Sensei’s Corner – May 2007
Although it is quite impossible for a human to sustain, the most productive and efficient state with regard to physical performance and emotional stability is one that does not succumb to gratifying one’s ego. Gratifying your ego means actively taking pride in your accomplishments in a way that helps you feel superior to others or imbues within you a feeling of personal power. It is a state of illusion where the individual believes that he or she has the ability to control the world around them. The ego often stands in the way of experiencing the essence of martial techniques and can prevent one from reaching a state of zanshin. As long as the ego is running the show, the deeper, spiritual experiences remain out of reach for the martial artist.
In the book titled Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel there is extensive discussion on this very topic. The author shares an insight provided by his master:
“‘The right art,’ cried the Master, ‘is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede. What stands in your way is that you have much too willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.'”
Likewise, the further you obstinately attempt to learn to punch, kick, twist, or throw for the purpose of controlling or downing an attacker, the further you will get from achieving that end. This is because in order to execute the most natural and proper movements, you must remove your “self” from the equation.
Imagine a rock resting in the center of a rapidly moving stream. The water flows around and over the rock creating ripples and disturbances in the water, but the rock is for the most part undisturbed. Does the rock exert any force of will to make the water go around it? Does the rock care to which side of it the water flows? Does the rock appear to be doing anything at all during the conflict?
The truth is that you are only a small piece of any conflict you may have with others. If you place yourself at the center of it – meaning you assume that it’s all about you – you have immediately begun living in a false reality based upon your ego. From that point on your decisions will behave not in concert with nature, but in indulgence of your emotional desires. However, if you consider yourself only one element in a greater exchange of energy, you may more clearly identify and coordinate with the outcome that has already been “decided” by nature.
In the book I cited earlier the author describes that the archer is only one element in a masterful process of the arrow resting in the center of the target. Prior to the shot, the arrow and the target have already been joined. It is the natural ending state for which a path through the air, with the wind, and with the forces taken by the arrow from the bow, the archer, and the ground has been defined by nature. The archer is only a piece of the equation, fitting in naturally with the predefined course and exerting no conscious influence whatsoever. The archer need only relax and allow the predetermined sequence of events to take place and avoid inserting any force of will into the equation.
Kata training is a superb means for practicing movement without ego. Before you start, imagine that the kata has already been executed. Picture in your mind the natural and correct movements that your body will become part of. Imagine that you are not “performing” the kata, but rather you are experiencing it.
Experiencing moments without ego gives you practical capabilities that will directly affect your ability to defend yourself in numerous contexts. In the purely physical context, you will not be captured emotionally by a physical attack or slowed by the need to stop and think of how to “control” it. In a social context you will increase your ability to view situations from others’ perspectives. You may also be able to conceive many solutions to problems, not just the ones that benefit you most. Personally, you may develop the capability to break poor habits whose only benefit to you has been the gratification of your ego.
It is important for us to embrace our human nature and to feel the joys and pains that come from pride in accomplishments and shame in misdeeds. However, in order to continue along The Path successfully we must shed ourselves of the obstacles our egos can create. Only when one has developed the ability to practice without ego can one transcend the mere physical techniques and experience the spiritual and peace-giving aspects of the martial arts.
– Sensei Don Seiler