by Christopher Caile and Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.
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
The Way of the Sword. 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
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
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
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.