Combat training simulates conditions of high stress. It works that way now and it worked that way in Tokugawa era Japan. Under hyper arousal we experience changes in sense perception and physical performance that can hinder our effectiveness:
Our field of vision contracts to a small circle right in front of our eyes, an effect known as tunnel vision.
We tend to lock in on one target and one objective, while missing the rest of the environment, additional threats, and the changing dynamics of the fight.
Our hearing turns off, known as auditory exclusion. Footsteps, shouting and even nearby gunfire become inaudible.
Our fine motor skills, especially in our hands, are reduced as blood flows toward the vital organs and vital functions at the core of the body.
To perform optimally we train to detect and overcome these symptoms of mental and physical rigidity that arise as a result of combat induced stress.
Takuan Soho was a Japanese Zen master who advised the most influential sword masters of the samurai military government of Japan on training and tactics. His advice on sword-fighting united the mind, body and tactics as one.
The men in the armies Takuan was advising were not dumb or poorly trained. They were undergoing combat stress and needed a way to overcome it. He provided it.
Takuan advised them to cultivate what he called an “empty” mind:
No-mind is the same as right mind. It neither congeals nor fixes itself in one place. It is called no-mind when the mind has neither discrimination nor one thought, but moves freely about the entire body and extends through the entire self.
The no-mind is placed nowhere. Yet it is not like wood or stone. Where there is no stopping place it is called no-mind. When it stops there is something in the mind. When there is nothing in the mind it is called the mind of no-mind. It is also called no-mind no-thought.
When this no-mind has been well-developed the mind does not stop with one thing nor does it lack any one thing….
“No mind” has been sometimes misinterpreted as “blank out your mind.” This was not what Takuan taught.
Takuan’s training advice corrected what he recognized as a deficient approach to training and combat. We still see this flaw in use today. His advice still works for us.
Military training for combat in many times, places and cultures encouraged warriors to focus completely on one thing: attack and kill the enemy. The idea of victory was fixed in their mind. This was evident for example in the ‘banzai charge’ that was still used by the Japanese Imperial Army early in WWII, which focused on attacking and destroying the enemy without any other consideration. It was not an efficacious tactic in modern war, and it was not optimal long before.
Although in self-defense our objective will be different: to “stop the threat” in a confrontation or to “defeat the opponent” in a match, we can still get stuck on a fixed idea.
Takuan advocated an alternative to this ‘fixation’ frame of mind. He counseled his clients and disciples to:
“See the whole tree at once, not just focus a single leaf.”
Takuan was saying that holding any fixed idea in the mind – even one of victory – limited the fighter’s power because it made him rigid, limited his awareness, and impeded his freedom to respond to changing conditions. Anyone who has fought a kumite or boxing match knows that attack plans have a short useful life.
Takuan’s advice was not abstract. It was not word play. It was sound practical advice. It is used today in warrior training.
The martial application advised by Takuan took a piece of insight from the Buddhist meditation toolkit and applied it to war training. It is a powerful tool. We can still use it for that purpose.
Practicing open, non-fixated, live awareness is essential for high performance in any demanding field – as any fighter, NASCAR driver, musician, acrobat, pilot or public speaker can tell you.
NOTE: This article on how we can use Takuan’s advice to prevail in combatives is adapted from a section of my article “Is Nothing Sacred.”
Post and photo by Jeffrey Brooks © 2019