In the FMA, you have to be mentally present during practice. The stick swinging in front of your face is a good reminder of that. If you’re not living in the moment, there will be consequences. A benefit of martial arts practice is the development of the meditative mindset during training. As Saulo Ribeiro says, “if you think, you’re late.” Unfortunately, life doesn’t always comply with our plans. Thoughts nag and needle us all the time. Mindfulness is a practice just as much as any martial art. So, here are six steps that I’ve used to increase my mindfulness. Again, this is a practice. There is no completion of mindfulness; it is an every day, every moment pursuit.
Show up to class. The entirety of you. Often, due to our increasingly busy lives, our bodies show up to train while our mind is still at work or worrying about the budget or anywhere but focused. So, showing up means mentally as well as physically. During stressful times in your life, this will be difficult, but you owe it to yourself to be wholly present during training. At the minimum, your partner’s safety – if not your own – should be cause enough to focus. To do this, I set aside my training time as training time only. I make that time sacred in my schedule that is only interrupted due to emergency. Even if injured, I try to keep that time sacred. Let those in your life know that the hours scheduled for training are for training. Building a routine training time helps the mind differentiate between class and the outside world.
When your instructor covers a technique again for the one millionth time, it is soooooooooooo easy to let your mind wander. But we should be as focused then as we were for our first lesson. Because we need to understand the gross motor skills as a beginner, the fine motor skills as an intermediate student, and how to teach as an advanced student. The technique may not change as we advance, but our understanding of it does. Being present allows us to pick up subtle nuances as our skill increases. Things we didn’t know to pay attention to during our first lesson become clear the more we watch. To achieve mindfulness when seeing a technique again and again and again, I focus on different pieces of the technique. How was it set up? What are his feet doing? How is her right hand positioned? What is generating the power? This is equated to zooming in on a picture. Instead of trying to grasp everything, I try to isolate details to improve my execution of the technique. Perfection, while unattainable, is still our goal.
Create a Ritual at the Start of Training
When I first joined the full time, adult working world, I had difficulty shutting off the job. I’d be home, cooking dinner, thinking about a problem back at the office. Before I knew it, the night had gone by, and it was time for sleep and then work again. What I didn’t have was a clear boundary between work and home. Work bled into home which, in turn, began to show up at work. To combat this, I began two rituals. The first one, if I wasn’t carpooling, was to sing on the way home. Whether to the radio or a CD, I would sing – very, very badly and very, very loudly – in my car. Trying to sing along with the radio forced my mind to be present in the car, not at my desk at work. But this ritual was just a bandage; it did not treat the root cause. The second ritual was much more effective because it treated the problem instead of bandaging it. I joined a gym and the local library. Three days a week between work and home, I went to the gym. The other two, I went to library to browse or read. Basically, I set a boundary between work and home. These options may not be effective for you, which mean you need to experiment to find out how you set boundaries.
How can you apply this to training? Make, for yourself, a ritual at the start of training. Think about the movie theater or a concert, what happens when the house lights turn down? The crowd knows without consciously thinking that the show is going to start. By turning down the lights, the venue has set a boundary between everything else and the show. When the lights come back on, the world returns. We can do the same thing. Whether it’s a warm up or stretching or meditation, create something for yourself that you do at the start of every practice – group or solo. It doesn’t have to be a long ritual, but it does have to be consistent. During this ritual, think, “This is the beginning. It is now time for martial arts.” Or something in your own words. For the first few times, you’ll have to consciously associate that ritual with those thoughts. Then, as you continue to do it, those thoughts will become a part of the ritual. Each time you start the ritual, your mind will shift into gear.
Leave the Outside World, Outside of Training
Now that you’ve set a boundary for yourself, don’t cross back over. Stay within the training room. Any worry or concern that you bring to the class will still be there after you’re done. So you might as well enjoy the break from it, and the reduction in stress from the physical activity will help you approach the problem from a different vantage point. But, if you’re like me, your mind will wander. Don’t try to stop those thoughts; observe them; acknowledge them; try to consciously bring your mind back to the task at hand. I struggle with this. My mind is basically a hobo that wanders the tracks as often as possible; so, I work most at bringing my mind back to practice. The training space is a respite from the rest of the world; I don’t want to bring anything with me into that space.
Pay Attention to Your Body
When I started this, I wrote pay attention to your breathing. But really paying attention to the body is better. Be mindful of your entire body from start to finish. Before class, it’s good to do a review. Are you injured? Tired? Tense? During practice, pay attention to how you feel through the movement. What can you improve? If you have the gross motor skills, how are your fine motor skills? Are you staying relaxed? Is your cardio holding up? After practice, review for injury, soreness, and relaxation. Often at the end of a hard class, I’m as easy going as the Dude from The Big Lebowski. As a physical exercise, the martial arts is expressed through our body. We must pay attention to the feedback that it gives us.
Limit Conversation to Appropriate Times
Talking to your fellow martial artists is important. That’s how teams are built if done correctly. Conversation before and after class is encouraged. It’s healthy for a school when members make these connections, but there is a time for conversation and a time to listen. Do not talk during instruction. Questions are encouraged, of course, but during instruction/demonstration, let the instructor speak. While you may know and understand what is happening, not everyone in the room does. Talking distracts from the part of the class that students pay for. After instruction where you split off to work, follow the etiquette of your school if conversation during drilling is acceptable. In our club, talking is encouraged during the practice portion. Communication between partners can build a relationship if the work is getting done. If you stop training to chat about anything other than training, you’re missing out on an opportunity to improve, and you’re interfering with someone else’s improvement.
Instruction is often done in the form of a lecture and a demonstration. You, the student, are a passive participant in that process. Information is being delivered to you. By asking questions, you become an active part of learning. Everyone, including your instructor, has a different learning style than you do. We are unique in how we learn, and during a class, the instructor cannot tailor instruction to every learning style present. Instruction is often delivered in as broad a manner as possible to take advantage of multiple learning styles, but this means that it may not be perfect for you. Asking questions fills in the holes that the instructor doesn’t know exist for you. By paying attention, you know how to make your learning active in the best manner for you.
As an instructor, I want you to ask questions. Because you learn differently than I do, asking a question forces me to think and to look through a different perspective. You asking questions helps me learn. It may be a technique that I’ve done a thousand times, but I’ve never looked at it through your learning style. By asking a question, you’re helping me along the path of my own journey.
Mindfulness means being fully present for whatever task you are doing. Whether in martial arts or doing the dishes, the practice of mindfulness is possible. I use these 6 steps to help me. Do I always succeed with them? No, not always. But these techniques help me more often than if I don’t use them. Mindfulness is a difficult, elusive state that has whole self-help shelves in the library dedicated to it. So, failure will happen, and that’s fine. Expect it; observe it; let it go; and try again.
Let me know in the comments below your tips for mindful practice.