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How to Develop Master-level Stink Eye

posted Jul 9, 2017, 6:58 PM by Eric Banks   [ updated Jul 9, 2017, 7:09 PM ]

"If ever a face meant death—if looks could kill—we saw it at that moment."

-Bram Stoker’s, Dracula



Karate Lessons via Ye Ole VCR


I must have been a green belt when my good buddy Martin gave me a VHS tape of a Japanese documentary on Japan Karate Association instructor, Masahiko Tanaka.   Tanaka Sensei was a top traditional fighter and still is considered a world-renowned instructor from the generation of well-known, hardcore sensei produced by the JKA in the 50s, and 60s, and early 70s.  He was in a number of Nakayama Sensei’s Best Karate books (see Vol. 3, Vol. 4, and Vol. 8) and can also be seen in many of the old videos, and in every instance, he looked downright fierce…because he was.

So, as I sat on the edge of my seat, probably eating a snack, I was super-stoked to see this master of the art in action.  As expected, his technique was nothing less than sharp and cutting, powerful and quick, and his timing, impeccable.  In particular, I really dug his kizami mawashi-geri, his front leg roundhouse kick, SNAP—POW! That’s really the only fair way to describe it. 

I was soaking up his movements, sometimes standing and trying to emulate them myself, well, as well as an eager green belt could, but when the clip of Tanaka Sensei performing a demonstration at a tournament came up, I stopped.  I stopped kicking.  I stopped chewin’ whatever tasty morsels I’d been eating.  And, I might have stopped breathing.  I sat back down, leaned forward and whispered, “What the heck is this?  What, what is happening?   What…what am I seein’ here?”

What I was seeing was Tanaka Sensei taking on another black belt in a great display of skill, but the physical technique wasn’t what caught my eye; his eyes are what caught my eye.  He moved with a slow, deliberate, cat-like caution before and after confronting his opponent, and he displayed this fiery, unsettling stare—that’s what forced me to stop and take notice.  His gaze was enough to make this other man uncomfortable, maybe even a bit uncertain about his next pre-arranged attacks.   Heck, I felt a mite of concern for him myself because Tanaka Sensei’s face, his energy, his spirit, his entire being seemed to be saying to that unfortunate assailant, “You know, even though we’ll probably grab a beer after this, I must kill you first.”

I’d never heard of, or seen, or felt anything like this before, his sense of total zanshin, of complete dedication to the moment, one purpose, one mission, do or die.  Sure, the whole thing may have been an act for the sake of the demonstration, to make it dramatic and exciting, but I don’t think it was.  Even as they bowed out and backed off the stage, Tanaka Sensei appeared to be watching his now former opponent, casting a slight side-eye glare at the man.  I got the unmistakable sense that he was still very much ready and very much willing to destroy him if the man so much as twitched or coughed or cleared this throat, friend/associate, or not.

While I started watching the tape hoping to steal some of his amazing techniques, I found something else, something perhaps more valuable: a gaze that could melt metal.  But, it took me years to realize that such mental focus can be developed by anyone who is willing to pay the price…

Attaining the Kill-Glare Gaze


How does one reach this crazy kill-glare level like Tanaka Sensei and others?  When I first saw it those many years ago, I wondered if it was a secret reserved for the inner circle, the masters, revealed only after years and years of bruises, beatings, blood, and sweat.  Well, it is, and it is not.  There are many ways to level-up, but I present to you just four simple ingredients for learning to flip the switch and enter into super-deep focus mode at will.

1.  Learn to focus on what matters, exclude that which doesn’t. 

This one is obvious, if not circular, and it goes without saying, we live in an age of sensory excess and thereby mental overload.  We’re inundated by too many distractions on too many fronts, whether through the multitude of little screens that constantly flash in our faces, the ever-present radio broadcasting in the background, people talk, talk, talking about…nothing, etc.  Do we really need to know which celebrity is dating or not dating or feuding with whatever popstar today?  Is everything the news media presents really, truly newsworthy, helpful, or informative?  What if we became selective of the things we allowed through our eye and ear gates?  What if we didn’t pay attention to everything that was thrown at us; what if we filtered and weeded out the pointless and the unnecessary?  What would we be left with?  What would that do to our minds and to our thought patterns and our focus?

In training, in kumite (sparring), and especially in self-defense, the ability to zero in on the most relevant data is of paramount importance, but we can’t do that if our minds are always over-stimulated. 


2.  Give full attention to the things that you do, and to the things that you think about.

How many thoughts go through your mind in a typical day?  How many individual tasks do you perform in a typical day?  How many of these tasks are separated from their action-related thoughts?  What would happen if we really focused on the moment, on its inner thoughts and its outer actions?

To reach a higher level in anything, we can either perform the action 100,000 times or more and hope our attention (and intention) doesn’t drift and remains high all the way through the 99,999 iteration, or we can perform that skill mindfully, soulfully, just 1,000 times, or even 10,000 times, but assimilate it, master it, much more fully and much quicker. 


3.  Train, hard. 

This goes without saying; there’s no other way.  Whatever you do, go all-in, work hard, give your all, sweat buckets, ache even more, but be smart about it—keep your mind engaged in the process.  (Refer to item #2).


4.  Practice letting go and entering the flow.

At some level, we seek to understand and control every relevant detail, every minute nuance of our movement, our basics and kata, of our internal and external interactions with others and ourselves, and we must do the same in the other areas of our lives in which we invest our hearts and our energy.  But, there comes a time when we can, and have to, simply let go and let it flow.   That time is different for everyone, but everyone can practice it. 

I’m not going to pretend that this one is easy ‘cause letting go is a skill in itself, but it is worth the struggle.  And without learning to let go, one can never really reach that level of mastery that one seeks, the place where mind and body are truly one, where desire, thought, and action meld and become inseparable. 

Not only do we find freedom in this letting go, but we also find a simplicity that is masterful and deep, enjoyable and strangely powerful.


All of this, I believe, puts us on a good path for developing that intense focus, that forceful zanshin that I first saw in Tanaka Sensei, but like so many things in life, there’s always more to it.  I believe there is an “X-factor” or a certain synergy that can only occur when you combine the four items; separately, each of the items are great ways to enhance your mind and your life, but when put together, they have the potential of taking you to a whole new level. 

So, the real secret to it is, ya gotta do the work.    


There you have it.  Give it a try and please share your progress.  Oh, by the way, if you’re a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, or you work with kids or youth, you’ve probably already mastered the look.  Your kids know this look, and they fear it.  It’s capable of instantly shuttin’ down their sugar-drunk antics, stopping them cold when they’re acting up at church, or losing their ever-loving minds in the grocery store, or battling it out in the backseat of your car.   You’ve already mastered that metal-melting glare, so please, do share the secret…






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