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Question: My teacher often talks about our karate, as well as other martial
arts, as providing mental training in addition to our physical training.
I'm never sure what this means. What does this refer to?
By Christopher Caile
When you talk about mental training in the martial arts, you are pointing
to one of the main differences in the way the Japanese view training as
opposed to those in the west. We all know, on some level, that the mental
side of any activity is important. Anyone who follows basketball, tennis,
golf or football can remember a game when something happened and the whole
psychology of the game changed, and the outcome changed with it. But,
despite this recognition, sports training in the west tends to focus on
the physical -- power, technique, speed, etc. It was only in the 1950's
that the concept of sports psychology even got started, and today, while
there is more written on this subject, little actual mental training is
incorporated into practice. In short, in the west we are more externally
This is very different in Japan (as well as some parts of Asia) where
the internal aspects of martial arts always took precedence. It was always
recognized that on the battlefield, where a psychological whirlwind of
death and fear swirled around combatants, the quality of discipline, physical
commitment, spirit, mental clarity and calm were as important, or more
important, than training, skill and technique. During times of warfare
young samurai were trained at birth to be totally committed to action
without thought of the self or their own life. They lived a dedicated
life of absolute discipline, austere training, and unforgiving practice
mixed with psycho-religious practices (Mikkyo and Zen Buddhism) to prepare
and train the mind.
In the modern age, while the samurai are little more than historical
artifacts, and actual battlefield weapon skills are little practiced,
the spiritual attributes of the samurai have been in part preserved, embodied
into new forms of martial arts dedicated to the development of ethical
values, discipline and personal development. These new arts, under many
names -- some weapon based, others empty hand -- started in the 1600s
and continue today. The most famous are the most modern -- kendo, judo,
aikido and karatedo (actually adopted from Okinawa but infused with traditional
values in Japan). An essential ingredient to each of these "do"
forms ("do" forms, do meaning the way or path) was the concept
of spiritual forging -- that is, hard disciplined, repetitious practice
which both clarify and harden the mind as well as the body while perfecting
technique. In the process the student was virtually transformed.
In the west, while this type of long term, hard practice is rarely seen,
some parts of this training continue. Traditional martial arts schools
continue to stress many things, all of which force the student to make
difficult emotional decisions that build internal discipline, and strengthen
him or her mentally and spiritually. One practice is etiquette, which
forces the self (and ego) to become subservient to the school and training.
There is also stress on developing the "non-quitting spirit"
-- doing that extra push up, or extra exercise, or keeping your stance
when it is painful. In freefighting (if it is within the art) students
face their own natural fears and trepidations and learn how to deal with
situations which are not comfortable, even threatening. Practice, too,
often contains basics and more basics -- endless repetitions -- another
method that forces the mind to let go and the body to take over as technique
is internalized. And of course there is kata, which trains the body in
automatic sequences of movement and technique and over time frees the
mind of the body and movement, allowing it to achieve a heightened state
of awareness and focus -- almost an impersonal observer sitting above
and outside the action looking back at it. And the fact that many traditional
martial arts schools incorporate meditation (or Zen training) and other
spiritual practices into their curricula demonstrates the continued importance
of mental development to martial arts practice.
When you compare hard martial arts training to western concepts of sports
training there are several immediate observations. First, the western
concept teaches technique faster. Thus, students immediately surge ahead
in capability. But, increases in capability and technique tend to level
off with time and to achieve the highest level of capability requires
more than the physical. Thus, while eastern methods may at first be slower,
over time they can provide that extra element of psychological training
to transcend the pure physical plain.
Then there is the personal level. Traditional martial arts can also teach
internal skills which provide students with a better ability of face themselves
and the many problems and conflicts that life presents.