Who knew standing still could be so difficult?

Kevin Weinfurt reflects on To-Shin Do martial art, and how sometimes the most challenging part of practice can be the beginnings.

Kevin Weinfurt
25 October 2010

Kevin Weinfurt reflects on To-Shin Do martial art, and how sometimes the most challenging part of practice can be the beginnings.

After five years of training, I was recently awarded my black belt in To-Shin Do, a modern adaptation of Japan’s oldest martial art. This was no small feat: trainees spend hundreds of hours honing our timing, balance, and positioning to overcome large, dangerous attackers.

So it’s somewhat embarrassing that what remains as the most challenging skill for me is one that we were taught on our first day of white-belt training. It is called shizen no kamae, or “natural posture.” Most people know it by the more common term, “standing still.”

As a white belt, my main thought about shizen no kamae was, “Let’s get on with it.” Every other posture we were about to learn looked much cooler. Enough standing around! Bring on the enemy!

But I was forgetting the harsh reality of the discipline. To-Shin Do is a modern adaptation of a martial art that developed over hundreds of years in the Iga province of Japan. Mountain warriors and mystics recorded scrolls of hard-won knowledge about the keys to survival and the lessons of victors. One of those lessons was how to stand.

The appearance of shizen no kamae in the scrolls was not due to an excess of free time. Shizen no kamae could have only been deemed critical for living a long, healthy life.

Shizen No Kamae: The Body

Over the years, I have trained my body to habitually embody a better shizen no kamae. Here’s how:

Feet are shoulder-width apart. Shoulders are not hunched forward, but rolled back to rest their weight evenly on the spinal column. The spine is straight and relaxed. The tailbone is tucked under. An image I find particularly helpful is from Will Johnson’s Aligned, Relaxed, Resilient: The Physical Foundations of Mindfulness (Shambhala, 2000) where you imagine your head is a helium balloon floating up, softly pulling its string (your spine) into a straight line. As we stand alert, square, relaxed, we breath deeply in and out, feeling the in-breath help to straighten and elongate the spine, and feeling the out-breath help to settle the weight of the body comfortably onto its frame. This breathing helps to engender a feeling of solidity and peace, like the earth itself.

Shizen No Kamae: The Mind

One day, I was leaving our dojo after a satisfying training session. I was so happy to have the opportunity to train and felt grateful to be the recipient of centuries-old knowledge concerning the body and mind. As I walked along the sidewalk to my car, I could see my reflection in the shop windows adjacent to the dojo, and admired how well aligned my body was. I thought how much my walk projected solidity and serenity. I was aware of the in- and out-breaths… the texture of the pavement through my shoes…. and then, I was aware that I had walked in the opposite direction from where I had parked my car. I displayed outstanding spinal alignment, yes, but I was in the wrong parking lot.

This highlights another important aspect of shizen no kamae—occupying the present moment. Writings on mindfulness are full of admonitions against being caught in the past or projecting oneself into the future. In my case, I am often caught by a different type of distraction from the present that is especially devious, as it can masquerade as the present. That is, my awareness of here and now turns into an abstraction of here and now, and then mental reflections on this abstraction follow. I may begin by standing with awareness, but this changes, insidiously, to an awareness of the idea of me standing, followed by all manner of mental formations associated with standing.

One of my teachers was kind enough to highlight this tendency of mine by hitting me in the face.

We were doing a drill in which I was blocking and dodging punches thrown the way a skilled boxer might. At one point, my teacher held his rear fist up and made circles in the air with it. It was a move you might have seen in a slapstick movie: the first person uses his rear fist to distract the second person, and then pops the poor idiot in the face with his own lead hand.

But this was serious martial arts training, not a Three Stooges routine. So when my teacher began circling the air with his rear fist, I couldn’t believe it: “What kind of moron does he think I am?” Then his lead fist slammed into my jaw.

I was shocked! How did he get a successful hit off me? He explained that he could see I had stepped out of the present moment, not only abstracting it but reacting to that abstraction. I was humbled and grateful for this lesson.

I was even more humbled when he succeeded in repeating the blow a few minutes later, illustrating that intellectual insight is not the same as embodying the practice.

Where Do I Stand?

Shizen no kamae is the only posture in To-Shin Do that does not automatically assume the onset of an attacker. It can be quite unsettling; it is so much easier when we have an identified bad guy—a threat “out there” that we can see coming. Don’t let me wallow in uncertainty. Show me someone who clearly wants to do me in, and I’ll take him down!

But my life, thankfully, is not full of situations in which people want to do me in. It is full of millions of other kinds of scenes: waiting for the elevator to arrive; watching my child walk into school on his first day of second grade; standing in the checkout lane behind a person who is taking longer than I would like; reading a eulogy at my grandmother’s funeral.

Moments such as these contain the potential for danger of a far more subtle sort than a guy charging me with a knife. The warrior sages of Iga, who lived in small family-based communities nestled in the mountains, probably spent most of their lives in very similar types of scenes. What I know from our martial arts lineage is that in these and other situations, the ones who survived and prospered had learned how to stand, grounded in the present moment.

As I begin to study more advanced martial arts techniques now, it’s obvious that I will need to keep practicing and refining shizen no kamae. So the next time you see me in line at the hardware store, seemingly just standing, be aware: you’ll actually be witnessing some very serious martial arts training.

Kevin Weinfurt

Kevin Weinfurt, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University Medical Center and holds a shodan (first degree black) belt in To Shin Do.