During World War II as a fighter pilot in the southwest Pacific theater in the Philippines, George Leonard flew 21 low-to-the-ground strafing missions in 28 days. Two of his 18 squadron mates were killed.
To survive and prevail under such conditions required full attention for many hours at a time as the missions lasted upward of five hours. “Still, there was something deeply satisfying in simply being so fully engaged,” George writes.
Being alert is at the heart of the Japanese martial arts term “zanshin.” We cultivate total awareness, being aware of our surroundings, and ready for the unexpected in any direction. As novelist Henry James wrote, we aim to become “a person upon whom nothing is lost.”
Zanshin prevents tunnel vision. It is the future, but also the now.
Later in his life, as an aikido instructor, George trained his students to develop “full mat awareness,” to be alert and aware in between techniques, which is to say all the time.
The quality of our zanshin impacts not only the quality of our aikido, but also the quality of our life. We experience life more fully when we increase our awareness and cultivate our presence.
“The absence of engagement, the hours spent in one form or another of channel-surfing, is actually the chief cause of our anxiety and mental exhaustion,” writes George. “It’s an ancient message that comes down to us from every great wisdom tradition: We are asleep. To know God, to live a good life, we must wake up.”
George tells us that zanshin is not only a condition of preparedness for martial artists. It’s an invitation to a better life.
“Just look into the eyes of and truly see a loved one or any young child, and juxtapose this seeing against the brevity of life and the eternity that stretches before and after it,” he writes. “Just take a walk and open your inner eyes to the aliveness of everything around you. Every moment of existence, if only we could see it true and clear, is incredibly vivid, even on a drowsy summer afternoon. [Zanshin] is a wake-up call to life for all of us.”
Reflection: How aware and alert am I?
Action: Cultivate a sense of presence today at all times.