THE ZEN MIRROR
Moving from the Center
By Jeff Brooks
The way we normally walk minimizes the amount of energy we use to move.
It is efficient. It is a kind of controlled falling. It is subtle, but
you can see it if you look for it. We shift our weight onto the supporting
leg, put the opposite leg forward, lean toward it and land on it. That
is what we do with each step and it works well enough under normal circumstances.
But our “normal’ circumstances are highly predictable, and
have been designed to be. They are not natural in the least. When we walk
we walk on built surfaces – paved streets and interior floors –
which are uniform, and mostly free of obstructions. It has distorted the
way we move, and we are conditioned to it.
If you were walking along an unfamiliar path in the dark you would not
walk with this controlled falling method. You would tend to leave your
center over your foundation, so that if the foot you are extending to
take your next step encounters an obstruction, you are able to adjust
your step. If you were in a “controlled fall”, with your weight
already extended over the front foot as it encountered the obstruction,
your fall would no longer be “controlled.” You would just
In combatives we need to assume not just an unpredictably irregular surface,,
but the fact that we will encounter unpredictable disruptions of our balance.
Our opponent will move unpredictably, in a violent way, will be striking
and grabbing at us, and we will be, at once vigorously avoiding him and
emitting energy toward him, movements which tend away from the stable
center of our own body.
The dynamics of a combative interaction require that we not use our mobility
in a way that can be easily upset. Instead of relying on controlled falling
we need to body-shift in a way that will allow our body to remain over
a stable foundation until we are committed to the new position. This kind
of stepping – it works in any direction – is a fundamental
principal of mobility in combative systems. It takes more energy that
ordinary walking, but it is much faster, less predictable, and much more
Old masters, east and west, looked to fighting skills for metaphoric guidance
in the conduct of all aspects of leadership and life. The pressure and
high stakes of battle stripped away the merely speculative and provided
a true efficacy test on theory. If you are right you prevail. If you are
in error you are destroyed.
The 14th Century Zen master Dogen taught his students that the only way
to live honestly was to live in this moment. The past is gone. The future
does not exist. And idea as true then as it is now.
Any warrior can attest that in the heat and pressure of combat any deflection
of the fighter’s attention – to the errors or successes of
the past, to the plans, fear or hope for the future – risks taking
the attention away from the intense, dynamic threat in the present moment.
We have to acknowledge that, both for trainers and for operators, we need
to learn from the past – what worked and what didn’t –
and we need to prepare for the future. Our lives and the lives of those
we are sworn to protect depend on it.
Dogen gave advice on that very question. In the Zen monastery of his time
the monks had the luxury of living in the present if they wanted to. But
the person who was always looking to the past and the future, by the nature
of his job, was the cook. The cook had to prepare for the next days’
meal. He needed to predict the number of people he would be serving, how
hungry they would be, how much to buy and to prepare, a day or a week
or a month in advance.
How could he rationalize the need to live in this moment, the only moment
of reality that exists, while fulfilling our obligation to the people
Dogen said to the cook: Prepare for tomorrow as the work of today.
Simple. But we often don’t do it. We often live in a kind of controlled
fall. Easy going, expecting a flat, predictable path of life, falling
toward the future, heedless of the dangers.
If we move in a “combative” manner – keeping our foundation
beneath us as we create the next moment – we can be sure that even
though circumstances may change in an unexpected way, we won’t collapse,
but instead can have the strength and stability to manage the change effectively,
adapt to new conditions, and prevail.
If you are over your head in debt, paying only the interest, you are in
a controlled fall. Any change in circumstances can cause a collapse. If
you are out of shape, unable to perform under a sudden escalation in pressure,
you may get by. But you may not. That also is a life as “controlled
If you are complacent about maintaining skills you once had, if you are
coasting, if you are hoping for the best but not preparing for difficulties,
you are putting everything you worked for, including your life, at risk.
That only means that we need to prepare for tomorrow as the work of today.
Simple. It means keep a foundation under you as you take each step.
Applied to other aspects of life it is the way to assure that we all can
perform in a way that will serve the people who depend on us, and which
will make our own practice as successful and rewarding as it should be.
Copyright Jeff Brooks and FightingArts.com
About The Author:
Jeffrey Brooks, Seventh Degree Black Belt, has been the
director of Northampton Karate Dojo in Northampton, Massachusetts since
1987 and director of Northampton Zendo since 1993. He is a police officer
and police instructor, and the author of “Rhinoceros Zen –
Zen Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom.” His column Zen Mirror
and other articles appear on FightingArts.com.
FightingArts.com is pleased to announce its first
book: “Rhinoceros Zen –Zen
Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom,” by Jeffrey Brooks, a work
that portrays the dual paths and interplay between Zen and Karate-do.
and easy to read, it is full of insight and wisdom. It is a rewarding
read for any martial artist.
(Softcover, 300 pages, illustrated)