There are many quotes attributed to Gichin Funakoshi, but I come across this one the other day in his book, Karate Do Kyohan: The Master Text. Near the back on page 248 (if you already have it), he says;
“Techniques will occur when a void is found”.
This is not often quoted, yet has very deep philosophical undertones. A void is defined as, “completely empty” or “a completely empty space”.
Master Funakoshi was an educated man and clever with his choice of words. He was the one who initiated the change in name for Karate from “China Hand” to “Empty Hand”.
Oh! There’s that word “empty” again! Coincidence? I think not; especially with a man of Funakoshi’s intelligence and education.
Both “China” and “Empty” are pronounced “Kara” in Japanese so both China Hand and Empty Hand would both be Kara-Te; making the name change a little bit more seamless!
It should also be noted that at the time Funakoshi made this name change, Japan had bad relations with China. So naming your art after a country that you were at loggerheads with was not good for marketing! That said, Funakoshi would have put a lot of thought into this change.
Many traditional martial arts, especially Chinese and Japanese, teach mediation. Why meditate and calm your mind when you’re learning an art designed to disable, maim or possibly kill an enemy? Surely you’d want to be well psyched up for that level of violence? Well . . . yes and no!
You do need to be able to flick a switch in your mind to go into fight mode if you do actually have to defend yourself. This is where training with the right mindset is important and always visualising your opponent in front of you. You need to be able to very quickly go into that mindset where you’re ready for action and prepared to do what it takes to ensure your personal safety (or that of people around you). Reality Based Martial Arts are particularly good for developing this “switch”!
But you also have to be able to control it so that you don’t get too carried away. If you knock somebody over, you don’t want to be so psyched up that you spend the next 5 minutes jumping up and down on their head. As well as being morally wrong, it can get you into a lot of trouble with the law and potentially in prison. You need to be in a mental state that is fully focused, fully present in the moment, yet not distracted by negative thoughts such as, “he’s bigger than me”, “oh my god, he’s going to kill me”, “this will be so humiliating if I get beaten up”; etc etc!
Meditation seeks to quieten the conscious mind. This, when done well, can remove a lot of the negative self talk referred to above; which can only be harmful to our chances of success in conflict (or any other part of our life).
Even the practice of forms/patterns/kata are often referred to as “moving meditation”, because when performed well with full focus and concentration by somebody who knows them well; the conscious mind is naturally quietened. This quietness, this lack of thought is what I believe Funakoshi is referring to as the Void! An emptiness, a lack of thought from the conscious mind.
But why would you not want to think when you’re in a confrontation or combat situation?
Ironically there’s a good chance you might not be able to think very well anyway, as adrenaline tends to direct the blood to the limbs ready for “flight or flight”, which in turn takes blood away from the cognitive rational parts of the brain, so you can’t always think so well anyway. But aside from that, rational thought can be too slow in an all out fight; you need to rely on reactions, instinct, intuition and movements that your training has ingrained into your body’s muscle memory.
If we’re particularly fearful, we could revert to an older part of the brain, the amygdala, which deals with survival and rhythm. The more intense our fear, (more adrenaline, more blood to the limbs at expense of brain) the more we are likely to retreat to this part of the brain (sometimes referred to as the “lizard brain”). An example of somebody fully into the amygdala is a drowning person who might even try to push down a loved one in order to push themselves up to get just one more breath. In their panic they’ve lost control of any rational thought and will later be mortified at the thought that they tried to push somebody else down.
We ideally need a middle ground where we’re not out of control with panic, yet we’re not taking too much time consciously assessing and considering things.
Enter the subconscious mind!
Now try a little experiment please. Just sit comfortably and meditate for a moment. If you’re not used to meditation, just sit comfortably, take long, slow, deep breathes and try to empty your mind of all thoughts. Observe your mind and see how long it takes you to have a conscious thought (like a little sentence said in your head). Please do this now before continuing.
Ok, so you’re back. Now most people (unless they meditate a lot) won’t be able to hold a state of “no thought” for very long. However, there are 2 primary levels of thought going on here. There’s the conscious thoughts that you have, and the part of the mind that is observing them!
The general thoughts that you try to switch of, which sound like little sentences inside your head come from the conscious mind. The observing part is a deeper part of your consciousness. In spiritual circles some say it it a connection with your higher self or universal intelligence. Others may say that you’re accessing your subconscious mind. Whatever your paradigm it doesn’t matter, it’s the part you want to connect to as it’s the faster, better informed, more intuitive part of your brain.
Many people say that we only use about 10% of our brain capacity. That’s the conscious mind. The other 90% is the subconscious, which is obviously more powerful. As discussed in previous posts, we take in huge amounts of information about our surroundings every instance. But if our conscious mind were aware of every bit of information, it would drive us mad with the level of irrelevant detail. So much of this filtered out by a part of the brain know at the Reticular Activating System. However, the subconscious mind (90%) can obviously process much much more information than the conscious mind. The subconscious mind cannot communicate with the conscious mind with detailed information, it communicates with feelings and emotions. You might say, intuition!
When our conscious mind is noisy with too many thoughts, we don’t pick up on these feelings/intuitions sent to us by the subconscious. So the challenge is, to keep calm enough not to panic and loose all control (lizard brain), or to stay in an overly thoughtful conscious mind. Hence the practice of meditation (both formal and moving) to help us develop this connection to the subconscious so that we can act naturally, instinctively and instantly; without going into panic.
So when our conscious mind is silenced (void), our subconscious mind will instinctively select the most suitable response (technique). Hence, techniques will occur when a void is found!
Note also the use of the word “occur”. Funakoshi does not say that techniques will be selected, or chosen. Those words would indicate conscious thought, which again can cause delay. One definition of “occur” is to “happen, to take place”. So when the void (quiet conscious mind) is found, the correct/appropriate technique with “happen”. Again this indicates an intuitive level of response rather than a cognitive approach.
You may have experienced this without realising, it is more likely to occur when you are tired. Have you every had the experience that you’ve been sparring (or maybe even competing); and afterwards people say to you, that was a good whatever the technique was that you landed . . . . yet you don’t remember it! That could be because you were on auto-pilot, operating from the subconscious mind, and afterwards the conscious mind doesn’t remember what you did.
Now I’m not suggesting that mediation alone will make you great at self defence. You need to have the techniques and strategies etched into your mind and muscle memory so that they can occur naturally when required. They will need to be appropriate techniques. You will need to have faced at least some of your fears (preferable with Reality Based Martial Arts).
But it is a higher level of awareness that occurs almost as a side effect of regular training.