We’ve all heard people say that meditation is important for martial arts. Some martial arts such as Tai Ji Quan are sometimes referred to as “moving meditation”. In Xing Yi Quan I often hear that standing post methods, Zhan Zhuang, are “Standing meditation” with San-Ti-Shi (the three body posture) being the most important.

But why is meditation important? And when people refer to meditation in martial arts what do they mean?

It’s all so vague and I’m pretty sure the majority of people practising these meditative methods have no idea what they are doing and why.

Martial arts have a purpose, the purpose is primarily to increase combative effectiveness in certain situations where conflict arises. Some martial arts are very specific such as focusing only on one aspect of combat – hand striking or ground fighting or wrestling, some are more generalist. But all training therefore should have some function to improve that skill or ability of fighting. If you don’t know what your meditation is actually doing to improve your fighting, or if you are told it is supposed to do something and you don’t find it to actually happen, then maybe you should rethink what it is you are doing.

Let’s not get things off on the wrong foot though, I’m not saying “meditation” isn’t something that could help with your martial arts or Xing Yi practice. What I’m saying is that there are many types of meditation, used for many different purposes, martial arts and Xing Yi have their own purposes and matching these up is important.

So taking Zhan Zhuang (standing post methods) for example, if you take a posture and stand, then what kind of “meditation” is this? I’m pretty sure if I asked this on any online martial arts forums I’d get a slew of responses simply saying “standing meditation”. Ok, you’re standing. How does this make it meditation? And does standing actually help you “meditate”? At what stage in training can or should you meditate in this way?

If we’re talking about the kind of Chan/Zen meditation where you are trying to empty the mind (we might call this Wu Xin – No Spirit/Mind in our Xing Yi practice), then personally I’d rather practice this sat or lying in a quiet, warm, room with no aching burning muscles, rain or wind on my face and so on. The standing can distract from trying to zone out…at first. Here we go…

[No mind! – this isn’t easy by the way. A lot of these “internet warriors” talk like “meditation” is easy! If it were easy do you think these Zen monks would spend years trying to do this stuff, why not just do a weekend workshop or better yet a distance learning course. There are places that offer meditation teacher training in less than a week! But the reality is this kind of training, just like martial arts is a kind of Gong Fu – Skill developed through time and effort. And it can be hard and frustrating and requires discipline and motivation and patience.]

As I like to emphasise testing things – once you can empty your spirit (Wu Xin) (and it might take a long time of training to get to the stage where you can even do this in a nice environment and even then it could take you maybe a number of minutes to get into the state of no mind) then maybe you can begin to try to retain that Wu Xin whilst standing relaxed in a nice environment, then maybe in other places with more outside distractions, then maybe beginning to use other more taxing postures and trying to hold the postures and the Wu Xin state for longer periods.

This kind of testing has the prerequisite that you can attain the Wu Xin state and also that you can hold Zhan Zhuang postures relatively relaxed for some baseline length of time.

But why? What’s the point in it?

Is it simply for health or to feel good? If so then go back and sit in that nice little room and stay there, you’re not going to get much different results whether you’re standing or not and you might as well be comfortable while you seek some inner calm and happiness. And if that empty spirit Wu Xin state is all you’re looking for and no more, then go join a meditation group or become a Chan Buddhist monk. A lot of traditions see Wu Xin as the ultimate state, whereby you are empty therefore you’re in connection with the Dao or have become enlightened. No Sorry, try again, you’re just empty of rational thoughts. yes distracted by the general rubbish of everyday life and you’ve taken yourself outside of judgements and categorisation but if you’re looking for a gold star or your next grading level then think again there’s no black sash for sitting quiet and not thinking. But you can take it further…If you want to go further, if you want to use meditative methods to enhance your martial arts then read on.

Why might we as martial artists want to use Wu Xin? Why stop thinking?

Imagine someone throws a really quick punch at you. What are you going to do? Where are you going to step? Are you going to block? Are you going to…BAM sorry too late you got hit, you were thinking too much.

When you shut down your rational thinking processes you allow information in as a pure unfiltered picture. This is a starting point, it’s not going to stop you from getting smacked in the face right away, there’s much more you need to do after this, and eventually it leads to you responding more appropriately without thinking. There are ways to train this, but just being able to attain Wu Xin is the first step and it is kind of required in order to go any further in many ways.

Sometimes we may have even experienced these later stages involuntarily, as martial artists we may have experienced a moment where we landed a punch or kick or executed a perfect throw without effort or thought, sports persons might have scored a point, kicked a goal or shot a basket without thinking, hitting the ball and just knowing it would score. This can be called being “in the zone”, often it’s just accepted that sometimes you’re in the zone and sometimes you’re not, a kind of fleeting luck based or mood based phenomena. I haven’t come across many people that actively train to get into the zone through what may be called Nei Gong methods (a lot of Nei Gong is centred on creating physical connections or exercising the body in certain ways to develop connection in the soft tissues, some Nei Gong has a more spirit based focus and some incorporates both).

Most sports people and martial artists will actively train on getting stronger or better at certain techniques. Even if these people “meditate” it’s not often with any purpose to try to attain this kind of skill, it’s simply because they’ve either been told to by a teacher or coach because, somehow, it will help them, or it’s because the practitioner thinks that, somehow, it will help them.

So Wu Xin is the beginning and the later stages of this training actively try to get you into “the zone” for martial arts and maybe for other situations too.  These kinds of training may be labelled as meditation or as Nei Gong or given other names but to me this is simply an animistic practice which, at the later stages, may also be thought to border on shamanic techniques.  Essentially you’re trying to cut out all the crap you’ve been taught and just rely on nature but this process is easier said than done.

So that’s one example of why you might “meditate” in a certain way, to create mindset of no spirit which eventually leads into other altered states that can help you be more responsive, aware and connected (to opponents, relationship partners, your colleagues, people in general, and the environment in general and more).

I prefer really not to even use the term “mediate” but sometimes it’s a word that allows people into this kind of practice because they are somewhat familiar with it. However this familiarity can also bring baggage. If for instance I say to someone “mediate on san-ti-shi” they may go and stand in san-ti-shi trying to clear their mind, when in actual fact I wanted them to simply go away and really focus on understanding what san-ti-shi is about. Meditation does mean, first and foremost, focus of thought and attention on a certain subject.

What about other meditation forms – guided meditation, astral projection, transcendental meditation, focus/concentration, opening the awareness, body scans, use of music (binaural beats, rhythmic beats, new age music, whatever), self-hypnosis, mantras or chanting, visualisations…etc.

What I’m trying to get at is what often bugs me when most people talk about martial arts stuff in general, they over simplify and think they practice something or understand something when they haven’t asked what? why? when?

I could teach you to stand in san-ti-shi and practice Metta meditation (loving-kindness meditation), but the fact your san-ti-shi is radiating feelings of good will into the world is unlikely to make you a better fighter. In fact just standing in san-ti-shi anyway is unlikely to make you a better fighter, you need to understand which part of the jigsaw it is and add it to the big picture.

Do you practice meditation in your martial arts? – Yes. Is not good enough an answer for me. What kind of meditation? How does it work? What is the purpose? Do you need to have learnt other things first? Will it lead onto further practice?

Start asking questions – of yourself, of your teacher, of your art.

The first thing though is to just start practising to switch off your thinking, forget about circulating mystical energy or breathing through your little toes, just switch off. If you are finding this difficult then switch off as much of the thoughts as you can by focusing on one thing, such as counting your breaths. Keep up a regular practice, practising for short periods but often is better than long periods sporadically.

Go away and meditate on this…