Sunday, December 29, 2013

Training the Mind

      In our training, we often hear and use the Chinese term yi (), which actually means, "idea, intention, will..." This is not the same as xin (, pronounced roughly, “shin”) which means, "mind." Xin is also is the character for "heart" because it was/is felt that the heart houses the "mind." Yi is a product of the xin. But what is this xin, this thing we call mind? That's a good question and it's one that is a bit difficult to answer. Maybe “consciousness” is a good definition.
      Training of the mind is considered one of the most important parts (if not the most important part) of martial arts training. You can train and condition your body all the livelong day but if your mind isn't properly trained, it's all for nothing.
Today, let's talk about what is referred to as the "non-abiding mind." This is a very important concept in the practice of traditional martial arts and much has been written on the subject. Unfortunately, most of these writings are rather difficult to understand, especially for martial arts practitioners who lack much experience.
      Most of the material on this subject was penned by swordsmen. For those of you who haven't engaged in the practice of swordsmanship, let me say that sword fighting happens much faster than bare-handed fighting. Much faster. There is absolutely no room for error.
In a sparring match or a fistfight, you can make a mistake or two and still come away none the worse for wear. You might have a couple of extra bruises and scuff marks but you'll survive. Not so in a sword fight. Remember that when you execute bare-handed techniques you must move your body just exactly right so as to produce shock and bring the opponent down. This isn't the case with weapons which, by their very nature, deliver shock without your help. All you have to do is control and direct them.
      A mistake in a sword fight means losing a hand or an arm, or worse. In a fistfight you might get thumped on your wrist and still be able to win the day but in a sword fight, a strike to the wrist disarms you and you're dogmeat in a hurry because your weapon is laying on the ground.
Kind of like a gunfight. There are no second-place winners.
      The swordsmen of feudal Japan and China gave us much valuable advice on the subject of training the mind and we would do well to listen to them. After all, many of them lived long enough to die of natural causes. One of the things they stressed was the importance of not allowing your mind to stop on anything. Where the mind stops, the attention (yi) is fixed and you lose the awareness of everything else around that point. Your body also loses the ability to move and respond fluidly and freely. Remember that mind and body are inseparable.
      Way back when you first learned how to engage in freestyle sparring or freestyle one-step, your teacher probably told you not to fix your gaze on the opponent's hands or feet. If you stare at his hands, you cannot see his feet and accurately determine what they are doing (or about to do). If you watch his feet, you won't notice the punch heading for your nose.
There is actually a relationship between the gaze and the mind. If the mind stops on something the eyes tend to stop there, too. And vice-versa. If the eyes are fixed on a single thing, the mind tends to stop there.
      In my classes, I tell students to look at the opponent as if you are looking at a mountain. You don't try to capture any one part of the mountain with your eyes. Rather, you take in the whole thing. Your eyes are relaxed. It's as if you are letting the mountain look at you. If you do that, you can see the foothills around it and every tree and shrub. If a deer pops out somewhere, you'll spot him instantly but if you then stop your mind on him you'll be aware of nothing else.
In sword fighting, if you stop your mind on your sword you cannot clearly see the enemy's weapon. That is, if you think about how to cut or about what you're going to do if he does this or that, you have stopped your mind. On the other hand, if you stop your mind on the opponent's sword by thinking about what he might or might not do, your response will be stuttered and you will hesitate at the moment of truth.
      So, you might ask just what are you supposed to think about? The answer is...nothing. No, that doesn't mean that you should think about nothing because that's actually thinking about something. Just relax. Center yourself. Don't consider the opponent as being separate from you. There is no “me” and no “him.” There is just an “isness.”
The mind must move freely so that you are able to respond easily and correctly. Thoughts of a “me” and a “him” are generated by thoughts of winning and losing, and vice-versa. Strange as it sounds, don't think about those things. If your mind stops on them you will certainly be defeated.
      Don't try to relate past or future to the present moment. What is past is gone forever. Yes, you have learned from the past but just because something happened in the past doesn't necessarily mean that it will happen now! "He defeated his last opponent with his side thrust kick, so I'll be ready for it" a fine example of trying to relate past to present. If you ready yourself for a side thrust kick and he fires out a reverse punch, your response will be inappropriate. Learn from the past but don't dwell in it.
      The future never arrives. There is always "one second from now." If you think, "He defeated his last opponent with a side thrust kick, so I'll be ready for it when he tries to do it to me", you are relating past and future to present. He used (past tense) a side kick before, so I'll be ready when he tries to do it to me (future tense). But the truth is that you cannot know what the future holds.
      All you can ever really know is the now; this instant. It is all you can know and experience. You might know the past but you cannot experience it. It's gone. You don't know the future, so you obviously cannot experience it. All you can really know or experience is this very instant. This is the essence of zen.
      "But," you might argue, "If I'm engaged in a life-and-death struggle, it's pretty tough not to think about winning or losing or trying to figure out what the enemy is going to do." Exactly. That is why you practice every day; to internalize the techniques so that you no longer have to consciously think about how to do them. Then your body will respond correctly without your even being aware of it. But you must also train so as not to be concerned about what the opponent is going to do. This takes time and a lot of effort.
      At first, you must focus the mind at your One-Point (a spot in the lower abdomen known in Chinese as “dantien” and Japanese as “tanden.”). "But isn't that stopping the mind?" you ask. Yes, it is. But it's a beginning point. You have to start somewhere and that's the best place. One sword master compared it to training his cat. He had a cat that loved to kill sparrows, which upset him considerably. So, he tied it to a leash and trained it not to kill sparrows. At first it was rebellious and fought the rope but it eventually stopped resisting and learned. Then he could let it roam freely and it would not kill sparrows. Your mind is the same way, only worse. In zen it is sometimes called the “monkey mind” because it plays and jumps around like a wild monkey. The harder you try to hold it down, the harder it struggles. By focusing on your One-Point, you are putting a leash on it. You must practice doing this a great deal at first. When you practice your breathing, your basic techniques, your forms, when you drive to work, when you eat a meal, when you wash your face, you must put your mind on your One-Point. Do everything from One-Point and concentrate. If you do this every day, you will soon find that it gets easier and easier. Eventually, it stays that way naturally. It no longer jumps around or kills sparrows. Then you can let it go and it will behave correctly. But just thinking about it or intellectualizing about it will never achieve it. It requires actual training and concentration.
      When you face an opponent you must not put your mind at One-Point because then it is on its leash and it cannot move freely. If you want to survive, the mind must be free to move quickly. Thinking about keeping it at One-Point is to think of oneself as separate from the opponent. So don't think about it. Yet, without thinking about it, you will be able to keep One-Point. This experience is difficult to describe in words and is really something that has to be experienced.

Timely Movement

      The swordsmen of feudal Japan practiced their art with the utmost intensity. In battle, success or failure was usually decided in a split second. There were rarely any second-place winners. A single blow would decide the outcome of the conflict. If their technique failed, the result was certain; they wouldn't be joining their families to enjoy a second helping of Mom's rice pudding. If the technique was successful, they'd live to fight another day.
A tiger approaches its prey very carefully. Every movement is calculated and precise. The movements are small, some are almost imperceptible as the tiger focuses on what it is about to do. If it fails to bring down its quarry, it may not get another chance to eat for a couple of days or more!
Both the swordsman and the tiger appear to be relaxed. There's no fidgeting around, no bouncing up and down. They are what we call “centered.” Can you imagine what would happen if the swordsman started bouncing round, or began jiggling his sword? I can. It would be a very, very short fight.
When many of the martial disciplines became “sportified”, we began to see a lot of twiddling, jiggling, and wiggling coming into play. The duel was no longer a matter of survival; it was (and still is) simply a question of who wins the game this time. The operative phrase in that last sentence is, “this time.” When one contestant loses, he can always try it again at the next tournament. However, this was not the case for the feudal warrior. If he lost, he lost it all.
In the traditional martial forms of China, Okinawa, and Japan, movement is never performed for its own sake. That is, you don't move just to be moving. Each and every movement, even small shifts of the feet, are done for a reason. Energy is conserved and the trained fighter represents the very essence of economy. The breath is controlled and calm, movements are never wasted.
If the enemy should attack suddenly, the fighter must be able to respond in an instant. This doesn't necessarily mean that he simply avoids the incoming blow(s); he must be able to respond and take advantage of this”window of opportunity.” He knows that within every movement, no matter how slight, there is a moment of vulnerability. If the movement is small, the “window” is likewise small. However, if the “window” is large enough and he is in precisely the right place at exactly the right moment, he can slip through it and bring his opponent down. Naturally, if he is hopping around like a rabbit on steroids or busily fidgeting about like a young man on his first date, he will be unable to breach the “window” and any attempt to do so would probably end in disaster.
I can see the young man in the back waving his hand excitedly. Is there a fire? Oh, you have a question...okay, fire away. You say that boxers stay on the balls of their feet and bounce and weave to confuse the opponent? And you say that they believe that a moving target is harder to hit? Well, let's have a look at your query... I'll start with a question of my own. What is the purpose of a boxing match? What is each contestant trying to do?
You say that they're trying to knock out the opponent? Well, that's only partially true. You see, the objective is not necessarily to render the opponent unconscious; the objective is to win! And you don't necessarily need to knock anyone out in order to win the bout, right? Right. That's because boxing is a game. There's a winner and a loser. At the end of the match, both competitors shake hands and go home to nurse their bruises. However, real combat is not a game. It's about “not losing.” It's about survival. In a life-and-death struggle there can be only one survivor (and sometimes, there are no survivors). There are no rules, no “points”, no referees, and no rounds. It ends when one of the participants dies.
Now, let's address the idea of bouncing around so as to confuse the opponent and to present him with a target that is difficult to hit. A trained fighter won't be at all confused by his enemy's movements. He remains focused on his intended target without any expectations. Secondly, a moving target is not at all difficult to hit. Remember what I said about each movement presenting a “window of opportunity?” A fighter who prances around is presenting his foe with numerous “windows” and sooner or later, the enemy will find one that's well within his timing and the fight will end abruptly.
Yes, I'm aware that there have been contests pitting boxers and even wrestlers against practitioners of various martial disciplines and the boxers or wrestlers frequently win. These have all been fools games, with “games” being the key word. No one was ever killed. The rules were fairly stringent so as to avoid serious injuries. However, traditional martial arts were never intended to be practiced as games. I wonder what the outcome would have been if no protective gear was worn – no gloves or footpads, no groin cups, no mouthpieces. And what if there had been no rules whatsoever? Combatant would be allowed to use any and all techniques at their disposal, including kicks to the legs, seizing techniques, biting, and whatever else came to mind. And what if there were no rounds? The fighters couldn't rest until the fight was finished. And what if the fight would end only when one of the combatants was killed? It would certainly make for a completely different approach to the match, don't you think?
In real martial arts, nothing is wasted. The feudal swordsman appears to be relaxed and calm as he faces his enemy. His movements are slight and made only when necessary. His mind is focused. When the window slides open he'll dart through in an instant and maybe, just maybe, he'll go home when it's over.