The Balance of Mind & Body
This essay was written in 2001 for a competition sponsored by the National Collegiate Taekwondo Association. I was a three-time member for Iowa State University’s Taekwondo Team and this essay won first prize. I was handed the cash prize in an unmarked envelope and it felt very Korean mafia-esque. The theme related to your philosophy of fighting and specific methods used.
“The weather means the seasons.”
-Master Sun Tzu
There once was a young student who became very proficient in the skills of archery. After winning several archery competitions, the young man became rather boastful and proud of his accomplishments and challenged a Zen master who was renowned for his skill as an archer. On his first try, the youth hit a distant bull’s eye. On the second, he split the first arrow right down the middle. It was obvious that he possessed great technical proficiency but the master, undisturbed, did not draw his bow. Instead he motioned for the young man to follow him up a mountain. Curious about this surprise, the champion followed up the mountain until they reached a deep chasm spanned by a rather flimsy log. The Zen master stepped upon the shaky bridge, picked a far away tree as a target, and fired a clean direct hit. “Now it is your turn,” he said as he nimbly returned to more stable ground. The young champion stared with horror into the seemingly bottomless pit. He could not force himself to advance on the perilous log, much less attempt to shoot a bow. Sensing the situation the master said, “You have much skill with your bow, but you have little skill with the mind that lets loose the shot.”
On the eve of important occasions, whether it be a martial arts tournament or some other event, it is important to remind oneself of one thing: readiness is not just physical preparedness. Without a suitable mental state, sheer physical power is not enough to guarantee a victory. The path to victory is instead paved with unification, harmony, and coherence.
In previous experiences, I have encountered many individuals like the young archer in the opening parable. These are competitors who posses great speed, strength, and flexibility, but lack that all important harmony between the mind and body. Sometimes this is enough for them to win. Even so, the win is less certain than one achieved through intelligent thought processes; and the entire situation is hit or miss. Undoubtedly, people like the archer have talent; but the real talent lies in being able to apply your skills in even the most adverse situations without fear or hesitation.
In the waning 24 hours before a tournament, I begin to slowly prepare my mind for the task ahead. I do not become obsessed with it; at first I occasionally bring the competition to consciousness. Just like the philosophy behind the Tae Guek symbol featured on the Korean flag, the body must be brought into balance. School work and social activities can bring about much stress, which can lead to disharmony. The Tae Guek shows perfect balance between opposites that are contained in the same circle. Like the mind and body, this represents both opposites as powers in one cycle. Instead of working antagonistically, they are mutually interdependent of each other.
Concerning sparring, I stress the importance of knowing when to act and when not to act. Existence is contrived of fluctuating currents of human thought and action. These two must flow together into actions that are dictated by intelligent thought and executed with power and confidence. Again, unity is the key. If I let my emotions, such as anger, become too strong I will surely be defeated. To me sparring is less a physical trial and more a mental game.
In Poomse competition, I use a technique that I also use in sparring, but that is best exemplified in forms: visualization. There are two sides to this. The first is commonly overlooked and is not so much what you do visualize but what you do not visualize. I do not visualize getting beat. I do not visualize forgetting my forms. The second side is a focus on the positive; I visualize the outcome I desire. I first create a clear image of what I want. I imagine myself moving with speed and snap, power and precision. Next I combine this with a strong emotion. I think about the pride I will feel helping my team capture the team trophy. I think about the personal satisfaction involved. More specifically, I focus on certain moves in my form that are more difficult for me; I see myself executing a sidekick with great flexibility and snap or a spin move with precision. Visualization is a powerful tool of the conscious.
As the hours dwindle before competition, I tend to draw into myself using the techniques described above. As the time for competition closes in I add physical preparation: stretching, limbering up, and running through forms. I begin to feel like the bowstring stretched tightly on the master’s bow. By the time my name is called to enter the ring, I am ready. Mind and body act with a seamless unity.
At the beginning I quoted Master Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War. He said, “The weather means the seasons.” When I first read this, it did not make immediate sense. I took it literally. But then I related it to the idea of mind and body. In the summer the sun shines hotly and in the winter snow falls. This is always the case. The weather patterns determine the overall situation. The mind is like the weather; if I think negatively or space off, my body will behave accordingly. I have the ability to control my mind, my weather, effectively. Once I control my psychological dimensions, my physical ones follow; and with both in harmony, I cannot be defeated.