August 17, 2011

Hearts and Minds

In his famous manuscript on combat strategy, “A Book of Five Rings,” Miyamoto Musashi stated, “Whether you parry, slap, strike, hold back or touch your opponent's cutting sword, you must understand that all of these are opportunities to cut him down.”

While Musashi was a swordsman primarily concerned with surviving life-or-death duels and the chaos of war, his principles for engaging an opponent translate well to karate.  He notes that we never parry an attack just to avoid being hit, and we never dodge a strike without planning a counter.  Every single motion should contribute to an effective counter attack on your opponent by improving your position, weakening your opponent's balance, taking away your opponent's options, etc.

To understand this principle is one thing, but there is a barrier to overcome when you apply it to karate training.  To effectively use every movement as an opportunity to “cut” the opponent, we must harmonize a strategy in our mind with the willpower in our hearts.  What I refer to as the mind is the conscious awareness of aspects such as distance, timing, strength, and weakness which is used to formulate an effective strategy for a fight.  The mind is used off-line to train good reactions and transfer the simulated situations from training into instinctual reactions in a live fight.  What I refer to as the heart is your unconscious will that governs the actual execution of technique; it is your inner-most desire or feeling whether you are aware of it or not.  The heart requires training to overcome our natural reactions and develop the willpower to execute a strategy in a dangerous situation.  The balance of training with your mind and heart together is necessary to capture Musashi’s advice.  Without using your mind, your strategy will be weak and ineffective; without training your heart your execution will betray your strategy and revert to your natural reactions.

Consider a defense against jodan oi-zuki where the defender shifts to the side to avoid the incoming punch and deliver a counter from the side of the opponent.  This strategy first entices the attacker to fully commit their attack but dodges at the last second to gain a superior position at the opponent's side for the counter attack.  Against a strong opponent, a natural reaction is to step well outside our countering range because deep in our heart we want to be far away from the dangerous, fast moving object.  Another common reaction is to move to the side much too early because we fear that we will wait too long and get hit.  Similarly, our preoccupation with the danger causes us to focus on the blocking limb, adding too much strength and tension, and we lose our positioning advantage because of our hesitation.  We must train our heart to remain strong in this type of situation by practicing effective technique until we are comfortable with the movement. 

Musashi's principle applies to all types of movement in karate from kihon kumite to free sparring to kata applications.  The important question is - are you just blocking, parrying, and dodging, or are you executing a strategy to end the fight?  The answer is in your heart.

Submitted by: Matthew Baran, Nidan