By Dr. E. Cruz Eusebio, 2nd Kyu
The very essence of karate and, perhaps the main purpose of training, is to improve oneself. Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan karate, stressed that practitioners must strive to seek perfection of character. In doing so, it is essential to obtain a clear, focused mind in pursuit of a mental and physical state that is harnessed for perfection. When learning karate, particularly as it involves both physical and mental tasks, one must first start with the mindset of discipline. Attending to the work of the mind may not come naturally at first, but with discipline and practice, it can be utilized both in and out of the dojo.
When training, it is useful for a practitioner to continually reset their mind by clearing it from any past or future thoughts. With practice, tuning into a present awareness will become natural. Setting and being mindful of one’s goals is also fundamental to success. Not adhering to your goals is much like riding a bicycle in tiny circles to get to your destination. When away from the dojo, practitioners are encouraged to apply the mental aspects of karate to their own personal challenges in life. In this way, mental training occurs seamlessly with the physical demands of karate as it permeates all areas of one’s life.
Mind-body connections also aid in the progression of building muscle memory in addition to learning sensory motor movements essential to karate. It takes both the mind and body to develop a strong and present awareness in order to optimally enhance the structured sequence of movements in karate called kata. Of course, it is also essential to obtain good teachers to model these movements, provide feedback, and help the student reach their goals. The mind, at a fundamental level, adds to the vigor and spirit of each movement that the body is directed to perform. Anyone, with enough practice, can go through the motions, but it’s through these mental connections that one can become the greatest among the great.
Occasionally, a martial artist may arrive at a plateau in training where they feel they aren’t gaining or excelling or they are faced with greater challenges or even an injury. Our minds are powerful and can lead us to believe we are stuck when, in fact, the very act of attending a class or performing visualization is beneficial to the practitioner. One can envision and practice the various forms in karate while paying attention to their breathing without physically performing them. This is why it is essential to tap into a focused mindset. It helps you to use the strength of the mind to breakthrough and identify any potential barriers. One way this can be accomplished is by resetting the mind, thereby clearing any exterior distractions, past and present, in an effort to obtain a blank slate or tabula rasa, thereby forgiving the self of any extraneous events of the day. Another method is to simply check in with oneself, asking “Where am I with my kata, stances, or flow?” followed by “Where do I want to go with my kata, stances, or flow.” Then, visualize the steps and envision accomplishing them in progression and with success. The idea is to reset the mind continually throughout your training in an effort to optimize learning the skills without distraction, thereby gaining a thorough and new perspective of the areas in which to work.
With mindfulness, karate-kas can complete tasks that involve mental acuity with more fervor. It helps in a way that focus and concentration cannot by themselves. The reason is that mindfulness works a step further, utilizing both the unconscious and conscious minds. Using the unconscious mind is a bit like adding water to a reservoir one drop at a time to fill the cup when it’s most needed. Mindfulness attends to present moments,
particularly when the goal is to remain focused with optimal attention to learning forms and detail. Renowned mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn speaks to it as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment.” In training, it comes down to looking inward to explore the mental strength to perform the physical movements while focusing on areas to improve. It is not about criticizing, but rather finding ways to grow. The methods utilized may vary from sitting silently in zazen while aware of one’s breathing to practicing walking meditation or silent meditation on a daily basis. The idea is to practice using the mind regularly in and out of the dojo with as much frequency and integrity as you practice using your body. Ultimately, the hope is that when the mind and body are in tune, one can achieve optimal states of mental and physical awareness in order to demonstrate their own perfection of character and love for karate.
Dr. E. Cruz Eusebio is a 2nd Kyu student in Shotokan Karate at Enso. He is an assistant professor of psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology where he serves as director of the Center for Optimal Performance in Education. He has published, presented, and been interviewed by the media on various topics of child and adolescent psychology, education, technology, and neuroscience. His current focus is on the correlation between mind-body mechanics, optimal experience, and a practice he calls proflection, the art of manifesting positive change.