After a decade of training in my Dojo I was granted the opportunity this past summer to travel to Okinawa and train with my head Okinawan Sensei for a few weeks. It was this experience of training in Okinawa that altered my perception of how I train karate on an incorporeal level. Although I was able to gain a greater technical expertise, I also further developed a specific state of mind that no amount of basic technical training can grant you. This state of mind is truly difficult to describe to someone who has not experienced it in full. I was thus able to appreciably identify with Robert Twigger's novel Angry White Pyjamas because of my ability to recall this state of consciousness.
In Twigger's Angry White Pyjamas, Twigger decides to enrol in a yearlong Aikido training course with the Tokyo Riot Police as a effort to realise and affirm his masculinity in contemporary times. Twigger's perspectives on masculinity and life are generously broadened through his experiences by training under the instructors and severe conditions at the Yoshinkan Training Hall.
At one point in the novel Robert Mustard, one of the central Aikido instructors tells Twigger, “People talk about ki – but what is ki? Training is not about ki, it's about giving everything, about being prepared to die. When you come into the dojo you have to cultivate that frame of mind.” (46) In the novel ki is described as the, “mysterious essence of the universe, life force, vital energy...[a] 'mastery of balance'” (311). What Mustard is trying to explain to Twigger in this passage is the importance of developing a state of Mushin through using this overarching “life force”. Loosely translated Mushin means “vacant heart” and it is a Japanese aesthetic of experiencing the somewhat ironic state of the presence of absence. Mushin is the art of relying fully on your intuition, which will influence your actions without the clouding presence of rationalization. To give a further example of the Mushin aesthetic, our course blog by Dr. Stephen Ogden quoted from Albert M. Craig's The Heritage of Japanese Civilisation,
Where should a swordsman fix his mind?...if he centers it on the thought of not being killed by his opponent, his mind will be overtaken by this very thought; if he keeps his mind firmly on his own or on his opponent’s posture, likewise, it will be blocked by them. Thus the mind should not be fixed anywhere.
This state of becoming overly aware is only granted by focusing not on any outward distractions but the power and technique within. Twigger describes his experience of Mushin in great detail during a particularly gruelling training session,
All the cops and the foreign senshusei were groaning and grunting; there was blood on the mats and sweat pouring off everyone's face. Then it happened. Five minutes before the end something clicked inside me. For the first time I felt my mind concentrating more and more inwards, focusing on a tiny point with increasing accuracy, rather than diffusing, spreading and flailing. A new door had been forced open in my brain and I knew I could keep going and going. (99)I found that during my own intense training sessions in Okinawa I was able to achieve a greater state of Mushin than in my Canadian dojo. Granted, my training sessions were nowhere near the intensity that Twigger experienced, however compared to what I was accustomed to the sessions were so vigorous that I found all conscious thought simply slipping away. Coupling the sweltering heat and humidity (that my temperate body was wildly unaccustomed to) with training sessions several hours per day (instead of per week) allowed my mind the go blank from pure physical exhaustion.
One of the greatest differences between Japanese students and Canadian students I discovered during my trip to Japan was the appreciation of this silencing of the rational, calculating part of one's mind. Often I find during classes at my Canadian dojo there is a greater sense of discussion at times. When a new method or advice on how to refine our technique is brought to our attention our Sensei is open to students asking questions regarding such methods. Thus promoting a more cerebral analysis of the art at times. This is not to stay all we do in our dojo is stand around and discuss 'fist theory', our Western Senseis simply bring their own biases of how to teach into the dojo. The majority of our training relies heavily on pure physical exertion however, there is still the element of discussion present and acceptable in our classes. Under the Okinawan dojo the etiquette regarding discourse is somewhat restricted. It is more widely upheld that in order for you to fully understand a new or different method you must practice it exhaustively, and you must primarily watch and imitate your senior belts for guidance. I found my experience training in Japan similar to Twigger's experience training at the Yoshinkan dojo, although his encounter was to a much greater degree of severity. I still found, however, that I agree with Twigger on one thing in particular,
“The greatest difference from a Western lesson was the one-shot lesson, where you did one thing to excess. I think now that it was the one-shot lessons that really changed us. They used pain, and relief from pain, to etch the subject being taught deeply into the brain, so that you could never really forget it. Pain heightens the memory of a lesson, enabling you to relive it in detail. In the West a lesson is just information; in Japan it is an experience.” (92)
External sensations such as pain or fear of an opponent are prospects of martial arts and also life that exist for you to overcome and dominate. In order to do so by Japanese sensibilities you must silence the rational element of your mind and rely on Mushin. Although this sentiment is acknowledged in Western contexts, different teaching styles often leak into the practice and alter methods of instruction. I discovered that the only way to survive a class with the head Japanese Sensei is by understanding in full the beauty and power of silencing your own thoughts. That and drinking plenty of Pocari Sweat.