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The Zanshin state in the Warrior

Updated: Nov 2, 2021

The Zanshin State and the Warrior's Mind

Zanshin is a state of vigilance and alertness, which we must maintain before, during and after a confrontation, so that we are ready to engage in combat if our opponent gets up or another one engages in combat.

It is wrong to think that zanshin is done just after "eliminating" the opponent. We will see, later on, the origin of this error. Zanshin is a state of prolonged alertness before the confrontation begins and until the moment when everything is over. When we interrupt this prolongation, the warrior becomes vulnerable to any unforeseen action.

My experience as a bouncer in a nightclub

Where I really learned the value of zanshin was during the 5 years I worked as a doorman in a nightclub. When I had to intervene in a conflict situation (or a fight) in the club or when I had to take a customer out of the club, I had to be very vigilant of my surroundings, because potential friends of the customer could be present and try to hinder my work. From the moment I was warned of a problem, I would trigger my zanshin state until the situation was completely over.

Zanshin is a state where our attention is 360 degrees

The zanshin state is an important concept that I teach in my karate, physical self-defense and psycho-verbal self-defense classes.

When we are in zanshin all our senses are awake, we see, hear, feel and smell everything around us. We are aware of our environment and all the obstacles that may surround us. We remain focused on our goal of eliminating any threat that would want to harm us or our loved ones.

The last generations, due to screen technologies, have lost this ability to stay focused for long periods. Some authors even suggest that our attention span is equal to that of a goldfish. But this will be a subject for another article.

Let's go to the movies to see some superhero!

Many people think that zanshin is only done right after hitting the opponent. As if they projected their intention like a ball of energy filled with chi on their opponent to finish them off.

Seriously, I believe one reason for this confusion is that some sport karate instructors (who have never been in dangerous situations on a regular basis) teach this concept in competitive sports, especially those based on the semi-contact point system. Competitors are taught that when they strike an opponent, they must stop and show that their strike could have been fatal. But, some simulate a high degree of concentration in their faces by making exaggerated facial expressions, screaming like a moron and swinging their arms at their opponent to show the judges and referees that they have scored a point.

This is why ridiculous situations sometimes occur in competitions. For example, in sports point competitions, when someone scores a point and starts doing his or her theatrical act

worthy of a Bruce Lee movie, the other fighter often rushes to hit the other in imitation of a schizophrenic in the middle of an epileptic seizure, hoping that the judges will not have seen the other's hit.

The most funny thing is that these fighters are not aware that the muscular contraction

stops the flow of energy and therefore breaks the true state of zanshin. To be in zanshin, the first condition is that the body must be relaxed and the mind alert. To be ready to explode quickly. This is why zanshin and mushin rhymes more with "poker face" than with a tense, contracted body and a mean look like the Incredible Hulk.

In Kyokushin Knockdown Karate competitions, sometimes a fighter will accidentally apply a technique that throws the opponent off balance and when he realizes that the other person has fallen, he will simulate a punch and suddenly move into a zanshin position like the picture above. The purpose of this maneuver is to demonstrate to the judges that his technique is indeed intentional. However, this rarely fools the judges.


How to practice reaching the zanshin state

Controlled breathing increases our concentration

In a stressful situation, the body is inclined to contract and our breathing tends to become jerky or blocked. This causes a loss of control, a state of panic and leads to misjudgments. This is why breathing exercises are necessary to maintain a good zanshin state. We need to lengthen our inhalation and exhalation. This will have the effect of lowering our heart rate. As the warrior model teaches in the section on breathing.

Peripheral vision and hearing

When we are in a life or death situation and our heart rate exceeds 150 beats per minute, we enter in foeval and tunnel vision which prevents us from perceiving the danger around and behind us. In the zanshin state, by decreasing the rate of breathing, it will be easier for us to visually and aurally scan what is happening at 180 degrees. And if we know how to move our legs, while moving our head, we can make sure that we cover the other 180 degrees that is missing. This is what soldiers learn to do in a combat situation where the enemy can be anywhere.

According to a 2004 Progressive Insurance Company study, 52% of all traffic accidents occur within 5 miles of home. They happen close to home because people usually "let their guard down" after exiting busy streets or highways.

Practice every day to trigger the zanshin state

Begin by recognizing situations that require you to be in a state of alertness and awareness. For example, driving a car, motorcycle or bicycle, crossing a busy street, having a full-contact fight, walking through a park at three o'clock in the morning, operating a power saw or any other instrument that requires high alertness. Then, calibrate, observe, listen and feel the state of alertness you need to be in to avoid any incident or accident.

Get used to practicing this zanshin state when you are walking down the street and at any time when your alertness is essential to your survival.

Triggering the zanshin state with anchors

When I coached my students in sparring, I taught them to use a verbal anchor by saying the word zanshin! inwardly and clenching both fists as they stepped onto the tatami (mat) of the sparring area. We explain this concept in great detail in a section of the book The Warrior's Call (The Warrior's Model). Each time their opponents fell to the ground, he had to assume a position similar to the picture above while staring at their opponents to detect if he had the ability to continue (and to also indicate to the judges that they had scored a point). But, he had to stay in poker face and not imitate a gorilla beating his chest and jumping around as if he had just found a banana.

Be zanshin in the dojo during fights

Practice this principle at your dojo when working with a partner. When practicing fighting or self-defense exercises, keep your mind fully awake and focused when you deliver the finishing blow.

When you are sparring, always be conscious of your environment and other people around you and if you manage to sweep or throw your opponent to the ground, hit him (with control of your blow) and then take a small step back to get out of his reach while keeping your eyes on him. Even when the sparring or drill is over, always keep your concentration, until your instructor or the referee tells you to relax.

EXERCISE. Here is an example where you can practice the zanshin state simply by crossing the street. Before crossing a busy street, mentally shout zanshin and then cross the street while being alert to look at everything that moves in the distance and near you (use peripheral vision), listening to the 360 degree sounds all around you (peripheral hearing) and feeling all the signals from your hara (the belly, the seat of the haragei or visceral kinesthetic sensation, which I also call the somatic center).

Remember, the closer you get to home, the greater the risk of an accident. Therefore, it may be appropriate to also do this exercise while driving a vehicle.

By doing this, you are applying the S. C.O.R.E. C.T. model (french acronym in psychoverbal self-defense). That is, before you cross the street, you Stop and place yourself in a state of Zanshin vigilance. You Calibrate your environment by Observing if the light signal is green (the stimulus), if the lane is clear and if there are no vehicles that could hit you. You feel (Ressentir in french) the kinesthetic signal that there is no immediate danger, you listen (Écouter in french) for cars braking and the electronic signal of the light that tells you that you can cross. You engage your Behavior (Comportement in french) which is to cross the street (the response) by Transmitting to your nervous system the intention of cross the street. You maintain your level of alertness until you cross to the opposite side of the street, then lower your level of alertness once you reach the sidewalk.

Gaëtan Sauvé

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