Warriors living in Feudal Japan often studied Zen as a way to help develop the mindset required to master martial arts. Yagyu Munenori, a swordsman who studied Zen, wrote in his Book of Family Traditions on the Art of War:

Masters of the arts cannot be called adepts as long as they have not left behind attachments to their various skills. A mendicant asked an ancient saint, “What is the Way?” The saint said, “The normal mind is the Way” The principle of this story applies to all arts. This is the stage where sicknesses of the mind are all gone, when you have become normal in mind and have no sicknesses even while in the midst of sicknesses.

What Yagyu means by sickness is a fixation of attention. If your mind is fixated on something, it cannot perform in a spontaneous way. Fixation of the mind slows your responsiveness and impedes your efforts. If your Jiu-Jitsu is not spontaneous and you have to think about what you are doing you will always be just a little slow to react. Being slow to react creates opportunities for your opponent.

Yagyu goes on to say that when you engage in an activity and concentrate on doing it well, you will have inconsistent results. You may perform well once and then perform poorly. Or you might do it well twice and then while thinking about doing it well you’ll do it poorly. He attributes this to the intense focus on doing it well.

So what is the answer? Yagyu says that once enough effective practice has built up, you start to perform spontaneously and without conscious thought. He says:

At this time you don’t even know yourself; when your body, feet, and hands act without you doing anything in your mind, you make no misses, ten times out of ten. Even then, if it gets on your mind at all, you’ll miss. When you are not consciously mindful, you’ll succeed every time. However, not being consciously mindful does not mean total mindlessness; it just means a normal mind.

Yagyu’s Zen teacher, Takuan, explained that a beginner learning martial arts knows nothing about technique or position so that when someone attacks them, they just react. Then, as a student learns more about various things they start to focus on those things and they get all tangled up when fighting. But if they practice day after day and month after month, eventually these things begin to happen automatically without any conscious thought by the student.

The lesson to take from these ancient masters is the idea that you can’t rush progress. The only way to achieve mastery is to eliminate ‘sickness’ from your mind. And the only way to do that is by practicing so much that the movements of Jiu-Jitsu become spontaneous and automatic. Then you can relax and just let the Jiu-Jitsu happen.

 - Bill Thomas