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Author Guest Blog: “The Secret of Training”

August 3, 2010

Phillip Starr has authored three books on martial arts with Blue Snake Books, with a fourth book, Hidden Hands: Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Martial Arts Forms on sale November 23, 2010 (pre-order here!). Starr shares his wisdom from over 50 years as a practitioner and teacher of martial arts in a monthly article on our blog, and writes books to help martial artists not only improve their skills on the mat, but strengthen their minds. For more information or to purchase Starr’s books, just click on their covers.

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“The Secret of Training”

by Phillip Starr

One day as the revered zen master, Dokuon, was idly smoking his long bamboo pipe, he was approached by Tesshu, a well-known samurai who had been studying zen for some time. “I have finally grasped the essence of kara,” Tessuhu exclaimed. “I am now empty.” And the swordsman went on to explain how the universe is empty, about there being no difference between subjective and objective, and so on.

Dokuon listened quietly for a short time and then suddenly smacked Tesshu on the forehead with his pipe. Tesshu was outraged and jumped to his feet. “That hurt, you stupid old fool!” he snarled. “I could cut you down for doing that!”

“My, my,” Dokuon said quietly. “This emptiness is certainly quick to show anger, isn’t it?”
Tesshu smiled sheepishly, hung his head, and crept away silently.
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Endless repetitions of reverse punches, side thrust kicks, front snap kicks, backfists….Trying to memorize those cursed forms, trying to understand what they mean, their spirit…perfecting footwork, stances, timing, breathing. SO much to remember and SO MUCH to practice! Sifu/Sensei says that it’ll come naturally someday but how far off is that??? Look here, pay attention to that, don’t think of this, focus your mind over here…where does it all end? All these techniques and movements…do they really work? What’s all of this about, anyway?

I’m sure these thoughts have run through your head many, many times and they’ll continue to do so for some time. It’s a natural part of the learning process.

And for all the repetitions of various techniques, the constant polishing of timing, the striving for perfection in footwork and forms, it all really boils down to training one thing.

Your mind.

The mind perceives what’s going on outside of itself through brain’s utilization of the five senses. It responds via the body, so your body must be trained to do exactly what the mind commands.

At the same time, the mind has to be sharpened and polished. It has to be trained to perceive instantly and clearly. This process will necessarily involve some pretty frightening concepts — like letting go of attachments that are or will interfere with its ability to see and react clearly and without hesitation. “That doesn’t sound too awfully difficult,” you say. “What could be so scary about letting go of certain attachments?”

Well, there’s the natural attachment to life; to your own safety and survival. If you engage one or more opponents in a life and death struggle, how can you focus 100% of your attention on them if you’re worried about your own survival? You’ll always keep a part of your focus on yourself; a part of your yi (intention, mind) and chi/ki remains withdrawn and cannot be extended towards the enemy (or whatever threat it is that you face). You are unable to fully commit yourself at the moment of truth. You may hesitate and suffer the fate that you fear.

You only maintain your attachment to survival if you maintain a fear of death. So, you must come to grips with death — understand and accept it, and then discard all of your concerns about it.

This is what training is ultimately about. You must free your mind as you train your body so that your mind can express itself freely and without the slightest hesitation. Then and only then are you truly free to move through life boldly and experience it without fear.

I can already hear some of you asking, “How do I do this? How do I train my mind in this way? Should I practice meditation, study books on the subject…what should I do?”

The answer is simple but it’s probably not what you want to hear. No, meditation won’t necessarily achieve it. Intellectual endeavors almost certainly won’t help you achieve it. I know of only one thing that will bring success…

Incessant training. Rigorous, spirited, unrelenting. It is without end. As Musashi Miyamoto, Japan’s “sword saint” told us, “The Way is in training.”

Other must-have martial arts books from Philip Starr:

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