Showing posts with label mind. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mind. Show all posts

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Forging The Spirit

Tamahagane, traditional steel, is filled with impurities and requires repeated heating and hammering just to get the impurities out. Only after that can you start shaping a sword.

精神 - mind, soul, heart, spirit, intention
誠心 - sincerity
清心 - “bright, clear” & “mind”
正心 - correct mind, righteous mind

These are just some of the 14 meanings that come up when I type in “seishin” ”せいしん” into the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary. Japanese is a wonderful language. It’s possible to write the word phonetically and thereby imply any or all of the above, or sometimes meanings diametrically opposed to the above meanings. 成心 is also pronounced “seishin” but means prejudice. This can make Japanese a tricky language to say things in; profound but filled with pitfalls.

I’m thinking about seishin because I was visiting with a friend and discussing all things budo over a pint in a Dublin pub. He was wondering how to get from the mindset of destroying one’s opponents to a more wholesome attitude; one that doesn’t require destroying his opponents to achieve goals and mastery.

There are lots of different mindsets that we can take in budo. When we start though, we almost have no choice but to be concerned with winning, with dominating and destroying teki, our opponent. As a beginner in judo, I had to really focus on attacking my training partners and throwing them down. If I didn’t, I was so quickly dominated and thrown down myself that I couldn’t learn anything from the practice.

There are many ideas about states of mind. Fudoshin and mushin are great to talk about, but how on earth does one get from being a beginner who is just trying to not get crushed to becoming, first,  somewhat technically proficient, and then all the way to a point where you are relaxed and acting without prior intent, just moving in harmony with the situation as it develops?

The koryu bugei seem to offer the most time-tested path to these special mental states. The journey is not exciting. Like most practices undertaken to develop the mind/spirit, a lot of effort has to be put into just keeping up the practice.  It’s not generally exciting, especially in the early stages and late stages.

Japanese has long used the phrase seishin tanren to talk about the real nature of training, budo training in particular. “”Tanren” is 鍛錬 and means “forging”. Forging is not exciting work, whether it is making swords or martial artists. In Japan it means repeatedly hammering and folding the steel for the blade until all the impurities have been beaten out of it.  

The Japanese equate budo training with this kind of forging. Seishin tanren or “spiritual forging” is a good way to describe koryu budo training.  It can be harsh, repetitive and boring, but if you don’t drive out the impurities first, the final product will break easily.

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Koryu budo training is built around kata practice rather than sparring.  Sparring is fun and exciting, but it doesn’t build the skills or the mind in the ways necessary for spiritual training.  Look at how a boxer or an Olympic judoka or an MMA fighter trains.  They mostly train kata as well. Oh, I know they don’t call what they do “kata,” but that’s what training drills are. Kata are training drills, pattern practice for techniques, skills and mindset.

You can’t effectively spar until you’ve attained a certain level of technical and mental skill, and that is nearly impossible to get from sparring alone. There has to be a reason that paired kata training remained the dominant training methodology in koryu budo from the 16th through the 19th centuries. The reason is that paired training drills, pattern practice, kata, or whatever you want to call them, are the best effective way of mastering physical technique and developing a quality mental state.  

Beginners are overwhelmed by all the details of learning a new art. The best they can do is pick a couple of points and focus on them. As a beginner, one has to focus intently just to approximate what a journeyman practitioner does without thinking. This is the first step on the path to the mental states of mushin and fudoshin. It’s only when a beginner has advanced far enough that they don’t have to focus on each step of a given movement that they can begin working on the rest of the staircase.

Partnered kata practice gives a student a controlled environment in which to to experiment and develop. The teacher can adjust the intensity of the regimen to the student’s technical level so they get the most from training.  Early on this might mean walking through the kata slowly and without any pressure.  As the student becomes proficient at performing the outer shape of the kata, the teacher can increase the pressure, go faster, attack more strongly, and then add new kata that emphasize different lessons about timing, spacing or technical application.

Over thousands of repetitions the student polishes her fundamental techniques and learns to move without focusing on the details of movement. Now the teacher can begin to vary not just the intensity but also the timing of the kata. One potential danger of partnered kata training is that it may become nothing more than a choreographed dance wherein you know how and when your partner will move or attack. This can lead to empty forms and stagnating mental development.  The teacher’s responsibility is to continuously manipulate the timing and spacing so no two repetitions of the kata are identical. It is at this point that  mental development really begins for the student.

At first a student reaching this level may try to anticipate her partner’s movement.  She knows what her partner is supposed to do next in the kata, and she responds to what her partner is supposed to do. The thing about training in koryu budo is that your partner is teaching you, and koryu budo teachers can be harsh. If my student anticipates my action and moves first, I’m going to attack the opening she gives me rather than do what the kata says I should. One of the lessons of budo is to act in accord with that is suitable for the situation, not just do what the script calls for. If she anticipates my movement, she’s already left the kata and I’m free to attack however I wish.

This is when students really start developing their minds, forging their seishin. It’s also when I, as a student,  was most likely to come home from practice with whacked knuckles and bruised wrists. At this stage, I was  still thinking about when to move and how fast to move. This meant I was often moving too late to get out of the way of the attack. When you’re late, sometimes sensei will let the strike land so you learn how vulnerable you are.

The kata hasn’t changed, but the timing and intensity have. As the student gets more comfortable with the mechanics of the kata, she learns to watch and not move until the right moment, neither too early nor too late. Students who want to dominate and control everything in order to crush their opponent are eager to move and easily drawn into moving before it is safe to do so. Students who are thinking too much will wait to long and get whacked. Through forging,  hammering and folding, through countless repetitions of the kata, the teacher drives out excess thought that gets in the way of quick, clean movement. The tendency to anticipate your partner, thereby creating gaping openings, is slowly forced to the surface of the mind until it is sloughed off like slag being hammered out of piece of tamahagane steel.

In my case, I was so prepared to defend against an attack that I knew was coming that I was often incapable of waiting until it actually happened.Alternatively, whenever I became too anxious to move, like a spring that was overloaded with tension, my teachers would hesitate a moment and draw me into moving. It’s the teacher’s job to provide learning experiences, to change the timing just a little, or maybe a lot.  As I learned to quiet my mind and stopped trying to outguess my partner, I learned to see what teki was really doing.

The student keeps up the repetitions, working the impurities out of her mind. One day it will happen. She’s doing a kata at a high intensity level without thinking about it, without reacting. She’ll be calm and relaxed and act in accord with her partner’s speed and timing. It will be beautiful. The next repetition will be disastrous. She will consciously try to duplicate the previous kata and utterly fail. My experience was much the same..

Fudoshin and mushin are states of mind that involve getting out of your own way. The irony in this is that if you are trying to get your mind out of the situation, your mind is already actively in it. Mushin is all about just being there and not forcing your conceptions on the situation. But - If actively trying to quiet your mind is guaranteed to not get you where you want to be, how do you get there?

You could try breathing through your eyelids.

In Bull Durham, Annie tells LaLoosh to “breath through your eyelids.”  It’s a great tactic. He’s been overthinking everything he does, and as a result can’t pitch well. His mind is wound up and in the way. He can’t do anything right. By distracting his mind with the impossible, Annie frees the skills he’s acquired to act smoothly and naturally. With koryu budo, we don’t tell students to breathe through their eyelids. We forge their minds in the furnace of paired kata practice (and if you don’t think paired kata practice is a furnace, let me introduce you to a couple of people).

Good teachers and training partners gradually turn up the heat. When a student starts, she is busy worrying about the mechanics of the kata. Over time, the teacher pushes a little more and a little more until she’s not worrying about the mechanics. Now perhaps she’s worrying about not getting hit. With enough hammering in the right places at the right moments, fear of getting hit is also driven out of her mind.

Over time, the repetition and gradually increasing intensity levels hammer out other mental impurities. Too much intention is a common stumbling block.Having an attitude that you are going to dominate and destroy your partner is problematic, whether you are doing kata or sparring. It creates unnecessary intent, which is a stumbling block on the path to mushin. With enough practice, enough forging, the student will no longer need to convince herself that she will dominate and control.  She becomes confident that she can handle what’s out there, and doesn’t need intent. Now she’s ready to just relax and take whatever her partner has to throw at her, without any particular intent.

Now she’ll begin to touch mushin and fudoshin. It will be a rare thing at first, a happy accident that can’t be repeated intentionally. With more practice, this student will learn to let go of intentions and expectations. She’ll be able to take a breath in and let her worries, fears and mental noise go out with the exhalation. Mushin will happen more often now and the worries, fears and mental noise will grow weaker and quieter, until they are almost gone.

At this point she’s not a student anymore. She’s a senior helping other students travel the path. I doubt anyone ever reaches a perfect state where they maintain fudoshin and mushin 100% of the time, but the great teachers get so close that the rest of us never notice the lapses.  Seishin tanren is all about forging the mind. It’s not a quick or easy process. Just as forging a sword requires hundreds of repetitions through the process of heating and hammering to get rid of the impurities found in tamahagane steel, and then further heating and hammering to shape the blade, the raw ore of a student is heated and hammered in the furnace of kata practice until mental impurities have been forged out of her and she is a calm, relaxed budoka. Seishin tanren is simple. It’s definitely not easy.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Feeding The Budo Mind

“Budo is more than just techniques.”  We hear things like this all the time. Then we go back to practicing techniques and kata. If budo is more than the techniques and kata, when do we get to the other stuff? All that other stuff about strategy, tactics, ethics and all the rest? For me the answer is to read.

People were writing about budo for a couple thousand years before anyone started calling it “budo.”  Some great ideas from powerful thinkers and writers have paved the path we call budo, and it’s more than worth the time to read some of what I would call the foundational texts, and what people are thinking and talking about now.

One of my favorites is also among the shortest. The Tao Te Ching. Said to have been written by a legendary record-keeper of the Zhou Dynasty in China in the 6th century BC, it is the foundational text for Taoist thought. Why is this important? Even though it only runs to about 2,500 Chinese characters (it’s shorter than most of my blog posts!), it carries the essential ideas about strategy, power, value, ethics, responsibility and leadership. The idea of the Way heavily influence Confucian and Buddhist thought in China, both as something worth considering and as something to reject. It has been translated more than any book except the Christian Bible. There is no definitive translation because the nature of the work allows for many subtle interpretations, none of which are wrong.  My current favorite English translation is Gai-Fu Feng’s. Unfortunately, it seems to be out of print again.  A fabulous introduction in manga form that is fun to read and manages to explain some of the ancient culture that goes into it without being boring is “The Tao Speaks”. It’s out of print, but used copies can be found around the internet. Free translations of it abound on the internet.

A hundred years or so after the Tao Te Ching was put together, Sun Tsu wrote his guide to warfare, strategy and tactics.  Known at “The Art Of War”, it has influenced military thought for 2500 years.  Compact, with only 13 brief chapters, even when many commentaries are included, as in the Griffith translation, it is not long. The Art Of War should be considered the fundamental text on warfare and combat. The discussions of strategy and tactics inform everything from the relatively uncomplicated scenarios of one-on-one classical budo training all the way to modern warfare combining infantry, tanks, artillery and airpower. A lot less has been said with a lot more words many times (yes, I’m guilty as charged).

Donn Draeger was an incredible pioneer for non-Japanese entering into the world of Japanese budo. His 3 volume set “Classical Bujutsu” “Classical Budo” and “Modern Bujutsu and Budo” have been gateways into Japanese budo for people since their publication in the 1970s.  He makes mistakes, and some of his theories are wrong (I have argued against the artificial division of budo and bujutsu in other places), but he was the first! He was trying to figure out this budo stuff and go where no non-Japanese had gone.  Of course he made mistakes! Explorers go out and track down blind dead ends and get lost and found and lost again any number of times. The incredible thing is not the mistakes he made, but how much he was able to figure out and decipher so those of us who came after don’t have to work at those pieces of the puzzle.

Ellis Amdur has written two books that I consider essential reading for anyone who wants to understand where this budo stuff is coming from and where it it sits in the modern world. The first, Old School sets the stage for budo practice in the 21st century. Amdur writes with authority on  the history and culture that produced the budo we practice today, particularly the koryu or “old school” styles the predate modern Japan.  Through detailed essays about particular ryuha, Amdur illuminates much of the common culture and history in which all koryu were born and developed. The chapter about Katori Shinto Ryu alone is worth the price of admission, and the other chapters are all nearly as good.

His other book “Dueling With O-sensei” I consider essential reading for anyone who wants to get a better understanding of the ethics and reality of the martial arts they are practicing. There are lots of noble words about katsujinken and arts of peace, about self-development and enlightenment through the martial arts. After 13 years of training in Japan, and decades dealing with conflict, violence and de-escalation professionally have given him a perspective into the true ethics of martial arts and a practical understanding of their genuine limits that few possess.  This is something everyone who thinks about budo should read. Sadly, it’s out of print now.  A revised second edition is due out later this year though. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Karl Friday is unique among the people writing about budo today. He is both a classically trained martial artist with a menkyo in the art of Kashima Shinryu, one of the oldest budo traditions in Japan, and a Ph.D. in Japanese military history. With an insider’s access as a senior member of Kashima Shinryu, and the critical eye of a trained historian, Dr. Friday brings a unique perspective to the hunt for understanding the history and traditions of budo.  His book “Legacies Of The Sword” written with Seki Humitake, the current shihanke of Kashima Shinryu, is an amazing resource digging into the history and development of Kashima Shinryu from its founding to the present day.  This is a wonderful counter to all the folks who think Zen Buddhism is the essence of budo. What about all the wonderful esoteric traditions of Japan? Read this and discover some.  His other books on Japanese military history are wonderful as well, and all are antidotes to the popular myths about the samurai and Japanese history.

But what about budo in the present? These are living traditions after all. What is there about budo, martial arts, combat and violence in the 21st century? One of my favorite writers on budo and martial arts in the modern world is Rory Miller. With a background that includes classical jujutsu, Kodokan Judo, and a career as a corrections officer, he brings a fascinating and practical perspective to questions about budo, conflict and violence. His Meditations On Violence is one of the most thought provoking books I’ve read in a long time. Miller’s years spent living and dealing with violence on a near daily basis means he brings a clear eye to many of the myths and legends that have grown up around budo over the centuries. In addition his depth of experience gives him insight into the depths of seemingly esoteric budo teachings.

These are just some of the budo writers and thinkers that get my mind going. Budo has been developing for centuries, which makes putting my place along the path in perspective challenging. The more I understand of the history and development of the ideas and ideals, the better I can understand how they relate to me. Reading the experiences and thoughts of writers who have more practical experience than I would ever want to accumulate helps me to understand the limits of some ideas, and avoid the pitfall of romanticizing what I practice. I am amazed every time I pick up the Tao Te Ching or the Art Of War that books written 2,500 years ago can have so much relevance to the present. Many of the questions and principles Lao Tzu and Sun Tzu  were grappling with are the same ones writers in medieval Japan and modern America continue to contemplate and wrestle with.

This is in no way meant to be anything like a definitive list.  These are just some of the books and writers that I find important and engaging.  I’m sure I’ll talk about some of the many others that I think are important in another blog one of these days.  What works or thinkers do you find engaging and challenging? They don’t have to be books. Intriguing ideas can come from movies, TV, great discussions, and sometimes from the least expected corners.  How do you feed your budo mind?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

States Of Mind: Fudoshin

A while back I wrote about mushin 無心, usually translated as “no mind” in English.  It’s an aspect of the mental development we strive for in budo.  Another aspect is fudoshin 不動心, which is usually translated as something like “immovable mind.”  It’s quite a concept, and the main source for most of us who are not Japanese is a letter from the Rinzai Zen monk Takuan Soho (1573-1645) to the sword master and daimyo (regional lord) Yagyu Munenori. The letter is known as the Fudochi Shinmyoroku 不動智神妙録, and a convenient version of it with the original 17th century Japanese and modern Japanese side-by-side can be found here. I used a copy of the translations by William Scott Wilson in the volume THE UNFETTERED MIND as the source for English translation.

The budo community has adopted the term quite strongly, but reading the actual letter reminds you that this was not a conversation between two martial artists.  Though the main portion of the letter deals with the concept of fudoshin, Takuan is giving a lesson in the value of the Buddhist teaching regarding fudoshin, and not in how to do martial arts. The letter even includes a section where Takuan is remonstrating Yagyu Munenori for being proud of his ability as a dancer and Noh performer.  For all that, what Takuan has to say about fudoshin is certainly of value to those of us who study budo. He took the term fudo, from the name of one of the Bodhisattva, Fudomyo,不動明王, literally “immovable wisdom lord”.  Lucky for budoka this bodhisattva is a fierce warrior bearing a sword for cutting through ignorance and rope for binding demons, and not a merciful, gentle bodhisattva like Kannon.

Fudomyo-o. Photo Copyright Grigoris Miliaresis 2015

Takuan was a Zen Buddhist monk, so of course he had to speak in seeming contradictions.  Early in the letter he says

Although wisdom is called immovable, this does not signify any insentient thing, like wood or stone. It moves as the mind is wont to move: forward or back, to the left, to the right, in the ten directions and to the eight points; and the mind that does not stop at all is called immovable wisdom.

 A mind that moves as it is wont, and “that does not stop at all is called immovable wisdom.”  Takuan comes from Rinzai Zen, a sect that loves koan, and this feels a lot like a koan.  It’s not, though you have to do a lot of thinking and reading of the letter to get it.  Clearly, given that he say “the mind that does not stop,” Takuan is not talking about sticking your mind on one thing and making it unmoving, even if he does call it  “immovable wisdom.” So what on earth makes it immovable?

When I read it in Japanese, immovable wisdom, or fudochi is written 不動智, which is far too close to the word for real estate,  fudosan不動産 for me to easily separate the two  Real estate implies something that not only doesn’t move, but something that can’t be moved by human power.  I got stuck on the immovable part, and had trouble grasping “the mind that does not stop at all” portion. Without both though, you can’t really grasp fudoshin.

The mind of the common man sees something and stops on whatever catches his mind’s attention. Even in English we use use words that point up this condition.  We say that something “catches our attention.” If our mind is caught, it stops.  If our mind stops on something, it is caught. Takuan uses the example of looking at the leaves of a tree to describe the effect.

“When the eye is not set on any one leaf, and you face the tree with nothing at all in mind, any number of leaves are visible to the eye without limit. But if a single leaf holds the eye, it will be as if the remaining leaves were not there.”

For the budoka, this is critical. Takuan goes on for quite a while about the mind getting stuck in different things; in our hand, our sword, the opponents sword, even which attack we want to use.

If our mind can get stuck, it’s not immovable. It still seems like a contradiction. This contradiction goes away when we give up the association of unmoving with immovable. If you walk up to an M1 Abrams Battle Tank, you aren’t going to be able to move it with your body.  For you, it is immovable. But the tank itself is amazingly mobile and agile.  Immovable is not unmoving.

We don’t want our mind to be caught by any particular thing.  With mushin, we are not imposing our ideas and preconceptions on the world. Fudoshin goes beyond that. With fudoshin you are not imposing your preconceptions and assumptions on the world, as that would be one trap where your mind got stuck on something from within you. Beyond that, your mind cannot be captured by what your opponent implies, suggests, feints or does. Takuan puts it “Glancing at something and not stopping the mind is called immovable.”

Takuan Soho's Grave in Tokyo. Photo Copyright Girgoris Miliaresis 2015

You can see something your opponent does, but you’re not trapped by it. If she moves her sword, you see movement, but you don’t get caught by it and miss how she changes her footwork. You see her move to your left, but you don’t become fixated on trying to figure out what the move means.  You accept it and move on.  Your opponent cannot catch your mind and fix it in one place. Your opponent cannot move your mind.

Your mind is moving, but immovable. In kata training, even in Aikido (all those prescribed attack and response drills are kata. Really.), there are many places where the action can branch in any of several directions. If you are fixated on one, perhaps the primary action of the kata, you can get walloped by one of the other branches. This is a particular trap in any sort of training drill, whether you call it a kata or not.

It’s a prescribed drill.  You and your partner both know what you are supposed to do, and you do it. Simple. A very simple trap. Your mind gets caught on what is supposed to happen. Then your partner does something easily imaginable but not what they are “supposed” to do, and you get walloped with the floor, or a stick up side the head, or some other equally unpleasant result. One example is a common Aikido technique, iriminage. There is a point where uke is directed down towards the floor. In the drill, uke stands back up instead of staying down, and is then thrown when they rise. What if uke doesn’t stand up? What if uke scoops nage’s leg as she is going down and throws you? This option can be blocked, but you have to be aware that it exists and not get stuck on what is supposed to happen. In kenjutsu, there are plenty of feints and movements to draw your partner off balance. Koryu arts are filled with startling kiai, stomps, and motions whose main purpose is to move your mind away from the real attack and fix it on something unimportant.

If your opponent can move your mind, you have lost before she is close enough to do anything to you. This is what you want to avoid.  It’s not enough to master mushin. Mushin is only part of  the mental battle. With mushin, you aren’t trying to force your preconceptions on the situation. Mushin doesn’t stop your foe from trapping your mind with her tricks and subtle distractions from the real threat though  You want to be immune to traps that will catch your mind and stick it in one place, making you vulnerable from every other angle.

If you are doing that iriminage mentioned above, you have to do the technique, but you can’t focus on it. You have to let your mind move along each of the options for uke, and negate them. You can’t get stuck on any one of them though.  For your mind to stop moving at any point is to lose because at the next branching uke can reverse the situation and attack you at a point you aren’t defending.  

My Shinto Muso Ryu teacher is brilliant at trapping my mind. He can change his stance, or adjust his balance or take an unusual breath and pull me into that action, then he attacks whatever point is open because my mind is fixed in a place of his choosing. I’m getting better. He used to trap my mind every time. I don’t know what the percentage is down to, but every once in a while I finish a kata with him and realize that I didn’t get caught by something he did. I’m making progress.

Mastery of your mind is a journey, just like everything else in budo. It is after all, bu-do 武道, martial way. We don’t get there all at once.  First we learn some physical movements, then we start adding in mushin when we can manage it, and later we begin to learn to let our mind float free in a state of fudoshin. Neither bound by our own intent, nor caught by our foe’s, our mind floats here and there, in our hands, at our sword, at our enemy’s eyes, and then upon their sword, at their feet, then back to our feet or arms or weapons. Never stopping, never caught, always moving to be aware of everything without fixating on anything. Fudoshin doesn’t happen instantly, but with plenty of mindful practice, it will grow and you will relax. Instead of being tight because your mind is focused on your legs and how you hold the sword, you’ll be loose and aware of how your opponent holds her sword, how she stands and how she moves, adjusting your sword and your stance and your position naturally without focusing on what you are doing, and without focusing on what she is doing.

Takuan said “Completely forget about the mind and you will do all things well.” That is fudoshin.

The Story Of Keiko Fukudo, Judo's Only Woman 10th Dan
Mrs. Judo: The Story Of Judo's Only Woman 10th Dan

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

States Of Mind: Mushin

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis


As much time as we spend on physical training, budo really isn’t about the techniques. It’s about the mind. We’ve got all these techniques and kata for training the body, but the sneaky secret is that these are training our minds at the same time. That list of words in Japanese above are all words having to do with the mind. The first 3, zanshin, mushin, and  fudoshin are fairly common in the budo world.

What you’ll notice is that all of them include the character kokoro 心, which is read shin (sheen) when used in combination with other characters. Zanshin, mushin and fudoshin are all mental states. Zanshin, as I’ve written, is about staying aware. Mushin, which is usually translated as “no mind” and “fudoshin” which is often translated as “immoveable mind” are two more traits and states of awareness that are essential to development as a martial artist.

I’ll be honest, when I first encountered these ideas, reading about them in English left me more confused than enlightened. “Mushin means no mind.” I read that sentence, or one very like it, in at least a dozen different books. Not one of them really succeeded in communicating what this term means in martial arts.  I have to admit as well, that the first several times I tried to read a translation of Takuan Soho’s Fudochi Shinmyo Ryoku, which is the major text on fudoshin, I read a lot of words but got nothing from them.

These are short words that describe sophisticated and subtle mental states that require a long time to develop and appreciate. The best I can do is try to explain how I understand them now.  I hope my current understanding is worth something to others.  At the same time I hope I can move further along the path of understanding these as I train. So if I come back in a year or 5 or 10 and say something different, don’t tell yell “But you said….”  Congratulate me on furthering my understanding.

Mushin and fudoshin get described with some of the most contradictory language around.  Mushin is written 無心, and literally translates as “no mind.” Fudoshin is written “不動心” which is probably best translated as “immovable mind,” but which Takuan describes by saying:

Although wisdom is described as immovable, this does not signify any insentient thing, like wood or stone. It moves as the mind is wont to move: forward or back, to the left, to the right, in the ten directions and to the eight points; and the mind that does not stop at all is called immovable wisdom.
    Takuan Soho, The Unfettered Mind. William Scott Wilson translation

A mind that is no mind, and and immovable mind that does not stop at all. This kind of language makes no sense at all.  At least it didn’t for my first decade or two of budo training. Mushin and fudoshin are mental states that are developed through hours and hours of training. Like most things having to do with our minds, these are complicated.

One of the first complications is that character for mind used in both mushin 無心 and fudoshin 不動心 that I pointed out at the beginning. The character 心 (pronounced “coe-coe-roe” and written kokoro in romaji) contains characteristics that in the Western tradition have been split in two. In English we talk about the mind as the seat of logic and intellect, and we talk about the heart as the seat of the emotions.

The Japanese don’t make the mistake of trying to separate the intellect and the emotions. They recognize that these are not separate things, but two parts of a greater whole. Intellect informs emotions, and emotions affect intellect. This should be obvious, but our cultural inheritance obscures it. When we talk about mushin and fudoshin though, we are definitely talking about both the intellectual and the emotional parts of us. We just don’t have a word in English that encompasses all of this.

Mushin means “no mind.” That’s pretty unimaginable. No mind? Isn’t that like being in a coma? No, it’s not, and that’s the problem I have with the term mushin. It’s not about being mindless. It may be closer to the way people are using the term “mindful” lately, but that’s not a descriptor either. Mushin has several layers to it, but I think it can be understood, even when you still have thousands of hours of training to go before you can consistently achieve it.

Mushin starts, not with no mind, but with a calm, clear mind that doesn’t impose itself. That’s the first step. Let your mind be quiet so it’s not imposing assumptions on the situation, and not trying to force any particular course. If you are making assumptions about your opponent or if you insist on following a particular course in the middle of a fight, you’re in trouble long before you close the ma’ai. 

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis

Calm down, relax, breath (remember how I said that “All I teach is how to breathe and how to walk?). Be calm and let yourself see, hear and feel the entire situation. Instead of making a plan and figuring out what to do, just be there. When people talk about “no mind” the idea is to let the conscious, chattering, clutter of thoughts go and just be there. It’s not that you have no mind, but that you let go of the mile-a-minute constant chatter of unconsidered thought that modern life encourages and makes so difficult to escape. Mushin is impossible when you’re always on the smart phone and surfing the web and listening to the radio or watching television all at the same time. You have to loosen the grip of those things on your mind before you can quiet it.

If you have to have things from outside stimulating your mind all the time, it can never calm down enough to approach mushin. Once you let go of all that though, and your mind calms down, then you can work on mushin. It’s complicated though, because mushin in budo also demands a fairly high level of technical mastery. If you have to think about any aspect of your technique, then you’re not at mushin. This means that mushin in conflict can only be achieved after you acquire sufficient technical skill that you can act without thinking about any part of the action.

The good news is that you can work on the mental and the technical sides of the problem. Take some time to unplug and turn off the electronic chatter.  Get used to the sound of your own breathing and become comfortable with not chasing every thought and stimulus that you encounter. Lose the litany of what ifs.

Once you quiet your mind, you can start to get to mushin. For me, part of mushin is a deep layer of consciousness that isn’t influenced by all the little thoughts. This the layer of mind you want to be working with. It’s still and calm and smooth. It lets you reflect a situation accurately without imposing yourself on it. If you don’t impose your ideas and assumptions, you can act appropriately for the situation. A quiet mind can respond to what is really happening instead of to a preconceived assumption.

Calm and relaxed.  Photo Copyright 2014, Girgoris Miliaresis

When people write that mushin means “no mind” the immediate impression is that mushin is about not having an intellectual mind. It is just as much about not being emotionally active as it is about not being intellectually active. The intellectual mind has to quiet and relax, become calm and still. The emotions have to become calm as well. Until you can quiet the emotional side of your mind as well as the intellectual, you won’t have mushin.

Trash talk is common because many people never learn to let the emotional side of their heart/mind calm down and become still. Again, breathe and stop hanging on to your emotions. It’s not that you don’t have emotions. That’s not what mushin means. Your emotions don’t color the situation. Your ego can say you shouldn’t let this women push you around, or that that guy is a pipsqueak, or those folks deserve a comeuppance. All that just gets in the way of clear perception and can make you react to things that aren’t really there instead of responding to the situation, to the world, as it really is.

Our emotions and thoughts will run us ragged if we let them, with thoughts flittering from politics to friends to work to the lousy roads to the beautiful sunset to the song on the radio to the guy who just cut us off to the hot car going in the other direction to….

The heart/mind can go nonstop as long as you’re awake if you allow it. Letting it go takes practice.  I was going to say it takes effort, but that’s the wrong direction. You’re not fighting with yourself. You’re just not clinging to the surface chatter. It’s not easy, especially now that we have devices to entertain us 24 hours a day. The first step is to allow yourself to not be entertained all the time. If you’re always distracted by TV or radio or the internet or Facebook, you never have the opportunity to develop mushin.

Oddly, the more you let go of the chatter and the distractions, the less you want them. It was probably easy 150 years ago with no TV or radio or MP3 players or even record players. Everything was relatively quiet and distractions were exciting because they were so rare and added some spice to life rather than distracting us from living it.

Mushin isn’t the absence of a heart/mind. The intellect and the emotions are still there. They aren’t the big show though. Once the intellect and the emotions are quiet and calmed, your mind can smoothly see the world as it is and you can respond to reality rather than all the chatter going on. Mushin is the absence of your ideas and emotions being imposed on your perception of the world.

I'd planned on writing about fudoshin in this post too, but I ended up with more than I expected about mushin, so I guess that will wait for now.