The best practice

June 6, 2009

What’s the goal of training? OK, you say, it depends – maybe I’m training for self defense, maybe I’m training for a tournament, yadda yadda. But really, what do you need for those things? My answer is control. Physical training is the process of gaining greater and greater control over our movements (including by “pushing the envelope” – gaining strength, speed, flexibility); mental training is the process of gaining control over the mind.

Control, both mental and physical, is the most important thing in martial arts. If you don’t have it, all your power and weaponry is going to do you exactly no good whatsoever against someone who does. In fact, self-control translates directly into control of others – how do you think those taiji masters can throw you around so effortlessly? It’s not because they’re superstrong, it’s because they have great control over their own bodies and minds, and they’re using that to control your body and mind.

So, assuming that you buy that much, we should be looking for control in our practice. The best exercise that I know of to gain physical control is taikiken standing practice (which is apparently called “ritsu zen”, but we always just call it standing). The idea is that you put your entire body under equal tension, and hold it there. Then, you observe what it does. When your body is not under tension, it doesn’t do anything interesting – it just hangs loosely from your joints. Under tension, though, your muscles interact with your tendons and skeleton; the goal of standing practice is to understand how it all works together, so that you can maximize your control over every movement. This control, in turn, allows you to generate the “spiral power” for which the internal arts are famous.

The nice thing about standing practice is that if you don’t have even tension, bits of your body will start failing before other parts do. The most common example is being unable to hold up your arms, while you can still stand. This means that you’re concentrating too much tension in your shoulders (common in Western societies), and you need to consciously relax that area in order to bring it into unison with the rest of your body. There’s no way to avoid becoming aware of this if you stand long enough – the flaming agony will let you know in no uncertain terms that you’re doing it wrong.

So much for physical control. Now, what about mental control? How do you do the same thing with your mind that standing practice does with your body? The answer, my answer at least, is zazen. You put your mind under tension (by forcing it to be quiet, which is an “unnatural” state), and observe what it does. If you hold it there long enough (which initially is about a second or two), bits start to “fail” – thoughts start to leak through. By observing how that happens, you can bring your mind into unison, the same way you did with your body.

Fundamentally, standing practice and zazen are the same practice. In principle, one can do them together; unfortunately, this requires more skill than I have, because by the time I’m standing well, I no longer have time to quiet my mind before my body starts to lose its union. At this point, the pain makes zazen practice difficult, though I presume that if one were good enough at zazen, one could remain quiet regardless. Sadly, I’m not that good.

I believe that there’s a stage beyond just establishing control over mind and body separately, where one establishes control over them together. I don’t mean that body control becomes internalized so that you don’t have to think about it any more; I mean that one could consciously unify the mind and body, and manipulate the two as a single unit. I’ve felt this, but I can’t do it consciously (or often) yet.

Must go train now.


One comment

  1. Hey Aaron,

    Just wanted to stop by and thank you for contributing to my upcoming ebook. Your advice is great, and even mirrors some of the things I talk about in the book.

    Great blog – i’ll be back to catch up on your content.


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