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There is a 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 is often 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.

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. 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 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 aspects of a particular kata is finished. In one style of karate 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. 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 even when a technique is completed (the attacker often on the ground having been subdued) the defender is careful to be both attentive and have a body position and stance ready for further action if need be: zanshin.

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 students 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 solders, 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.

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