There is a an old Japanese samurai saying, "When the battle is over,
tighten your chin strap." This refers to constant awareness, preparedness
for danger and readiness for action. The Japanese saying itself focuses
on the end of a combat engagement when it is natural to relax awareness,
thinking the danger is over, when in reality it is often not. This concept
carries over into the dojo which is not just a training hall but a place
where a certain awareness of the possibility of serious combat must constantly
On one level, zanshin refers to neutral, non-threatening stances or kneeling
in such a way as to be always ready for action. Zanshin is also the flip
side of single-minded devotion to technique. You must learn not to focus
exclusively on your actions but rather to be attentive and receptive to
all activities surrounding you. Various martial arts have different ways
of training to develop heightened zanshin. Opponents are sometimes allowed
to attack from the rear in order to develop an almost intuitive sense
of impending attack. Another exercise places a defender in the middle
of a circle of opponents who attack one by one and sometimes in groups
-- the defender using heightened awareness and/or intuition to anticipate
attacks, often combined with movement for protection. In karate practice
when kata are completed students are expected to stand quietly for a few
seconds. This is zanshin practice -- the maintenance of readiness for
action even though the physical aspects of a particular kata is finished.
In one style of karate students testing for black belt train blind folded
and then are led through the streets of New York City to heighten their
senses and awareness. In iaido, partners practice kata with wooden swords.
From the moment the opponents face each other until they finish working
together, the participants practice zanshin. The sense of heightened awareness
allows partners to practice potentially dangerous moves in safety, by
controlling technique. Zanshin also supports good technique in the kata.
The idea behind partner practice is that technique becomes second nature,
while zanshin continues to be developed. In aikido, daito ryu aikijujutsu
and many other arts even when a technique is completed (the attacker often
on the ground having been subdued) the defender is careful to be both
attentive and have a body position and stance ready for further action
if need be: zanshin.
There is an old Japanese story about a young man who sought teaching
from a great swordsman. After being accepted, the student endured several
years of personal service -- cooking, washing and cleaning for the teacher.
Then his lessons began, but not practice with a sword. His teacher began
to surprise him with incessant attacks with a practice sword -- when the
student was cooking, sleeping, anytime. Over time the students pains and
bruises lessened as he gradually learned to avoid and dodge the attacks.
Finally the student asked the teacher when actual sword training was to
begin. The teacher then replied that he had been taught all that he needed
to learn. This was zanshin, such total awareness that the student could
sense and then avoid the attacks.
Zanshin is what many solders, law enforcement officers and advanced martial
artists endeavor to develop. In some forms of meditation and Zen, zanshin
is also a goal for students -- total attention to the moment: the focusing
of the mind (without thought or emotion) on everything around them.