Showing posts with label mushin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mushin. Show all posts

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.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

One Thing At A Time

A while back I wrote that you should never practice anything more than once.  There is a corollary to this, that you should never do more than one thing at a time.  We live in world that bombards us with stimuli and urges us to try to do everything, and do it all at the same time.  Society seems to frown on being quiet and focused.  Multitasking is praised and held up as some kind of ideal form of functioning, when the reality is that far different.  We are all likely to fall victim to it though.  It’s just too easy in modern society, when we can be talking on the phone, working on the computer, eating lunch and texting with our kids all that same time, and I’m as guilty of falling into this trap as anyone is.

The truth is though, we’re at our best when we do one thing at a time.  I was reminded of this while reading a very nice piece about giving things 100%.  One of the great things we work on in the dojo is just doing one thing at a time.  Trust me on this, if you try to do Judo randori and even think about anything else at the same time, you will quickly find yourself flying through the air and the floor leaping up to smack you between the shoulder blades.  You just can’t do more than one important thing at a time.

We work on developing this focus and our abilities every time we’re in the dojo, and hopefully we are applying this and developing it even more when we are not in the dojo.  In the dojo we are trying to learn very complex skills that require coordinating our entire bodies and getting all the parts working together.  The first part we have to train is our mind.  We have to learn to just be in the dojo doing the technique or kata that we are practicing.  We can’t be making a shopping list or planning dinner or figuring out tomorrow’s work schedule or deciding what to watch on TV tonight.  We have to in the dojo practicing.  

We want to let go of all the other things we could be doing, and do this one thing we have chosen to be doing.  Initially, the one thing we are focusing on my be how we walk, or how we hold our head or how we swing the sword.  Over time, with focus (!) we can integrate these things so holding our head in the appropriate position and how we walk become one thing.  Then we get better at swinging the sword so we are holding our head and bodies in good posture while walking and swinging the sword in one action that we are focusing on.  Or it is drawing our partner slightly off her base as we interpose our foot between her foot and its next targeted step while maintaining our own balance, posture and proper movement.

No matter how far I progress, if I try to do more than one thing at a time, even if it is just thinking about something other than my physical activity, my physical activity suffers.  In the dojo, this means I get thrown during Judo or hit with a stick during Jodo or whacked with a sword during kenjutsu.  I’m better at focusing and just doing one thing than I used to be, but I still have a long way to go until I’m satisfied.

The surprising thing is that the more we work on focusing on just doing one thing, the better we get at everything.  With practice our ability to focus and concentrate improves, and it gets easier to let distractions float by without giving them our attention.  As we get better at this, we get better at mastering whatever it is that we are actually doing.  The time in the dojo is concentrated focusing time, whether we are doing judo or kenjutsu or iaido or whatever.  As we get better at focusing that plugs into better training results.  We get closer to achieving the goal of flow, or mushin, where we are just there, doing what we are doing without overthinking it and without being bothered by outside thoughts.

I really recommend “The Art Of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin.  He does a phenomenal job of describing the real work that goes into getting to a state of mushin or flow.  In addition, he is a great story teller who is just plain enjoyable to read.  Getting to a state of flow or mushin is  not an easy process, but he does a nice job of showing how to get there.  If we try to do more than one thing at a time though, it’s an unattainable goal.  Multitasking just takes us down a road that leads further and further from the goal.

Don’t be lured into trying to multitask.  We know it’s a siren song that will wreck learning in the dojo and our ability to get things done outside the dojo.  Multitasking doesn’t work.  Just do one thing at a time, and then you can do it well. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Budo, the Mental Side

People talk a lot about the physical technique of budo. Budo is obviously a physical art, with techniques designed to handle the very real and serious business of violence.  Depending on the martial art you could be learning striking, throwing, joint locking, or any of the myriad of weapons that are taught in the various martial arts.  Before one can use those techniques in a real way however, development of physical technique must be paired with development of mental technique.  If you mind is not properly prepared and ready, the technique will not be there.  You can’t be thinking too much about what you are doing, and you can’t blank and forget everything either.

Ironically, the mental state that is the goal in classical Japanese martial arts is mushin無心、most often translated as “no mind”.  Better writers and far greater martial artists have written numerous treatises on mushin, so I’ll just say that it is a calm, quiet mind that reflects what is around it without imposing assumptions.  Good practice will help develop this mental quality, but I would say that that mushin is much harder to develop than good technique, and frankly, much more useful.  Violence is a rare occurrence in the industrialized world, but we need our minds all the time.

This is the mental side of what is ostensibly a physical practice.  It’s also the head fake of good training practices.  When we start our training, we are so excited by the physical techniques, and so busy trying to master them, that we hardly notice that we are training our minds at the same time. The mind and the body are really one, so what is happening with one is always reflected in the other.  If we are training and forging our body, we are necessarily also training our mind.  The question, and what sets budo and other michi apart from mere sports, is “Does our training have effects beyond the dojo.”  The answer, certainly, is yes.  Martial artists and other teachers have been talking about this in Japan for hundreds of years.  Yagyu Munenori, Miyamoto Musashi, and Takuan Soho are just a few of the older, and greatest writers on the subject. 

When we train physical technique, whether it is kata or freeform, we strive to master our breathing and to keep our mind quiet and relaxed but as ready as our muscles have to be.  This is often hardly treated in regular practice, hidden within kata that we repeat and repeat until we no longer have to think about the physical movements.  (And if you think your art doesn’t include kata, what do you think those repetitions of structured exercises are?).  As we become more familiar with the movements, we strip away more and more physical input from them.  When we are first learning the motions, we stiffen and tense our whole body, activating muscles that have nothing to do with the motions being practiced.  As we train, we strip more and more of this excess input out of technique, becoming faster, more efficient and effective.  Each time we stop activating unnecessary muscles, we reduce counterproductive activity.  When we activate muscles that aren’t necessary, at best we waste energy and at worst we are actively working against ourselves, weakening the effect of the necessary muscles, causing unbalances in our posture, and ruining our technique.  Is it possible training could help us do that same thing mentally?  That we could learn to deactivate the unnecessary, wasteful parts of our minds?

Practicing recently, I was working on an iai kata that assumes 3 adversaries.  You have to move your attention from adversary to adversary without becoming stuck on any of them.  When I would allow my attention to stick to the middle adversary, the quality of my cuts to the sides became so bad I’m not sure they would raise bruises, much less actually cut.  Your attention has to be fluid, but not scattered.  In this particular kata, the three adversaries are ranged in front of you.  You approach with open attention, aware of all of them without strongly focusing on any one. The first cut and your attention go to the adversary on your right.  The next cut is to the adversary on your left, but while moving your attention from the right to the left, you must allow your focus to strike the adversary in the middle, to make him react to the possibility that you are coming for him and to allow you the chance to react if the middle adversary is able to attack you already. You can’t let your attention stick to him though.  It has to strike him and move on. This has to be accomplished in the time it takes to sweep your sword around to the left so that you can transfer your attention to the adversary there.  If you don’t get your attention moved, you won’t have ki-ken-tai icchi 気剣体 一致, or unified mind, body and sword (I know, I’m taking a liberty translating as mind in this case, but if you have more effective translation, please share it).  If your attention sticks to any of the adversaries, the lack of focus in your mind is immediately reflected in your body.  

On this occasion, that means my cuts fell apart completely.  I swung the sword, but it was a poor imitation of the movement I should have been making.  The mind guides the body, and once my mind was tuned to something besides where it should have been focused, my body’s integration and technique collapsed.  Once the mind was no longer guiding the body, there was nothing to integrate my movement and make it effective.  The speed with which this was reflected from my body as my technique fell apart, back to my mind for the third cut, was amazing.  By the third cut my mind was completely rattled from the poor performance of the second cut and I probably would have been better off not even attempting it.  My mind was busy trying to reorganize my body structure and integration so I could make a good cut, but because it was focused on my body rather than on the project of cutting, my third cut was even less effective than the second. 
The next time through the kata I kept my focus moving.  As I swept the sword from the right to the left I let my gaze slam into the middle adversary but didn’t let it stop there.  When I swung the sword to the left my gaze and my mind were right there with my body and the sword, moving together.  When the cut was done I immediately moved my focus back to the middle adversary and the sword followed.  When I did the cut it was completely on my terms and fully integrated.  It felt great. The trick now is to keep that sort of mind and body integration all the time, not just when I’m swinging a sword.

When I’m training regularly the control of my breathing and the mental stillness that I strive for in the dojo become habits that I automatically reach for and use when I’m out of the dojo. I know that I’m calmer when I’m training regularly.  In the dojo I work to breath and stay calm while people are trying to throw me or to hit me with sticks.  In Judo if I don’t stay calm during randori I get winded quickly and find myself focusing on getting another breath rather than what my partner is trying to do.  In Jodo I have to stay calm and control my breathing or else I find myself trying to take a breath when I should be getting out of the way of someone who is trying to whack me in the head.  This is a fairly stressful environment in which to practice these things, but that’s good.  It means that when you are in a stressful environment outside of practice you’ll be accustomed to dealing with the stress.

The breathing practice and mental stillness that are required for effective budo are great things outside the dojo, just as much as being in good physical condition is.  We spend some time in our society teaching people how to hold their body and we value good physical posture and movement. We spend no time at all teaching people how to relax and control their mind and take effective metal postures. In the dojo, the mental “Do” side of practice is just as important as the physical training.  It may be more important, since we don’t have business chains all over the place offering to develop our mental strength and posture.  Practicing the calm, clear, placid, reflecting mind that is required of any “Do”, martial or otherwise, and that is especially important for effective responses in “Bu”, is also tremendously useful outside the dojo.  It’s wonderful to be able to remain calm and unruffled while everyone around you is losing control.  

When my focus fell apart during the kata, all it took was a breath to relax me and pull my focus and my body back together.  In the grand world outside the dojo, all it takes for me to pull my mind and body together and bring them into a relaxed, unified posture is a breath or two as well.  The most difficult thing sometimes is remembering to take that calming breath.  It’s easy to get lost in the emotion of argument, especially when someone is attacking you.  The longer I train though, the more likely I am to be more disturbed by a disorganized mind/body state than I am by the argument, even if I’m busy trying to defend myself from a verbal attack.  The great side benefit of this is that when someone is verbally attacking you, they want you to be intimidated. They will be looking for the physical cues of intimidation or of defense.  If you take that breath and relax your mind into your body, you become physically relaxed.  Once you are relaxed, you are in control of yourself, and you can choose how to respond.  If you are relaxed in mind and body, you can respond to the situation fluidly without getting stuck on any part of the interaction.  Being relaxed, you have the possibility of being confident in your response because you are choosing it, not just reacting.  You are relaxed and responding as you see fit, rather than being herded by someone who is expecting a tense, off-balance response.  Often this failure to react as expected to their script is all it takes to make a verbal aggressor back off.
This is one of the more extreme day-to-day applications of budo training, but the basic technique is available to a budo practitioner throughout life, whatever she is struggling with..  Tension and lack of focus attack all the time, usually without as clear a source as someone yelling at us.  The more we train, the more quickly and easily we can reintegrate our mind and bodies, relax them, release unnecessary tension and activity from our awareness and move forward to clearly respond to the world as it truly is, rather than as our tension filled minds would like to view it.

This may be the greatest benefit of budo training.  As we learn to relax our minds, we learn to release our preconceptions so we can see the world as it is, rather than as we think it is.  This is the mind like a calm, smooth pond.  It clearly and properly reflects the world around it without distorting anything.  If the pond is disturbed, it moves this way and that distorting the reflection of everything.  As we practice budo, we work to keep our bodies calm so that we can respond accurately and appropriately to anything our partner does.  As we do this, often without being aware of it, we are also training our minds to be calm like that pond so we can respond to anything appropriately without the activity of our own mind distorting our vision or our actions.  The first big step is when we can consciously recognize that we are upset need to relax, and we can choose to take that breath or two that is necessary to restore our calm, placid mind.  The next big step is when we take that breath before we are aware that we need it.  When we start doing that, we may be starting to master a portion of budo.