Kyoshi's Technique of the Week

May 6th, 2013

From Kyoshi Matt Kaplan

Shihan, Ueshiro Okinawan Karate Family Club, State College, PA

Paying Attention to One’s Environment

Much of what we train in karate has to do with how we detect and deal with threats in our environment. In this sense, the term “environment” should be defined broadly to mean not only the physical environment (which includes the natural as well as the built environment), but also the social environment (allies, enemies, and bystanders) and the imagined (potential changes that we can envision and for which we can prepare) environment.

As a reflection of the importance of “tuning into” or “fully seeing” our environment, here are some relevant passages from Hanshi’s Green Book (“Building Warrior Spirit”) in the section on Gan – Eyes:

“A warrior, while engaged in a conversation, perpetually scans the area. The eyes subtly shift, taking notice of the surroundings or the arena… The peripheral vision concept is the Gan precept, and the primary tool of any military, police officer, martial artist or warrior. It is a lifesaving mechanism without which the warrior would be useless to himself and others.” (p. 17)

“The ancient masters built in the Gan precept while composing the kata. The many turns to either side, to the rear, and at various angles forces us to develop the peripheral vision and sense of 360 degree awareness, a recognition of our “space” which is most important to the warrior.” (p. 19).

“Once developed, the Gan principle will carry over to many other aspects of life, such as crossing a street, driving a car, walking in the dark and self-defense. It raises one’s level of awareness in all situations whether they be mental or physical…. This remote sensing is fine tuned to a point of seeing behind your back, or even what is on the other side of a closed door. The well-trained Karateka should even be able to tune out innocuous or harmless sensings and tune in the serious or threatening signals.” (p. 26)

One way to heighten one’s awareness of the environment is to practice kata with eyes closed. As Hanshi notes,

“Practicing Kata blindfolded develops gan “seeing” by employing the inner senses, enabling one to feel, hear, tune into one’s surroundings, walls, inanimate objects, and opponents. This sharpens the other senses to compensate for loss of vision such as behind one’s back, in darkness, or by obstruction.” (p. 19).

Another strategy for helping us rethink and embrace the space around us is to practice kata beginning in different directions. There are also visualization exercises that could prove helpful in bringing the background environment to the foreground of our perceptual awareness. Simply put, this involves actively imagining potential dangers we might encounter. Examples include mentally practicing how one might react to a car careening out of control, a stranger stepping into our perceived safety zone, or even my favorite, a piano falling from the rooftop of a building that we are passing by.

We could also observe and learn from other people’s mistakes. Some examples: the traveler who fumbles for a map in unfamiliar urban terrain, thereby putting a mark of “victim” on his forehead; the person who walks with eyes gazing down at the ground, thereby increasing the odds of inadvertently walking into a dangerous space; and the person who is in a hurry and decides to take a short cut through a dark and secluded alley.

The more we “reach out” to better know and understand our environment, the better we can detect abnormalities in the environment, such as a sound that doesn’t fit or a person’s expression such as a frown or lack of emotion that doesn’t fit the circumstance.

Practicing awareness on the deck is a great way to improve our awareness in day to day life and be better prepared for the unexpected.

Domo arigato gozaimasu,

Kyoshi Matt Kaplan

Shihan, Ueshiro Okinawan Karate Family Club

State College, PA