24 June, 2011

Injury and Mindfulness

As martial artists, we have heard the term mindfulness applied in many ways. Perhaps this is most important in the martial arts than any other physical activity, as our intent is to injure others, but we wish to practice the intent without fully completing the act of injury others (namely our training partners, those we are working with, etc.).

I recently experienced a total lack of mindfulness on my part. I have been reflecting on this the last few weeks. It has been a learning exercise on my part (after I finished kicking myself). I have come to realize that it was my lack of mindfulness which was the root cause of the incident.

When I was a junior and I read about how the senior student takes responsibility for actions of a junior, I found myself confused. How is that fair? How can a senior prevent the injury of the junior? Surely they must have control, but what about if the junior all but purposely takes the attack - how can the senior be expected to avoid such situations?

Fast forward many years to earlier this month. As I have mentioned in the past, I perform one assist a week at my dojo, under the supervision of my Sensei. There is another yudansha to help as well, but I am the senior amongst the two of us.

There is a student who is preparing for the shodan grading. This student is a strong candidate who practices diligently. He also recently when for a grading for Iaido, so he has a good mindset.

It was the end of my assist, with the black belt class beginning. We started with light sparring to warm up the black belts and cool down the remaining kyu belts. What this means is that a black belt would be paired with a kyu belt to spar. While each black belt was in charge of their own "fight", I was in charge over all. This was the first problem that I had - I paid less attention to my own match than that of others - a big mistakes in mindfulness of my immediate surroundings. One cannot sacrifice the close view for the far, or vice versa. See Musashi's "Go Rin No Sho" for a great quote on this.

I was sparring with the shodan candidate. He was giving some strong mae geri (front kick), which I also let distract me. Another fault! I cannot allow myself to be overwhelmed by simple annoyances or minor pains - I have been training over a decade, what is a little discomfort!? Again, the fraying around of the edges of my island of mindfulness can be seen.

Towards the end of sparring, I noticed that my partner was leaving his face open. I thought that I would teach him not to - please note that I do not mean this as in "teaching him a lesson" as a bully! My intent was to show that he was in range for a jab and didn't have the necessary protection. Another mistake! Why should I think that I can teach in the middle of a sparring session with a younger and more inexperienced fighter?!

What ended up happening, though, wasn't that my fist was in front of his face. I ended up jabbing to his face and hit him square in the nose. I forgot that he wasn't a black belt, he didn't have the reflexes of someone training for several years but only a few. I treated him as someone far above an ikkyu rank, and that was another loss in my mindfulness.

The result was him bleeding quite significantly. We immediately set about taking him out of the dojo, cleaning up the blood, giving him paper towel to help clot the blood - all of this happened at once. My Sensei looked after the student as other seniors cleaned up while I got dressed. I drove him to the hospital immediately and went into emergency.

The end result - no significant trauma, but I did break his nose. The only brass lining (not even silver) was that it was a minor fracture and did not dislocate the nose - only some swelling had occurred which made it appear worse than it was. All of this culminated from my lack of mindfulness of what I was doing and when.

I find myself always encouraging students to increase their own mindfulness, and here I am violating that same concept repeatedly to the detriment of another - if I hurt myself in such idiocy, that would be acceptable and a good lesson. For it to injure another, one preparing for a major grading no less, it simply unacceptable.

Another lesson from all of this was that I cannot expect others to be able to move and react as I would or as I do. Even those with more experience (another black belt) would not necessarily have been able to dodge that or reduce the injury - it is a sort of hubris, I think, to imagine that others should be able to perfectly perform the necessary defensive and evasive procedures under duress that I am not sure even I could do.

So I can see how and why the senior must be in control. This was a hard lesson for me as I almost always am incredibly careful with the techniques that I use against others. I would say I am one of the most careful seniors, taking few risks against my juniors. I would rather break my own nose than even knock the wind from my partner. But that day I failed and I failed spectacularly. My lack of control and mindfulness cost another person injury.

I should not that the student has since been to class regularly and is doing well. Despite a bit of post injury swelling, he is back to his old self, but I worry if I have introduced unneeded stress into his mind. That will come out in the training, and I hope will not leave undue concerns behind.

I found this a sobering and important lesson that I need to be learn intimately with my body, conscious and unconscious mind.


  1. It's never easy when you hurt someone in training, especially if you feel responsible. I've always felt the way you do, I'd much rather take the injury than my training partner.

    I commend you for sharing so openly on the topic. Sometimes we hear mindfulness but it's just a random word until something like this drives the meaning home.

    Some lessons are less than pleasant, but they are all part of the journey.

  2. Thanks Journeyman. I have been struggling with it a bit but I felt I should share it. Maybe it will prevent one more problem for another, or help me internalize the lesson. As you said, its a part of the journey, good or bad.

  3. oh, and thanks for the post and commendation.