the ground having been subdued)
the defender is taught carefully to maintain his or
her awareness, position of advantage and readiness
to resume action if need be--zanshin.
"On one level, zanshin refers to neutral, non-threatening
stances or kneeling in such a way as to be always
ready for action. Zanshin is also the flip side of
single-minded devotion to technique. You must learn
not to focus exclusively on your actions but rather
to be attentive and receptive to all activities surrounding
you," says Donohue. It may seem contradictory,
he continues, "but both the ideas of focusing
entirely on technique and of maintaining zanshin have
to do with the transcending of subjectobject distinctions
through martial training. Unity with the Void, to
use Musashi's (the famious Japanese swordsman) idiom,
results in the execution of technique without any
selfconscious awareness of doing so. By the same token,
proper zanshin is indicative of the fact that the
swordsman experiences no discontinuity between his
surroundings and himself."
Various martial arts have different ways of training
to develop heightened zanshin. Opponents are sometimes
allowed to attack from the rear in order to develop
an almost intuitive sense of impending attack. Another
exercise places a defender in the middle of a circle
of opponents who attack one by one and sometimes in
groups -- the defender using heightened awareness
and/or intuition to anticipate attacks, often combined
with movement for protection. In one style of karate
(Seido) students testing for black belt train blind
folded and then are led through the streets of New
York City to heighten their senses and awareness.
Often students report that the experience made their
senses pop open, every sound, its source and direction,
the feel of the floor or street, the sense of others
being close by -- all becoming heightened and experienced
as never before.
There is an old Japanese story about a young man
who sought teaching from a great swordsman. After
being accepted, the student endured several years
of personal service -- cooking, washing and cleaning
for the teacher. Then his lessons began, but not practice
with a sword. His teacher began to surprise
him with incessant attacks with a practice sword --
when the student was cooking, sleeping, anytime. Over
time the student's pains and bruises lessened as he
gradually learned to avoid and dodge the attacks.
Finally the student asked the teacher when actual
sword training was to begin. The teacher then replied
that he had been taught all that he needed to learn.
This was zanshin, such total awareness that the student
could sense and then avoid the attacks.
Zanshin is what many soldiers, law enforcement officers
and advanced martial artists endeavor to develop.
In some forms of meditation and Zen, zanshin is also
a goal for students -- total attention to the moment:
the focusing of the mind (without thought or emotion)
on everything around them.
Roy Suenaka, the author of Complete Aikido, tells
a story about aikido's founder that is the epitome
of this concept. They were seated on the floor face
to face having tea and talking when Morihei Ueshiba,
without turning his head, casually reached behind
himself and then held something out for Suenaka to
see. "Ah, a young cockroach," he said, before
gently putting it to the side. Only later did the
significance hit Suenaka. How was Ueshiba so aware
that even when focused on their conversation could
he not only sense the presence of something so small
but be able to know exactly were it was so that he
was able to pick it up without looking?
For information on how Zanshin relates to the everyday
world, see this month's article on Defense
About The Authors:
Christopher Caile is founder and Editor-in-Chief
of FightingArts.com and Deborah Klens-Brigman, Ph.D.
is an Associate Editor.
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