In the movie “Hidden Fortress”, by Akira Kurosawa, the great samurai actor Toshiro Mifune plays a defeated general escorting his princess and her treasury to safety with the help of two scoundrels. At one point they are discovered by three riders. Mifune gives chase slaying two before chasing the third right into the enemy army’s camp. At this point Mifune leaps from his horse in the midst of the enemy soldiers and fights. Immediately he is surrounded. In a classic scene he holds the entire company of soldiers at bay with fierce glaring eyes and intense presence. All the soldiers can see he is watching all of them at once and watching everything they do. They are rightfully afraid to attack him, and a tense standoff develops. Fortunately, for the soldiers, their own general appears and recognizes Mifune. He then says to all of his own soldiers “Step back! All of you are no match for him.” If Mifune was lost in his own thoughts he would have died. He would have been one of the soldiers and not a general.
Developing your presence and being fully present in the space around you while moving consciously, powerfully, and gracefully is a high expression of the arts of Tai Chi and Kung Fu.
Beginning martial arts, people start learning a world of new movements and skills. The first task is to remember the new movements and instructions. At the first stage of practice people focus almost exclusively on the mental activity of remembering. Only a little attention is actually on their body and movements. This is one reason their movements appear a bit awkward, the beginner is not really focusing in on their body, but mainly on the mental images created to remember their movements. Once people can remember the movements they work on the fine points of posture and structure. Now students focus more on their body than on the mental images they used to remember the movements. Then with a good grasp of the structural details they move to perfect the timing or sequencing of their body to generate the power and speed required for self-defense. At this point people easily remember their moves and they are entirely focused on their body and the space close to their body.
Once you have started to refine the timing of your movements it is time to focus on being aware of your surroundings. Now practice raising your eyes and head to focus on your surroundings. Look straight ahead levelly and open your eyes. Expand your field of vision to include your peripheral vision. Look at and observe everything that you can see with your entire field of vison.
Truly lifting our heads all the way up and looking at everything around us levelly and intently can be a liberating feeling. Often life seems to make us want to duck and hide. Keeping our heads down a bit and avoiding trouble is hard to argue with! During Tai Chi and Kung Fu is not the time when we bow our heads down and hide. When we practice, we practice being heroes. Part of our training is adopting postures that feel strong and confident. Keeping your head up and truly looking around and being aware of everything around you while practicing is a huge shift and sign of progress to a new advanced level.
The next step is to be able to engage with everyone and everything around you while still performing or practicing perfectly. This could mean smiling with ease and engaging the individuals around you with your eyes. Or it could mean creating intensity and storytelling with your eyes and facial expressions. For performers, being fully present to the space and audience and influencing them positively and intentionally is a great performance.
The next level up is martial rather than performance where you control the space around you with presence and force of will like the General Mifune. After developing sparring skills, you can test your presence by sparring more than one person or by being aware of what else is happening around you while you are sparring. This is the difference between being a Brown Sash with technical skill and the powerful presence of a Black Sash in Northern Shaolin, Xing Yi Quan, or Lan Shou Quan.
When we watch a performance, we can easily see if a presenter, actor, or performer is self-conscious or nervous. We can see in their facial expressions and body language if they are thinking about and judging their own performance and reacting emotionally to their thoughts. Performers avoid this by becoming absorbed in their performances and focusing all of their awareness, energy, and passion into the performance and holding nothing back
When we practice forms, we often have opening gestures and or an opening stance. This opening is used to focus your concentration on your body and surroundings in the present moment and prepare for action. To help quiet my mind I find two types of centering helpful. First is breathing deeply in the center of the body and maintaining awareness of my breath and the center of my body. Absorb Qi as you inhale and circulate Qi as you exhale. The second is a deeper meaning of center. There is a part of us that receives our thoughts and feelings, that observes them. Rest your awareness there in receptivity and presence instead of on the thoughts and feelings themselves. Be centered and center your being.
Turn both your forms and sparring practice into presence training. Power your presence by building your center, your focus, and your sparring skills. Be fully and fearlessly wherever you are.
Be the presence.