Training for Warriors: Chasing Zen

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[First published in 2006. Part of the Training for Warriors series, by Martin Rooney*]


“The person who comes to control his body by hard training will have physical strength greater than others. If a person trains his mind in a similar manner, he will become spiritually superior to others. Accomplishing the above things, he will never be defeated”. Miyamoto Musashi

For those of you that have been reading my work for years, I am sure that you would agree that my articles are designed to take your training to another level. This month, I am going to do something a little different. For this article, I am going to begin with 2 poems that are actually a riddle. The solution to the riddle is going to let you in on the experience that has been chased by martial artists young and old. This experience I will describe may be hard to understand, but once you get a small taste, you will want to experience more. And even when you think you have solved the answer, a new level of the riddle emerges and has you on the chase again. If you can grasp the concept of the secret by the end of the article, a lifetime of training is almost guaranteed. I believe that if that is the case, then this was the best gift I could ever give to you. Now to the poems:

He gets his grip,
While in the zone,
I think about mine,
Next instant I’m thrown!

My head and arm,
In his legs entangled,
I think about escape,
But tap as I’m strangled!

When I began my martial arts training, I thought about finishes and fancy moves. I thought about being tough and perhaps about being able to beat someone up. Perhaps you too became either interested in martial arts for these reasons as well, or maybe it was either to learn self defense or develop a higher level of physical fitness. In any case, there was a reason why you started, and I am sure when you did, no matter who you are, you were at some time the person on the losing end of the poems above.

Maybe currently you are getting beat up each week during training. Maybe you are asking yourself why you are doing this to yourself or what it is all for. There was a time in my training when I was exactly in that place. Not everyone knows this, but after my first year of training at Renzo’s I quit. I had never really quit anything in my life, but I simply thought I was just taking a beating. Now I realize that I was missing all the lessons and the minor improvements needed to go to the next level and get closer to the secret. I also did not have a clear goal where I was going. Have you ever gotten in your car, started it up and not known where you were going? As crazy as that question sounds, that is what many of us are doing every time we step into a dojo or training hall.

The Chase Is On

These first two poems are more than something you may have experienced before in training. These are actually a riddle in which the answer is right in front of our face, but oftentimes, we cannot see it. Because we cannot see it, many of us never reach the high level we aspire for or even quit our training right when what we were after was right around the corner.
In both poems, there are obviously two athletes on two different levels. What separates the two is the secret. What separates the two is not a physical distinction like strength, speed, or endurance, it is the conscious and unconscious mind. That is the secret of what is known by some as the Zen state. This state has been described in many cultures and over many centuries. This state is called mushin or “no mind” by the Japanese, “In flow” or “in the zone” by the Westerners, or “meditation” in the Indian culture. I have even read texts from the early 1900’s referring to this state as “calmness”. Regardless of what you want to call this state, for those who have experienced it, it becomes an addiction. In this state the practitioner sees that it is not about the “finish” or the victory, it is about the level of consciousness that was experienced on the way to that outcome.

Now you might be saying, “Ok Martin, that is your big secret? Big deal! I have heard of Zen and all, maybe even experienced it once. What does that have to do with me sticking with training when I am getting beat on? What does that have to do with me when I am working through an injury or have just had another kind of setback?”

Zen In A Spiritual Sense

Well, here is my answer and I hope everyone can understand it. As this article is hopefully showing, many martial artists are limited in their expectations of what they are learning and what they should be experiencing. The goal is not to beat someone up or win a contest, it is ultimately a quest to find the deeper self through long, hard work. To experience this self realization is as close as perfection as I know. This Zen experience is a place of no worry, and supreme power. Zen is to be aware of nothing and everything at the same time. Reaction and Action become one. Here, the essence of being in zone is to be one step ahead of the opponent without thinking, while he is forced to think and adapt. That is when you not only get the submission, you are the submission. This state is also a personal escape from the mundane and often overwhelming “little things” of life that wear us down. This can also be described as a taste of temporary mastery. That taste alone should be enough to keep shooting for more.

The Science of Zen

Now if you are having a hard time grasping the spiritual explanation I gave for Zen above, perhaps a more scientific way of looking at this state is in order. When one learns a new skill, such as a submission like the armbar, there are 4 levels you must pass through involving both the mind and body. At first, you don’t know the armbar is important, and you don’t know how to execute it yet. This is the 1st level called Unconscious Incompetence. Once you begin to learn the move and practice it, you are now aware of it, but are still not good at it. This is the 2nd level called Conscious Incompetence. After leaving this stage, you continue to practice the move and now you have to think when to apply it, but you are now good at the move. This is the 3rd level called Conscious Competence. The goal of all training, however, is to reach the fourth level. This is when without even thinking, the armbar is executed perfectly in reaction to the situation given to you. This is the level of Unconscious Competence. This level can also be seen as the scientific explanation for the Zen State. So you can scientifically look at the zone or Zen state as perhaps a conditioned motor program that is executed without the mind having to be aware of it. It is pure reaction. Either way, whether it is science or spirit, the state does exist and there are classic signs of when it happens and only one true way to get there.

Signs of the State

“Without my telling it to, the right hand punches, and when it hits, there is a good feeling…Something just right has been done”.
INGEMAR JOHANSSON Former Heavyweight Champion of the World

The quote above by the famous boxer subtly describes many aspects the Zen state for an athlete. I am sure that many of you reading this have experienced this state and never even recognized it before. According to Johansson, this state was automatic and the movement was, therefore, effortless to produce. Along with this movement of punching, the fighter also experienced a brief sense of calmness and euphoria at the same time. This quote also allows us to understand that these experiences are fleeting and may not happen to us often. So, if you have experienced an automatic, effortless, brief state of euphoria during a movement or competitive event, then you have indeed experienced the state that I have described. Understanding this, now the next step is figuring out how to get there.

When you seek it, you cannot find it.- ZEN SAYING

Now that you understand the signs of the Zen state, you may make the mistake and try to actively “make” the state happen. I must caution everyone that you will never experience the state if you attempt to force the experience. When you release your grip on trying to attain this state is when it appears. There is even another amazing puzzle within the answer to this state: Since you enter this state without thinking about it, when the experience occurs and you recognize it, you instantly leave the state by thinking about what has occurred! My challenge to you is to begin to lengthen the time that you spend there.
Zen is like looking for the spectacles that are sitting on your nose.

Repetition is the Mother of Zen

Now you might be saying, “Ok Martin, you have me interested. Now, if you know so much, how do I get there?” The answer is a simple one that has been understood for centuries by the masters. The trouble is most people out there don’t want to hear this answer: The only path to Zen is through a lifetime of hard, disciplined, repetitious training. Most people in our current society really have no idea what this is about. Many want to train a few weeks or get a new belt and think they have accomplished something. When Master Taisen Deshimaru was asked how long one must train to reach this state, he responded “Until you die”. He stated that we practice the repetition to practice the repetition. Although you will build strength, technique and comradeship through this, they all pale in comparison to the power of the Zen experience. In my own training for the last 20 years, I am only starting to see that there is nothing more rewarding than the highest level of hard work.
“If you want to obtain the secrets of such wonderful techniques, drill yourself, harden yourself, undergo severe training, abandon body and mind; follow this course for years and you will naturally reach the profoundest levels”. Swordmaster Yamaoka Tesshu

One must also remember that as with anything you practice, ability can fade with disuse. The moral here is that constant training must exist to not only increase the chances of experiencing this state, but also to maintain that the state occurs. This is, after all, what I believe is missing when someone states that they are “rusty” from lack of practice. You must, therefore have the discipline to drill and stay sharp for the long haul.
“The door hinge that gets opened and closed every day never gets rusty”- Chinese Proverb

No Mind, No Fear

To experience fearlessness is the true gift of the training. I am not talking about fear of another man or opponent, I am talking about fear of everything. In the Zen state of calmness, fear cannot exist. Once you experience Zen, you can experience it in all things. The way you walk, the way you breathe. These are all skills that you will be able to experience the state. This then allows your martial arts training to permeate into everything you do as it should. This is a journey we should all be on. Martial arts are just your way of walking the path. To be on this path is to learn about oneself through hard training and experience. This way, you move beyond just beating your opponent, getting the next belt or winning a competition. To better know yourself is the ultimate goal.

Move with the universe,
Every movement under detection,
Acting worriless and calm,
Zen state is perfection.

The ultimate goal in training can be summed up by the poem above. This pursuit is worth staying on the path. I hope everyone enjoyed this article and that it has enlightened you about your training. Now it is time to drill and take your mind to the Zen state. That will be your first step toward true mastery. Now get to work!

Martin Rooney is the founder of the Training for Warriors system and has trained champion fighters for the UFC, Pride, ADCC and Olympics. His TFW fitness program is used in over 175 facilities in 25 countries around the world. Information about TFW certifications at

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