The Purpose of Meditation in the Martial Arts

We start and end each of our Jiu-jitsu classes with a brief period of meditation (or mokuso as it is called in Japanese). The purpose meditation at the beginning of the class is to clear the mind of the day’s accumulated activities and stresses and to prepare it for focused training. The purpose of meditation at the end of the class is to reflect on you have learned that day and clear the mind anew.
Most students come straight to the dojo after a busy day at work or school, rushing to get ready, driving through peak hour traffic, often arriving with a lot of pent up tension. The meditation period, however brief, gives everyone time to clear their heads of the excess baggage, clear our minds of busyness and worries, to give ourselves a clean slate. A relaxed body and mind is more open to learning and enables students to focus on techniques with less distractions. Maintaining a relaxed state of mind also helps students react faster and be more efficient with their energy.

History of Meditation

Meditation has been practiced for over 2500 years. It originated in India then spread throughout Asian then to the West. In Japan, the Samurai meditated before battle. Zen Buddhism spread among the Samurai in the 13th century, helping to shape their standards of conduct. Meditation prepared the warriors to face their fears, such as death and killing, and became a way of life for the Samurai. The “Yin” of the meditation provides balance for the “yang” of the martial arts. As western cultures began to adopt the practice of martial arts, they often dropped the practice of meditation in favour of the more physical aspects of the arts. Eastern cultures have long understood that the body and the mind reflect each other; you cannot train one without the other. As the mind calms, the body relaxes and vice versa.

Meditation is well-documented as being beneficial in a wide variety of ways that help us beyond our martial training. Mental focus is reinforced through meditation. As mental focus improves of course our capacity to learn our martial arts increases, but this can also apply to school or work. It can also help reduce stress levels and improve sleep patterns.

How to Do Meditation

The way we do meditation in our classes is in the traditional Seiza position (kneeling). The hands rest lightly on the thighs, theoretically enabling the hands to remain free to respond quickly for defense. This position was practiced by the Samurai warriors who mediated for long periods of time and had to be on guard in case of attack at any given moment. There are a variety of other sitting positions that can be used, but this is the one we use in our Jiu-jitsu classes.

Good posture is essential in the practice of meditation, no matter what position you do it in. Correct positioning of the body centres on the spine, which should be straight and vertical. The head should be upright, not tilted forward. This allows energy to flow freely throughout the body. It is easier to meditate with the eyes closed to prevent visual distractions, but you can also meditate with the eyes open keeping a loose focus. The mind should initially focus on breathing. to prevent it from wandering and degenerating into idle daydreaming. Breathe in through the nose slowly, drawing your breath from your lower abdomen. Breathe out through the mouth releasing built up tension with each breath out. Breathing should be natural, not controlled. It is pretty normal to experience itches and other body sensations, if this occurs relax and simply observe. Try to concentrate on the sensation of breathing to the exclusion of everything else.

Developing Mushin

Regular meditation help you develop mushin, a Zen term that translates as “absence of heart, mind or feeling.” The idea is that it leads to a state of awareness that is void of distracting thoughts and emotions, producing a state of mental clarity and heightened awareness. Takuan Soho, an ancient Japanese Zen Buddhist monk said “Do not think of defense or your mind shall be trapped even for an instant on defending yourself. Do not think of attack or your mind shall be trapped upon this or that technique. Technique is to be forgotten so that the swordsman may move naturally and instinctively. Only when the spirit, mind, body and sword become as one and free of all that you have learned can one become a Kenshi, (master swordsman)”.

The goal in mushin is to have a mind that isn’t bound by fear or self-consciousness, a mind free of distractions and inhibitions. The mind is open, focused and spontaneous. Of course, the short meditation sessions at the beginning and end of each martial arts class aren’t really enough to work toward this kind of development. If this is something that interests you, you should strive to meditate at least 20 minutes a day or longer.

I realize that not everyone is necessarily interested in this kind of thing though, finding it a little on the esoteric side, but it is traditionally an important component of the martial arts. As such, I feel it’s important to at least highlight its merits and give students the opportunity to explore the concepts behind it.

Now to you. Do you meditate? If so, have you found it beneficial for your training and/or life?
Comments (5)

5 thoughts on “The Purpose of Meditation in the Martial Arts

  1. I used to practice Zen quite regularly: once a week with a group for about 1,5 hours (30 minutes zazen, 10 minutes kinhin and again 30 minutes zazen followed by tea and relaxation) and often by myself for at least 20 minutes at a time. This helped me greatly in leading a more balanced life while also augmenting my martial arts training. In our old dojo we did zazen too but for only for about a minute and a half so way too short to have any real effect. It is my opinion that just a short period of meditation (anything under 20 minutes) is not really that effective since it takes time to focus and get in the proper state of mind. I'm not against the tradition of mokuso and for some it can mean a transition between everyday life and their training but for developping the attributes you talked about a mere few minutes is way too short, especially when you're not used to extended periods of meditation and hence need more time to settle in. If you want to reap the benefits of meditation you need to invest time and effort and that means practicing for extended periods of time, preferably every day but I admit I never reached that stage and due to a busy schedule I don't meditate at all these days.


  2. I am not a student of Japanese but it was my understanding that 'kenshi' simply means 'swordsman' or 'warrior' while 'kensai' meant 'sword saint'. Are you sure 'kenshi' is correctly translated as 'master swordsman'?

  3. Zara, I fully agree that you need to do regular meditation to really get the benefits, as I stated toward the end of my article.

    As for the use of the word Kenshi, it does literally translate to 'swordsman' but in the context that Takuan was using the word, 'true swordsman' or 'master swordsman' would be implied. Clearly anyone can train at the sword and become a 'swordsman,' but the way Takuan referred to the refinement of the technique implies that he is talking about being a 'swordsman' on a much higher plain. Context counts for a lot in Japanese. Not everything is taken literally, which is why it can be tricky to translate, especially things like Zen proverbs or poems.

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