Zanshin

  First some background:

     Humans are animals with very real animal needs and senses.  Humans have existed for a long time and still carry many of the traits that allowed our ancestors to survive in a violent environment many thousands of years ago.

     Humans are not who they think they are.  In extreme danger or emotional events the reptilian brain will dominate.  The civilization humans take pride in will not override the hard wired traits that allowed them to survive lo these many years.

     Just as with all other animals, humans fight for territory or status.  Yet, humans also tend to fight about respect - which is not a necessity for life.  When animals fight for dominance in the herd or pack or whatever, one wins and the other just walks away.  There is usually little damage inflicted on the loser.

    First some background:

     Humans are animals with very real animal needs and senses.  Humans have existed for a long time and still carry many of the traits that allowed our ancestors to survive in a violent environment many thousands of years ago.

     Humans are not who they think they are.  In extreme danger or emotional events the reptilian brain will dominate.  The civilization humans take pride in will not override the hard wired traits that allowed them to survive lo these many years.

     Just as with all other animals, humans fight for territory or status.  Yet, humans also tend to fight about respect - which is not a necessity for life.  When animals fight for dominance in the herd or pack or whatever, one wins and the other just walks away.  There is usually little damage inflicted on the loser.

     Humans have behavior typical of animals in most social confrontations that become physical.  The goal is usually about saving face and not to kill the opponent.  Little boys will fight until one or the other cries and then it's over.  Big boys will fight until one or the other quits or is damaged, but it is most rare to fight to the death. 

     Just like all other animals, humans have a sense of the natural hierarchy among the group.  Without coming to blows, humans often know or have some sense of the ability of others.  Remember 'sizing up' the other kids when you were young?

     Just as with all groups of animals, humans tend to establish dominance - a 'pecking order'.  This is as it should be, but where humans deviate from the natural herd behavior is pride.  And backing down from a status conflict is extremely difficult.

     Humans have a very long string of ancestors who established the natural hierarchy necessary for the survival of the species.  It's built in and very difficult and unnatural to circumvent.  At the same time, pride competes and social confrontations often develop into physical confrontations, yet - just like all of the other animals - humans don't kill other members of the species during these events except by accident.

     However, predators preying on other species have an entirely different set of circumstances.  In those cases there is no social context; it is simply a matter of killing to survive.  When this occurs among humans, it is an asocial event.  Humans differ from other animals in that during an asocial event they will kill out of desire rather than need.

     Predators seek animals weaker than themselves and often the weakest in the herd.  The goal is to kill without being hurt.  Human predators are no different - they will seek out targets weaker than themselves (fish, birds, small game) or will use various weapons and/or strategies to kill larger animals - but the goal remains to kill without being hurt in the process.

     All animals have the ability to sense weakness, fear, danger, authority, hierarchy status and so on in members of their own breed - humans have that ability too.   Some humans can project an aura of confidence and/or competence that others can read.  Some humans project an aura of fear and/or incompetence that others can read too.  The ones who project superiority possess zanshin.

     So there's the background.

     Zanshin has to be real.  Posturing won't work - humans will sense the truth just as animals will.  A very brave, aware and capable individual with the least bit of self doubt will reveal that weakness and it will be his ultimate undoing.  It is not about bravado, it is about having the experience, competence and awareness required to have those traits be evident to others.  The 'thousand mile stare'.

     When I first heard of zanshin it was in a tournament related context.  It meant 'remaining mind' and that was explained as continuing to maintain a competitive spirit after scoring on the opponent.  Now I know that to be a very narrow explanation of zanshin but perhaps suitable for competition purposes.

     Zanshin requires experience, competence and awareness.  We'll address those:

     Awareness means more than just being alert and aware of the surroundings.  In this case it also means sensing the opponent's capabilities - 'sizing him up' - from the aura he generates.

     Competence means having the skill, ability to use the skill, and complete willingness to act.

     Experience means having actually used the awareness and competence so many times that it is the natural thing to do.  There is a big difference between practicing for an event that hasn't yet occurred and having experienced many of those events.

     Zanshin is just that - zanshin.  It is very difficult to explain in words yet we have all sensed it.  We have seen it in others although maybe not in a martial context and others have seen it in us.  It is not just a martial related ability but it is commonly associated with martial activity.  It is really a trait of the animal world that manifests in establishing dominance.

     So what significance does it have for us?

     First, we must be able to distinguish between a social event and an asocial event. A social event involves staring, shouting, pushing and hitting - usually in that order.  It is not a fight to the death but rather an attempt to get the other guy to back off without being hurt in the process.  Not a predator/prey situation. An asocial event is a predator/prey situation.  It is what occurs on the battlefield or in a mugging, rape, or other assault.  The predator selects the location, the time and the means.  It is sudden and very violent.

     Remember that in a predator/prey event, zanshin is very much a part of the decision making process.  The predator will still seek the weakest member of the tribe and try to avoid a situation where his wellbeing could be compromised.  At the same time, zanshin works on several levels and may keep a potential target from becoming prey.  An exception to this would be the psychopath who is not only willing to die but may actually want to, and the drug addict who will behave like a psychopath and have absolutely no pain sensation.   Zanshin provides the insight.  Survival of the fittest perhaps.

     Often a well planned attack will totally surprise the target.  Good for the attacker, bad for the one attacked.  Usually, the target will take one or more blows before realizing the attack is in progress.  While dealing with pain and/or concussion, the adrenaline dump, and being startled, one must have the presence of mind, awareness, competence and experience necessary to turn the tables.  That is zanshin.

     So what does that have to do with us and our learning to learn from the kata?  I'm tempted to ask you to tell me, but......I'll say a little about it.

     The creators of the kata were successful in combat.  Their techniques, tactics, strategies and styles were preserved in the kata.  Successful combat includes being the predator at times and being the prey at times.  Being able to discern the opponent's strengths and weaknesses and creating uncertainty in the opponent have to be a significant part of winning in combat.  Being able to successfully withstand being injured during a surprise attack and having the 'remaining mind' to persevere played into the design of kata - some kata more than others.

     There is an ancient story about a young guy who wanted training from a great swordsman.   He was accepted as a student and was subjected to several years of personal service - cooking, washing and cleaning for the teacher.  After a while, the teacher began to surprise him with attacks with a practice sword while he was cooking, sleeping, cleaning or otherwise involved.  The student gradually learned to avoid the attacks.  One day the student asked the teacher when actual sword training was to begin.  The teacher replied that he had been taught all that he needed to learn. This is one example of zanshin, total awareness such that the student could sense and avoid the attacks.

     Zanshin is something to consider when learning from the kata but it should not dominate your search for kata meaning - still very important to understand because of the many ramifications of zanshin.