Zanshin, or ‘How To Be A Scary-Ass Motherf–ker Even If You’re The Nicest Guy Around.’

Being a martial arts instructor – trying to be a good martial arts instructor – is a challenge. Especially when you teach an art as broad and complex as old-school ju-jitsu.

For those of you who don’t know, the old Japanese-style ju-jitsu is very possibly the most influential martial art in the world. Judo was created from elements of ju-jitsu. Aikido was likewise derived from other parts of the art. Russian Sambo? Borrows heavily from Judo/ju-jitsu. Krav maga? Yep. Same again. Brazilian jiu-jitsu? Uh-huh. I thought that one was obvious. In fact, the modern MMA movement was more or less kicked off by the Gracie UFC tournaments… and yeah, the Gracies are all about Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

The reason the art is so influential is because there’s so goddam much in it. Striking. Kicking. Joint-locks. Strangles. Throws. Ground-fighting. Weapons. (Anyone who say ju-jitsu is an unarmed system is just plain ignorant. It started with the samurai and the swords and other weapons they carried, and though the weapon stuff varies from style to style, most systems work with short sticks and knives, often chains and/or flexible weapons, sometimes staffs, even swords and spears. You just START learning it as an unarmed system.) Further: the term ‘ju’ means not ‘gentle’ (the Judo people call judo ‘the gentle way’. Which is bullshit. Judo is about as gentle as a head-on encounter with a semi-trailer.) but ‘flexible,’ or ‘adaptable’, or ‘yielding’ – which essentially means that you adjust what you’re doing to fit the situation, and borrow whatever the fuck is going to work best. Adapt, and do it faster than the other guy.

So it’s a huge art, and it’s really hard to teach all of it. You do your best. You start by delivering basic techniques. Then you build on that. And then you start showing how the technique applies to combat – to attacks and weapons and different situations. How it changes at different distances and angles. How parts of it work under some circumstances, and other parts work under different circumstances, and how it’s all related. You teach it, you rehearse it, you spar, you test, you grapple, you practice endlessly…

If you do a good job, your students acquire not just a body of technique they can display, but an understanding of the physical principles of hand-to-hand combat – an understanding which guides them on the fly in their selection and expression of techniques. But… all that is just a physical and mental understanding of the art.

Deeper than that, there are – changes. To your understanding of yourself. To your mental and emotional resources. To your “spirit”, or whatever you call it. Not ‘chi’ or ‘spirit force’ or any such shite, but internal changes, mental and emotional, which are expressed in your movement and body language and can be ‘felt’ (recognized? Perceived?) by other people in ways which can seem… well, a lot like ‘magic kung fu shit’.

Tonight, one of my longtime students, friends, and fellow black belt practitioners Adam was going through a bo staff kata. It’s part of his second dan grading, and he’s been working on it for a while. I was watching him go through the pattern of movements along with my daughter, and as we watched, I noticed… well… something. When Adam was done, I turned to my daugher the Mau-Mau, and I asked “How did you FEEL about that?”

Vague question? Yeah. The concept I’m approaching is vague as hell – but also very, very real. So after a she made a few attempts to describe what she’d seen, I interrupted the Mau-mau and asked “Yeah, but how did it make you FEEL? Inside?”

And she said faintly: “Well… it was… intimidating.”

There it was. Unprompted. I gave her no clues. I just wanted to know what she ‘felt’.

Let me point out that Adam was about five metres from us. That Adam is one of the nicest individuals you’re ever likely to meet. That physically, (sorry Adam… gonna be truthful) he’s about as scary-looking as a panda. That my daughter has known Adam practically all her life, and trains with him regularly, and has no reason at all to find him intimidating. Yet that was the word she chose – and it was perfect. It was the right word. Going through that kata, Adam’s… his total “affect” (as used in psychology) became intimidating.

It was nothing crude or coarse or obvious. What it came down to was his focus, his attention, and the ‘intent’ conveyed by his body language and attitude. But it was genuinely there.

The Japanese have a word for it: ‘Zanshin’. A fighter who has it is totally there, in the moment, focused, aware, and committed. They are relaxed, but it is a taut, deadly kind of relaxation. They are like an unsheathed sword: intimidating.

I don’t believe in mysterious spirit powers. I believe in physical confidence that is reflected in body language and movement. But if you were to ask me what those elements of body language and movement are, I couldn’t tell you. I could say: sparring with my first instructor, Mark Haseman (Toh-kon Ryu, Brisbane) felt incredibly scary because he’d kind of… look at you. And when you got near him, there was a weird feeling, like your body didn’t want you to be there. Like you’d already been struck – mentally, inside your head. Like you’d already lost the fight even though he was just standing there, hands crossed over his belly, relaxed.

It was an almost physical sensation. It was seriously discomfiting, and everyone I ever saw who got up to fight with Mark felt it and understood it.

Somehow, somewhere down the line I seem to have acquired it. I know that when I seriously empty my mind and focus my attention on combat training with another person, even though I don’t think I’m doing anything unusual – apparently people feel the ‘intent’. I got pulled up by an Aikido instructor who told me that my ‘intent’ or ‘purpose’ was all wrong for Aikido – that I was just too damned scary. I’ve had people refuse to get out on the mat with me once I made up my mind like that.

I don’t know what it looks like. I do know that it happens when I clear my head, deliberately calm myself physically and mentally, and simply watch my opponent, ‘feeling’ for the right moment and the right technique to hit them.

Zanshin.

Obviously, since I can’t actually tell you how I do it or how my first instructor did it… obviously, I have no idea how to teach it. Hell, I don’t even know if it CAN be taught. Personally, I think it’s something you acquire through long training, commitment and determination. But it’s there, and it’s real – and to my absolute delight… to my joyful vindication as an instructor in martial arts and ju-jitsu, I saw it tonight in my friend and student and co-trainer Adam.

I know. It sounds like woo-woo bullshit. But here’s the thing: my daughter, trying to describe what she experienced, said ‘It’s almost like a physical force that comes at you when he moves. It’s like you actually FEEL it.’ And she’s right. Again, I didn’t prompt her at all – those are her words, but that’s exactly what I saw and felt. Adam was five metres away, but when he turned towards us with that staff, I instinctively wanted to get farther away – like I was being pushed.

Again: I do NOT believe in ‘chi’. I believe in determination, commitment, body language, good structure, posture, intent, and human psychology. But zanshin is a real thing. You can tell when it’s there and when it’s not. And frankly, it’s a powerful weapon. When you come up against it, you know – you KNOW, instinctively – that the person you’re dealing with isn’t screwing around. No pretense, no falseness: if you want to go up against them, you’d better be ready because they will come at you with everything they’ve got, and then some. It is literally like the moment the gunfighter signals he’s ready to draw in a Western; it’s the moment the Samurai draws his sword in an old-school Japanese movie. It’s a palpable decision that somebody, somehow, is about to get very badly fucked up.

I have never ‘taught’ zanshin. I do not believe it can be taught. I think it can be acquired by people who are sufficiently determined and committed – and who have a half-decent example to learn from. So… watching Adam tonight, being ‘scary’ and ‘intimidating’ out there – that was one of the best moments I’ve had as an instructor.

I may not have taught it. But evidently, I did enough things right that Adam learned zanshin for himself.

That’s something. I’m pretty happy about that.

4 comments

  1. barnesm · · Reply

    I recall a role-playing game set in Feudal Japan, can’t remember the name, but it even included zanshin as one of the attributes. It certainly is an important, often overlooked aspect in other martial arts that don’t draw as heavily on ju-jitsu.

  2. barnesm · · Reply

    The Role Playing Game I was trying to think of was of course called “Bushido”. I believe one character was called Budgi the Budoka.

    1. It was indeed Bushido. Kev was Bu-ji the Budoka. I was Manamana the mad Shugenja. You were a brainless, terrifying brick of a samurai called Wazituya. Other players came along from time to time — Steve Stanley as a ninja called Wapitapya… Someone else had a character named ‘Sakitumi’.

  3. Andrew Reilly · · Reply

    Only peripherally related to your story: I watched a movie on Stan the other day, called “Jiu Jitsu”. I watched it because it had Nicolas Cage in it. I think that you’d enjoy it, kind of. It posited that Jiu Jitsu was brought to earth by an alien so that he could have sparring partners to punch up (and kill of course). Very first-person shooter in places, with some of that famous American-style shooting. Quite a bit of MMA action, lots of different hand-to-hand weapons. No zanshin to speak of.

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