Spirituality In Traditional Martial Arts

Many traditional martial arts talk about Mind, Body and Spirit; or that training develops you spiritually. But what does this spirituality actually mean, how do martial arts help develop it and (probably of most interest to many readers) what use is spirituality in a martial context?

First of all, it could take a whole book to cover this big topic, so I’m not going to be able to cover it all in a blog post. All I’m aiming to do here is to give a brief overview of how I see it.

To quote Deepak Chopra, who is widely revered as one of the World’s greatest spiritual leaders, “if we understand spirituality not as some kind of religious dogma or ideology but as the domain of awareness where we experience values like truth, goodness, beauty, love and compassion, and also intuition, creativity, insight and focused attention”. Continue reading “Spirituality In Traditional Martial Arts”

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

Martial Arts In Times Of Peace

Martial arts vary in times of war/chaos compared to times of relative peace.  Despite what you hear and read in the media, most of us today live in relatively peaceful times where we can call the police if anybody threatens or attacks us.  Obviously if you have a job such as policeman, prison officer or bouncer; you will see more violence then most others.  Also if you go to rough pubs or join gangs who clash with other gangs, then you also will see more violence.  But if you don’t have a job that requires you to sort out trouble; and if you don’t deliberately mix with violent people; then the chances are that you will not actually see much violence in your day to day life.

That means that we are free to put more into our martial arts and explore them in more depth.  If you are likely to face danger everyday then you would probably just focus on a few techniques that you’d repeat over and over again, endlessly, as your life could depend on them.  But in times of peace however we can increase our syllabus and include more self development aspects within our training and things like sport. Continue reading “Martial Arts In Times Of Peace”

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! Continue reading “Moksu: Does It Actually Have A Martial Application?”

Mind Like The Moon & Mind Like Water

Mind Like The Moon (Tsuki No Kokoro)  and Mind Like Water (Mizu No Kokuro) are old Japanese/Chinese phrases which are integrated into Zen and martial arts and are inter-related to each other.  This posting looks at them primarily from a martial arts context.

Starting with Mind Like The Moon, whereas the light of the moon shines on everything below it evenly, so you should see everything when facing an opponent.  Clouds blocking the moonlight are likened to nervousness, fears, doubts and distractions blocking your mental clarity.  By seeing “everything”, I don’t only mean your opponents physical presence; I also include

  • The whole psychological game (how they use words/threats/body language to intimidate)
  • Anything that they may be trying to conceal (weapons, a friend who might jump you from behind)
  • Their intention and the timing of their attack (by their breathing/subtle shift of body weight/slight tensing of some muscles).

The unconscious mind picks up these (and other) tiny signals that the conscious mind often misses; but feeds the information back to us in what we call intuition or instinct, when you just know what is about to happen a fraction before it actually does; even though you don’t really know how you know!

With this intuitive knowledge, you react appropriately and with correct counter for the given situation in a natural instinctive manner, without any thought or intellectual processes being required.  By removing the thought processes, the instinctive reaction is much quicker and more effective, not giving the opponent any chance to respond.

This is Mind Like Water.  When you stick your hand into a stream, the water reacts instantly and appropriately, to continue its path and just goes around your arm.  There is no pause, no hesitation, no having to think to work out the best root.  It just does it naturally and instantly; which is how you should strive to counter any attacks that come at you (as above).

This intuitive state takes you beyond mere physical response.  Martial art forums are full of arguments about which techniques or styles are best, but as long as you have good techniques, the choice of technique/style almost becomes irrelevant compared to the ability to respond intuitively; as if you know what your attacker is about to do before they even actually attack.

But how do you actually achieve this higher state of intuitive mental clarity (mind like the moon/mind like water)?

I have written before about silencing that little voice in your head, you know, the one that always tells you can’t do something.  Going into a fight with that little voice telling you that you’re about to be killed, beaten up, humiliated, is not good (they are mental clouds blocking your “moonlight”).  In fact it can lose you the fight before the first punch is even thrown.

I have expanded on this by writing about  “living in the present“, rather than keep resenting past events or worrying about the future.  Worrying about “this always happens to me” when somebody picks on you is living in the past, whilst worrying about how this is going to hurt and humiliate is thinking in the future.  You need to be very much in the present (the “now”) if you are going to deal with an imminent assault.  This is very much tied in with little voice in your head undermining you (which usually takes you to the past or future).

I would like to expand on this theme even more.  However, I suggest that you read the other two postings first, as this one will make more sense following on.

Our training is geared to getting us into the moment (into the “now”).  Whether sparring or doing a pre-arranged drill, we need to focus and be intensely in that moment.  In most other sports/activities, lack of focus means that we lose a point/goal, etc; but in martial arts it means that we get a smack round the head which hurts.  This makes it more intense and immediate, so it is better to pay very close attention.  Over a period of time we learn to maintain this focus of attention in the present moment.  When we do this, it helps to silence the voice inside out head, hence our own mind stops distracting us.

Even with kata’s/patterns/forms, we should visualise an opponent, which again brings our mind into the present.

Although this process will happen naturally over years of training, I think it helps to know what we are looking for.  It is easier then to find it and to teach it to others.

If you have trouble silencing the voice in your mind, they there are other techniques that you can practice to help you.  As discussed in the first posting (about silencing the voice inside your head), most people can’t hold a positive/happy thought for just 15 seconds without another random thought interrupting.  Practicing holding a positive/happy thought until you can do it for a complete 15 seconds uninterrupted is the first stage to gaining conscious control of your own mind, without the little voice (your own personal nutter) controlling you in a negative way!

Another way is simply to observe your own thoughts without judgement.  No thought stands still, it either takes you forward or holds you back.  So whenever a random thought comes into your head, just ask yourself “is that thought helping me or hurting me”?   For example, when somebody does something stupid like they cut you up in their car or knock your drink over in a bar and you get angry calling them all kinds of expletives, is that helping you?  Not really, you’re just upsetting yourself further.  You wasn’t hurt, your car wasn’t damaged, your drink can be replaced; so what is the profit for you get all emotional and angry about it as well?

Before somebody says, “yeah but it helps you let of steam and get the anger out”; have you considered, why have the steam and the anger in the first place?  Wouldn’t life be better without them?  Wouldn’t you feel happier, more at peace and healthier if you could react without that anger?

Some will dismiss this idea as “that’s just the way I am”.

But it’s not the way you have to be!  By learning to control your mind through silencing that reactive voice, you can change your emotional response to situations that should really be mildly irritating rather than a cause of great anger!  Ever heard the phrase, “learning to fight so that I don’t have to fight”?

Don’t try to stop the these thoughts or  try to control them or judge them.  Just observe as they happen.  The mere process of observation brings them to your conscious attention rather then them just happening automatically and almost unconsciously.  When you consciously observe them, they have less control over you as you can begin to consciously disregard them.  The thoughts and the negative emotions that accompany them then start to dissipate.  This is a process which takes time and will not have instant results.

Now it starts to get a bit weird.  If you are observing these thoughts, who is the real you.  Are you the observer or the thinker?

Does this mean that you have 2 identities, the one thinking these negative thoughts and the one that is observing them?  This were we could go into the realm of serious mental illness . . . . “the voices told me to do it”!!!!

However, it is perfectly normal to have this inner voice, it is only the degree to which we listen to it or let it control us that can become a problem.

OK, the inner voice, for want of a better name is your ego, and is driven by your past experiences.  It only knows what has actually happened in the past, so it assumes that these things will continue to happen as that is all it knows.  This is why people who are unaware of their inner voice are more likely to get stuck in life’s ruts and not be able to move on in life.  Those who learn to silence the voice are more creative, imaginative, intuitive and do better in all aspects of life.

So who/what is the observer?

This is where different people will have different views.  The more spiritually inclined might say that it is your higher self or inner being!  If you are not spiritually inclined, then consider this; we all know that we only consciously use about 10% of our brain capacity.  That leaves a massive 90% that we don’t consciously use.  Imagine the power of the mind if you could tap into that 90%.  How much more could you achieve and be capable of?  That is the part of the mind that you are beginning to bring into play when you start observing your own thoughts and hence over time, silencing them.

Intuition is when our unconscious mind knows something, but our conscious mind has not recognised it.  People who have learnt to silence their mind can tap into this intuition much more readily than those who live in the constant noise their own personal nutter!  Our subconscious mind (higher self/inner being depending on your belief system) cannot communicate with us by thought, it communicates via emotions.  Whether its a nasty gut feeling when somebody offers to help you and you don’t trust them, or a happy feeling when you are offered an opportunity which you have to make a choice about.

Moving meditation (such as kata/forms/patterns) or still meditation (moksu) will take us closer to this intuitive state over a period of time.  Observing our thoughts will help take us to get there more quickly.

The top martial artists seem to have an ability to almost “read somebody” before they even move.  How can they know what attack is coming and prepare for it or counter it, almost before the attack is even launched?  It comes back to that intuition.  It comes back to the unconscious mind detecting those almost unperceivable subtle shifts in the opponents weight, breathing, body tension, etc; which are too small for the conscious mind to register.  But if the mind is quiet, then those unperceivable signals will be detected (mind like the moon) and fed back into an instinctive reflex counter (mind like water), which even the defender is not really aware of how he/she knew what was coming!  It just happened automatically and without thought.

Have you ever had a fight, (whether real or in competition) where afterwards somebody has said, “that was a good ******** that you did there” (where ******** can be any technique at all); and you can’t properly remember doing it?  That is where you’ve switched of the conscious mind, the urgency of the situation has brought you very much into the present moment and the unconscious mind has recognised the tiny signals that give away the attackers intent, and you’ve trusted this intuition enough to let it chose the right counter for you without you having to consciously decide.  Hence you don’t remember what you did not consciously chose to do, even though it was probably one of your best techniques ever!

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Do You Have A Monkey Mind?

I recently wrote about how to keep calm in the face of danger, which was basically about silencing the mind so that it does not distract you too much when you really need it to stay calm.  Shortly after that my Sensei, Paul Mitchell, started talking about the “monkey mind” in one of his classes.

Now maybe I’m insecure, but I wondered if he meant me at first!

However, it is an old Chinese phrase for when the mind wonders, or when you are trying to silence it and random thoughts keep popping in to say hello.  Like a mischievous monkey, the mind cannot be properly controlled.  It can be very difficult to stop those random thoughts coming in, not matter how hard you try.

Me struggling with my monkey mind!

Don’t you just love Chinese phraseology.  As discussed in my previous posting, giving the mind something else to focus on is one of the best ways to deal with this monkey mind and help to banish these random thoughts.  This can be kata/patterns/forms etc.  It is easier in the begining to focus the mind with movement.  Doing it when you are still, as in meditation (moksu) for example is much harder.  However, when we do get to this stage, we start by focus on our breathing.  When we can focus on breathing to the exclusion of the random thoughts, then we can start to even cut out the focus on breathing and just let it happen.  This is when we start to develop a tranquil mind.

Do the Chinese have a phrase for this?  Of course they do.  You feed your monkey mind a banana!