I asked the following question on my Facebook page:
“Many martial arts include meditation of some sort. Does this help us in combat? Or is is just part of being a better person?”
As I have a lot a high grade and intelligent martial artists on that page, I got quite a bit of intelligent feedback as I expected. However, I personally think it goes a little bit deeper than most people give it credit for; both for combat application and for making you a better person.
Starting with combat application however, most experienced people will tell you that fighting is actually more mental than physical, so there’s the first big clue. Many say its about 90% mental. However, this concept is not often explained in depth.
If you face somebody in a real street situation and your mind is on the point of panic, you won’t be able to think or focus. This will manifest in your physical movement as your body becomes tense, your techniques become short and choppy and all sense of timing, rhythm and distancing disappears. Worse still, you might just freeze altogether.
It not just important that you maintain calmness under pressure, it is essential. Regular proper training in martial arts teaches us to do this mainly by subjecting us to regular pressure training. Even if its just the pre-arranged fighting sequences, as the attacker increases the intensity of the attack so the defender has to react faster and more accurately to avoid being hit.
Of course this can be taken to a higher level with scenario training which is common in reality based martial arts training. But some form of meditation is also often used to calm the mind before and after training. Karate has it’s “moksu” at the end (and sometimes the beginning) of each class and I’m sure many other martial arts have their own equivalent.
Calmness of mind is easy when kneeling (or sitting) in a nice quiet dojo (training hall), focusing on our breathing under no pressure at all. But how exactly does this help us when some great big muppet from hell is screaming in your face “who the F**k you looking at”, you’ve just had an adrenaline dump and your legs are turning to jelly?
I’ll come back to that in a moment. Have you ever noticed that you often have a little voice inside your head? Have you noticed that unless you consciously control this little voice it is usually negative, telling you that you can’t do something or you will fail. Ironically, most people know that it is there, but 99% of the time they are completely unaware of it. When something goes wrong and that little voice “oh no, this always happens to me”. Did you stop and consciously think that thought, or did it just materialise automatically? If we’re honest, it usually just materialises without us giving it a second thought.
When somebody cuts up in their car how often does that little voice shout out a string of expletives questioning the other drivers parentage? Again, was that a conscious thought, or was it just automatic?
For most people (if we’re honest), it is just automatic with no conscious consideration. But does that reaction help us in any way? Does it do anything in any way shape or form to make the situation better?
No, of course it doesn’t. If anything it makes us feel worse. So why do we have this mechanism inside our heads that automatically responds to situations, usually making them seem even worse?
OK, back to Mr Muppetfromhell. What will that voice be saying when confronted by him?
“He looks real big”. “Oh god, he’s going to kill me”. “I’m a black belt, this will be so embarrassing if I get beaten up”. “Should I run”. “Will he chase me”? “What if I hit him and it doesn’t stop him, he’ll be even more angry”.
You really need to silence that “nutter” inside your head. The more dangerous the attacker that confronts you, the more difficult this is to do. Ironically, the more dangerous your attacker, the more essential it becomes to be able to do this.
This is where the meditation (moksu) comes in. This is why you focus on your breathing in an attempt to silence your own personal little nutter. This can also be done with kata/forms/patterns too, which is often described as a moving meditation. However, if you’re a high grade, try to think back to when you were a beginning. Whether it was kata or moksu, did you find it really hard to focus without that little voice coming in, saying things like:
“My knees are aching kneeling here”, “how long will this last for”, “that was a good session”, “I scored a good roundhouse kick against Charlie tonight”, “I could murder a pint of beer after that session”.
How many of you have those thoughts, (or can remember having them) when you meditate/moksu? If you can’t silence the voice in those peaceful conditions, how on Earth do you expect to do it in the face of Mr Muppetfromhell when he’s frothing at the mouth? But over time, often a number of years, many learn to do it.
However, most people are not aware that part of the reason for meditation/moksu is to silence the voice (your personal nutter), never mind being aware of why that is important in combat.
I’ve recently come across a good exercise to do to see how in control of your own mind you are, which I would ask you to try. The real life combat applications (as described above) will become apparent. Simply think of any happy memory. It can be a promotion, first date, birth of a child, holiday, absolutely anything that makes you feel good and happy. Now try to hold that thought and that thought only for just 15 seconds without any other thoughts coming into your mind. Please stop reading and try that now!
I’ll guarantee that most people will not able to hold that happy thought for just 15 seconds without another thought interrupting. I would guess that many of the higher dan grades can do it due to their years of training. If you are an instructor and you can do this easily, then I suggest that you ask your class to do it and you’ll probably be shocked how many can’t.
So if actual fighting really is 90% mental, how can we control our minds in a real fight, when we can’t hold a happy a thought for 15 seconds?
I’ve used the example of Mr Muppetfromhell screaming at you, but it applies just as well to friendly sparring in the club, or focus on your kata/forms. It also applies to dealing with business problems, money matters, driving or relationships. In fact it can apply to just about any situation in your life.
So now hopefully I’ll have changed a few minds as to what the meditative side is for and what you are actually trying to achieve through it. Understanding what the point is, goes a long way to helping achieving it more quickly.
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Multiply your effectiveness with more impact for less effort and where to hit for best effect.
Bonus: Historical look at Bassai Dai, one of Karate’s most pivotal katas