Martial Arts & Mental Health:
How they help us heal and grow
Most people have a basic knowledge of Martial Arts, usually derived from their portrayal in the cinema. Karate chops, flying kicks, funny noises, and wise old men. Maybe they have seen the violence of a UFC or MMA event or Judo/karate/boxing tournament on television. Many believe that Black belts are special people (which we’re not, we just don’t quit) and have special powers (which we don’t) like ninjas in the movies. Many laypeople see black Belts as Mr Miagyi types, the wise old man, or some sort of walking saint, never losing their calm, always in control. Which is the goal every day.
True practitioners of the art of karate (and it is an art), recognise that, similarly to Yoga or Meditation, Karate is something that improves the quality of your life, and should be trained for the duration of your life. It is this aspect of the art which I wish to talk about and explain how the proper teaching of karate or any martial art can be an effective tool in counselling and/or personal development.
With the number of knives and guns in society today, defending oneself by hand is becoming less and less practical as a means of survival, and very few people, want, or need to engage in fighting daily. Violence is an ugly thing, and unless you have a psychotic personality, you will not walk out of a violent altercation without suffering some psychological or emotional damage. Avoidance is the best policy. So why then, spend years training and learning to fight, especially if you plan to go years hopefully without every using it. Stress management, mind control, self-confidence, self-discipline, mind-fullness, and relaxation are all other reasons for practising as well as the above mentioned, self-defence, fitness and as a sport.
The Japanese usually refer to people having 3 masks or faces. The first mask (public) is the one we show the world. The second mask (private) is the one we show to the people closest to us. And the third mask is who we are inside. This is our authentic self. Our true self. The one with all our strengthens and weaknesses, all our good points and bad, all our desires, loves and hates. When your authentic self, behaves in-line with your public and private masks then you will be at peace, you will be happy, and life should feel easy. However, if your authentic self is at odds with the mask you show, then life may feel like you are swimming upstream not with the flow. Sometimes a person may not be aware that there is a disjoint between who they are and who they pretend to be. As Karl Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Most people live their lives in an almost automatic mode, never looking internally and seeing what drives their behaviour, both good and bad. Sometimes, even without any major trauma, people become aware of a feeling, maybe of not being happy, a feeling life is not going their way, or just an empty feeling inside. This feeling, whatever its cause, can lead someone to counselling, or if they are lucky like I was, into the martial arts with a great instructor or Sensei.
In life we are born pure and unsoiled. As we grow and experience life, these experiences shape us, both the positive and negative experiences. They shape the person we become. Two individuals could grow up in the same house and experience the same events but process them in two completely different ways. That is what makes each of us unique. That is what makes YOU unique. Nobody in this entire universe can see the world the way YOU see the world. Nobody thinks the way YOU do. Nobody can affect the world the way YOU can. This may be on a global scale or maybe on a much more personal scale, maybe you will not be a world leader or billionaire but instead it means being the best parent you can be, or the best friend, or the best at whatever hobby you have chosen. Or simple the best version of you on this planet. And when I say the best version of You, I mean the happiest.
In his book Karate-do by Tatsuo Suzuki (1967), he states the true meaning of “Karate is basically a training to bring a person back to the natural state of mind he was born with, dispelling delusions”. Delusions such as doubt, fear, attachment, and anger,
“An example of this would be a baby does not have a complex of fear. A person who narrowly escapes being run over by a car will remain motionless, his limbs frozen by fear. But a baby would continue to move innocently because he has no fear complex.”
One emphasis of karate therefore is to develop and maintain a healthy mind. “That inborn, pure mind unsoiled by evil thought and impressions through the experiences of life.” Life can wear you down. Proper traditional Karate training teaches a student life-skills and a code of conduct which benefits their life outside the dojo (Training Hall).
Delusions such as doubt, fear, attachment, and anger. can control our lives either consciously or unconsciously. Every decision we make in life either moves us towards or away from pain or pleasure. Accept that. Every decision. The conscious or the unconscious ones. As human beings we gravitate towards pleasurable experiences and doing everything in our power to avoid pain. Every choice you have made has been made to satisfy that goal. Every choice you are still making is doing the same thing. Martial arts training allows us to become more aware of our decision-making process and control it better, just like counselling.
In a traditional Karate class, your every movement is controlled from start to finish. You are told how/when to stand, sit and move. Because everyone is doing the exact same thing simultaneously it allows students to be less self-conscious about their bodies. A student with low self-confidence can train to act confidently for the duration of the class, while a student with a large ego can train humbly, meaning each student is training their mind for their own purposes. No matter where a person is on the spectrum and we are all somewhere on the spectrum between low self-confidence and too much confidence, training correctly allows us to train to improve ourselves. Too shy we can practice being confident, too cocky we can practice being humble.
When Michelangelo revealed his famous statue “David”, people told him he had created a masterpiece. Michelangelo said that the statue was always there, and all he (Michelangelo) did was chip away the pieces of rock to reveal the beautiful masterpiece within the stone. His genius was seeing the statue within the stone. This is the effect the techniques and training practices within Karate have on Your soul. In Karate we strive to strip away the attachments, the negative, the opinions, to reveal the beauty of the person inside. In Karate we train the same techniques thousands of times, up and down the floor, over and over and this training coupled with the correct mindset has the same effect of chipping away at out imperfections. Patience, self-discipline, mental focus, calmness, determination, concentration all these things can be trained while practising these moves. You may enjoy your martial arts training, but enjoyment should never be the sole motivation. Repeated practise can be boring by its essential repetitive nature. The very act of repeating the same thing over and over allows students to train internal aspects such as perseverance, discipline etc. It also develops these techniques into lethal techniques.
Martial Arts has a profound effect on the psychology of students. In his book “Theory and practice of Counselling and Psychotherapy” (Corey 1996), Corey states that the two goals of Freudian psychotherapy
“Are to make the unconscious conscious and to strength the ego so that behaviour is based more on reality and less on instinctual cravings. Successful analysis is believed to result in significant modifications of the individual’s personality and character structure.”
What psychoanalysis tries to achieve through conscious reconstruction, discussion, interpretation and analysis, Martial Arts achieves in an unconscious process using physical and mental training drills, in order to (Corey 1996) “develop the level of understanding that is assumed to be necessary for a change in character”. Basically, true Martial Arts works as a kind of psychoanalysis without the talking.
Understanding this concept is the road to achieving a black belt or beyond. Shoshaku Jushaku means one continuous practice, mistake upon mistake. On the mats, as in life, people make mistakes. How you deal with the mistakes of life determines how successful you on or off the mats. And how successful your mental health is.
Shoshaku Jushaku implies recognising when you make a mistake, learning from it, and continuing to make new mistakes. This is how winning is done and leads to a successful life. Most people either refuse to acknowledge their mistakes or are too critical of themselves when they make mistake. Shoshaku jushaku means to recognise your mistake, acknowledge it, learn from it, and try not to repeat it, however this mind set allows compassion towards ourselves. We do not condemn ourselves but endeavour to be gentle on ourselves. Because we know improvements in life cannot be made without mistakes. In life there is no failure only feedback.
Mindfulness means we become present in the moment, aware of one’s actions and environment. Like many concepts in the martial arts this is extremely easy to say and much harder to put in practice. Becoming mindful we begin to see the world as it is, not as we expect it to be or what we fear it might become.
As students, we aim to be mindful, in our training, at-all-times, and to extend that mindfulness to all areas of our everyday lives. It starts with being mindful of your breath, and then your posture, being mindful of your techniques and eventually your mind. It takes continued practice to make this become second nature. Proper correct training leads to increased mindfulness, ideal for daily living and being aware of threats around us. Good mindfulness can be used to decrease the risks of ever having to use your martial art skills for self-defence. Being more mindful helps counteract the state that many people find themselves living in, being on a type of “automatic pilot.” Being mindful also means to be without judgement. Experiencing the moment for how it is. The reality not the way we want it to be.
Bowing can be a way of practising mindfulness. To bow is to bend. This requires flexibility, otherwise things might crack or break. When one bows as an act of the heart, this is humility. You are not bowing down before someone but before your own buddha nature, your own authentic self. We are all capable of wisdom, kindness, patience etc to some degree and in one way bowing points back to one’s own buddha nature.
On entering the Dojo (training hall) you should bow. This sets up a point of stopping, of recollection, “I am in this room, relating in this way, at this time.” You are taking a moment out of your life, a moment to space, a moment of mindfulness.
When bowing to others, this requires a sensitivity and presence of mind, “I am Junior/Senior, what is this situation now, what is the time.”
Now I want to introduce you to three new terms, Zanshin, Shoshin and Mushin.
Zanshin in English is often translated as Awareness. A better translation would be Remaining Mind or Lingering Mind. Zanshin is the accumulated information already processed by the brain, as well as the presence of your character and spirit within the current environment. It is not enough to be an observer in the world. A warrior must always be a part of their world. A warrior has a moral obligation to interact in the world. To make that world better.
Warriors with Zanshin have an innate sense of their surroundings and the ability to reach out into the environment to capture information that others might find insignificant or irrelevant. The ever-present need for more information is why Zanshin appears to be most present at the end of a technique or Kata. The mind remains present and hungry. It searches for more information and perceives any changes as it occurs.
Zanshin is to fit exactly within one’s environment, ever present and in harmony. Perceiving threats before or after an attack, snatching that seemingly irrelevant piece of information that gives insight into relationships both business and personal, being aware of your own body and emotions and how it responds to the stimuli from the environment around you. Zanshin is an experiential experience. It must be felt not thought, lived not taught.
Zanshin is free of fear, worry, emotion and prejudice. Words may describe the experience but never fully convey the true experience. I know how a pear tastes to me, but we may disagree over our description of its taste. The more we describe it, the further from the experience of tasting it we go. Once experienced it may be recognised in others. Training in martial arts especially those from a Japanese background, students begin to learn about Zanshin, and incorporate it into their lives. They become more aware or mindful of their body, their surroundings, and their relationships. This allows students to start living their lives in their immediate present. This has huge health and therapeutic benefits. Becoming more present means students learn to deal with the reality of the world that’s presented to them. Depression is often associated with thought processes that are focused on the past, while anxiety is often with thought processes that are fixated in the future. Having Zanshin means we train our brains to deal with the immediate world around us. I am reminded of the following story.
You drop something into a hole in the ground. Too deep for your arm to reach it. It remains just out of reach. You ask people passing by for help. Those that try all claim the hole is too deep. This story teaches us to come back to ourselves. Ask 100 people and the majority of people, will say the hole is too deep. Very few, if any, will acknowledge that their arm is too short. As human beings it is easier to blame outside forces for the failings in our life, rather than admit our own hand in it. (pun intended).
Zen/Karate teaches us to come back to ourselves, to expand from the centre and return to the centre. To acknowledge our short comings. We are the centre of our universe we must take responsibility on and off the mats for the life around us. We teach people how to treat us, our own subconscious beliefs determine our worth, our levels of determination and perseverance determine whether we settle or make our dreams come true. So, breath, return to centre, accept responsibility and if you’re not happy with some aspect of your life, CHANGE IT… Placing the blame outside ourselves, is a victim’s mentality, and as warriors we choose not to be victims.
If the goal of the martial arts, beyond fighting, is in self-improvement and seeking perfection of oneself. Then there is no better example of this concept in the martial arts then Shoshin, or beginner’s mind. No matter how advanced a practitioner you may become, there is always more too perfect or master within the martial arts. Perfection can never be achieved. Staying humble enough to always see yourself as a student. It is the attitude of Shoshin that allows much self-improvement. Remember the old zen saying,
“In the Beginner’s Mind There Are Many Possibilities, In the Experts There Are Few”.
The goal of training is always to keep beginner’s mind. An empty mind is a ready mind, it is always ready for anything and is open to everything. No matter how advanced you may become one should always aim to maintain a beginner’s mind.
It is easier for an expert to defeat someone with a few years training then a novice beginner. The beginner is untrained or unconditioned, to a particular style of movement that the expert expects within their style so is unpredictable. A good example of this is the follow story from Japan.
A judoka and a kendoka agreed to fight each other in their respective arts. The judoka lost in the judo fight and the kendoka lost in the kendo fight. The reason is because both forgot Shoshin. Both expected the other to play within the rules of the game they knew. The other not knowing the rules of engagement rushed in and either threw their opponent or hit him with the sword thus winning.
In feudal japan, in Tokyo, a sword fencing school where having their students killed and could not understand why even high-ranking students were being killed with a simple sword thrust to the chest. When the killer was found he explained that the school trained a technique repeatedly when the sword was drawn from the scabbard and raised above the head before delivering a downward cut. Because it was a basic technique it had been trained thousands of times. And students where conditioned to block the downward strike. The Killer simple switched his sword in his hands, raising the scabbard high in the air, forcing the students conditioning to kick in. The student blocked the downward scabbard strike, while the killer stabbed them in the heart from below. A complete lack of Shoshin. The students expected, a particular strike and responding accordingly.
Martial Arts focuses your mind, giving it something to concentrate on, to allow our thoughts to settle and stress to melt away. The purpose of training is to develop Zanshin (awareness) or mindfulness and later to develop Mushin (No Mind).
Mushin translates as No Mind. It is a mental state into which trained martial artists are said to enter during combat. They also practice this mental state during everyday activities. This is the focus of long-term martial arts practice, beyond the ability to protect oneself.
Mushin is achieved when a person’s mind is free from thoughts of anger, fear, or ego during combat or everyday life. There is an absence of discursive thought and judgment, so the person is totally free to act and react towards an opponent without hesitation and without disturbance from such thoughts. At this point, a person relies not on what they think should be the next move, but what is their trained natural reaction (or instinct) or what is felt intuitively. Years of correct training to make each technique natural and instinctive is required, as well as training of the mind. It is not a state of relaxed, near-sleep, however. The mind could be said to be working at a high speed, but with no intention, plan, or direction. Sensitivity and flow training combined with Zanshin practice in Kata helps train this mindset.
Mushin cannot be grasped by the intellect; it must be experienced. A Mushin mind has no Ego and no substance; it is pure Enlightenment and is the perfect realization of the self. Bringing you back to your most authentic self.
This state of mind takes years and years of practice to achieve. Mushin is achieved when a person’s mind is free from anger, fear, judgment, or the ego during combat or everyday life. It is something to practice every day. It is a living thing, sometimes strong, sometimes weak, sometimes it feels easy to achieve and at others like the impossible.
Mushin implies a state of mental clarity, awareness and enhanced perception known as pure mind, produced by the absence of conscious thought, ideas, judgments, emotion (fear and anxiety), pre-conception, or self-consciousness. It is a state of total awareness and reaction not impeded by higher mental function or emotion, a mind more open and reactive to subtle sensory input, intuition, and spontaneous action. It is a mind that is totally calm — a mind not influenced or caught up in events or others emotion, thus a mind more able to freely perceive and respond. The mind is not fixed on anything and is open to everything; a mind expanded through the whole body with total awareness of and focus on everything. This relates back to any technique in karate, as the body tries to reflect the spirit.
Mushin is not about automatic reactions or lack of thought. Mindfulness and Mushin may appear to be mutually contradictory. Mindfulness in the context of martial arts refers to being present in the moment, aware of one’s actions and environment. Mushin is the instinctive response within the environment that is correct at the time.
Hopefully by now you can see the benefit of the martial arts not just physically but also mentally. And I have demonstrated that like Yoga or Meditation, the martial arts are something that adds to your life, for your whole life. As an instructor, I feel, you have a duty of care towards your students. To train them properly, however you teach, physically, mentally, or spiritually. An instructor has the ability, to educate someone on how the live physically, changing their fitness, activity levels or diet. Martial arts instructors are not trained counsellors or psychologists, but they do have the ability to instigate huge mental changes in their students. To inspire them to be more than they were. To show them a path worthy of following for the remainder of their lives. We learnt that the aim of karate was dispelling delusions and attachments, such anger, fear, or doubt. And we know that training martial arts is good for anger management and stress relief. Resulting in a calmer, well balanced person with a clearer understanding of the reality of the world around them. We saw the mental benefits of the long-term study of martial arts. Improved presence in the moment through being mindful, the heightened awareness that comes from Zanshin, the ability to stay young at heart and see the world as a beginner that comes from good Shoshin, and how a mind of Mushin can lead to more instinctive living, always choosing the correct response in every situation. With the goal of being at one with yourself and your environment, always in the moment, living as your most authentic self in the best version of your live. Martial arts training can have a huge impact on a student’s life, while the increased ability to defends ones-self increases self-confidence and the improved self-esteem that comes from being fitter and winning in a sporting environment. Through the practice of martial art, we can become fitter and stronger physically. Healthier and happier mental. With more control over ourselves and our interactions. We learn to see the world clearer for what is, it rather than how we want it to be. But we also become more self-disciplined and goal orientated, and more successful in our lifestyle choices. We live more in the moment, being more aware and open to new opportunities and growth. We handle stress better. Are less controlled by our pasts and more adept at shaping our futures. We face and overcome our insecurities or weaknesses all the time building on our strengths. We become more dedicated, passionate, and humble with a never-give-up spirit. We learn a philosophy and code of conduct that shapes our daily lives and the relationships around us. We effect change in others by example or our interactions with them. Thus, improving the world around us. We become influencers and leaders and the type of person people look up to, admire and emulate. All this for 2-3 hours practice a week. And you thought the Martial Arts was simply kicking and punching and making funny noises. I hope we meet on the mats someday,
Sensei Gareth Fitzgerald is a 6th Degree Black Belt in Wado Ryu Karate-Do. He runs the full-time Elite Karate Academy in Dublin, Ireland. His book, “Martial Arts & Mental Health: How they help us heal and grow” expands on the issues covered in this chapter and is part of a three-book series “Life Lessons” is available on Amazon.