Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Battle in the Mind

     The young warrior slogged through the thick mud created by the evening rain. Today would be the big battle; surely he would bring honor to his family by serving his lord and dispatching several enemy soldiers. At his side he proudly carried his father's broadsword; a very fine blade forged by one of the best swordsmiths in the province.

     As his troop marched down onto the plain, they were greeted by a terrifying sight. The enemy forces were much larger than they had anticipated and very well armed. With an ear-splitting scream, the enemy line charged forward with weapons drawn. Their faces were as faces of demons and the young warrior could see the sun flash off the blades of their swords. He drew his sword but then felt his legs weaken. His hand were wet with the perspiration of fear and his stomach seemed to knot itself into a ball about the size of a small nut. His eyes opened wide but he could not scream in fear. Instead, he threw down his weapon and ran; ran back to the safety of the ridge from whence they'd come, ran for the safety of home.......

Fast forward 300 years...

    The young Marine walked in a skirmish line through the dense jungle, his M16 locked and loaded. Quiet. Got to be quiet. He glanced up at his friend who had taken the point, advancing slowly and very carefully, looking for trip wires and pits. The enemy was in this place, somewhere. He could feel them.

     His silent world exploded into a thousand pieces when the first burst of enemy fire took down the soldier walking point. The Marine dove to the ground and felt as though he'd like to burrow underneath the roots of the trees. The noise was deafening. The screams of the wounded and dying filled him with terror. Maybe if he just burrowed down, they wouldn't see him. They'd miss him. He left his rifle on the ground and tried to burrow deeper, trying to get away from the screams...

     Pretty sorry writing, I know, but it's my blog and I can do what I want. So there. Phththth!

     The point I'm trying to make is this; one may be armed with the best of weapons but the weapon is only as good as the man using it. Without his help, it is useless and he might as well enter the fray with a twig. In the martial arts, we spend a great deal of time working on our weapons. Our bodily weapons. We build them from scratch as beginners and as we progress through the different levels of training, we temper them. We harden, sharpen, and polish them. We practice regularly so as to keep them in the best condition possible - who would want to go into battle with a rusty sword or a dirty rifle that hasn't been cleaned or oiled for a month?

     Certainly, our weapons are important. However, if our minds and spirits are not equally strong; equally sharpened and polished, our weapons will be of no use. Our bodily weapons are useful only insofar as actual physical combat is concerned...aren't they? How often will we need to use them? Did you use any of them last week? Last month? Probably not.

     However, the mind is also a weapon of sorts. When was the last time you used that weapon? Probably quite recently. Not only is the mind a weapon unto itself, it also controls the other (bodily) weapons. It is the stone upon which our bodily "swords" are sharpened and polished. The spirit is the forge in which we create these blades.

    As the two stories above illustrate, one may possess very fine and strong weapons but if the mind or spirit is in disarray the weapon is useless.  Many martial arts practitioners miss the point of various parts of training. They don't understand them or see their significance, so they tend to disregard them. Some teachers have gone so far as to toss out some parts of traditional training, declaring them to be "unrealistic" insofar as developing real fighting skill is concerned.

     This is unfortunate because it has brought about an over-emphasis on the development of bodily weapons which, as we know, are worthless without the development of the mind and spirit.  The old traditional ways have survived the test of time because they are tried and true. They were developed by men (and women, too) who had actually used their skills in life and death conflicts and for this reason they should not be carelessly discarded, especially by persons who label them as "unrealistic" or "unnecessary" -persons who have never looked death in the face.

     From the bow to the training hall to the line-up of class, to the kneeling bows and the beginning breathing exercises prior to class...these things may seem unimportant, "unnecessary," and "unrealistic", but they are, in fact, ways of training the mind and spirit which impact one's physical skills. They teach us to maintain center, to calm the spirit, and to maintain a constant state of what would be called "zhengxin" ("zanshin" in Japanese) which means roughly, "continue mind/heart/awareness."

     The mind must be taught to remain calm at all times, even in times of great physical stress. It must remain calm (and thereby keep the body calm) so that it can maintain full awareness of what is going on around it. In Japanese, this is called "mizu no kokoro" which means roughly "mind like water." A pool of clear, calm water will accurately reflect any image put before it. However, if pebbles are thrown into the pool, ripples arise and distort the image. The larger the pebbles, the larger the distortions.

Thoughts act as pebbles thrown into the pool. Fear acts like boulders thrown into it. The image becomes so distorted as to be unrecognizable.

     The mind is taught to be remain calm by focusing on correct breathing and maintaining one-point. At all times. In bowing, kneeling, standing up...and then while facing a training partner who will attack with a full-tilt boogie punch in the practice of one-step fighting. This is not something that is achieved after only a handful of lessons; it takes some considerable time and a great deal of practice.

     As training progresses, one faces a partner who will attack with an unspecified technique (freestyle one-step) at a time of his or her choosing. The attack is real but the student does not know when it will come or what it will be. If his/her mind becomes cluttered with thoughts and anticipation; if the pool's surface is broken by rocks thrown into it, he/she will not respond correctly or smoothly. He/She is not "keeping one-point."

     This same mind is to be maintained in the practice of forms. At first, the student struggles simply to remember the set. However, once that is done (and it cannot be achieved quickly), the form is to be done correctly - which often means with destructive power - while the mind remains calm and centered. This state can be called "buxin" (aka. "mushin") which means literally "no mind" or "without mind," or "without conscious effort."

     In the practice of traditional Japanese kyudo (art of using the bow), there is great emphasis on tradition and many beginning students give up because they fail to understand the importance of these seemingly "unnecessary" actions. For instance, one takes only so many steps in approaching the position from where one will shoot the bow. The bow must be held at a certain angle (!) as the arrow is nocked...everything is measured out very precisely.

     In the training of traditional Japanese iaido (art of drawing and cutting with the sword), there would seem to be many unnecessary facets. One must move the saya (scabbard) and grip the tsuke (handle) just so. Initial emphasis is on exact precision rather than lightning speed or power.

     Students may think me mentally decrepit when I say that these arts and the other traditional martial arts are not so much geared for teaching fighting skills to be used in combat as they are for training the mind, which is the greatest weapon. The sword cuts through our weaknesses. The arrow is launched into ourselves. In kyudo, the object is not so much to hit the bull's eye as it is to perform the action correctly. Hitting the bull's eye will come along later, but even if it doesn't, that's alright...because the object of the training is not really intended to make you a deadeye archer.

     This same kind of training can be applied to baguazhang's practice of walking the circle - where you aren't training (or at least you don't seem to be training) with the various postures and techniques - you're just walking the circle, round and round, going first one way and then the other......the mind must be trained first. It will train the body.

     Yiliquan students are, from the first few training sessions, told that they must learn to always keep one-point; walk, stand up, sit down, lie down, run...everything from one-point. This allows them to learn to control every movement with great precision and they are provided with physical exercises to assist them in learning to do it. However, the best exercise is to use the mind. The mind is what "keeps one-point"; not the body.

     As an aside, many years ago I had (still have) a good friend who was a female homicide detective with the Omaha Police Department. She often visited my school because I had an acupuncture clinic there and her back often caused her pain. She attended a chigong seminar which I held for my students and I spoke about "keeping one-point" and using it in everything you do. After the class, she asked me about using this concept in her practice of combat shooting. Her qualification scores had always been fairly low and she needed to improve her skills.

     We talked at some length about it and I taught her the basic concepts behind it. She took it to heart and practiced regularly and one day she came in to tell me (with a huge smile) that she had scored very high on her qualification course. She said she'd used the principles she'd learned in the training hall...the principles of the sword also apply to using a handgun.

     The bulk of our training is directed towards training the mind and developing a strong spirit. In the process, we might also develop a strong punch or a lightning kick, but that isn't necessarily the object. I had taught this young lady that the concept wasn't necessarily to hit the center ring of the silhouette target (a statement which really confused her at first); the object was to perform the technique - from the adoption of the stance and body posture to the draw and presentation of the weapon correctly. Do it as if it were a traditional martial art (it really is a modern martial art). Doing all of these small things very precisely was the object. This would train the mind. She had to keep one-point throughout the process and every tiny movement had to be broken down and practiced individually before moving on to the next. It was something like doing a short form. Over and over she had to practice until her mind remained calm and centered...until there was no"thought" of the weapon and no"thought" of he target. No feeling of "I'm now drawing my weapon...." No concern about hitting the silhouette or even the paper. Something like modern-day kyudo.

     And it worked.

     Next time you go to class or even practice on your own, keep these things in mind. No pun intended. By keeping them in mind, you will be able to keep them out of mind.

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