Mushin (無心; Japanese mushin; English translation “no mind”) is a mental state into which trained martial artists are said to enter during combat. They also practice this mental state during everyday activities.
Mushin is achieved when a person’s mind is free from thoughts of anger, fear, or ego during combat or everyday life. There is an absence of discursive thought and judgment, so the person is totally free to act and react towards an opponent without hesitation and without disturbance from such thoughts. At this point, a person relies not on what they think should be the next move, but what is their trained natural reaction (or instinct) or what is felt intuitively. Years of correct training to make each technique natural and instinctive is required, as well as training of the mind. It is not a state of relaxed, near-sleepfulness, however. The mind could be said to be working at a very high speed, but with no intention, plan or direction. Sensitivity and flow training combined with Zanshin practice in Kata helps train this mindset.
Some masters believe that mushin is the state where a person finally understands the uselessness of techniques and becomes truly free to move. In fact, those people will no longer even consider themselves as “fighters” but merely living beings moving through space.
The legendary Zen master Takuan Sōhō said:
The mind must always be in the state of ‘flowing,’ for when it stops anywhere that means the flow is interrupted and it is this interruption that is injurious to the well-being of the mind. In the case of the swordsman, it means death.
When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy’s sword movements. He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man’s subconscious that strikes.
However, mushin is not just a state of mind that can be achieved during combat. Many martial artists train to achieve this state of mind during kata so that a flawless execution of moves is accomplished — that they may be achieved during combat or at any other time. Once mushin is attained through the practice or study of martial arts (although it can be accomplished through other arts or practices that refine the mind and body), the objective is to then attain this same level of complete awareness in other aspects of the practitioner’s life. Start by being Mindful, (Obi Wan Kenobi to Luke, be mindful of your emotions, Little one), Then Zanshin (awareness) grows. Over time with repeated practice Mushin develops. Trained correctly in class, practice becomes habit, habit becomes a way of life, if the practice is correct.
The concept of Mushin is identical to the Japanese metaphorical expression “Mizu no Kokoro” or the “mind like water.” This mental attitude refers to a mind that is in total harmony with the Cosmos that it resembles a still pond of water without any ripples where the surface reflects a clear and perfectly undistorted image of the surroundings, like a mirror.
Mushin cannot be grasped by the intellect; it must be experienced. A Mushin mind has no Ego and no substance; it is pure Enlightenment and is the perfect realization of the self.
This state of mind takes years and years of practice to achieve. Mushin is achieved when a person’s mind is free from anger, fear, judgment or the ego during combat or everyday life.
Mushin thus implies a state of mental clarity, awareness and enhanced perception (sensory and intuitive) known as pure mind, produced by the absence of conscious thought, ideas, judgments, emotion (fear and anxiety), pre-conception, or self-consciousness. It is a state of total awareness and reaction not impeded by higher mental function or emotion, a mind more open and reactive to subtle sensory input, intuition and spontaneous action. It is a mind that is totally calm — a mind not influenced or caught up in events or others emotion, thus a mind more able to freely perceive and respond.
This required the non-conscious mind and the instinctive trained body to be free. No longer inhibited, slowed, distracted, or clogged, the mind was free to fully perceive, respond and commit to action. The mind is not fixed on anything and is open to everything; a mind expanded through the whole body with total awareness of and focus on everything.
Mushin is not about automatic reactions or lack of thought. Mindfulness and Mushin may appear to mutually contradictory. However, they are 2 sides to the same coin. Mindfulness in the context of karate refers to being present in the moment, aware of one’s actions and environment
If you where training kata on the mats and a door on the other side of the room was partially opened an inch, you would know instantly. This is Zabshin. Zanshin (awareness) exists with Mushin.
If when suddenly attacked or startled. One steps forward to confront the attack, rather then recoiling in fright, this could be said to be a form of Mushin.
24/7 365… Our thoughts loom large in our heads, never stopping, insistently rolling like waves on the beach. The correct thoughts can make us feel happy, elated, glad to be a life, negative thoughts however can lead us down a darker road, to sadness, guilt, misery or depression. Correct karate training with the correct mental attitude and instruction will lead to “control” over our thought process, allowing us to control our emotions and thoughts leading to calmer, less stressed lives.
Think of your thoughts (mind waves) like ripples in a pond. You want to get ready of the ripples (lets say stress). By throwing a pebble into the pond we get more ripples, so we throw a larger stone and get more ripples, which collide and bounce off each other creating chaos. The way to get the ripples to stop, is to leave the pond alone. Let the ripples fade of their own accord. So too it is with the mind. Aimlessly sitting in front of the TV, does nothing to reduce stress or benefit the mind.
Karate or meditation, and they are two sides to the same coin focuses your mind, giving it something to concentrate on, to allow our thoughts to settle and stress to melt away. The purpose of training is to develop Zanshin (awareness) or mindfulness and later to develop Mushin (No Mind). See other articles in this series for explanations of these terms. Your practice the correct mind set in class. Calm, focused, alert, positive, proactive. At first your practice is limited to moments within a class, then filling an entire class, then becoming a sustaining habit your entire waking life and in the fullness of time sleep life. Leading to calm, controlled stress life, where you learn to respond, not to react to the world around you. As your studies progress you gain insight into your negative triggers and purposely condition more positive responses.
The secret to this mind set… is practice. Correct physical and mental practice. Goal setting is important but do not be concerned with your destination. Just practice. Initially on the dojo floor, and then later in your life outside the dojo. Practice for practice sake. One step at a time, one class at a time, one thought at a time. We all have a unconscious tape playing over and over in our minds. It is with our whole lives that many are unaware that they are listening to it. But this tape may be holding your back not making you happy and your dreams come true. How do you know what the tape is saying in your head. Listen to your feelings. Ask at any moment of the day how your feeling? The answer is what your head is saying to you. If your feeling sad your having sad thoughts. If you are happy you are listening to happy thoughts etc.
Proper training will lead to greater mental abilities, like those shown by master in martial arts movies throughout the years. once this great power has been achieved it becomes nothing, commonplace, like child birth. Ask any expecting mother in the glow of pregnancy and they will tell you it is a wonderful thing. But once the child is born it giving birth becomes more common place. So it is a special thing and a ordinary thing at the same time. So too are the mental stress relieve abilities of a high grade karateka, a special thing to taking years of practice, that becomes everyday ordinary once it is achieved.