Awareness of Action With a Mind in Motion

How the martial arts concept of "remaining mind" can influence your daily life.

Posted Aug 05, 2018

It's the classic scene in so many horror movies. Our hero has just saved her friends from a gruesome end at the hands of the evil killer. She dealt him a mighty blow and he collapsed to the ground. Then, without another thought to him, our hero ran over to set her friends free. Even if she and her crew don't realize something else is up, we do. For one thing, there's still 30 minutes left in the flick, so this can't be the real "end" of the killer. And, more importantly here, our hero showed a flagrant lack of "zanshin": the martial arts concept of remaining mind.

The two kanji characters used to write zanshin read as: zan= “remainder, or left over”; and, 2) shin= “spirit, heart, mind”.  Putting these two characters together implies that some awareness remains or persists after something has occurred. In martial arts, this concept is typically thought to have it’s home in the interval following an actual fighting exchange in combat.

When you are fighting someone, all moments are critical but none more so than right after a clash. If you are close enough to hit your opponent, they are close enough to hit back. The external clues of the internal state of mind in a martial artist include maintaining eye contact with the opponent, keeping hands in a ready posture, and changes in body orientation to either attack or move carefully to a safe distance. Someone showing zanshin is essentially demonstrating that she understands the implications of her actions and is prepared to, literally, defend them and continue action.

When attempting to seek and apply the concept of zanshin to daily life, one element to consider is that the “remaining mind” is decided based upon an arbitrary time point. During fighting it is easy to pinpoint where the zanshin after an exchange should be. In daily living, we have to always have an arbitrary end point. The end of an exchange could be read as turning onto a new street while driving or cycling and looking for objects on the road, pedestrians, children running off the sidewalk.

Zanshin clearly defines the proper mental state to have in the interval after an exchange in combat.  The main element which comes through is an awareness of threat or danger along with preparation for continued action (i.e. attack/defense or forward/backward movement). It's a clear understanding and expression of the implications of action or inaction. In daily living one can practice the concept of zanshin by carefully maintaining an awareness of the environment and cause and effect relations of people and actions in the environment. Here, zanshin would be demonstrated by steering well clear of alley and doorways so as to maintain space between the individual and any potential threat.

You can maintain zanshin while driving and try to be as aware of other cars and their movements so as to anticipate and be ready for a possible collision if distancing is not maintained. By observing the motions cars as they pass or turn on  a highway, one can prepare for the outcome of these movements and appropriately move one’s own vehicle.  A poor demonstration of zanshin while driving would be what is commonly observed everyday where cars are jammed together at stop lights and stop signs in such a way that no movement is possible.  When there is no possible movement, there is no possible distancing and thus a lack of demonstration of the implications of the previous movement and options are then limited.

Zanshin is also found in language use and conversation.  When your argue or discuss points with someone, it is key to be ready to maintain awareness of what has transpired after the comment has been made. Discussing isn't just waiting for your turn to talk, it necessitates awareness of the other person and her arguments. This form of zanshin is not just being respectful it's also strategic. It allows anticipating the comments or verbal thrusts of the other person and being ready to counter.  In so doing, a continued argument and logical flow of ideas will be easier to maintain.

Stripped to its essence, the key point of zanshin is the concept of awareness of threat and implications of actions. In a martial arts context, the absence of zanshin rather than its presence is more quickly noticed. In training, some students and many teachers will see clearly when zanshin is not demonstrated. It's often said that the mind has stopped when zanshin is absent. Or perhaps it helps to thing that the mind is still back in time with what has already happened, not updating with what exists now in the moment.

This is seen routinely in daily life when watching professional sports. Athletes who are exceptional and making great plays will be described as being aware of the entire rink, the whole court, or the full pitch. Those who don't are described and seen as unaware. Just as in the horror movie metaphor we started with. The one in which our hero should have gone over and made sure that the bad guy was unable to keep hurting her friends. Try implementing zanshin in your life to see if it can help with mental focus and attention. Cultivating an awareness of what is happening all around you can lead to a more engaging--and oftentimes safer--journey through life. And it's also a step towards self-examination that, if I recall, a guy named Plato said made life worth living.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2018)