In many sports the term ‘aggressiveness’ is frequently used, usually as a desirable mental approach or acquired ability, especially in the context of effective functioning in stressful situations or facing danger in order to avoid hesitation, mental-physical ‘freezing’ and being at your best.
Budo (traditional martial arts such as Traditional Karate-do) has a fundamentally different approach represented by the ho-shin concept that can be characterized by the idea of ‘give everything to remain full.’ Aggressiveness is commonly associated with concentration, locking on a target and often sacrificing sensitivity, mental flexibility, the ability to identify opportunities and adapt to changing situations. Furthermore, aggression often leads to physical stiffness that results in isolated use of body parts.
Ho-shin on the other hand is characterized by complete determination combined with ‘stable emotions’ that enables perceiving the whole or the bigger picture, mental flexibility allowing instant adaptation and a flow of energy from the base through the center to the extremities. It is important to understand the fundamental difference between aggression and determination, where the former is often related to unstable emotions such as fear, arrogance or hatred.
A skilled opponent can take advantage of my aggressiveness, being locked on a specific line of action, and take advantage of this qyo (opportunity – opening) to his advantage. Furthermore, aggression often causes separation from the opponent, competitor or source of danger, as opposed to the budo concept of kumi-te (integrated hands) which stands for oneness connecting to the opponent so you can become aware of his intention, anticipate his next move early on, identify and leverage the qyo (momentary opportunity) he unintentionally exposes (oji-waza or response theory) and moreover be able to proactively create a qyo setting up your opponent (shikak-waza), applying an opponent-correlated strategy while managing risks.
In line with the above, in Traditional Karate we actually do not use the concept of ‘attack,’ as it represents mental fixation such as aggression, so instead of attacking we setup or create an opportunity (shikak-waza) which is possible only with stable emotions, sensitivity, mental flexibility and full determination, which allows us to seize and fully leverage the qyo created in the very short time it usually exists. In this context it is important to understand the fundamental difference between concentration and general awareness, which are two different perception modes associated with different areas of our brain.
In concentration mode we narrow down our mental lens, focusing on specific input such that any other input is considered a distraction and therefore is filtered and rejected; for example, when I concentrate on writing an email the announcer on TV or the neighbor playing piano are interpreted as a distraction from my main task and consequently rejected. As our 21st century lifestyle often requires attention or the handling of multiple tasks in a given time period, we perform (similar to a computer) ‘multi-tasking,’ that is, switching or diverting concentration on a time-sharing basis between relevant tasks. This amazing human ability enables us to achieve a lot, but often causes an uncontrolled mental race (e.g. at four in the morning when I want to relax and sleep) and suffering.
In budo and especially when facing an aggressive opponent in a real ‘danger’ situation, we do not want to concentrate on any detail (such as his scary eyes, threatening muscles or being a champion in martial arts), but rather be aware of the totality of the situation. Accumulated experience of hundreds of years of budo, as well as contemporary scientific research, indicates that the time interval between a stimulus and our response (‘response time’) is shorter and therefore more effective when in ‘general awareness’ mode, not concentrating on any specific input. In ‘general awareness’ mode I do not concentrate on any specific detail or task, so the common mental race or hopping is stopped or at least significantly reduced.
The great master Nishayama Sensei used to give the example of a mountain covered with a forest of trees and suggested the physical as well as mental image of ‘eyes back,’ which in this case implies being aware of the big picture, perceiving the essence of the whole forest without concentrating on any specific tree.
This ability is related to another central budo concept of mu-shin (empty mind) that enables full presence, eliminating the common ‘I-world’ duality or separation. With mu-shin, I stop being a side observer so I can symbolically get off the fence to become part of reality. Mu-shin enables the bypassing of the usual analyzing brain sequence for a more efficient, direct, intuitive breath-controlled center-derived instinct-based immediate response, which is critical in actual self-defense situations. In other words, we practice taming our existing evolution-developed instincts so that our natural life preserving reaction (that happens automatically before the analyzing brain takes over) becomes our cultivated immediate efficient response. In budo, this is nicely illustrated in kumi-te where I become one with my opponent in an ongoing flux of mutual influence.
So while aggressiveness promotes separation, isolation and rigidity, ho-shin stands for determination with agility through connecting, influencing and adjusting. In order to develop ho-shin ability with full determination (non-aggressiveness) combined with mental flexibility that allows immediate adaptation along with technical efficiency (flow and energy transfer without stiffness and isolation), one must acquire the skill of switching to ‘general awareness’ mode, maintaining stable emotions in stressful situations, taking control of our mental race, be completely present and connected as in kumi-te with mu-shin.
In Traditional Karate as part of budo we spend years of training to acquire mental and physical skills that allow us to maintain stable emotions, enabling the combination of full determination on the one hand with mental flexibility and adaptability on the other within stressful situations and facing real danger.
This concept is represented in many ways by the budo concept of ho-shin, which is very different from the commonly used term ‘aggressiveness’. To acquire the above, one must fully understand the following key budo concepts: ho-shin, tan-den, eyes back, mu-shin, act by ki, ki-ai, kumi-te, general awareness and stable emotions, and assimilate the corresponding skills associated with them. Only then will the natural reaction be tamed to become an efficient response… ‘reaction is (effective) action.’