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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 fall.

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 secure.

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 we serve?

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 fall.”

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 2007

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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

New! 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. Fast paced and easy to read, it is full of insight and wisdom. It is a rewarding read for any martial artist.

(Softcover, 300 pages, illustrated)


To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Zen philosophy,mental balance,living the now

Read more articles by Jeff Brooks

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