The Internal Power Training Blog

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Extending the mind. Bookmark

In the last article I talked about the idea of ‘no mind’ in the martial arts being one of the highest forms of competence. But there is another process that we see mentioned time and again in martial traditions from many parts of the globe. In the Japanese arts, it is known as Zanshin and in the Chinese sheng xing and it represents a key aspect of focus for the martial artist, it is the concept known as ‘after awareness’ or literally the ‘remaining mind’, but we can say that as a general idea it is in extending the mind and creating focus, or awareness.

Born out of the life and death struggle of war and the practical requirement for warriors to be fully aware of themselves, their surroundings and their situation, the remaining mind held a special place for the ancient martial artists.

The ‘remaining mind’ is a term that is often associated with ‘Alertness’, in that it describes the minds presence on the task in hand, the task to come or the task recently completed. Zanshin is often purely the focus on the point after an effective method where the fighters focus remains razor sharp. But in fact the process that the body/mind go through and exhibit after the method are also present within it and before it.


Previously we had talked of Mushin, or the state of no-mind. This is essentially the passive in that the individual simply acts as they should. Zanshin is more of an active method and is often used preceding the encounter to close in on the task to come, or after the encounter to maintain the readiness for follow up action, hence the ‘remaining mind’.

Outside of these specific pre-or post states, the training of alertness is an endeavour that is beneficial to the practitioner in several ways. Firstly, it focuses all body systems on the task at hand. The practitioner is not thinking about lunch when there are preparing to fight for their lives or when they have just survived a battle. They are zoomed in, in the moment and prepared for the enduring action that may be required. Secondly, this ability to transfer from being in our own heads, to being at one with the external environment in which we find ourselves is very useful for every day life.


It is very easy for us to stay ‘inside’ ourselves, whether that be in conversation with people, at the office, on the train, wherever. But the training of our ‘remaining mind’ allows us to reach out into the world around us and truly absorb our current position as it is, with no preconceptions or preconditions we set for it.


It is important to understand that all the ‘mental training’ methods of the martial arts require training to polish and forge. It is not enough to simply understand them intellectually and they certainly cannot be forced. Zanshin and its associated alertness is, in many ways, a natural expression of the practitioners training. This ability to focus and be alert is in turn a reflection of ability to dwell in the moment, of the practitioners Mushin, because there is no point in having this type of focus if you dwell in the past or imagine the future. This is another reason for the proliferation of spiritual and mental practices in the methods of war, they truly enhanced the warrior’s ability to ply his trade.


Comparison from old duels to modern battles.

Modern soldiers understand this heightened state well. As they enter the battlefield they will have a heightened sense of things, a type of mental alertness that is receptive to all inputs. During the battle, often they will be lost in the chaos of the fight, falling back onto their training. But then after the fight is done, a lingering sense of alertness and readiness remains.

This is the perfect example of alertness in use, in its purest form and in a situation in which it is most needed. Of course, for many of us, the threat of the modern battlefield is not a part of our lives, but lessons and benefits can still be derived from the practice.


‘Switching on’

At the commencement of some martial forms or Kata, the practitioner will go from an extremely relaxed state to one of intense focus. This ability to switch the mind on and go from ‘nothing to something’ is at the heart of systems like Chinese Xing Yi and some variants of Japanese Iaijutsu.


The process of training focus is one which has several outcomes for our psychological and physical health. It works to ‘tune out’ some of the noise in our minds that is so often on repeat in everyday life. The act of bringing the mind into focus as you begin your practice will quiet down the background tasks so that full attention can be placed on this important matter before the practitioner. Someone with good skill here can create a state so clear that it would be akin to a hunter stalking its prey and it is hard to imagine that a tiger is thinking of anything but its prey on the stalk.


Fine tuning the awareness.

Where Mushin is a state of harmony with the unconscious competence, Zanshin is the active focusing of the mind mainly concerned with the external environment and the practitioners position in it. We could say that Mushin deals with the inner no mind state and Zanshin is the focus of the mind in the external environment.


This idea of extending into the environment to change performance is backed science. In one interesting study, a group of Golfers were asked to focus in 2 different ways. The first was to focus on the internal feeling of taking the shot. The golfers would think about how their body rotated, their hips turned and their motion was created to strike the ball. The second way was to focus the mind out into the environment, thinking instead about the path the ball would take as it left the club, the environment into which the ball would land and the arc they could see the ball taking.


The second method using external focus had a significantly improved shot accuracy.


This is the perfect analogy for the idea of the remaining mind in the Martial arts. The external map that we create through trained focus will help us to perform our given task in a different way than if we were to focus all our attention inward.


This is not to say that the internal focus is inferior however. For certain tasks like the development and activation of the body tissues, the increasing of connection to the CNS etc internal focus is the superior method. However, during an encounter, stretching out mind out into the environment becomes a truly useful method, be it before or after the action of the encounter.


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