Lessons in Mindfulness 2.5

At the most basic

level of self-defense

you do not care

about the attacker,

you do whatever

you have to do to

get away.

At the highest level

of self-defense, you

take the situation

completely under

control without

hurting the

attacker or getting

hurt yourself.


The Deeper Purpose of Sparring

Martial arts and self defense are intimately linked. While we

may strive to achieve deeper levels in our practice, and while

practice may get us into shape, reduce stress and increase

self-discipline, the fundamental purpose of martial arts

remains — in many people’s minds – self-defense.

In the dojo, we practice many things. We learn basic

techniques, then combinations to develop fluidity of

movement. We practice breathing, tension and relaxation.

We practice kata and traditional forms. All of these serve to

advance our practice and hone our ability.

And then there is sparring. This is the element of practice

that’s suppose to put it all together, a means to simulate a

real fight, and some people can’t get enough of it. To many

martial arts students, sparring is what it’s all about, it’s the

real deal, the opportunity to “try out” everything they’re

learning along the way.

But just how similar is sparring to self-defense? And, if

we’re not sparring for self-defense, why make it part of the

practice at all?

The Difference Between Sparring & Self Defense

To begin with, let’s not confuse sparring with real self-

defense situations. There are several differences. Sparring

is often simply a game of tag, seeing who can touch whom

first with a technique. For safety reasons, there is little

or no contact, altered distancing, slight focus and no 2-6

inch follow-through. Consequently, there’s often lots of

hypothetical questions — Did the strike actually land or not?

Would it have caused any damage? Did it hit a good target?

For these reasons, some people prefer full contact, or no-

holds-barred, fighting. This is certainly closer to simulating

a real self-defense situation, but it’s still faulty. Sparring in a

tournament, you have the luxury of knowing who you are

going to fight, and (generally) an opportunity to review their

previous fights before you face them. This allows you and

your trainers and handlers the opportunity to come up with

a strategy for victory. You also have a specific fight date and

time, so you can physically and mentally prepare yourself.

There are no weapons, a doctor is on the scene, there are

specific rest periods, and a referee is there to make sure

that the situation doesn’t get out of hand. Everyone wears

protective gear so that no one ends up hospitalized. In the

dojo, sparring is even more closely regulated. The point is

that these are all highly controlled, contained and monitored

environments. In a real self-defense situation, on the street,

almost exactly the opposite is true. You have no idea when

or where you may be attacked, or by whom. They may have

a weapon, and it may be one or multiple attackers. They may

be under the influence of mind-altering drugs. There is no

way to know their fighting ability or their intentions — just

how far will they carry this assault?

While there are huge differences, there are still many skills

acquired in sparring that translate well into self-defense

training. Nothing teaches timing like moving with a partner.

If you practice full contact, you begin to understand

distancing. Sparring teaches you how to move, how to

work the whole body, how to focus a strike and how to hit

a moving target. These are all very valuable techniques for

self-defense. There are many reasons to practice sparring for

self-defense; the point is, be sure that you understand the

difference between the two.

To successfully

defend yourself

you must be able

to keep your

composure during

an attack.



and attention.

Can Sparring Hinder the Martial Artist?

The problem with sparring, and the danger of devoting too

much of your practice to it, lies not in the skills developed,

but in the way it enhances the strength of your ego. All great

masters have taught that, at the core of martial arts, lies

harmony, selflessness, realization and oneness, not merely

the ability to win a fight. In the 20th century, sparring has

evolved into a competition, rather than an opportunity for

the participants to improve their skills and advance their

understanding. And, as in many things, it’s not the what or

how that need to be adjusted, just the why. For example, the

next time you’re sparring, notice how often your competitive

nature surfaces. Don’t embrace it, don’t rationalize that

through competition you are pushing yourself to be your

best, but don’t repress the tendency either. Just calmly

recognize the feelings and thoughts. Notice when the ego

surges to the front, especially when you get hit. Take a

breath and ask yourself, “Does it really matter?”

Again, be mindful of the difference between self-defense

and sparring. On the street, you may actually be called upon

to defend your safety. Winning and losing become very

important. In the dojo, you and your partner are pushing

each other to the best of your ability. Exactly what is there

to win? Practice intensely, and understand the value of good


Be mindful of planning fakes, strategies and setups. You

know — when you throw a technique in order to get a

specific response, allowing you to then land something else.

In truth, these aren’t strategies at all — they’re tricks. When

you employ tricks, your mind is busy. You’re not feeling

motion. You’re thinking about how, when and what they’re

going to do, and how and what you’re going to follow up

with, and your mind becomes so incredibly active that you

cannot possibly respond spontaneously and creatively in

the moment. In fact, you are at your most vulnerable when

you are thinking of attacking, when you’re planning and

plotting. To attack takes only a moment, but most people

spend several seconds planning the attack and, that whole

time, they’re wide open.

The Experience is the Goal

So, if winning is not the goal in sparring, what is the goal?

Why do we bother sparring at all? We spar to practice and

develop our skills while moving with a partner. We spar to

learn to avoid anxiety and frustration when we perform

poorly, and to avoid elation and ego gratification when we

perform well. Punching and kicking, throwing and grappling,

being punched, kicked and thrown — these are all just tools.

The aim is to perform within this experience to the best of

your ability while remaining calm and peaceful. This may

sound foreign to practitioners of modern-day, tournament-

style martial arts, but it is actually at the heart of authentic


Over a thousand years ago a man named Tamo Bodhidharma

became the abbot of a Buddhist temple in Hunan Province,

China. Legend records that, in taking over the temple, he

also shouldered the responsibility for the spiritual growth of

its monks. Noting that they were overweight, lethargic and

prone to falling asleep during their meditations, he decided

to institute an exercise program to integrate their spiritual

practice with a physical discipline. Thus was born martial arts.

To truly understand martial arts, we must understand the

origins of the practice. The ancient monks of Shaolin, like

monks everywhere, were seeking enlightenment, nirvana,

In sparring

you will rarely

get hit with

what you are


If you feel

superior and

proud of winning,

did you?

As long as there

is duality there

will be conflict in

life. The martial

artist strives to

realize the oneness

in order to

overcome duality

thus extinguishing


samadhi, satori, self-realization. Their belief was that this

state of consciousness could only be achieved by overcoming

the ego and unifying with the Divine. For centuries before

Tamo, rishis, yogis and monastics of all sects had employed

meditation to help clear the mind and raise consciousness.

The desired state was that of Oneness, and the ego was what

kept man in the delusion of duality. Good and evil, up and

down, male and female, winning and losing, the self and all

others. All of these perceptual divisions got in the way of

mental and spiritual clarity. To rise above this perception of

duality was the purpose of meditation.

But Bodhidharma’s monks were falling asleep! They could

meditate deeply, but would nonetheless find themselves

right back in body consciousness once they stopped

meditating. Tamo saw the need for a practice that would

be a bridge between meditation and day-to-day life, a

“moving meditation” that would unite the physical with

the mental and spiritual. He understood that the ego was at

its strongest in a man during a physical attack. The natural

responses of fight or flight are both ego-driven. To run away

from an attack out of fear that you will be hurt is to ignore

Oneness. To defend yourself with anger is to promote your

separateness. Either way, it fails to advance the monastic

path. So, Tamo decided that his monks would practice

fighting with each other. They would spar and develop

techniques of movement, and become so proficient that fear

and pride would both be beside-the-point. Winning and

losing would become meaningless.

This physical regimen served many purposes.

Capitalizing on weakness is a good strategy, but

strategy taken to the extreme becomes trickery.

1. it helped get the monks in shape;

2. the practice enabled them to protect the temple

   if they were attacked; and

3. most importantly, they learned to practice physically

   with the same calm peacefulness that they were able to

   achieve in meditation.

In fact, the state of mind should be exactly the same whether

you are sitting in meditation, practicing martial techniques

(the moving meditation) or performing everyday activities.

You should remain one-pointedly focused and in the

moment. All reaction should come from a calm and peaceful

center. Compare this practice to what we currently think of as

“sparring” in the martial arts. There is no resemblance. The

point is that sparring was never designed as a competitive

game or a sport between opponents, but as a sacred practice,

as a partner drill to help clear the mind and raise the


A student once

asked his

teacher, “Sir,

when should I

most control my


The teacher


“Now, now,

 now, now . . .”

Use Practice for the Sake of Practice

This isn’t meant to be mystical. Tamo’s teaching was, and is,

utterly pragmatic. In practice, we feel the flow of energy

more clearly only when the ego is completely gone, when

practice exists for the sake of practice. In that moment, when

you’re sparring with a partner and not against an opponent,

there is only one energy. The energy you provide and the

energy I provide are gone. There is only the energy that we

are together. We’re playing the same song and harmonizing

perfectly. We are completely in the Now. At that moment,

there is no competition. No one’s winning and no one’s

losing. Once you stop worrying about offense and defense,

achievement or failure, the game is over, the sport is gone,

and all that’s left is art. That’s higher than any victory that

the ego can experience. Achieving victory is merely arriving

at a boundary you set for yourself. You reached the plateau,

but so what? There’s always another plateau, another

limit. Artistry is what transcends limitations, and allows the

moment to exist for its own sake.

We call this martial arts for a reason. This is an art that

transcends ego. This is a creative art that leads to the end

of separation. Tamo Bodhidharma’s gift – martial arts – is

a means of closing the gap between physical and mental,

between motion and non-motion, between good and

bad, victory and defeat, happiness and sadness, between

vengeance and love. Learn to spar well, for the right reasons

and with the proper motivation, and you learn to live in


William had practiced martial arts from

What is the

difference between

an artist and a

technician? And

can you become

an artist just by

throwing more


the time he was eight years old. Now, at

twenty-seven, he was approaching his

twentieth year in martial arts. He was a

skinny young kid when he began, Now, as

a young man, he was completely filled out, strong and fast.

He remembered his excitement when he first entered the

school and how, later, his mother and his instructor had to

encourage him to stick it out when he had wanted to quit.

He remembered achieving his first, second and third degree

black belts. Now, as tournament season was coming to an

end, he was preparing for his fourth degree belt. William

was in the best shape of his life. He had collected 30 trophies

this year, more than in any year past. All of them were

in sparring. William loved to spar and, while perhaps not

consistently the best in the school, was certainly in the top


One day, he came to the school a little earlier than usual,

just to stretch out and practice before classes. After he had

stretched, the master asked, “William, would you like to

spar? We haven’t in a while.”

William responded, “Yes, sir,” and quickly went to get

his practice gear. No one knew how long the master had

practiced, but it was known to be over forty years. As the two

men had bowed in, William began to size up the master. He

watched carefully at the way the master moved and looked

for the openings. William threw some fakes just to see how

his opponent would move. After a few moments, he decided

to launch an attack. William entered with a flurry of punches

and kicks. The master responded and the two men began.

After 30 or 40 minutes, the master said, “Time.”

The two men bowed and walked off the mat. William felt

a bit unsettled about what had just happened. They hadn’t

kept score, so he couldn’t be sure, but he guessed that he

had beaten the master. He said, “Sir, I am confused. I have

never done this well against you in sparring before.”

“Yes,” said the master, “your physical technique has come a

long way.”

William nodded and said, “If we were in a tournament I

would have won.”

The master responded, “Yes, today you would have, but

tomorrow maybe not. William, this is your problem. You still

spar for trophies — not for yourself. I’m not concerned at all

When you spar

you should see

yourself as well

as your partner.

In a self-defense

situation the

attitude must

be, “I will win. I

will continue to

fight until it is


In sparring, the

attitude should

be, “I will learn

as much as


with winning and losing, but only in allowing the experience

to sweep over me. I know that, because of the experience, I

will be changed for the better. It might appear that we are

doing the same thing, sparring. You, however, are enhancing

your ego, while I am striving to let go of mine. Look at what

just happened. You feel superior and self-congratulatory

because you scored more points than I did. If you had scored

fewer points you would have been upset and disappointed.

Both reactions merely increase the delusion of separateness.

Neither reaction enhances the experience. Stop being so

concerned with victory or defeat and you will enjoy the

practice and the experience regardless of the outcome.

“You need to use sparring as it was intended, and not as

a sport or a game. Spar as if you and I were dancing. In a

dance, there are three energies at work: your own energy,

your partner’s energy, and the energy that you create


In a dance, the object is not to get to a certain place on the

floor or to out-dance your partner. It is really to engross

yourself in the experience, so that when the dance is finished

you will remember such an enjoyable time that you want to

dance again.”

“So sparring is more than just fighting, with rules,” said


The master smiled. “Just because you can win a fight does

not mean that you are a martial artist. You are a martial

artist when you use fighting to change your life.”


Practicing Mentally and Physically

The activity for this month is to choose one of your worst

techniques and consistently work on it in sparring. It can

be a combination, an advanced technique that you haven’t

done well, or a basic technique that you just don’t use much.

Use good control as you strive to develop speed and power.

Watch for good target areas and opportunities to throw

the combination or technique. This doesn’t mean that you

only use this technique, but give it a lot more attention than

anything else.

The result will, naturally, develop this technique, but

the real goal is to monitor your feelings, emotions and

attitude during the process. The benefits of this exercise

are enormous. It is common, at first, to become frustrated

and upset, and you will strongly want to return to using

a technique that you know will work for you. But as you

continue to develop the new skills, the feeling of frustration

will become one of excitement and anticipation. It may even

turn to confidence and a little cockiness. Be aware of all of

these changes in attitude and emotion.

Use the month to develop both your physical skills and to

monitor your internal environment. If you are not yet at the

level of sparring, substitute any partner drill and practice

the same exercise. Obviously, this is a good technique to

use at any time in your practice. Don’t use it this month and

forget it. At the end of the month, write a paragraph to

one page on which technique you chose and why. Describe

your internal experiences during the activity. Make a copy for

yourself and one to turn in to your instructor.

Learn to monitor

yourself in all

battles of life.

What do

you want

to achieve in

your lifetime?


Designing your Life – Revisited

This month the reminder is simply that it is your life and

you are in control. By not deciding the direction of your life,

you allow yourself to be tossed about on the waves of other

people’s desires. The only way to cut through the waves is

to have both a sail and a rudder. The sail is energy, will and

indomitable spirit. The rudder is the direction and the tool

that helps to set the course.

It has been almost a year since you completed the activity

of designing your life. This was one of the most difficult

assignments in the course. So let’s go back and revisit it. Are

you actually following through with what you wrote one

year ago? Of course, if you did not do the activity in Module

One-Lesson Six, or didn’t finish it, do it now. If you completed

it then and put it on a shelf, dig it out!

You should have an established system for tracking your

progress in all of the areas you are committed to improving.

Chances are that you have made some improvements in some

areas, but remember, it takes effort in all of them to really

have a well-designed life. Critically analyze your progress

in your career, financial situation, spirituality, personal

relationships, health, community involvement, educational

opportunities, and your overall attitude. Are you happier,

healthier and more productive than you were a year ago? If

not, what areas of development have you neglected? Have

you sufficiently broken it down to a monthly process in each

category? Make an inventory list for the goals that you have

met on time, and the goals that you have not. Which goals

need to be revised or dropped completely? Have you inserted

any new goals that you have set for yourself?

Time is life, and your life is being designed right now. The

question is, are you or others designing it?

Keep your


to yourself.

Recommended Reading

Goals: Setting and Achieving

Them on Schedule,

Zig Ziglar

Living on Purpose

Dan Millman