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The lingering spirit: Zanshin, martial arts and everyday life


AP Photo/Javier Galeano

"After victory, tighten the cords of your helmet." - Tokugawa Ieyasu

After being thrown by the instructor to demonstrate a technique, a student at the Midwest Aikido Center in Chicago finds a jo, or short fighting staff, whistling towards her head.  The jo clears her head by a few inches as she decides, correctly, to stay down for a fraction of a second.

There is a collective gasp from the other practitioners, having witnessed a near-decapitation of one of their fellows.  

In another part of town, a cyclist, barreling down one of the city's numerous bike lanes, senses a minivan accelerating backwards out of a driveway, does a quick shoulder check and pulls smoothly out into traffic to avoid getting leveled. 

Both incidents are rather unusual, but graphic demonstrations of zanshin, or "lingering spirit".

Zanshin is a state of mind instilled in martial artists of every stripe.  In examining the various definitions of zanshin, one may look at it as maintaining constant awareness during that interstitial period between fully completing one action and preparing for the next.

On one hand, zanshin can be described as

finishing the brush stroke and the hand and brush moving smoothly off the paper.

On the other hand, zanshin calls for one

to be attentive and receptive to all activities surrounding you.

While zanshin is emphasized in Karate, Aikido, Kendo, Iaido, and other martial arts, the points of emphasis vary.  Practitioners too, have differing interpretations.  Some kendoka, for example, see it assuming the proper posture at the end of a strike so as to "sell" the point to the judges.  Aikidoka tend to focus on nage, or the thrower, rather than the one being thrown. 

The point that is often missed is that zanshin does not have an "off" switch.  It is not confined to the dojo or tournament floor.  It is a state of awareness that should linger in the course of daily life. 

In his book, The Sword and the Brush, Dave Lowry maintains that the bugeisha

exhibits it in the most chaotic moments of battle as well as in the periods of his life that are perfectly peaceful.

Danger comes at the most unexpected moments and from the most unexpected places.  Whether it is being alert for a follow-up attack after being thrown, or sensing an errant vehicle on the street, the spirit of the martial artist lingers at all times as zanshin.


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