In various ways, much of the literature about the connections between the cultivation of Mindfulness and the practice of the martial arts rely on more generic connections between Mindfulness and the practice of skilled actions more widely. To some extent, the cultivation of Mindfulness through martial arts emerges as a species of the practice of what we have called (and experienced as) Mindful Movement.
That is, Mindfulness in the martial arts, like Mindfulness in yoga or qi-gong (or simply while stretching, walking, or climbing a mountain), involves bringing our attention into the particular sensations of the present moment as our bodies work to perform specific actions. A punch, a kick, a lock, or a throw is just as legitimate as a site of attention, awareness, and discipline as a yoga pose or a deliberate step. Indeed, like some of these other bodily practices, the martial arts involve some of the same basic tensions with the idea of Mindfulness. We might entertain two of them very briefly: the first is a concern about aspiration and judgement – that is, when we’re performing specific techniques that are cultivated for specific purposes, we quite often find ourselves judging our performance in terms of those purposes.
So, rather than practicing a kick as an opportunity for Mindful action, we quite easily and naturally slip into judging the perfection and effectiveness of the kick as a kick, we berate ourselves for our lack of flexibility, strength, or precision, and then we resolve to practice harder in order to improve. This pattern of ‘discrepancybased thinking’ is exactly the kind of thinking that Mindfulness is supposed to help us to overcome. So it’s something to which we need to be alert when incorporating Mindfulness into skilled actions of various kinds, not only the martial arts. The second tension revolves around the idea of ‘auto-pilot.’
This contemplative discourse of the martial arts is often concerned with how repeated practice of the same techniques leads to a moment of sublimation of those techniques – that is, our training is a process of constant repetition designed to liberate us from having to pay attention to our actions at all. The goal is precisely to cultivate a form of auto-pilot, as a form of emancipation from our selves. When we have to think carefully about our movements and techniques (as we might in a Mindful Movement exercise) the chances are very low that such techniques will be effective; indeed, to some extent, mastering a martial art means no longer having to pay attention to what your body is doing because it does it all by itself. This interpretation of ‘auto-pilot’ resembles the kind of thinking that Mindfulness is supposed to help us to overcome.
So it’s something to which we need to be alert when incorporating Mindfulness into skilled actions of various kinds, not only the martial arts. Between them, these two concerns contribute to an explanation for why most practitioners who seek to combine Mindfulness and the martial arts tend to prefer the ‘internal’ or ‘soft’ martial arts like Taiji quan, or allied forms like qi-gong, rather than more explosive styles like Karate or Taekwondo. Indeed, in general, martial arts that emphasis the cultivation of ‘qi’ (or ki) seem to lend themselves especially well to Mindfulness, since it is believed that the flow of qi in our bodies follows the flow of our attention. Hence, an exercise like the body-scan, for instance, might also be a means to lead qi throughout our entire bodies.