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ZANSHIN: The "Remaining Mind" of Martial Arts


In the world of martial arts, achieving a state of Zen is more than just a physical exercise; it’s a state of mind. We previously discussed two Zen states of mind, Shoshin (Beginner’s Mind) and Mushin (Mind without Mind), and now it’s time to talk about the third one, Zanshin, or “remaining mind”.

Zanshin is all about embodying a relaxed awareness where the mind is alert and fully aware of its surroundings. It’s being fully present in the moment, in both your intentions and the environment around you.

In archery, for example, hitting the target is not just about having good aim. It’s about how you approach the process, managing your intent, standing correctly, breathing, and taking a measure of clear and calm focus. Hunters using bow and arrows are not panicking, flailing, and hoping they hit the target. Instead, they take a slow, calm, and intentional approach, being aware of all their actions, the distance, and any environmental conditions around them before loosing that arrow.

In the world of self-defense, Zanshin is about being calm and fully present in your actions, intentions, and awareness of what’s happening around you. It’s about having good traction on the floor, breathing fully, being aware of your tension, reading your opponent, looking for telegraphed moves, and being ready to act if you need to. You also need to be aware of your environment, the people around you, and whether you have an exit.

However, Zanshin is more than just knowing your surroundings. It’s always being cognizant of the little details too. Achieving Zanshin is not easy; it requires discipline and experience. It’s almost like developing an intuition, but when you do achieve it, the benefits can be incredible.

Moreover, Zanshin can also be used to prevent a situation. It’s almost like developing an intuition. You may not have achieved Zanshin, but there have been situations where you felt uncomfortable and left or met people who gave you strong vibes that something wasn’t quite right.

It’s important to preserve this state of mind even after the situation occurs. It could be to stay aware of more possible danger, but also being aware of your intent and emotions. In some Shotokan tournaments, points scored require Zanshin, a determined attack, and when landed, the concentration and focus have to remain on the opponent. If you celebrate too early, you may not get the point.

Kendo also refers to it as a state of awareness after striking. The spirit of Zanshin is the state of the remaining or lingering spirit. It is often described as a sustained and heightened state of awareness and mental follow-through. However, true Zanshin is a state of focus or concentration before, during, and after the execution of a technique, where a link or connection between uke and nage is preserved. Zanshin is the state of mind that allows us to stay spiritually connected, not only to a single attacker but to multiple attackers and even an entire context; a space, a time, an event.

Approaching a battle, the end of a battle is not when you win or fail, but when you give up or become complacent. As James Clear stated in his article, “The enemy of improvement is neither failure nor success. The enemy of improvement is boredom, fatigue, and lack of concentration. The enemy of improvement is a lack of commitment to the process because the process is everything.” It’s more than just “being in the zone.” This awareness has to be present before, during, and after a given situation or task, while remaining in a state of total calm alertness.

So, whether you're a martial artist, a business person, or just someone looking to improve your overall well-being, developing Zanshin can be incredibly beneficial. By remaining fully present and aware of your surroundings, you can make better decisions, avoid potential dangers, and ultimately lead a more fulfilling life.

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