The word “mushin” is comprised of two kanji characters – “無” (mu), meaning “nothingness”, and “心” (shin), meaning “heart,” “spirit,” or, in this case “mind.” In this way, mushin can be roughly translated to “nothing mind” or “no mind.” It comes from a longer phrase used in Zen Buddhism, “無心の心”(mushin no shin), or “mind of no mind.”
So what does this mean exactly? Why might it be important? Mushin is a mental state where your mind is empty of all thoughts, all desires, and all assumptions. When your mind is clear, you are free from your ego and are able to act spontaneously and fluidly. This is a concept that is important to martial arts, and it prevalent throughout many other traditional Japanese arts such as ikebana (生け花, flower arrangement) and shodo (書道, calligraphy). In this article, I will further illustrate this concept, drawing both on Zen Buddhist philosophy and my own personal experiences as a practitioner of aikido.
An early description of mushin comes from the famous Zen Buddist monk and accomplished swordsman, Takuan Soho (1573-1645) in The Unfettered Mind. In this work, he connects aspects of Zen Buddhism with martial arts. The following paragraph provides an excellent explanation of what goes on in the mind of a swordsman when they are in a state of mushin.
“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.”
A more recent interpretation of Takuan Soho’s view on mushin is included in the manga Vagabond, written and illustrated by Takehiko Inoue (and based off of Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi novels). Takuan Soho is said to have been a friend and advisor to Miyamoto Musashi, expert swordsman and author of The Book of Five Rings. In the fictionalized conversation between the two of them below, Takuan tells Musashi not to be “preoccupied with a single spot.” If you are preoccupied, you lose mushin, and are not able to act effortlessly to any situation.
Now, before we move on, I know some of you might be wondering, “How in the world does this work?” Is it possible to be an expert swordsman only by training the mind and achieving mushin? No, that’s not it at all. Of course mental training is important, but you can’t defeat someone in a physical fight by using the mind alone. Actual technique has to be learned to begin with in order to “forget it.” It is similar to the less complex act of riding a bike: once you know how you can ride without thinking. However, you need to learn what to do first, and to do so you do need to use your consciousness to become familiar with the bodily movements of riding a bike before you can ride effortlessly. It might mean a few falls and scrapes at first, but, as time goes on, you become more and more fluid and effortless in your movements. It is something that I am constantly working on with my aikido practice.
Creating a mental state of mushin is very important to me as a practitioner of aikido (合気道), a martial art of self-defense founded in Japan by Morihei Ueshiba (also called O-Sensei, or “great teacher”). If someone attacks me by trying to punch me in the face, I cannot consciously think “Oh, I’m being punched in the face. What should I do?” There is no time for that. I cannot think about what the other person is doing nor what I should do to complete a perfect kokyu-nage defense. If I pause to think at all, my face is done for. Instead, I am supposed to just act – spontaneously and fluidly, without any thoughts to distract me from the moment. The same goes for any other practitioner of a martial art.
So how can I hope to achieve this effortless state? The answer is through dedicated practice. One needs to practice so much that technique becomes instinct or second nature. One of the ways of doing this is through kihon (基本), or basics. In Wadokai Aikido, we have aikido exercises, called taiso (体操), which originated from Koichi Tohei, one of O-Sensei’s senior students. By practicing these movements, we are building “muscle memory” and become familiar with basic foot and body movements (ashi-sabaki, 足さばき, and te-sabaki, 手さばき, respectively). This, in turn, helps us with our waza (技), or techniques, which we practice with different partners in the dojo, and further helps us with our muscle memory and awareness of that to do in various situations. The more we practice, the less conscious we become with our movements, which is similar to the analogy of learning to ride a bike.
In addition to basics, freestyle practice against an opponent or opponents is also very important to the idea of mushin. As I have said before, with mushin, the mind has no expectations and no assumptions. On the street, we cannot anticipate what someone will do, which is why achieving a state of mind where techniques can freely flow is so important. Kumite (組み手) is a word used for sparring, and you will likely hear it in a karate dojo. In aikido, we have randori (乱取り), which is a word we use for defense against multiple attackers. In randori, we do not know who is going to attack next, or how they are going to attack. We need to empty our minds and not anticipate, only act, using the tools we have collected and sharpened in our basic practice. Oftentimes through kumite and randori, there is no time to think, so we begin to naturally enter into a state of mushin.
In addition to actual practice, which is both physical and mental, tools like meditation can help us clear our thoughts in preparation for training. It is also a healthy tool that can be used to help anyone, martial artist or not, in achieving mental states that allow for calmness, creativity, and awareness.
The concept of mushin is not only meant for the dedicated martial artist, but can be applied to other arts and disciplines as well. As I mentioned before, mushin is also important to traditional Japanese arts such as ikebana and shodo. Discipline and a keen awareness of the present moment are both very important to these arts. Through mushin, artists achieve great mindfulness and sensitivity. When their mind is clear, their work is intuitive and flows from the subconscious.
While mushin is a Japanese concept rooted in Zen Buddhism, I also believe that it can be seen throughout many different arts and disciplines throughout the world. Whenever athletes are “in the zone,” they must be experiencing mushin. They aren’t consciously thinking, just doing, and the extreme clarity they experience is just described by different words. The same may be said of actors whenever they improvise. They must clear their minds of all ego so they can quickly and appropriately respond to situations.
Mushin is a very useful concept and can be applied in so many different situations. Whatever your discipline is, if you continue to practice in a way that is dedicated, mindful, and without ego, then perhaps you can experience mushin too. It’s something to think (or not think) about at least!