Zanshin, the spirit of the ordinary

By Manon Soavi

As an Aikido teacher, as well as a pianist, I went across the notion of Zanshin through several experiences along my path. When I started studying several koryus fifteen years ago (Bushuden Kiraku Ryu, Niten Ichi Ryu, Choku Yushin Ryu, and some Shinkage Ryu), I also went deeper into this notion when working with weapons, by handling a sword, a bō, a kusarigama, or even unarmed through the many jujitsu katas which are part of these ancient schools.
Though I probably still have a long way to go in martial arts, I wish to share here some thoughts on the topic.

I notice that one of the current human contradictions is our fascination for the external force that goes along with our contempt for the sensitivity and the sensations of our body which we relegate to the level of sentimentalism. Paradoxically, our Western way of life has never been so easy, with so few physical efforts to make, and our ancestors were probably more able to endure walking, cold or even pain, given there were not as many means to take charge of the slightest of their pains, or to assist the slightest of their efforts. Yet did they lack sensitivity? I don’t think they did, because the capacity to feel before thinking has always been essential to live and Zanshin, from my experience, is above all a matter of sensation and presence at the present moment.

Zanshin can be translated as dwelling or remaining spirit but for Eastern cultures the body and the spirit are not two separate things. This « remaining spirit » corresponds to a precise sensation, and it is this sensation that guides us in its application regardless of the discipline one practises. These sensations are specific either to the one who acts or to the one who receives. Zanshin is a sensation and at the same time it is a state that we (re)discover.

Historically principles such as Zanshin, Mushin, etc., refer less to ideas than to realities that have been experienced by generations of people. They bring us back to direct, real experiences, which, in order to be passed on, have been « conceptualised ». We are therefore talking about an act or a state we can recover, despite our differences of times and cultures. They are not great principles gone with Samurais and their time, not even principles restricted to martial arts. They are principles that pervade the whole culture, especially the Japanese culture, but also and above all the Chinese culture.

Manon Soavi Zanshin, l'esprit de l'ordinaire

The image: an eye-opener

Ancient Chinese would teach through images, evocations that were to give rise, that were to reveal, within the heart of the apprentice, a sensation that would guide him/her towards the understanding of the core of the master’s teaching. A physical understanding since it was about calling on a real experience that the apprentice would be able to share. They would mainly use nature to reveal the sensation, for observing nature was at that time a life experience shared by all. Yet we also find this way of transmitting in Western arts. Like in music for instance, because beyond some basic advice, the gesture of a musician cannot be transmitted nor intellectually understood.

What makes the difference between a beginner who presses a piano key and the master who plays the first note of a sonata ? It is objectively the same key and the same mechanism to strike the string. Yet the two sounds will be completely different. It’s the master’s sensitivity that will make the difference. Hence, year after year, the apprentice will seek how to make his/her instrument resonate differently, and the master will seek how to awaken in the apprentice the sensation he [the master] has inside himself. That is why some masters use evocative words, they speak of playing « at the bottom » or of « kneading » the keyboard, which objectively does not mean anything at all! All these images call on our inner resources, to retranscribe onto wood and strings an inner sensation and so that this sensation would be, in addition, shared by the listener. This is where we touch on the fusion of sensitivity that allows us to feel what happens inside the other person, it is a transmission from sensitivity to sensitivity. Like a Zanshin that will be right, genuine, only if both persons can feel it.

Then, beyond what we objectively know about what « Zanshin » means, I find interesting to search inside ourselves which experiences we can relate this principle to. How to make it concrete for us.

Manon Soavi Zanshin, l'esprit de l'ordinaire

The spirit of the ordinary

During the years I have worked as a musician, sometimes I have been in a state that I liken to Zanshin. When I played with other musicians and singers I had to be both totally receptive to what happened outside, to the other musicians, and at the same time concentrated on my own gestures to play my piano part. Uncertainties of a live concert are such that I could not count on the fact that everything would go as planned. This never happens, no matter how one is prepared, being on stage is a unique experience. Preparation aims at reducing as much as possible the unexpected but absolutely not at removing it. One has then to react instantly, to stick as close as possible [to what is happening] for harmony to keep on going. To be hyper-vigilant and at the same time to keep a vague concentration, because as soon as I would focus on a single part I would lose the whole. This sentence by Musashi perfectly summarizes this state for me: « In the daily life as well as in strategy, one must have an ample spirit and keep it straight, not too tense and never loose. » (1)

Musashi also said that the ordinary spirit must be the one of the fight, and that the fighting spirit must be the one of the ordinary (2). Yet one cannot always be on guard, hence the fighting spirit does not mean being « on guard », it means something different… We may also suspect that this state of mind is very far from the apathy that we very often come across today. The translation of Zanshin by « remaining mind » might give us a hint, more than the somehow reductive idea of vigilance.

Even though today only a few of us encounter « real fighting », we all face the many little « ordinary fights » in our daily lives. And sometimes « Zanshin » can pop up there too. This happened to me during some unpleasant experiences I’ve had. I remember once when, trapped in a festival during several days, in a small village, all female participants were embarrassed and worried because the person in charge of the workshop, a renowned violinist and professor, would put his hands on them in an inappropriate manner. I was then twenty-one and between lessons and rehearsals, the girls would talk to each other about these very awkward moments and would fear them. During a common meal, the professor started walking along the table, passing behind each of them to give the day rehearsal schedule. I could see him approaching, dispensing caresses in the hair or on the shoulders, little equivocal jokes etc., and I could see with dismay the girls lowering down their heads and waiting for the inevitable as he passed by, or laughing with a tight laugh. It was for me inconceivable not to do something whatever, so I looked at him coming up to me, not knowing what I would do, and before he passed behind me I turned to him and looked at him right into his eyes while talking about the schedule. I know that at that moment my eyes were saying « No ». He stopped and did not touch me. During all the workshop I remained present, without ever being opened to it. He never touched me.

This did not happen with only one man, several teachers and other drunk boys understood they’d better stay away from me. Yet what would I have done? I don’t know. In all these little situations that happened to me, what always struck me is that everything was very predictable and it was in the end relatively simple to hold them on bay, it was « just » about being there and listening to this sensation of danger that reaches us before anything happens. Of course things would have been different in case of a more serious aggression, that’s a different topic, but we also come across a lot of these « small » aggressions which, if we endure them, being unable to react, will leave an imprint in our heart and in our bodies.

Manon Soavi Zanshin, l'esprit de l'ordinaire

Being influenced

My Aikido work since childhood, as a path – a search – towards harmonizing with others, has helped me, I am certain of it, to go through hard times, as it has helped me to work in symbiosis with other musicians. Because our way to interact with others, either negatively or positively, is determined by our inner attitude. The fact of not fighting against the influence of the other person, would he/she be a musician or an attacker, is decisive. The fact of understanding for the two of us.
Chinen Kenyū Sensei expresses it with his words: « The technique is uke [receive], the spirit is attack. […] When one has mastered the principle of uke, there is no longer any attack or defense. Uke is beyond this duality, and this has a profound impact on our being. […] When one is at ease with facing any attack, one develops a self-assurance that allows one to welcome everything, to face anything. » (3)

In our life, quite often to defend ourselves, we refuse to be influenced by the other person, yet by doing so we, de facto, close the only channel that allows us to feel and act according to what the other person does: our sensitivity. It is this sensitivity that enables us to feel the other person. Being in the attitude not to refuse the other person, accepting his/her influence does not mean being submitted to it. Absolutely not. Canceling the difference between oneself and the other person and thereby allowing fusion – if he/she moves, I move, because we are but one. There is no longer any action-response. There is One. Basically it’s the same thing, whether sensing what a baby who cannot yet express itself needs, sensing the bad intentions of a person or sensing when the singer will start.
Tsuda Sensei wrote: « Even if we understand and accept Aikido as a means of communion with the Universe, it will be purely on the spiritual plane. As soon as it is faced with real difficulties, the mind gives way to petty aggression. » (4)

While being maybe very far from the capacities of these masters, we can practise following that direction and this can be useful for our lives. In order to work in the spirit of communion the first step is to let go. If one has the head full of fears, beliefs, if one is confused then we no longer can expect the right action to spring out from our very depths. This genuine action that the Chinese call Wuwei – non-action. We search for the exit in all directions, we try to defend ourselves, we refuse the other so to escape him/her but we bump into the wall. Fukuoka Sensei used to say about the theoretical search for a genuine nutrition: « As long as you hope to find a bright world at the end of the tunnel, the darkness of the tunnel will last as much longer. If one no longer looks for what has a pleasant taste, one can taste the real flavor of everything one eats. » (5)

Zanshin, remaining spirit, is also a fine perception of reality that connects with the principle of yomi. We all think we see the reality, but actually quite often what we see is our interpretation of what surrounds us. Either – too naive – we lack vigilance, or – too damaged, traumatized –, we end up hyper-suspicious. And we become agressive. But whether the defensive spikes of our personal armours are turned towards ourselves or towards the others, the result will be wound and pain. And this does’nt enable us to live fully too. With an art such as Aikido or ancient koryus, by putting ourselves into situation, by allowing ourselves to overcome our fears, this can help us to rediscover that we are not that weak.

Then we will discover a different way to adapt ourselves to reality which no longer means being overwhelmed by it. This is something that can be found in other arts, I find something of Zanshin in this sentence by Rikyû, master of chanoyu (6) from the 16th century, which one day answered to his disciple:
« Make a delicious bowl of tea; lay the charcoal so that it heats the water; arrange the flowers as they are in the field; in summer suggest coolness, in winter, warmth; do everything ahead of time; prepare for rain ». (7)

Manon Soavi


1. Kenji Tokitsu, Miyamoto Musashi, Rouleau de l’eau [Water scroll], p. 53, Édition Désiris 1998
2. ibid.
3. Magazine Yashima n° 4 May 2019 Chinen Kenyū, au cœur des traditions d’Okinawa [Chinen Kenyū, at the heart of Okinawa’s traditions], p. 26
4. Itsuo Tsuda, The Science of the Particular, p 141, Yume Editions
5. Masanobu Fukuoka La révolution d’un brin de paille [The revolution of a strand of straw], p. 150, Trédaniel Éditeur 1978
6. Chanoyu improperly translated by ‘tea ceremony’, literally ‘tea hot water’ .
7. Soshitsu Sen, Tea life, tea mind, p. 31 Weatherhill Inc, 1979