Tuesday, 9 June 2015

冷静と集中 (Rei-sei and Shu-chu)

冷静と集中 Rei-sei and Shu-chu. These are words you will begin to hear more and more often, the longer you are around Japanese practitioners of karate-do and Japanese athletes in general. You may hear them during everyday training sessions and most definitely, you will hear them during competitions, often being yelled by the coach and other athletes as advice during the match. In this post I would like to discuss the meaning and importance of these terms in our karate-do training. Personally, I feel that these terms are not limited to competition, although they are necessary for achieving high level performance. Achieving a state of rei-sei can therefore, be very beneficial to our training and in our daily lives. Furthermore, I believe these terms are closely related to and can help us to better understand such terms as 残心 Zanshin and 無心 Mushin and the metaphorical use of the term 崩す Kuzusu; to breakdown or destroy in the context of mental attitude.
Let's start with the more commonly used term, 集中 Shu-chu. As I said in the introduction, you will often hear this being shouted at athletic meets in Japan no matter the level of competition or the age of the competitors. This term means to concentrate or, as in the case of training and competition, paying attention to the details. When we train, we must train with purpose 目的 Moku-teki; we must have goals 目標 Moku-hyo, that set the course of our training to take us in the direction we want to go. I am sure that you are all already aware of this and set appropriate goals for yourself and your students. The problem with achieving the goals set often lies with motivation levels. How do we stay motivated to train everyday and strive for something which doesn't seem to get any closer no matter how hard we work? How do we rise above the confusion especially in the heat of battle? The answer may lay in the term Shu-chu or rather our level of shu-chu ryoku. By adding the kanji for power 力 Chikara, Riki or Ryoku we can see that our successes in training and in life are often a direct result of our ability to notice and take care of the finer points, the small stuff, the details. So how can we build up our shu-chu ryoku? There are some techniques that have been practiced in Japan for generations one of which involves a candle and time.
The challenge is to sit and gaze into the light of the candle without moving until the candle burns out. It is said that the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi often practiced this form of concentration building exercise. This exercise is not very dramatic and may seem easy to do, but I know what you are thinking, in today's fast paced world who has the time to sit and watch a candle burn? However, when we think about the time spent in front of the T.V. or the computer it would seem that we could easily make the time. So I challenge all those who wish to strengthen their concentration to light a candle and watch it burn until it goes out. You can start small and work your way up like weight training. Start with a birthday candle and then move up to a slightly bigger one and then a bigger one and your concentration is sure to increase, or so they say.
Like with 座禅 Za-zen, Seated Meditation, in the beginning our mind is running wild, unable to settle and relax. This is the same in the candle exercise, but the longer we practice the more control we can attain. Soon you should be able to settle your mind more quickly and eventually achieve a state of relaxation and mental clarity. Finally, it is said that you will be able to increase your levels of concentration while staying relaxed but focused even without the candle. But, in the words of Levar Burton, "you don't have to take my word for it." Give it a try and see for yourself.
The next level of this state of relaxed, alert concentration may be referred to as a state of Rei-sei. This is the ability to keep one's cool; Cool Judgement or a Calm Attitude. In the case of competition, this is one of the most important things needed to win. Athletes in this state can pull out the win no matter what the circumstances may be. They come from behind and find a way. They make the key play in the clinch and don't lose composure over the course of the match. Some may call this state "being in the Zone" or in a state of "flow." I have seen many times, athletes crack under pressure. In fact, I have been the athlete that cracked under pressure. I have also seen some athletes who never loose their cool and maintain this state of rei-sei throughout the competition. Using the analogy of the flame again, this time think of the temperature of the flame. What is the colour of a flame burning hot?

Is it red or yellow like the photo above? Take a look at the candle again. The hottest part of that flame is the part closest to the wick. What colour is it? Of course, the answer is blue, like the Bunsen burner flame types pictured below. The hottest of these flames is number 4 and it is a cool blue colour.

This is the image we must keep in our mind when we are training and especially when we are competing. We have to keep our cool even when everything seems to be falling apart around us. In order to do this we must build our mental toughness in our training sessions by paying attention to even the smallest of details because, as they say, that is where the devil is hiding. In our composure in daily life we can be passionate with our loosing our cool, intense without being crazy. Take another look at 形 Kata and you will see that the coolest kata practitioners are those who preform in this state of rei-sei.
In this state of rei-sei we will also become more decisive and aware of ourselves and others as Funakoshi Gichin Sensei stated, "those who follow  Karate-do will develop courage and fortitude... for the Karate-do student, the most shameful trait is indecisiveness" (p.6). I believe he was talking about being in this state of rei-sei in our training and in our daily life.
In the beginning we need to pay close attention to our thoughts, feelings, and actions, this is the 残心 Zanshin component of this state, but eventually we will be able to do this without even thinking about it as it becomes our nature, the 無心 Mushin component. I will go into more detail about zanshin and mushin in a later post. Until then, why don't you try the candle exercise and let me know how it goes. Please do it in a safe place under the appropriate conditions!


  1. I'm wondering if there is a context or alternate translation for the quote from Funakoshi Sensei "...Karate-do student, the most shameful trait is indecisiveness". Personally I can think of worse traits. Perhaps there is something in the word "indecisiveness" that has nuances lost in translation?

  2. You know Shaw Sensei, you are probably right. There is a famous saying taken from Kendo that Karate-ka often use which lists the traits of weakness, one of which is indecision. Perhaps I should write about that in my next post. Thank you for continuing to follow my blog.