THE ZEN MIRROR
The Effects of Unison Movement
By Jeff Brooks
We are often encouraged to be unique. Children are told they are special. Marketers flatter consumers by selling them brands that will “define” them and differentiate them from the rest of the crowd.
Individuality is regarded as a high ideal in our society. In art or in science, standing out from the crowd is essential to success; innovation, doing something unusual, even if it is only re-appropriating the mundane, is the defining quality of success. In art, especially since the rejection of technique and aesthetics in the middle of the last century, novelty is a chief driver of creative work and career success.
This is a debilitating condition, both for the individuals who suffer from it and for the society which they inhabit.
There are more kids with fewer friends, free play time, physical experience and less exploration of the natural or urban world coming into martial arts than ever before.
These kids often grow up in environments where everyone in the home has their own TV and computer. Each person is “free” to choose to watch whatever they want, or play whatever game they want. Enslaved by relentless stimulation and easy gratification of impulse, in air conditioned comfort, they have a hard time developing good relationships with others, or handling challenges. As a result family contact declines, human relationships become fraught, and people become more and more culturally autistic.
This is disabling not just to these individuals but to society too.
Modern martial arts sometimes reinforces this. In martial arts where only free sparring is valued, or where personally invented, solo forms are the primary forms practice, real training, development and mastery are replaced by pandering to people’s assumptions, habits and self-centeredness.
That is why so many boxing gyms or modern combatives training centers are populated by performers, with outsized egos, volatile emotions and raging ambition. Exactly the qualities you don’t want in the people around you, or in yourself.
No wonder modern people feel alienated from the rest of the world.
If you are part of a family, a team, a company, a community, a country or any other human institution you will notice that you have a higher likelihood of functioning competently (and by the way of being happy and successful) if you can shift from the role of leader to peer to subordinate easily and appropriately, as circumstances demand.
You can step up to the plate, completely alone, and do what you need to do, skillfully and courageously. And you can immerse yourself in the work of the team, pull your weight, do your part without hesitation, and without ego getting in the way.
In traditional martial arts we spend a good part of our training time doing unison movement. All the participants doing the same sequence of the same moves, simultaneously.
Some people ignorantly view this as robotic. These people are slaves to the idea that freedom equals individuality. As if diversity is the only value. As if the world was a better place because everyone can pick a different flavor of Ben & Jerry’s. As if being a part of a community reduced your worth.
While children are naturally self centered, and teenagers are actively engaged in a process of psychological individuation, a healthy adult outgrows these stages. Remaining in them narrows the scope of life, and deletes the opportunity to mature and participate in a vital community.
Unison movement during martial arts practice, whether in a town square in China, a park in Seoul, a castle in Japan or a monastery in Tibet is an expression of freedom. The freedom to unite with others in common purpose.
The freedom to become, of your own volition, a member of a community of people who are sharing skill, experience, their precious human life with other people. They may never say a word to each other outside of training. But simply moving together during their martial arts practice to some degree bridges their differences, reduces the significance of the minor things which separate them, and unites them in a shared humanity. They have discovered, as human beings have for millennia, that this is the source of true community and true happiness.
Contrary to the Olympic assumption that the world is composed of one great gold medalist, a bunch of losers, and a whole world sitting on their couches watching the chosen few, unison movement gives everyone an opportunity to be their best, make the most of their lives, and appreciate the worth and dignity of the people around them.
From a technical training aspect it is easy to learn from the example of the more skillful people around you. With your mind relaxed, not stressed, not hyper aroused, not compulsively showing off, we can lose the rigidity that prevents free learning. Then, when we turn up the heat in training, or when we face the moment of truth, outside of the training situation, in a crisis, a confrontation or in combat, we have the foundation of skill and of self reliance we have built over the years of training. We also have the ability to work with other people, to achieve what we need to achieve.
Individualism and tribalism are destructive when they are compulsions, or when they are taken to be absolute good. The playwright Samuel Becket said “Hell is other people.” A true modernist, he created that hell for himself.
We, you and I, as true martial artists should make every effort to rip those walls down, and liberate all the suffering beings stuck inside.
Unison movement in kata or other martial arts group-training methods are an antidote to this post-modern disease.
Train hard. Together.
Copyright Jeff Brooks and FightingArts.com
About The Author:
Jeffrey Brooks, Seventh Degree Black Belt, has been the
director of Northampton Karate Dojo in Northampton, Massachusetts since
1987 and director of Northampton Zendo since 1993. He is a police officer
and police instructor, and the author of “Rhinoceros Zen –
Zen Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom.” His column Zen Mirror
and other articles appear on FightingArts.com.
FightingArts.com is pleased to announce its first
book: “Rhinoceros Zen –Zen
Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom,” by Jeffrey Brooks, a work
that portrays the dual paths and interplay between Zen and Karate-do.
and easy to read, it is full of insight and wisdom. It is a rewarding
read for any martial artist.
(Softcover, 300 pages, illustrated)