In the Japanese martial arts terminology the term Kan is many times overlook by instructors of all types. Some say that the modern styles which have been created since the Meiji Restoration cannot possibly have developed this attribute due to the emphasis on competition. Yet this is an unfair assumption in that it is not so much the style that creates the concept of Kan, but rather the individual instructors personal knowledge and understanding of the concept.
When the mind is full of the concept of winning and losing it is extremely hard for a martial arts practitioner to even remotely begin to comprehend the idea. For those practitioners of the modern sport forms of combative arts, who are constantly seeking to develop a ‘fight plan’ that is unbeatable, the idea of Kan is unapproachable. It is only in the state of egolessness that the mental state represented by Kan can be achieved.
Kan means intuition. In the western world the concept of intuition has
been relegated to the concept of women sensing when their children or other family members are in danger. Many times these ‘feelings’ of woman have been looked at with a great deal of skepticism, yet the serious martial arts practitioners of the past thought of Kan as a necessary attribute for a successful warrior.
Kan is a form of intuition which the martial artist seeks to develop through proper training. It is not something one gains from outside, but more something that a person discovers inside. Deep within the soul of the martial artist lies this intuition. It is a natural part of the life force, Ki. As the martial artist develops his/her Ki, the Hara grows and expands so that the master marital artist gains what is considered the skills of Haragei.
Haragei, while literally meaning stomach arts, refers to the centralized skills of the spirit, which the Japanese believe inhabit the Hara. When a person’s Ki is fully developed, it is believed that they are then surrounded by a field of energy which can be sensitive and receptive of the extension of other people’s Ki. Anytime a person, trained or untrained, focuses on someone else with the ‘intention’ of hurting them in some manner, they project a flow of energy which may be picked up and processed by Haragei, allowing one to sense danger. This ability to sense a threat was considered one of the greatest skills a martial artist could develop.
Some of the old master martial artists felt that there was no true understanding of any martial art unless there was Kan. For these old masters, and many of the traditional masters of today, referring to masters of Koryu, old styles founded before the Tokugawa Era, and Shin Bujutsu, modern martial arts classified as Goshinjutsu, self defense arts, thought and simple empirical study is too slow and too easily forgotten. The students must train so that they learn the martial arts intuitively and thus never forget what they learn.
But the question is, how does one develop Kan? It begins by recognizing the difference between someone who has Kan and someone who does not. A person who does not have Kan has too many Suki. Suki literally means gap, crack, space, time, and in this situation, unguarded moment. In the past a Suki was sometimes called dead time, and was used in reference to when the human mind was so occupied with some cognitive thought that no other action could take place until the mind was turned from it.
In combat a Suki could happen when a fighter was ‘thinking’ about his/her fight plan and thus while in the process of thought, incapable of dealing with anything that was not covered in the pre-thought out strategy. If anyone spends much time watching boxing or kickboxing, they will hear some of the defeated combatants explain that they could just not get their fight plan to work. When that happens, the fighter just goes from one Suki to another, not knowing what to do and being unable to adjust to the circumstances because of too much thought.
Another time when Suki develop is when the person has a loss of concentration. This is when a person’s mind simply loses touch with their environment. Sometimes this is due to an intrusive thought, other times a person cannot really point specifically to any particular thing, yet their mind simply is not focused on the task, and they cannot react or act. In a study of police reports this is actually one of the leading causes of motor vehicle accidents. People will say they just did not see the other car, and yet in many cases these are good drivers who simply lost concentration, developed a Suki, and could not react to the changing situation in time to prevent the accident.
The way for a person to eliminate Suki and develop Kan is through the same process, this is in the pursuit of that important principle known in martial arts circles as Mushin. Mushin has a multitude of meanings but the most important, generally speaking, to the martial artist is ‘no mind’. Mushin refers to the idea of being able to act without conscious thought. In order to develop this a person must be willing to put in a lot of time practicing their art. There is no other way for this attribute to be developed except through constant and consistent practice.
In the beginning every martial artist must think through moves in order to learn them. But then it is essential to keep practicing the skills until the moves can be performed without cognitive thought. Once that point is reached, then the person must still keep practicing until they can apply the moves in various ways, once again without thought.
This idea can be broken down into four stages. When a person is dealing with a skill or a situation, there is first perception, then recognition, followed by conceptualization, and finally with the ability to act or react. In other words, first a person sees their instructor do a side kick (perception). Then the student begins to recognize what a side kick looks like (recognition). Next the student puts the name to the side kick, Yoko Geri, and expresses the method used to do it (conceptualization). And finally the student is able to do the kick (act).
In regard to a self defense situation, a person sees the attack (perception). They recognize the attack, such as the path it is traveling (recognition). Then there is the naming of the attack, or even the defense, such as here comes a roundhouse punch, or I need to do a circular block (conceptualization). And finally, if there is time, there is the block or counterattack (react). In reality, if the person has to go through all four stages in an actual combat situation, they will not be able to defend themselves.
All four stages are necessary in any kind of educational or teaching situation, but too many people mistake the teaching process for the actual fighting method. Once a student is taught a skill through the four stages, they must practice the moves until one by one the stages are eliminated.
In the educational sense and in the method of the untrained person, all four stages are followed. When a student is being taught a move they must develop the basic skill by doing. This is the normal pattern of learning. An untrained person trying to do all four steps in an actual fighting situation just simply gets hit or beaten.
Many beginning martial arts students find that in their practice, and especially in regard to applying their art in any kind of self defense situation, they have a delay from the point of an antagonist’s attack. This is because they are attacked by techniques they do not recognize and thus get delayed between the recognition and conceptualization stages of learning. It is important that in teaching students self defense, instructors tell their students to not try and name what they see, but simply to ‘see’ them. This is an aspect of Kan. In the past it was referred to as Kan Wa Kokoro, seeing with the heart or spirit.
A second problem that students face is hesitation. When they should be acting they instead think about what they are seeing and what they should be doing. In example a student might think about what defense s/he should use. They might be thinking ‘I need to do a circular block’, or trying to name the self defense technique they want to try, such as, ‘flaming arrows’, not realizing that in thinking about what they want to do, they prevent themselves from actually doing it.
There are actually two stages of Mushin that are recognizable in the martial arts. Foremost, the first stage Mushin level is where the student goes from recognizing an attack to reacting to it. This cuts down the reaction time and would allow a martial arts student the ability to deal with most self defense situations except for highly skilled fighters or extremely unusual circumstances.
The highest level of Mushin if where the wall between perception and action has totally been broken down. At this point there is no difference between seeing and reacting. This is where Kan is in full force. Intuitively the person sees and does not realize they see because they are operating beyond thought. Kan is seeing totally, it is having what people refer to as a sixth sense, and yet it is actually only seeing completely, not being limited by preconceived concepts or prejudice.
The Japanese have another translation of Mushin, which is, innocent. When a martial artist actually achieves Mushin, they regain the innocence of their youth. They return to a mind that is empty of prejudice, preconceived ideas, and discrimination. This innocence allows them to see the world as it really is. In this way the martial artist perceives when threats are real or not. They know when a person is just posturing and can be walked away from, or when the person is a genuine threat and must not be underestimated. It is in this point of innocence that the spiritual quality of Kan is set free to permeate the soul of the martial artist allowing them to see and enjoy the beauty of the world, while knowing the dangers in it. Kan then allows the highly developed martial artist to go through life, avoiding many dangers, and with the abilities to deal with those that are unavoidable.
But it must be remembered that Kan and Mushin are developed through the physical practice of the martial arts. It is in practicing the moves of the arts, which allows the Ki to flow, the Haragei to expand, thus allowing the mind to empty, and the intuition to develop. So for those who would like to develop this advanced skill of the master martial artist, the simple directive is…keep practicing your art.