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Modern Zanshin: Continuing awareness saves lives

A trainee incorporates a scan and assess action into his handgun training.
A trainee incorporates a scan and assess action into his handgun training.
Donald Alley

Zanshin is the Japanese word for “remaining mind” or “lingering mind” (approximately), and is emphasized in many martial practices in one form or another. The importance of Zanshin is tremendous in personal protection practice and is still exercised in quality training. In traditional physical training, the Zanshin was used to allow the trainee to remain focused. For firearms and more modern training, it allows for retaining situational awareness during and after a situation.

In more ‘art’ styles of martial practice, such as Aikido, the person doing the technique remains in his final body pose while his training partner is thrown. The idea is much like when a golfer hits the ball, he continues through with the swing until the full swing rotation is complete. It helps ensure maximum energy is imparted on the throw, and continuing awareness towards the person being thrown.

In more personal protection intent training, the Zanshin means remaining focused on the attacker to help be sure he is neutralized. If the attacker is assumed to be neutralized and the protector drops his guard and starts to call 911 (or other post-altercation activities), the attacker has an opening to renew his attacks on an unaware protector. Zanshin, in this case, allows the mind to stay focused on the situation for just a bit longer.

In any reality based scenario training, the mental requirements of going through the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act) have some effects. The observation and orientation cause the mind to focus on a specific threat as their brain processes that specific information. This can often manifest as tunnel vision (loss of peripheral vision) and auditory exclusion (hearing general ‘noise’ rather than specific noise sources) as the brain forces these senses to provide it with survival intent information. The mind focuses on this data to the exclusion of peripheral data.

Zanshin, ultimately is about retaining full awareness, including situational awareness. Note that “retaining” is the operative word. Whether in a physical encounter, training scenario, or firearm related training/fighting, the retention of awareness for the entirety of the situation is ideal. Now that the ideal is established, it must be understood that without proper training, without proper programming, and without proper mindset, this ideal Zanshin will not be realized.

Zanshin builds in continuing awareness on the attacker as well as a situational awareness. During the attack, the protector must be aware of himself, his attacker, his attacker’s partners (multiple attackers), his own partners (multiple protectors), his own protective weapons, all of the attacker’s weapons, scenario parameters (such as dark, rain, ice, obstacles (cover and concealment), corners, innocent bystanders, spaces available to move into, etc). This type of training is rarely available in a dojo setting. Dojo are great for learning the fundamentals of each movement, but reality based training must include all the above factors to be effective. Ergo, training must move out of the dojo at some point.

In firearm training it is quite similar. In fact, there should be no training distinctions between physical and firearm training except the considerations necessary to make a safe training environment (proper training gear). Extra parameters are necessary in a firearms related training/scenario because in addition to all the awareness requirements above, the shooter must have an awareness of what is downrange of the target as well.

Firearm altercations can occur at greater ranges, an attacker at range takes up a smaller portion of our visual area and that smaller area gets focused on even further. The mind has a tendency to tunnel vision more acutely than a physical force ranged encounter because of this. At the end of a shooting sequence, shooting trainees are instructed to scan and assess. This is the act of looking around, 360 degrees as well as up and down, to ensure to further threats are apparent. This happens before the firearm is re-holstered. The act of scanning and assessing helps to ensure there are no more threats and it also forces the brain to start re-accepting information from the eyes and ears that were excluded during the threat.

In all cases, Zanshin provides buffer time between performing the training application and resetting to perform it again. Without this buffer time in place, the act of resetting the training application can become part of the training. There is a story floating around about a police officer that practiced disarming a firearm from an attacker so much that he got exceptionally proficient at it. He would have the firearm brandished at him, disarm it, hand it back to his training partner, and do it again and again. Eventually, he was faced with the encounter while on patrol, disarmed a real bad guy, and proceeded to hand the firearm back to the bad guy after the disarm. He had allowed the reset to become a part of the application.

In physical training involving escapes, it behooves the trainee to take a few steps into the escaping portion of the training to ensure the ‘running away’ portion will be put in place. Doing the escape application then simply turning back to the attacker to reset and do it again helps ensure this will be performed when really needed, and will bring unwanted trouble. Likewise, when an attacker is down on the ground after a training application, the protector staying mentally connected will ensure that Zanshin is retained and not mentally turn off (reset) after an actual violent altercation.

Zanshin is a multifaceted aspect of our training, and there are multiple considerations when practicing it. Remember to maintain full awareness of every training/altercation parameter that is in effect, the implications of those parameters, and during training to ensure that Zanshin is incorporated into the proper training mindset.