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The Duck on the Pond

Kata practice and attaining Zen

The simulflow of meditation and physical movement in kata can be likened to the image of a duck swimming in a pond. Above the water, a duck appears to move effortlessly - simply choosing its direction and gravitating towards it, leaving nothing save a gentle wake in its path.

Look below the surface though, and likely you’ll see it’s webbed feet desperately paddling to maintain control - fighting currents, and pushing off obstacles.

When first learning a kata the movements are totally new, and a conscious effort in our working memory is required to train the body to move as needed. However, by repeating movements we migrate the effort of controlling our body out of working memory - out of our conscious mind, and into other parts of the brain including muscle and long-term memory.

This migration of effort leaves the balance of working memory free to operate at a more strategic level. The unfettered mind finds itself free from the chains of the moment - timeless: burdened neither by memory, or dreams the unknown future.   Just like the upper and lower parts of the duck, both the conscious and unconscious parts of the brain are then distinct but connected. When they are balanced, both mental states: complete engagement and complete detachment are attained.

This is the definition of the state of Zen (禅) - a blissful state of total connection with and complete separation from the universe.

Esoterics obtain this state with minimal physical movement by stilling their body and in most cases, focusing on their breathing.   We are practitioners of martial arts so we seek to master the Zen state while moving both body and mind in the midst of battle.

My goal in this article is to give you some practical steps towards reaching this lofty goal. So I commend to you the following advice as someone who has tasted and seen the Zen state:

  • Believe. The Zen state is not just for the monks, priestesses, and hermits. Generations of martial artists have achieved it and generations to come will also. And so you can, too.
  • Know your goal. Be aware of what Zen is so you recognise it (see my earlier comments) and avoid practice without direction.
  • Practice many times. When you lose count of how many times you've done a kata, you're in the right mental space. Practice it to the point your active working memory is no longer required to perform the whole kata, so that some or all of the kata will just 'happen'.
  • Practice regularly. Perform physical practice regularly. Avoid leaving it too long between repetitions as this allows neural pathways and 'flow' to degrade.

The same way a duck doesn’t consciously think about swimming, allow yourself the Zen experience in your kata - do it in the 'now' moment...and don't look back.

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