60. Zanshin: Paying Attention

The characters for “zanshin.

While I tell people that I don’t really watch a lot of Mixed Martial Arts professional and semi-pro fights because I think they’re just too violent for my delicate, Emily Dickensonian sensibilities, one of the most amusing, and instructive, lessons about zanshin I learned came from observing one of those fights.

I was flipping through the channels, going between reality shows about truckers, fashion design contestants throwing hissy fits, and Hollywood reruns ad nauseum when I came across a channel featuring MMA fighting in all its gory glory. I paused my itchy fingers over the remote to see the end of the fight, wherein a fighter was being beaten unmercifully to a stereotypical bloody pulp. Why won’t the referee stop the fight, I thought? It’s obvious this guy is going to suffer long-term brain damage, besides getting his face disfigured something awful. But like being as mesmerized as a gawker at a train wreck, I kept watching.

His opponent slammed an uppercut into the fighter’s side, sending shock waves across the ring and putting him down, knees on the mat, back against the rope, clutching his side. Still the referee wouldn’t call the fight off. I thought, for sure this guy had a couple of ribs cracked with that punch.

His opponent smiled triumphantly through his blood-stained mouthpiece. He dropped his guard. He pulled one hand way, way back to land a final haymaker on the fighter’s face, his other hand down low at his waist, a sign of disdain for the fallen fighter. He stepped in, cranked his arm…

And at the last moment, the fallen fighter leapt from his knees, extended his arm, and slammed a punch straight into the face of the attacker using the whole weight of his body. The punch rocked the opponent off his heels and knocked him flat out cold on the mat. The crowd went wild. The fighter had his hand raised in victory, and then he, too, collapsed on the mat in pain due to his broken ribs.

Good lesson, I thought. Never drop your guard even when you think you have the opponent down and literally against the ropes. I bring that example up frequently in my own koryu classes as an example of real world zanshin. Sometimes I think my diatribes have an effect on my students. Other times I wonder if they really get it. Maybe it may take getting knocked flat out to get it. I don’t know.

Zanshin is the Japanese budo term for “lingering spirit,” literally translated. I don’t like to translate it like that, however, because it reminds me of malingering spirit, which is not a positive concept. Maybe a better translation would be “remaining spirit.”

In any case, what it means is that you maintain concentration and focus even after you think the battle or fight is over. It’s never over until you’re completely safe and secure and out of danger. And thinking that the opponent is dead with one blow of your kung-fu poison-palm strike learned from a discounted paperback book is not a good idea.  He may just rise up from the dead to lash out at you one final time, like that slasher guy from the Halloween movie series, always rising from the dead over and over again.

Or, as the great O-sensei of baseball, Yogi Berra, once said, “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.”

The founders of the koryu knew that extricating oneself from the zone of combat posed great risk, so in the kata they formulated, they paid a lot of attention to developing the sense of zanshin by inculcating attitudes, distancing and body stances at the end. You meet the attacker, execute the kata, do the final cut, strike or finishing technique. In some modern budo, that’s it. Some folks just turn their backs and walk away to do another kata or demo. I’ve seen countless examples on YouTube videos of people who strut away like that. With koryu teachers, or modern budo teachers who really know what zanshin is all about, after the last movement, there is a careful extrication away from the “fallen” uke, just in case he still has some fight left.

Of course, it’s not kosher in practice for uke to retort back with an impromptu strike. But if you ignore paying attention in practice, you will ignore it in actual performance.

For example, I’m told by a professional trainer of law enforcement officers that the following story is apocryphal. It’s an urban legend, but it’s a good one nonetheless, that had its round in some books on modern combatives. Supposedly, a police officer had been training diligently to take away a pistol pointed at him at close range. He got really good at it, and was able to snatch a pistol out of someone’s hands without it discharging. The problem, though, was that he didn’t practice zanshin. So one day on patrol, he encountered a criminal, the criminal pointed a pistol at him, and he reacted through instinct, snatching the pistol out of the surprised criminal’s hand. Then, still operating on adranaline and rote training, he turned the pistol around and gave it back to the criminal, just as he did over and over again in practice! Luckily, he then managed to wrestle the pistol away and arrest the perpetrator.

Now, again, a professional LEO trainer told me this story is a myth. But it does highlight the fault in training in any kind of martial art or self-defense tactics without thinking about preparedness and finishing attitude, without thinking of the pregame and endgame to an encounter with violence. What you do in practice, you will mindlessly repeat in reality, to very, very bad results.

So there I was, the other night, watching my students go through basic sword kata and it’s driving me nuts that even my longer-term students didn’t remember about zanshin. I repeated my patented zanshin lecture. I go over it again and again. Pay attention to distancing, pay attention to the opponent, pay attention to how he and you move, pay attention to the way you stand, how the opponent stands, don’t break concentration. Don’t slouch.

The kata isn’t over with the last cut, I said. It’s over when you get back to where you started from, meet swords again, and then mutually move to gedan. And even at that, there are kata in our style that symbolizes what happens when an opponent tries to attack you from a stylized “finish” and “rei.”  It may sound paranoid, but in a combative situation, paranoia is good.

This notion of zanshin carries over well past koryu and modern budo grappling or sword arts per se. I remember learning Western style archery as a kid. Our instructor used to always tell us never to let go of our stance or focus after we released the arrow until we could see the arrow hit the target. That way, we wouldn’t accidentally lower our bow arm too soon after the initial release and cause the arrow to shoot crooked. It looked nice, sort of like how kyudo archers shoot, but practically speaking, it helped our accuracy.  It also aided in our group’s winning the state youth archery title several years in a row, even with simple, unadorned bows without dampeners or sights.

In tea ceremony, when we place a utensil down, we don’t just let it drop. We carefully move the fingers away, mindful of the object as if it were (and could be) a precious heirloom. My iai teacher used to say that part of zanshin at the end of a sword kata was to let go of one’s sword handle slowly, like a lover leaving his beloved at the end of a romantic date. Reluctantly, lingering, mindful of a possible final attack. In doing so, you create a beautiful, artistic movement, but one that is also practical in terms of being cautious and watchful.

Thinking you have zanshin alone doesn’t cut it. It has to be practiced physically, so the movements embody the mental attitude, and vice versa.  That’s the only way you can actually practice for a combative reality. And even if you don’t meet someone in a swordfight while shopping for groceries, it’s the attitude that counts.  You will have inculcated a sense of zanshin while doing swordwork, say, or staff work, or grappling, that will carry over to other encounters or actions, from martial arts to woodworking (watch that table saw blade even when you cut the power!) to flower arrangement.

When I first started learning the short dagger methods of the Takeuchi-ryu, sometimes my seniors, who would be the “uke,” would point out my lack of physical zanshin by sweeping their dagger around to tap my foot or arm if I didn’t move away properly. It was a reminder that I might have “won” the contest, but I had to still be careful of a last ditch, dying effort that might get me on my way out and away from the opponent. Never put my guard down.

In fact, zanshin should be evident throughout the entire kata, not just at the end. This was a point brought up by one of my teachers once. We were working through a kata and I asked, “How does the zanshin work at the end?” He demonstrated, then he said, “Actually, in our ryu, we have no zanshin per se.”

My face must have shown amazement at his statement. Surely every other koryu I studied had something to say about zanshin. We didn’t have zanshin?

But he explained: “To say that there is a zanshin at the end other and apart from the rest of the kata is to not understand zanshin. The kind of focus you place at the end should be the same and evident throughout the whole kata, from before the attack, through the encounter and the combat, to the end and to the time when you separate from the opponent. There is no ending zanshin, in that case. The whole kata is full of zanshin like water is to a fish. It’s all around, all the time, in the kata, so you don’t really need to speak of a zanshin at the end apart from the entire zanshin of the kata, necessarily.”

In other words, mindfulness doesn’t start at the end of a kata, it starts even before it begins, works through the entire kata, and continues past the end. In other words, pay attention to what’s happening all the time. That’s true zanshin.


19 thoughts on “60. Zanshin: Paying Attention

  1. “To say that there is a zanshin at the end other and apart from the rest of the kata is to not understand zanshin. The kind of focus you place at the end should be the same and evident throughout the whole kata, from before the attack, through the encounter and the combat, to the end and to the time when you separate from the opponent. There is no ending zanshin, in that case. The whole kata is full of zanshin like water is to a fish. It’s all around, all the time, in the kata, so you don’t really need to speak of a zanshin at the end apart from the entire zanshin of the kata, necessarily.”

    I really like this view and method of explaining zanshin. It’s similar to the way I’ve learned and explained to my students. However, the above quote is better, I think.

    Here’s the definition from our guide….

    zanshin 残心 – a wide ranging alert awareness and concentration that can be seen in the techniques and everyday movements; the continuing exhibition of alertness and control of the situation after a technique has happened, (a master practitioner is said to exhibit zanshin in every activity)

    Wayne, I’m really enjoying your writing in this venue. I hope it grows into a book or whatever you choose at some point. Thanks again,

    – Chuck

    1. Thanks again, as always, Chuck. Here’s my thought about a future book: I think comments like yours and other people’s insights would be part of the book, too, so it would be like a collection of blogs, plus annotations, extensions, arguments pro and con, which would create a very, very interesting blend of voices beyond my own. So let’s see how this works out!

    2. All,
      One of the things I want to make clear is that I’m not the ultimate authority, or any kind of guru, on a lot of these things. I just like to find out answers and write about them. I’m curious, and I used to be a journalist. So when there are comments and contributions to my blogs, I really appreciate them.

      For those martial artists interested in understanding how zanshin and other mental attitudes taught in koryu or some modern budo apply to combative applications and other situations, I would recommend a couple of resources, including Dave Grossman (see: http://www.killology.com/), Ellis Amdur (http://www.edgework.info/index.html), Rory Miller (http://chirontraining.com/Site/Home.html), Chris “Kit” LeBlanc (http://prevailtraining.wordpress.com), and I’m sure I missed some. I’ve read the writings of the above folk, though, and they have even greater insight and definitely more experience into actual combative and defensive situations. I just teach koryu martial arts. I’m not a self-defense or fighting instructor, as I tell my students.

  2. A long time reader here, first time commenting. A great read, thank you. This point is, in my view, one of if not the main thing that separates classical kata training from mere repetition of techniques and makes it relevant to combative situations.

    It’s not just training to do a set of moves well (or demonstrate a principle), but to actually apply it against an opponent, with everything that comes with it. Kata have a context, something that kihon techniques lack, but if you skip the boring parts (like closing in, pressure, disengaging), that context is lost.

    I’ve heard of koryu teachers getting angry at students for not finishing a kata after making a mistake, and I can understand why; even if you fail the technique, why give up learning from the other, equally important parts of the form.

  3. Thank you for your great article! The concept of zanshin is similar to the awareness of seasoned musicians. The ability to hear all the instruments, what feeling is being conveyed, being aware of your sound, and meshing them all together cohesively. I think Zanshin is one of the most difficult things to train as the ultimate goal as an artist is to be empty yet aware of everything.

  4. Very good – the comment about zanshin being an “entire” zanshin is I think something that modern science is bearing out: and demonstrates to me that men who were steeped in it from a combative perspective just “got it” and used terms with currency for them.

    Zanshin “at the end” is either a misunderstanding or for show….zanshin in reality is the mind remaining in the moment, and moment by moment. Training is to teach us what it feels like to have it, and to recognize when we may have lost it and try to get it back.

    The gun takeaway thing is to my mind a guy who has too much “mushin” and no zanshin….

  5. Nice article. I, too, have heard the ‘cop and criminal’ story. My instructor used it to illustrate why, if the defense technique launches the weapon across the room, the attacker always retrieves it after the drill is complete.

  6. Wayne-san, another excellent piece. Thank you, I share your writings with my students young and old, near and far.

    You wrote, in part: “Luckily, he then managed to wrestle the pistol away and arrest the perpetrator.
    However, it is not a myth sadly.Now, again, a professional LEO trainer told me this story is a myth.”

    After further research today, Wayne I was able to share with everyone that the officer DID survive! It was the Ontario Provincial Police Service that it occurred around 6 years ago. “The story that is mentioned in Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s book ‘On Combat’. In it, Lt. Col. Grossman wrote about an officer who he knew that practiced disarming suspects of their handguns and would hand it back to his practice partner to practice more. If I remember correctly, the officer came face to face with an armed robber in a convenience store and disarmed him but then began to hand it back based on muscle memory.”

    I first heard of the story while attending a specialized weapons retention seminar in Montreal and the instructor stopped us right away from handing back a knife to our partner. They pin-pointed the Ontario Provincial Police and cited that he was killed. The story may have been misstated purposely to hammer in the seriousness of muscle memory, etc.

    Since, I have the tori (attacker- for my police friends) throw the weapon away from the uke. We also never reach out and assist uke up. You train the way you fight and sadly for the OPPS officer his reflex action to give the bad guy the weapon. He was a close quarters combat instructor and he always trained that way

    1. All,
      Lots of really valuable information coming from these commentaries, I’d say. I’m a middling proponent of koryu and can teach only what I learned or thoght about from my own narrow experiences, and I have to say, very humbly, that I learn a lot from others who comment, even to disagree, from their own unique perspectives, such as from law enforcement or self-defense training. It makes for an interesting comparison of techniques, concepts, methodologies. Thanks to Jim and everyone else! And I stand corrected about the story being an urban legend. I had first read of it in Grossman’s book, but someone I respected felt it was a myth, having had no corroboration of his own. Well, now I can tell my students that the story is indeed true. And they have to practice their zanshin!

  7. Interesting to hear that that takeaway-hand back actually did happen! Scary, but we can very much become conditioned to “the training hall.” I think this is true even when you are out working the streets – most situations are fairly low level and controlled. When the true life and death encounter rears its head you gain a new appreciation for what the old teachings were saying…’til then you don’t know what you don’t know.

    Draeger’s wonderful comment about tsuki, “being mentally constipated – until the opponents administers the prune juice!” is relevant here, I think!

    Fudo’s comment above about classical kata being more applicable to a combat situation reminded me of reading Kano’s writings a few days ago (in the form of Watson’s Judo Memoirs of Jigoro Kano)- there he makes the point that “in the past” (writing in his time…) there was a divergence of kata practice within traditional arts: some schools that “trained with expensive weapons” tended toward a practice which began to value the technical expression of technique as the primary goal – that demonstration of the art itself was the reason for practice.

    He contrasted that with other schools, in particular jujutsu schools, which focussed much more on competitive and combative fighting, even with their kata, as the reason for practice….clearly very different approaches which I think are mirrored today.

  8. Thank you for yet another insightful post.

    I have always found the use of the term ‘zanshin’ in isolation puzzling as I was introduced to it as one of three linked concepts when studying Tenjin Shin’yo-ryu (zenshin, tsushin, zanshin). In that style the three categories described different phases of readiness within which one initially readies oneself (psychologically and spiritually — and IMHO biochemically), harnesses the appropriate psycho-physical state, and then guardedly allows oneself to return to an alert but less charged state. This latter point is important when we consider what the rush of adrenalin and activation of the sympathetic nervous system can do to our perceptions and accordingly our behaviour — one wants to harness the parts that assist our likelihood of combat survival but not suffer from combative myopia or go into a berserker rage.

  9. Alex

    I think the problem is with “harnessing,” I see it more like we experience it and negotiate the stormy straits of that psycho-chemical response rather than harnessing it. We really cannot help getting “combative myopia,” it is a human trait. Its more in how we handle it when it is happening.

    Wayne’s comment about “paying attention” is in particular appropriate here because that is exactly what the whole bio-chemical thing is doing: causing changes in/tasking our attentional resources (‘working memory”) during a crisis situation.

    Studies have been done showing that it is not in fact the heart rate that is causing the issues (as popularized and now rejected by Siddle). Some people DO lose control as their heart rate spikes.

    Some do not. Two people can be experiencing the very same stress and to one it is debilitating and to another it is galvanizing.

    This is where I find the “remaining” part of zanshin fascinating (that this was the word chosen, that is…) as it is in fact what is happening psychologically:

    those who “keep their heads” versus “losing their wits” (i.e. their heads “stay” in the game…) have minds remaining in the present moment (despite the stress, physiological reactions, psychological distortions, etc), versus being overwhelmed or sidetracked or stuck by the experiences of terror or overcome with those attentional issues (becoming fixated on an adversary’s actions, or on one’s own vulnerability or inability, or, say, getting mentally stuck on when one’s own weapon is broken or taken out of the fight by an adversary…)

    One can perhaps better prepare oneself for that in a dueling situation (psyching up), but that is altogether different from a combat perspective with surprise attack, chaos, or unanticipated changes in events occurring.

    HOW we train becomes important here too,both in terms of the stress we experience in training, and in terms of the things we are capable of under survival stress. Better training better mimics the stressors, and therefore identifies strategies to keep one’s head “when all about you are losing theirs.”

    Literally and figuratively for the bushi!

  10. I wonder if the “after” part was a function of later times, when training changed as in the Kano quote I noted above: when many folks were more interested in what that kind of composure “looked” like versus what it “felt” like and what was actually happening psychologically.

    Not that paying attention to a fallen adversary isn’t important- one of the hidden teachings of bujutsu is, I think, that you never expect your stuff to work, and you never yourself simply think “Oh, he got me, I’m dead!” I believe this from both direct teachings and interviews of many teachers and practitioners, and even some PMs sent me by folks of different traditions: about the ideas of cutting one’s way through any kind of adversity, and “if he cuts your flesh, you cut his bone.”

    I note that in the older, true Sengoku or thereabouts arts, it seems in paired kata that the “loser” doesn’t simply fall down and go limp and act dead. He maintain posture, maintains his own zanshin, maintains a combative focus as he is extending maai and then engages different mechanisms for “ending” the kata: but until the hard break the fight is very much still on….

    This could serve the purpose of not only training tori in zanshin, but also in training uke in that “I did not go down. You didn’t take me out, I would have been able to cut you back. I did not give up” mind. Perhaps a different shade on zanshin as well.

    1. Great analysis and you put into words in a more simpler way than when I try to explain this to my students.
      I was once told by a Shotokai friend who studied with Miyazai in NYC. He said that he at first had trouble with both the proper attitude when starting the kata and having correct zanshin at the end, He devised a thought pattern that is quite unique, as he performed the yoie (sic) or opening ready movement he imagined that he just opened the gates of hell upon himself. He started performing magnificent, focused kata. At the end after performed owari-te or nao-i-te depending upon school, he would imagine closing the gates of hell and watching the doors to make sure that none of the evil doers slipped through to attack him.

      Eventually, it became inbred and he did not have to use his imagination because it came part of him. Gambatte!

  11. Kit, and everyone,

    Actually, your last comment reminded me that I wanted to discuss something related to but somewhat apart from the concept of zanshin, that of maintaining posture and the role “uke” takes at the end of kata. As you noted, in koryu that reflect really older origins, such as when the arts could have possibly been used, uke maintains a certain posture…Anyway, that’s gist for another blog idea!!!! Thanks! I’ll get on it ASAP!

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