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Why to meditate

March 9, 2012
Statue of a meditating samurai

Statue at the Sengakuji Temple where the 47 Ronin are buried

Meditation brings to mind images of monks sitting on mountaintops, learning serenity and all that good stuff. Not very martial, right? So, why did many of the greatest samurai consider Zen, and specifically the practice of zazen, or Zen meditation, to be at the core of their martial training? The Zen monk Takuan Soho was an adviser to several of the greatest swordsmen of all time, including Miyomoto Musashi and Yagyu Munenori, despite having no sword training whatsoever (as far as we know, anyway). What did these men find to be of value in the practices of Zen, which are apparently so far removed from the practical day-to-day realities of life as a samurai?

It turns out that mental focus is one of the most difficult aspects of combat to master. I’ve written about intent, and the need to maintain your intent or risk losing the initiative to your opponent. The way you maintain your intent is by holding your mental focus, and not allowing yourself to be distracted – in Takuan’s terms, you don’t let your mind be “moved” by your opponent.

So, how do you learn to do that? Just like everything else, practice . Meditation is a form of practice for mental control, and like any practice, the exercise is designed specifically towards the goal you’re trying to reach. If you’re trying to learn how to jump high, you won’t get there by doing bicep curls, nor even by practicing a horse stance. If you’re trying to learn how to hold your mind immovable in the face of an opponent who’s doing his best to distract you, you practice that by holding your mind immovable in the face of more ordinary distractions first.

The style of meditation that I was taught, and that I explained in the previous post, is designed to teach you immovability. By holding your mind “still” and empty, you learn “where” thoughts come from, and how to control the deeper parts of your mind that tend to wander off on their own.

You might notice that the previous paragraph looks like gibberish. This is a hazard of talking about Zen, and about meditation in particular. There is a famous quote, which is sometimes translated as “The Way that can be spoken is not the true way.” The problem is that Zen is, by its nature, dealing with things outside the normal scope of language, which makes it very difficult to talk about coherently. All I can say is, practice, and you’ll understand.

The goal of the effort is the ability to hold your mind motionless in the face of distractions – to avoid “attachment”. When your opponent raises his sword, if your attention goes to the sword, your mind has become attached to it. In particular, if he then kicks you in the shin, you won’t see it coming, because your attention has raised with his sword. If there’s a cut on your arm and your attention is taken up with the pain and the blood flowing into your hand, you’re attached to that, and you won’t react as fast when something external happens – like another attack. If you initiate an attack and you’ve committed your mind to it, you’re attached to your own motion, and you won’t be able to flow with changing circumstances – like a parry.

By holding your mind immobile, you gain a “vantage point” from which you can observe the entire situation objectively. Your opponent raises his sword – OK, he’s raised his sword. Is there any implication to that? It changes his possible actions and reactions, but it doesn’t necessarily call for any immediate response on your part. When you start your own motion, you can be aware not only of what you’re doing, but what your opponent is doing in response, and at every moment you can choose the optimal action within the current situation.

This is what I’ve referred to as “effortless awareness”. Being aware of lots of things that are changing rapidly takes effort, because you’re moving your mind back and forth between them. It’s the difference between watching a crowd of people from the middle of the crowd, and watching from a balcony where you can see everything at once. The trick is to not let yourself leap off the balcony as soon as something unexpected happens, and that’s where the practice comes in.

As a “side benefit”, from the martial perspective, meditation has been shown experimentally to have significant benefits on mood, attention, and stress levels. I can say from personal experience that meditation definitely improves my mood, and the improvement lasts for several days even if I don’t continue meditating.

Bottom line, the mind requires training at least as much as the body. People focus on the external, visible aspects of the art, but in so doing they neglect the internal aspects. Ultimately, while physical skill and strength are important, the mind is what determines the outcome of an encounter.

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