Reaction vs. Response

The Sensei in my martial arts studio often reminds us during sparring to respond but not to react.

When you react you’re not being authentic. You’re sparring on your opponent’s terms. You’re thinking too hard about what your opponent will do next. You’re thinking, “If he does A, I’ll do B. But if he does C, then I’ll do–” Wham! You get hit. Then you feel you have to hit back. You’re in strike debt, falling behind in the match. And your sparring looks chaotic, kicking and punching at the same time your opponent is kicking and punching. My Sensei calls this “tigering each other,” since the tiger always advances and never backs up.

When you respond, however, you’re sparring your way. You keep your mind open and trust yourself to recognize what’s happening, both offensively and defensively. You get a feel for the flow of the match. You’re not thinking about what your opponent might or might not do. You’re just centered in the present, trusting that your body will respond accordingly. When you see an opening, your arms and legs naturally move to strike. When your opponent reacts, you glide out of the way. Your movements are more flowing and efficient.

Reaction-based sparring is competitive. It’s a win-lose match. It also tends to be tense and tiring.

Response-based sparring is like a dance. There are no winners or losers, just an interesting experience. It often feels invigorating.

Preparation and practice will help to hone your response-ability, but when you’re in performance mode, it’s best to let go and trust that you’ll respond in the best way you can. If your response falls short, you can always train and practice some more.

Of course this is an analogy for life. When you’re obsessed with what’s going to happen next, you’re stuck in reaction mode. The terms of your experience are being dictated. You’re trying to control the future by tensing up in the present, and this knocks you out of authenticity.

When you stay centered in the present, you trust that your natural response will be just what you need. You remain authentic, allowing your creative self-expression to emerge without forcing it.