Being “Present” (In The Now) And Martial Arts Training

Many self development/spiritual teachers’ today talk about “being present” or “living in the now” (which is the same thing really).  It’s also part of Zen, which is often goes hand in hand with martial arts.  But what does this actually mean, how can martial arts training help you achieve it and what benefits are there for you from both a self protection and everyday life point of view?

Let’s start with what is meant by “being present” or “living in the now”?  This is a big subject which many books have been written about, so this is just a short overview.  Many people spend most of their time living in regret over things they’ve done wrong, things they should have done but didn’t, things that other people have done to them, missed opportunities; whatever!  They are spending a lot time focusing on their past and generally feeling bad and unhappy with it.

Others spend their time daydreaming about the future (long or short term).  They feel that they’ll be happy when they get home from work, finish that course they’re doing, get a better job, leave a job, when they’re married, when their divorce comes through, when they go on holiday, when they get back home and can relax; whatever.  These people are postponing being happy until sometime in the future so again they are feeling bad or unhappy in the present moment.  This is not to say that we don’t make plans for the future or set goals; it is to say that stay present while do actually plan and goal-set and that we don’t postpone being happy until our plans and goals are achieved!

In both cases, those concerned are focusing their attention on being somewhere other than where they are now.  Either they feel that they can’t be happy because of their past or they feel they can’t be happy until some future events happen.  In the meantime they are physically in the present moment though mentally they are not.  As many Eastern and holistic philosophies tell us, we cannot really be content until mind and body are one (in this case, mind focusing on the present where the body is).  The more you put of being happy where you are now, the more you will never be properly happy and at peace with yourself at all.  This is one of the key components to the Eastern ideal of reaching enlightenment.  There is of course much to it than that and this is a very simplified overview.

Being able to actually focus our attention in the present moment most of the time is actually not very easy for most people.  Usually most people only manage it for short periods of time.

Martial arts are great for bringing you into the present moment!  If for example you are doing pre-arranged sparring and you facing somebody of a high standard, you know that if you don’t block/parry/evade, they’ll probably take your head off.  That tends to focus the mind and shut out any thoughts of that row you had with your spouse, that stressful drive home after work or how you’d like to practice you most dangerous techniques on that illegitimate son of a . . . . . . female dog . . . . . . boss of yours at work.  You are purely focused on this guy in front of you with a sinister expression on face, his eyes locked into your eyes and he moves like a bull on steroids (or at least it seems that way).

Sensei John Johnson focuses his students attention on the present moment! 🙂

Everything else in the world, the past and future is shut out whilst you face this imminent threat, which you have to block and counter.  The little bit of adrenalin generated helps you to move faster and the exertion helps you to produce endorphins (the brains “happy” chemicals).  You are very present in the NOW and you feel good about it!

Any other form of exercise also generates endorphins which will help the feel-good factor.  However, losing a goal/point/match etc simply does not have the same urgency as facing Mr Bull-On-Steroids trying to take your head off.  By contrast, many people say that they enjoy jogging long distance as it allows them to get lost in their thoughts.  Whilst this can have benefits too, it is not the same being forced into now (or lose your head).

Even with the basics and kata, you are required to maintain considerable concentration on both the accuracy of the movement and the intent of the technique being performed.  There can be no getting lost in your thoughts here.  You can get a bit distracted worrying about whether you are keeping up with your classmates or not, though you really shouldn’t bother about this.  It is often said in martial arts that your main opponent is yourself, meaning you challenge yourself every time you train to continually improve.  If you do this then you should be very focused in the present, examining your own techniques as you perform them and putting your full intention into every movement.  Comparing yourself to others occasionally is alright as a way to measure your progress, but is not an end in itself.

All aspects of martial arts training, (whether focussing on perfecting technique or being partnered with somebody about to try to take your head off) will help you to focus in the moment.  There will be times when you think, “oh no, he’s going to take my head off”, which is again looking into the future (albeit a few seconds into the future) rather than being in the precise moment.  Some people will be consumed by such negative thoughts on a very regular basis.  As discussed in a previous post, practicing Moksu and Mushin will help to silence these thoughts.  However, training in an environment where we are constantly forced to focus on the present moment will also help us to silence those self doubting thoughts as well.

When you need to be very intensely in the present moment then it is very important to be able to silence any thoughts which by their very nature take you out of that moment.  When faced by somebody about to take your head off, the precise present moment is where your attention needs to be.  This is true both in training and when defending yourself from a real life assault.  When you partner up with somebody who is experienced, they just seem to have an air of certainty about them.  A black belt will usually only be very fractionally faster than say a brown belt.  However, the black belt will usually have a far greater air of confidence and self assuredness when compared to lower grades.  This is often referred to as fighting spirit, the focus of ones will and clarity of purpose with no (or at least, very few) mental distractions or doubts.

People who have achieved this level of spirit in training and/or in real life altercations will very often be a force to be reckoned with in other areas of their lives too.  If they can be very present under the intensity of combat (even simulated) then they will be able to some extent to transfer this presence and focus to other areas of their lives.

I read years ago that soldiers who have been in actual combat reported afterwards that they have never felt “so alive”.  That is not because they actually enjoyed the combat, but the fact they could die any second is a great incentive to intensely focus themselves in the present moment.  I’m not suggesting that we all rush of and join the force and seek real combat, but our martial arts training does have some overlap with this phenomenon!

Moksu: Does It Actually Have A Martial Application?

For those not familiar with the term, Moksu it is Japanese for the kneeling meditation at the beginning and end of a martial arts class.  It is often seen as just clearing the mind from the day’s ups and downs to prepare you for training.  It does of course do that, but it can actually represent a lot more in the long term.  Apart from just clearing the mind, when practiced regularly it can over time help to completely silence the mind.  Silencing the minds usual internal chatter has a feeling of peace and tranquillity (a bit like the sudden quietness of turning off a factory air conditioning system).

This can sometimes be achieved quite quickly, but sometimes it can take years.  How often have you knelt there thinking “my knees hurt”, “how long is this going on for”, “I hope we do sparring tonight” or “I hope we don’t do sparring tonight”, whatever!

Moksu is as much an exercise for the mind as a reverse punch is for the body, but it is often underrated and its potential overlooked.  We are not simply looking for peace and tranquillity (though this is a worthy achievement in itself), we are also looking to directly take back control of our own minds so that it does not undermine us at crucial times.  It is about being able to silence at will that voice in our head which undermines us.  The voice that says “I can’t do this”, “he’s bigger than me”, “I’m going to get killed here”, “he’s always picking on me”, whatever.  Gradually, bit by bit, we take this quietening of the mind more and more into the rest of our training.  It is often said that combat is more mental than physical, well Moksu is actually a practice for the mental side.

When we can free the mind of it’s internal clutter, then we can use our mind more efficiently.  We become more conscious and more aware of whatever our present situation is.

It is almost like we have 2 minds; one which is a powerful tool that we deliberately think with and one which almost acts independently of us and usually undermines us.  This undermining part of our mind is often referred to in many self development/spiritual texts as the “ego”.   It relies on past experience rather than original thought, therefore it keeps us where we are rather than allowing us to move forward.  It acts to cover up weaknesses with a false show, rather than face and conquer the weaknesses.

Unfortunately both “minds” do not work well at the same time.  When the ego is in full flow giving us negative thoughts, we find it very difficult to access the power of the deliberately thinking part of our brain or our intuition.

When facing an opponent (whether sparring or for real) we need to be able to think tactically, yet at the moment of action we need to let our intuition take over and react according to how our opponents moves (or doesn’t move).

This can of course apply to almost any part of our lives, whether it is our job, driving, relationships, school or whatever.  We always function better when we can silence the ego, think more logically and engage our intuition.  The ego left unchecked can rob us of access to these facilities, which is why people with low self esteem or those who worry a lot seem to be unable to find a way out of their situations; whether in training, street attacks, or in any other aspect of life.  You are more capable of finding solutions to problems within any area of your life when you can think clearly.  You always think more clearly when you can silence the ego.

Just to clarify, I refer to people of low self esteem above, which might on the surface at least appear to be the opposite of what we normally consider to be a person with a “big ego”.  We tend to see what we consider an egotistical person to be somebody who brags, boasts and puts on a show.  However, this kind of egotist putting on a show is in actuality usually a person of low esteem, but is putting more effort into hiding their own perceived weakness rather than facing and conquering them.  A person of low self esteem (whether they are depressive or showy) is usually focusing a large part of their conscious thought on their past experiences which they cannot escape.  They are in many respects living in the past as they measure all new experiences/challenges in terms of their previous experiences.

Now this is a very human thing to do and is very common.  But silencing that inner voice, accessing your intuition and higher intellect are the best ways to escape that cycle of living in the past and to become more conscious of your present situation (living in “the now” as some people say).  Solutions to problems (both in self protection and everyday life) appear much more readily when you are focused in the present then when you’re being held captive to your past experiences by the ego.  Moksu (or any form of meditation) is a great tool to help with that and ideally should really be practiced more often than just at the beginning and of the Karate class.

Do you practice your kicks and punches at home?  Then why not practice Moksu at home.  It may take time to produce noticeable results, but it will in time allow you to access higher martial skills by engaging intuitive responses as you stop your own ego getting in the way!

How Exactly Is Fighting More Mental Than Physical?

For centuries masters have taught that fighting is more mental than physical.  However, when training martial arts we concentrate mainly on the physical technique.  As we progress, we learn to be more focused, aggressive and intense; but how exactly does that make fighting more mental than physical when we are still punching, kicking, throwing, gouging or simply bitch-slapping some bugger that deserves it?

I’m going to ask you to bear with me as I explain, as at first this is going to look like I’m going of subject, but it will fit together in the end, I promise.

Something that I’ve come across a couple of times lately is the idea that we should be “living in the present”.  Well of course we are you might say, how can we not be in the present?

Let me explain a bit more.  Many people spend a lot of time living in regret for things they have done in the past or missed opportunities; or resentment about things that have been done to them.  They are in effect, spending a lot their time thinking about and focusing on the past, constantly re-living the causes of their regret/resentment.

Others spend a lot of time looking to the future.  How many times have you thought, “I can’t wait for work to finish and go home”, “I can’t wait for the weekend” or “I can’t wait for my holiday/retirement/promotion/whatever”?  This is in effect living for the future.  The idea is, “I’ll be happy when . . . . . . . whatever”.

The key to actually being happy, or even effective in live, is not to be re-living past problems or to be just biding your time until something better comes along, but to be consciously present in the current moment.  This is not to say that you don’t plan for the future, just don’t focus on being there instead of now.  Be present now, whilst you plan your future (you’ll plan it much much better that way).  This is a big subject which I can’t really do justice to in one post.  Books have been written on this subject, so for now please just accept this general idea.

So what has this got to do with martial arts?

One more detour first, then I’ll answer that.  I have read several times in the past that soldiers in real combat report that they had “never felt so alive”.  That’s not to say that they found it to be fun!  Rather they found it very intense, the very fact that their existence could end at any instance made them very much aware of that instance (rather than dwelling on the past or what could be).  They were very intense on staying alive and very present in that moment.  Hence feeling really “alive”.

OK, back to the martial arts.  How often have you said (or heard somebody say) that when training you/they forget all your worries and problems?

Why does this happen?  It is because we are practising a combat art.  We need to maintain our concentration and focus, especially when partnered up for sparring.  We know we’ll soon get hit if don’t focus and be present in that moment.  Even in pre-arranged sparring routines, if you don’t block/parry/evade an attack that is coming in full-steam, you’ll get hit.

In solitary practice as well (basics or kata/patterns/forms) we should still train with an opponent in mind.

Note:  Our nervous system can not tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined.  For example, if we watch a scary film, we know full well that we are safe and it’s only on a screen.  However, we still “jump”, our heart beat can speed up and our breathing can change.  This is our nervous system responding to our imagination as we are engrossed in the film.  Therefore training with an opponent in mind is almost as good as training with a real partner.

Our training forces us to be in the present.  It forces us to forget our past problems and to forget about our daydreams of our future and to be much more there, focused on the guy in front who is about to knock you into next week if you don’t focus fully on what he is about to do to you.

Being fully focused and aware in the present moment is a necessary reaction to danger.  Fortunately it is an almost automatic reaction to being in danger.

That said, some people still struggle with it.  When confronted with a bully/mugger/predator, some people will focus on “this isn’t fair”, “why does this always happen to me”, “this b*****d is always picking on me”.  The are still partly in the past.

Some will be thinking, “I’m going to get killed”, or “this could really be humiliating”.  They are still partially in the future.

Over time with many sessions of partner activities (whether free sparring or pre-arranged activities), we don’t just get used to physical technique, but we get uses to being in the present moment.  We get better control over our fears and become more able to instinctively push out the fears of defeat/humiliation or feelings of victimisation.  It is often said that martial arts fosters courage.  One of the main ways it does this is by teaching you to be in the present rather than focusing on the past or future.

Usually if you get a black belt sparring with a somebody of a middle range grade (say purple/blue belt) then assuming all other things are equal (age, build, strength, size, etc) the black belt will usually dominate.  Obviously the black belt should have the better technique, but if you put the 2 of them side by side and tell them to perform say a punch at the same time, the black belt will be only a split second faster.

Does this split second account for the level of domination that most black belts have over lower grades?

Obviously it is part of the reason, but I don’t think it is the full reason.  By the time somebody reaches black belt, usually they are much more used having their mind in the present moment and not worrying out defeat, humiliation, fighting a higher grade etc.  They find it much easier to commit to their technique and just go for their target, un-hindered by a mind worrying about what the outcome might be.  There is a greater sense of certainty about the way they move.

This is where the mind is trained to be “present”.  It is more important than just the physical technique that the body is performing.  This is where fighting becomes “mental”.  This is where your focus and concentration over many years will take you to.

A side effect of this is of course is that you learn to be more “present” in your everyday life as well.  You usually find that high grade martial artists often have more resilience to deal with the everyday problems that life throws up than most other people do (whether it’s divorce, career, health, whatever).  Why?  Because you can solve your life problems much better if you are thinking in the present rather than resenting how you got there (thinking in the past) or fearing the outcome (thinking in the future).

So many martial arts talk about making you a better person with a stronger character and it is irrefutable that they do.  Most however are short on explanation on how this actually happens.  I personally believe that learning to be “present” is one of the most central principles of the “Do” (The Way).

This concept is a continuation of the idea of silencing that little voice inside your head (which I’ve written about before).  You know, that little voice that keeps telling you that you can’t do something for this or that reason.  That reason is usually something in the past – dragging you back there and away from the present moment.

 

Note:  Being “present” is a very big subject which I cannot do justice to in one posting.  If you want more information then I would suggest that you check out either:
A Bug Free Mind (heavily marketed, but has changed my outlook)
The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle (I’ve seen this recommended several times.  I have a copy waiting for me to find the time to read it).