Mushin

The Unfettered Mind

Mushin (‘without mind’) is a mental state into which very highly trained martial artists are said to enter during combat. They also practice this mental state during everyday activities. The term is shortened from’ mushin no shin,’ a Zen expression meaning the mind without mind and is also referred to as the state of ‘no-mindness.’ That is, a mind not fixed or occupied by thought or emotion and thus open to everything. It is somewhat analogous to ‘flow’ experienced by artists deeply in a creative process, or athletes being ‘in the zone’ while playing a sport.

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 what is felt intuitively. 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 intentions, plans or direction. In analogy a clear mind is compared to a still pond, which is able to clearly reflect the moon and trees. But just as waves in the pond will distort the picture of reality, so will the thoughts we hold onto disrupt the true perception of reality.

A martial artist would likely have to train for many years to be capable of maintained mushin. This allows time for combinations of movements and exchanges of techniques to be practiced repetitively many thousands of times, until they can be performed spontaneously, without conscious thought, thus changing your natural reactions to be more effective in combat or whatever else you may be doing. 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, that person 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, particularly those practising Japanese martial arts such as karate or iaijutsu, 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 practicing or studying 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.

Mushin is very closely related to another state of mind known as heijoshin, wherein a complete balance and harmony is attained in one’s life through mental discipline. Musashi Miyamoto, the great swordsman, alluded to these mental states briefly, and his conversations with his young disciple, Jotaro, were often repeated in Japanese folklore as lessons to be learned for the practice of one’s life. Mushin and heijoshin are closely related to the teachings of Buddhism, specifically Zen teachings, and indeed the more mental aspects and attributes draw heavily from these philosophies.

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