Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Saturday, June 04, 2022

Mushin: No Mind

At Beyond Calligraphy, there was an article about the meaning of the word "mushin" and it's application to martial arts and calligraphy. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.

I started martial arts (jujutsu) with my Dad when I was five. At age seven I was enrolled in a judo school, populated by mostly Japanese-American children, who became my friends. My first exposure to the word “mushin” was in association with Japanese and Japanese-American martial arts teachers and their kids.

I spent hours each week with them and their families, at the dojo and in their homes. I grew up around chopsticks and inari sushi, Zatoichi movies and shodo on the walls. And mushin.

I’d heard the word in judo, but it wasn’t taught. Later, I read about it in martial arts books, but it’s not an easy concept to wrap your head around. But I knew even then it was important.

Then one day something peculiar happened. I was a teen training for an important judo tournament: the A.A.U. Junior Olympics. Back then in the U.S. the Amateur Athletic Union sponsored an Olympics for young people in multiple sports. Judo, being an Olympic sport, was one of them, and competition occurred at district and regional levels. I’d won a gold medal in the district competition, representing the judoists in my town, which qualified me to compete in the regional Junior Olympics encompassing a much larger area.

It was my final match against a hard-hitting competitor. We’d been trading throws for a while, neither able to score, when suddenly my opponent was on his back with me over him, poised to crash down and pin him to the ground.

I had no idea what happened, other than I could hear my kiai, a loud guttural shout used in judo, and the referee roaring “Ippon!” I’d won the match by a full point (ippon) and another gold medal.

Not a clue as to how I did it.

But with the match over, details came to me. My favorite technique I drilled hundreds of times daily was o soto gari, “major outer reap.” It involves using your leg to sweep an opponent’s leg out from under him or her, resulting in the person being walloped onto their back. I saw an opening to use it, and my rival was down. But it felt like frames missing from a film. One second we were standing and the next he wasn’t, with no conscious thought and nothing in-between.

How did that happen?! Then I remembered mushin.

Mushin describes a state of mind similar to my tournament experience, a condition in which action occurs naturally, instantaneously, and without conscious forethought. Back then I thought it was specifically a martial arts term. It’s not.

If anything, it might have originated in Zen, shortened from mushin no shin (無心の心)—“a mind without mind, a mind of no mind”—an emblematic Zen conundrum. Despite what’s commonly believed, although Zen had a big influence on some ancient martial arts schools, every samurai didn’t universally feel its impact; many actually favored esoteric Shingon Buddhism. Regardless, even if Zen didn’t inspire all ancient martial arts, it did influence some, along with tea ceremony and other Japanese arts. Today, mushin’s referenced in manifold art forms in Japan, not just martial arts, and just as widely misunderstood. Let’s consider the confusion while we continue looking at what mushin is.


If our engine is idling, if the mind is empty—mushin, experiencing mu—then how did I throw my opponent as mentioned earlier? What acted? Not conscious thought, because I didn’t initially know how I did it.
But something made my body move in the right way, at the right place, and at the right time . . . pretty much a definition of effective action. But what acts?

Long ago in Japan, people interested in meditation and art forms potentially related to meditation—like martial arts and shodo—came up with analogies, metaphors, fables, and the like to explain what acts when the mind’s empty. Some of it is useful, some confusing, but rarely has it been updated for the 21st century. While I’m not suggesting abandoning timeworn accounts of mushin, I think it makes sense to use modern-day science and psychology to help us understand it. Unfortunately, the relationship between mushin and action isn’t a hot topic in scientific circles.

That, however, doesn’t mean the average person has no tools to fathom this. We know we have conscious and subconscious parts of the mind. We’re more aware of the conscious component, but we know the subconscious sways conscious action. You may have also heard of artists and musicians contriving unusual methods to “get the conscious mind out of the way,” so their art could stem from their unconscious. And quite a few of you probably know that repeated acts build up in the subconscious to become unconscious habits. We use these habits everyday, just as I’m using my subconscious to type without staring at the keyboard.

What’s more, you may have experienced trying to use a cultivated habit, only to be distracted by consciously thinking too much about what you’re doing. This is the absence of mushin. Not what I did or experienced in my judo example.

When I threw the other person my mind must have been in the present to recognize the opportunity to use my favorite technique. And remember, I drilled this skill everyday, creating a subconscious habit. So in a heightened state of perception, a state of not consciously thinking about the past or future, my subconscious noticed an opportunity to use a technique I’d practiced to the point of unconscious habit, and trained reflexes instantly took over. Some might label this “muscle memory,” a popular term these days for what is really motor learning.

Unfortunately, muscle memory implies that the body moves the mind, that the muscle has a brain. Probably not strictly accurate, it negates understanding of the subconscious. And that’s what really acts, but there’s still evidence of motor learning, an activity that’s been extensively studied in science.

It’s all about repetition, part of the reason I’ve spent over 30 years repeating basic brush strokes in shodo. But there’s more to it than that from a psychological and neurological perspective. The neuroanatomy of memory is unconscious and extensive throughout our brains. The conduits essential to motor memory are detached from the medial temporal lobe pathways connected with long-term memory: in this case conscious, deliberate recall of accurate information, past experiences, and ideas. Similarly, motor memory is hypothesized to have two stages: a short-term memory-encoding phase that’s unstable and vulnerable to loss, and a long-term memory consolidation phase that’s more secure. Simply, habits become stronger with additional repetition over time.

The initial so-called memory-encoding phase is what some term “motor learning.” To make it happen, we need an upsurge in brain activity in motor areas along with enhanced concentration. Brain areas operating throughout motor learning encompass the motor and somatosensory cortices. Nonetheless, these areas of operation decline once the motor skill is developed.

The prefrontal and frontal cortices are likewise operating throughout this phase owing to the need for augmented attentiveness tied to the undertaking being trained. But the central area related to motor learning is the cerebellum, a section of the brain involved in motor control. The basal ganglia, associated with thought, emotion, and voluntary motor movement, is also crucial to so-called muscle memory, in particular to stimulus-response associations and the development of habits. The basal ganglia-cerebellar networks are believed to intensify with time when absorbing a motor skill like shodo.

Over time, there’s a consolidation of muscle memory in the brain that forms habits. The how of this isn’t agreed upon by scientists, but everyone acknowledges that it takes place.

The takeaway is that when we do something difficult we tend to focus strongly on it. If we do this long enough and often enough, we create a subliminal pattern of action that’s encoded in the brain-muscle network as a subconscious habit. I don’t believe that the muscle literally remembers, but it’s clear the subconscious mind maintains records, as in the bike you never forgot how to ride.

Sadly, it’s not that simple.

Our conscious mind, specifically our thoughts, often gets in the way of motor learning, muscle memory, mushin, or whatever you call appropriate and spontaneous action. If this were not the case, given time we’d be experts at anything we tried, and we’d never screw up. But we do, and mushin ties into getting the conscious at least momentarily out of the way so unconscious ingrained habits can work for us. How do we do that?

  • First, seriously drill whatever it is you want to acquire. (And don’t get complacent after a few years and slack off.)
  • Second, bring the mind into the present, especially during the moment of performance. (This reduces pointless thoughts, which are frequently associated with the past or future. Don’t think yourself out of succeeding.)
  • Third, relax but not in the sense of limpness of mind or body. Relaxing in a manner that’s not tense/not limp is vital for getting the conscious mind out of the way so unconscious habits can manifest themselves.

Do this and you’re on the way to discovering mushin.


No comments: