Action vs. Reaction

By Scott Masterton


“The totally awakened warrior can freely utilize all elements contained in heaven and earth. The true warrior learns how to correctly perceive the activity of the universe and how to transform martial techniques into vehicles of purity, goodness, and beauty. A warrior’s mind and body must be permeated with enlightened wisdom and deep calm…”  
Morihei Ueshiba (O-Sensei, Founder of Aikido)

My background is in the martial arts. I trained primarily in Karate, (both semi-contact and of the full contact type), and have practiced stick fighting, submission grappling and a smattering of Aikido and Kendo (Japanese fencing) for a vast majority of my life. So for almost 30 years I have been punched, kicked, thrown, choked and hit with large sticks; or otherwise bruised into taking up Yogasana and meditation.

In martial arts, we teach students initially to react to certain stimuli by patterning their responses. We use repetition to train into a student the proper response to a given attack so that this happens at a level below consciousness. This is important in the beginning-from experience we know that the mind gets in the way of the body doing what it needs to do to combat an attack. When the mind/body goes into fight or flight mode, the higher functions of the reasoning mind shut down. This is as it should be, as the brain does not function fast enough to reason through every possible attack/response scenario. In other words, we know that if you have to think about defense ultimately it is too late. However, this attack/response pattern must be transcended for the student to “mature” from novice to expert and then to a master level martial artist. A wily, well trained opponent can discover very quickly what conditioned responses his opponent has; using fakes he can foil that conditioning and the conditioning of the student no longer serves him…in fact the student’s conditioning (which was once valuable) is now the avatar of his defeat. This conditioning can become so ingrained that an opponent may even tell the student that he is going to fake a front hand to open the rib cage to a sidekick right before he does it and still the fake succeeds as the conditioning is stronger and more importantly, faster than the thinking mind. Once I have identified a patterned response in a student, I have explained in detail to them (these are black belt level students) what sequence of techniques I will use and when I will hit them…even with their full knowledge it still works.

How is this transcended? One word: Presence. In order for the student to take the next step in his training, he must become fully present…not thinking, but present in the moment so that he may respond appropriately to the kinesthetic, rapidly changing fluidity of combat. Ultimately the student must develop the ability to tap into that core of quiet even in the heat of battle. He must find a way to stay with his center rather than allow his quite natural fear to subsume him and force inappropriate responses to the situation. I have been experimenting with breath observation techniques during my own training, and this has now become my natural way of sparring. At 41 years of age I can out perform some of the top fighters in the country in their athletic prime, with less effort and fewer techniques. I am convinced that this has nothing to do with my physical abilities (which are far less than when I was 27 to 30 years old) and everything to do with allowing space for correct action rather than reaction.

This leads me to the ultimate point of this post: it dawned on me that whether we are martial artists, writers, actors or shower curtain rod salesmen, we all deal with this same problem in our everyday lives: How do we overcome conditioned responses that may have once served us but are now anachronistic? How do we bring the peace of meditation into our active, hectic daily lives? This ability is far more important in everyday life than it is in the ring and the conditioning far more insidious. A vast number of our reactions are conditioned responses. What makes these responses particularly sinister is the fact that when we are in the midst of them they seem real. They seem genuinely related to the situation at hand…but most of the time they are not; they’re old tape recordings that play when a certain button or series of buttons is pushed. Sadly, the playing of this tape usually pushes the buttons of those that are closest to us and we are thrown into an off-key symphony that we have played a thousand times before.

These patterns when initially developed had meaning and allowed us to survive. Whether we were victims of childhood abuse and it allowed us to “escape” our bodies, or our childhood realities were so painful that we retreated into fantasy, (I was Spiderman for 22 years…actually, still want to be Spiderman, but that’s a different story). Whatever the reason for the pattern, we have outgrown them (as we do with all things). Of course we can create other patterns but eventually they too will become anachronistic and a hindrance to growth.

It is my belief that present moment awareness is the only way to transcend the patterns that we all have. I have by no means mastered this “non-reactive” state in my day-to-day life but in my training there is a hint that it is possible. The next step for me is in applying the lessons that I have learned from martial arts to the vastly more important realm of everyday life and to this I am committed.

Scott Masterton is a fifth degree black belt in karate and former United States Kickboxing champion. He has written numberous short stories, articles and opinion pieces. He’s been nominated twice for a Pushcart award, one for short fiction and the other for non-fiction. He lives in Minnesota with his wife, poet Kristin Masterton. Scott is passionate about writing, teaching martial arts and yoga and watching his four children grow.

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