Zanshin – Ongoing Awareness and Connection

This is the twenty-sixth, and last, in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

Z is for Zanshin.

Zanshin [ZAHN-sheen] is a state of ongoing attention – complete presence. Fully engaged in the task at hand. Vigilant. Detached. Relaxed. Ready.

Literally, zanshin means remaining mind, or lingering spirit. An awareness that continues even after a thing is done.

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“Not being tense but ready.
Not thinking but not dreaming.
Not being set but flexible.
Liberation from the uneasy sense of confinement.
It is being wholly and quietly alive, aware and alert, ready for whatever may come.”

~ Bruce Lee 
Tao of Jeet Kune Do

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Zanshin encompasses many things, from being aware of our surroundings, to feeling another’s intentions. Zanshin could be knowing who’s nearby as we walk to our car, or maintaining our connection with our partner before, during, between, and after techniques, watching their position, body language, and expression.

It needn’t be martial, either. The term can equally apply to handling items or performing actions with care and respect – receiving a business card with both hands, folding clean towels in a way that they will be ready to hang when needed, or gently returning a fiddle and bow back to their velvety case after playing.

Zanshin is an state of mind that is physically demonstrated in the way we stand and move, in the direction of our gaze, and in how we relate to others. Zanshin is not an idea, it’s an embodied state.

What you might see if you’re watching people at the dojo, for instance, could include someone keeping their attention and alignment on their partner after completing a technique. Internally we are also feeling our own body, and noticing our state of mind. Are we open and calm, settled down into the ground beneath us? Or are our shoulders up around our ears, arms reaching aggressively forward? We try not to turn our backs on our partners, distract ourselves with a piece of loose thread on our uniform, or glance away at the clock. You might also see it in our handling of weapons. We set them down – we never casually drop or throw them. In sword work you can see zanshin in the way the blade is returned to the saya [SIGH-uh], or sheath, with great care. In practice of free technique, we kneel and bow to our partners at the end rather than casually walking away.

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“If you are in a state of intense presence you are free of thought, yet highly alert. If your conscious attention sinks below a certain level, thought rushes in, the mental noise returns, stillness is lost, you’re back in time.”
~ Eckhart Tolle

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One of my favorite expressions of this kind of uninterrupted connection is what you see when watching a good, well-trained working dog. Whether doing an agility course or herding sheep, the dog always has part of their attention on the handler, listening for the next command, watching body language, feeling intent. They are fully engaged in what they are doing, and totally ready to respond.

This focused awareness does not mean our attention is exclusive. We don’t shut out everything else around us, just the opposite. We keep our attention open and receptive, our minds still. While keeping our focus on our partners we also maintain a peripheral awareness of where others are as well, especially our teacher, and on what is happening around us in the dojo.

Being an instructor means zanshin on steroids. While working with one pair you need to also be able to notice the pair at the far end of the mat doing the technique in an unsafe way, and also hear the tiny bell signalling that a visitor has just walked in the front door. A teacher need to sense how the students and adjusting the teaching moment by moment.

If you have ever dealt with several small children at once you have no doubt experienced this. You know where they are at every instant. Why is this one suddenly quiet? What is that one putting in his mouth? Is there broken glass on the ground? And what are the intentions of those people walking toward you from the parking lot? You can be relaxed and having fun with them, but there’s always awareness. When you’re a kid it seems that your mother can tell what you’re going to do before you even think to do it. That kind of awareness.

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“Perceive that which cannot be seen with the eye.”
~ Miyamoto Musashi
A Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy 

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It can seem paranoid – like being perpetually on alert, never letting our guard down. Our partner is not likely to strike us as we bow after training, and those people in the park are probably just out for a walk. But we keep our senses alive. In the bigger picture zanshin means not taking anything for granted, always being conscious, ready to act if needed.

When an interaction is complete, there is still attention. Connection. When we take a weapon from our partner, we do not casually toss it back to them; we set it down just out of their reach, keeping our gaze on them, and back away. When we finish training with someone we acknowledge, thank them, and bow, completing the interaction. Zanshin means ending things in a full and organized way.

A personal note:

Thank you for coming along on this 26-post adventure with me. It has been great fun writing on these Aikido from A-to-Z topics. It seems appropriate that A – Aikido – Practicing Harmony – A Good Idea for Bad Times would be the first post in the series, and this post, Z – Zanshin – Ongoing Awareness and Connection, would be the last. How nice that the letters in the alphabet were conveniently arranged in my favor! I hope something you’ve read here will linger in your mind, and that you will hold a continuing consciousness of the inclusive, non-oppositional  principles of Aikido.

I hope we can stay connected, too. Maybe we will even meet on the mat someday.


Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

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