Mindfulness & No-Mindedness (Mushin)

In recent years, mindfulness has become a hot topic in the United States with more people discussing the idea of “living in the moment” and seemingly fewer people than ever actually doing it. 

Mindfulness is the act of consciously directing your awareness to what you are doing at that moment. We have more distractions than ever in our lives today, and that has led to a society of people that seem to never be in the moment. 

Let’s take a look at eating as an example. Mindful eating is not the same as being aware you are eating. For the most part, I think all of us are aware of the fact that we are eating when we are eating. How many of us though are consciously directing our awareness towards eating while doing so? If you are watching TV or looking at your phone, then you are not mindful of eating, and that can lead to overeating, not sufficiently chewing your food, or eating too quickly. Not to mention you can enjoy and savor your meal much more if you are mindful!

This absent-minded behavior rampant in our society is partially due to our smartphones - we look at them at sporting events instead of watching the game. We look at them at the movie theater and restaurants, and, my least favorite, we pull out our phones while having a conversation with someone.  I know I am not the only one that has recognized this and pointed it out. There are many news articles, blog articles and YouTube videos about waking up, looking up and trying to cure the twitch of checking our phones. There are problems here that go even deeper, however. When we are not entirely conscious of our experiences and engagements, it can be detrimental to our mental health and the health of our relationships.

Let’s look at relationships for example. One of the top ways we hurt the people closest to us is by lashing out when we get frustrated. While many people will write this off as an anger management or stress issue, often it boils down to consciousness. We have to be acutely aware of every moment. 

When something is not going “our way,” if we are not conscious at that moment, then we will react negatively. The reaction that comes out is resistance to being triggered negatively and things not being the way we want them to be. In contrast, had we been conscious in that moment, we could have made the recognition that “it is what it is” and we can flow with it.

This idea was discussed in a recent article by Psychology Today, and when you have a few minutes I recommend you give the whole article a read -

Here is an excerpt:

“Perhaps the most complete way of living in the moment is the state of total absorption psychologists call flow. Flow occurs when you're so engrossed in a task that you lose track of everything else around you. Flow embodies an apparent paradox: How can you be living in the moment if you're not even aware of the moment? The depth of engagement absorbs you powerfully, keeping attention so focused that distractions cannot penetrate. You focus so intensely on what you're doing that you're unaware of the passage of time. Hours can pass without you noticing.”

Learning to flow can be tough, but as martial artists, we have a rare opportunity to master it. In martial arts, we have something called “mushin.” Short for “mushin no shin," it translates to "the mind without mind." This concept is critical in fighting. A martial artist will perform at his highest potential if he can enter into a state of mind where he is fully aware and mindful of the present moment he is in but does not have to think about how to perform his techniques consciously. In fact, some fighters reach a level in which they don’t even think of which techniques to execute. They are just reacting much like your eyelid closes when something moves towards your eye.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioners use this word “flow” all the time! We use it to discuss someone’s ability to smoothly transition from position to position but also their ability to flow with their opponent. In Jiu Jitsu, which translates to “the gentle art,” we try to use an opponent’s movements against him rather than resist his moves. 

So while reacting in an argument can be detrimental, in martial arts it is our ultimate goal to be able to just react - except we would like it to be with the proper reactions. You see, this only works when mastery of the skill set being deployed is attained to the point that the reflexes become the techniques he’d like to use. In a fight, if thought is necessary to choose a technique, then it is probably too late. By training ourselves to determine the correct reaction, eventually, this will become our instinctive reaction of dealing with that scenario.

While in a way “mushin” may seem like the opposite of mindfulness, this type of training may be one of the strongest tools in developing it. Mindfulness takes much practice. By training ourselves on the mat week in and week out to put ourselves into a calm state of mind, ready to “flow” with a situation and react with trained responses, we are also preparing to handle daily interactions mindfully.

Exercise: Throughout this week be mindful of each aspect of our daily lives from the mundane to the exciting. Be mindful while eating. Be mindful during conversations. For those of you training, put your focus while training this week on training towards mushin. Repetition, repetition, repetition. But remember “practice doesn’t make perfect,” “perfect practice makes perfect.” So practice mindfully and get the most out of each training session. If you are at a stage of your training that involves sparring, try to enter into that state of mushin while sparring this week, but only if the necessary groundwork has gone into your training first. This is why it’s important to not rush into sparring and to develop a strong foundation first.

Using the “10,000-Hour Rule” and the “20-Hour Rule" to Your Advantage

Malcolm Gladwell, the author of “Outliers,” proposed years ago after studying experts in many different fields that on average it takes a person 10,000 hours to achieve excellence at his job or hobby.

This concept is so important for us to remember as martial artists. It helps to prevent frustration along the journey when we are not improving as fast as we think we should be. It’s a long process, and it takes a ton of practice, but time is going to pass anyway so why not be a talented black belt in a martial art ten years from now?

It helps to remember the five steps to learning martial arts (or anything!): 

1. Learn
2. Practice
3. Master (Mushin)
4. Functionalize
5. Maintain

If we have adopted the martial arts way of life, and plan on continuing to train martial arts after receiving our Black Belts (maintain), then what is the rush?

Every practice will be focused on improving your skill and technique, regardless of the color belt that is around your waist. So take your time, enjoy the process, and keep chugging along towards your 10,000 hours.

Now, this past week I’ve been talking about a concept from this video I recently watched about learning anything in 20 hours. The concept is that the 10,000-hour rule came from looking at the elite performers in a given area, but if you are a white belt walking into your first martial arts class the situation is entirely different.

While it may take you 10,000 hours to become an Olympic Gold Medalist like Helen Maroulis, within 20 hours, you could learn to wrestle really well compared to where you are right now. I have seen it happen so many times with new students.

Without a doubt, a new Jiu Jitsu student after 20 classes would demolish their former selves in a grappling match. After just 20 lessons! But they won’t often see it that way because they are too busy comparing themselves to the other people around them who are also improving every class, and many of whom are farther along the journey then they are.

So I propose that you keep both the 10,000-hour rule and the 20-hour rule in mind, and use them to your advantage. Remember that it will take 10,000 hours to reach excellence, but 20 hours of solid practice can make a huge impact on your skill level. 

Since you are likely already 20 hours into your martial arts training, you should use this rule for more specific skill-sets within the martial arts.

Want to get better at kicking? Spend 20 solid hours working on your kicks this month, and I bet there will be a huge improvement.

How about guard passing? Spend 20 hours this month practicing your guard passing with a partner, and starting every roll inside your partner’s guard. There will be a massive improvement.

Want to improve your forms? I think you get the idea…

It is normal to get frustrated with your progress, but when was the last time you spent 20 committed hours to developing or improving one skill? Next time you see an area in your life that could use some improvement, don’t whine about it. Fix it!

You don’t need the perfect workout plan or a magic diet. There usually aren’t any secrets behind the curtain, just many hours of hard work and discipline. Sometimes 20, and sometimes 10,000.

And if you haven't started your martial arts journey yet? What are you waiting for!?

Zen and the Martial Arts Way of Life

*On February 19, 2017, Linda received her Black Belt in FILKENJUTSU Kenpo at Progressive Martial Arts Academy. This was written by Linda in the preparation process.

Most people would probably agree that being in good health ranks high in things that can contribute to a happier and longer life.  So in general people may seek to adapt an exercise and or nutrition regimen to achieve this goal.  

On my personal path to becoming healthier, I began training in martial arts. The more I train, the better physically conditioned I become, my self-confidence is improved, and I feel empowered as I continue to build my self-defense skills.  

Linda performing a push up exercise with cinderblocks.

Linda performing a push up exercise with cinderblocks.

But what else can I add to achieve overall well-being? 

A few years ago, I was given a book by my instructor, my Sifu, entitled “Zen in the Martial Arts,” (Hyams, 1979).  The only thing I knew about Zen was that it included some kind of meditation and peace. Meditation was not something I incorporated into my daily life.  

After reading this book, I found that Zen is not easy to define, so it was something that intrigued me to explore further.  I can now see that employing tools and methods of Zen can enhance someone’s life in general or as part of the martial arts way of life.  

Linda receiving a promotion from her SiFu, David Corrigan.

Linda receiving a promotion from her SiFu, David Corrigan.

Originally Zen was just one way, of many, that Buddhists incorporated in their religion to attain liberation from delusion and suffering and ultimately find enlightenment.   According to “The Zen Way of Life,” (ZenBegin, 2014), Zen Buddhism originated from India in the 6th century.  It began with the Prince, Siddhartha Gautama, who left his riches and his life at the palace to embark on a spiritual journey.  He became a monk on a quest to find the real nature of all things through thought, meditation, and fasting.  He was regarded as the enlightened one, otherwise known as Buddha.  

Bodhidharma, who was one of Buddha’s successors, traveled to China to spread Buddha’s teachings, “the Dharma,” which they named Chan.  The teachings of Buddhism and even Zen already existed in China but the idea that Zen pointed directly to the mind to reveal one’s true nature was introduced.  

Bodhidharma was trying to portray the nature of emptiness, the absence of self, and the truth in everything as well as other Zen teachings to find enlightenment.  As noted in “Everything Zen Book,” (Sach & Faust, 2004), Bodhidharma was credited with being the first Zen patriarch to China and also credited with being the founder of martial arts because of the physical and spiritual training he provided to the Shaolin monks.   

In the twelfth century, Bodhidharma’s teachings on Zen spread to Japan and the Samurai Warriors.  The Japanese knew Bodhidharma as Daruma. 

After receiving her Black Belt, Linda presented a gift to her teacher and academy featuring Daruma/Bodhidharma's famous words, "To Fall Seven Times. To Rise Eight Times. Life Begins Now."

After receiving her Black Belt, Linda presented a gift to her teacher and academy featuring Daruma/Bodhidharma's famous words, "To Fall Seven Times. To Rise Eight Times. Life Begins Now."

The Samurai class used Zen to become aware of the nature of things to be able to move without hesitation in battle.  According to the “Everything Zen Book,” (Sach & Faust, 2004), there were two schools of Zen in Japan.  The Rinzai and the Soto schools which are still very prominent in Japan today.  The difference in them is the view of approaching the mind of enlightenment.  

The school of Rinzai believes Zen happens at one great moment and the Soto school believes Zen occurs in little flashes.  In Japan, Chan was pronounced Zen, and this is the name we know of today.  Although Zen meditation and its beliefs were used by Buddhists to achieve the liberation of truth, today it has evolved into so much more.  

Three Asian immigrants, Zen masters Roshi,  Harada, and Roshi Yasutani, introduced Zen Buddhism to the West.  And although there are many Americans that practice Zen Buddhism as a religion, there are also many Americans that have just adapted the principles of Zen in their everyday living to live more wisely and more fully.   

Linda with two of her training partners, Brittany and Kristie, at the Secret City Half Marathon.

Linda with two of her training partners, Brittany and Kristie, at the Secret City Half Marathon.

To the latter group, the Zen practice is more methods and tools to change a mindset and behavior to achieve enlightenment rather than a religion.  

As stated in “Zen in the Martial Arts,” (Hyams, 1979), it is interesting to see that methods and principles of Zen have become part of the martial arts way of life.  Several styles of the martial arts have the ending of “do” which means “the way” or more fully “the way to enlightenment, self- realization, or understanding.”  For example, Aikido, Judo, Taekwondo, Jeet Kune Do, etc. Zen can be thought of as a state of mind or attitude when confronting circumstances in any situation.  

So how does Zen relate to martial arts, when a martial artist is viewed as a warrior, but Zen portrays tranquility and peace?  

In actuality, the martial arts places lots of emphasis on discipline, awareness, and unity, over fighting.  The connection in the Zen and the martial arts is in the mental training. Therefore, Zen can become an invaluable tool for any martial artist.  

Linda served 6 years in the United States Navy.

Linda served 6 years in the United States Navy.

Detailed below from “The Four States of Mind,” (Roadtoepic, 2012) are just a few of the many methods and states of mind or consciousness one can practice to achieve Zen in a martial arts way of life.  Although one can read about countless ways to achieve Zen, ultimately Zen is something only one can experience intuitively.  It is not about thinking but about telling your mind to be still to attain insight.

 In Japan, the word Shoshin is referred to as “beginners mind.”  This is described as entering a situation without a preconceived notion or expectations of how the situation is going to play out.   This helps us from over thinking or over analyzing the situation. It also helps us to think outside the box and therefore be open to learning and new ideas. 

According to “Zen in the Martial Arts,” (Hyams, 1979), Bruce Lee was a student of Zen, and one of the lessons he mastered was to always approach a situation or a training session with an “empty cup” or a beginners mind.  He studied many forms of martial arts and took from each the techniques that he found useful. He was always learning because he approached things in the Shoshin state of mind.  

Linda and her son, Jared, at a PMA Christmas Party.

Linda and her son, Jared, at a PMA Christmas Party.

Zanshin is the state of mind where one is aware of their surroundings and their emotions to have more freedom in the way they choose to respond.  This translates to “remaining mind.”  One application of Zanshin in martial arts can be when you are fighting an opponent you are focused on them, but not so much that your focus takes you away from also being aware of an attacker that may be coming up from behind.  It is about achieving a focus while keeping a mental awareness with unity and flow.  

Linda and her sister, Tanairi, after running in the Ninja 5K.

Linda and her sister, Tanairi, after running in the Ninja 5K.

Another state of mind in Zen is referred to as Mushin.  Mushin can be described as having “no mind.”  One can think of it as getting to the point of doing something effortless.  A way to achieve Mushin is by practicing something to the point that it becomes automatic or second nature.   

A lot of athletes are said to experience Mushin when they are “in the zone.” When one becomes what it is they are doing, then it is thought to be in the zone, “Everything Zen Book,” (Sach & Faust, 2004).  I believe I have experienced Mushin when running but I didn’t know that is what it was. Often my mind quiets and frees itself of wandering thoughts during running, so I can embrace nature and travel for miles and miles without realizing the distance I have gone.  It is my desire that I will ultimately experience Mushin in martial arts as I spend more time in the discipline.

Linda with her husband, John, and two sons.

Linda with her husband, John, and two sons.

 One state of mind that can be beneficial in any walk of life is referred to by the Japanese as Fudoshin.  Fudoshin is described as having an immovable mind.  One is said to experience this state of mind when they can easily control themselves under the most stressful situations.    Fudoshin is attaining the ability to remain calm and collective when it seems like the world is falling apart around you. 

 I can see where being in this state of mind can also be critical when your actions can determine your survival.  For example, if there is a house fire, if one has Fudoshin they can remain in control, access the situation and act appropriately to remain unharmed.  

On February 19, 2017, Linda became the 5th female FILKENJUTSU Black Belt. Pictured from left to right: Olivia Cannon, Gracie Hall, Meg Corrigan, Madelyn Fowler, and Linda Davis.

On February 19, 2017, Linda became the 5th female FILKENJUTSU Black Belt. Pictured from left to right: Olivia Cannon, Gracie Hall, Meg Corrigan, Madelyn Fowler, and Linda Davis.

According to “Zen Living,” (Burk, 2014), “The central Zen method is Zazen or seated meditation."  Za means seated, and Zen means meditation. Zazen, when practiced regularly even daily, can be very beneficial. The mind will start to settle the longer one sits.  Beginners may start with 5 to 10 minutes but a normal classic Zazen period is 30 to 40 minutes.  Zazen can be done anywhere, but it is recommended to find a place with minimal distraction to you. It is recommended that you keep your eyes open to avoid daydreaming or drowsiness. Thoughts will come as you meditate, but it is important to let them be passing thoughts and not mull over them.  

Practicing Zazen increases the awareness of mind, building its attention muscles.  Zazen teaches you to declutter your mind and achieve serenity.  With Zazen we try to see things purely, letting go of discrimination and the subjective.  

Linda with her Black Belt Test partner, Gary Hall.

Linda with her Black Belt Test partner, Gary Hall.

In the Western culture, there are other ways people meditate that are different to Zazen.  For example, one might focus on a passage from the Bible and how we can apply the concept to our life.  Some concentrate on repeating a mantra, or some might try to set aside distractions as they focus on visualizing something. 

According to “Zen Living,” (Burk, 2014) “mindfulness is the practice of Zazen except it is done while engaging your daily activities.”  “In contrast, mindfulness is cultivating awareness during an activity; you don’t do Zazen while washing the dishes, you wash the dishes.”  It is being in the present and focusing your awareness on the action you are performing. 

Most people have trouble remembering to be mindful.  Our minds tend to wander to the past or the future and find it difficult to stay in the present.  If we are actively doing something with our body, our mind becomes active as well.  But with mindfulness, one is always taking care of everything around them, whether it be a person or a situation.   

The best way to keep in the present while meditating is to focus on your breathing.  As noted in “Zen in the Martial Arts,” (Hyams, 1979), Zen breathing is a method of controlled or focused breathing that can restore calmness, confidence, and strength.  Visualizing the air entering your body through your nose and entering the lower part of your lungs as it completely fills to the top.  Then imagine the air traveling through your body as it fills every inch of your body and before it leaves your body, you take the next breath.  One cannot force the breathing so that it is unnatural.  This type of breathing has proven to relieve anxiety, fear and even to heal our minds, bodies, and spirits.  Breathing can also be used to manage pain and provide insight into the way your body responds to different situations.  

Doing something with focus and concentration, in other words, being in the present, is a practice of Zen referred to as Kime.  It is the process of tightening the mind. Bruce Lee was quoted in “Zen in the Martial Arts,” (Hyams, 1979) with saying “A good martial artist puts his mind on one thing at a time.”   

Linda learning a Jiu Jitsu technique from her teacher.

Linda learning a Jiu Jitsu technique from her teacher.

Many times I would arrive at martial arts training, and my mind would be drifting elsewhere.  This would interfere with my mental state.  I could not give my all to the technique I was learning because my mind was not in the present.  This hindered my training because I could not retain the information when the class was over.  

I train a lot better now as I leave whatever it is at the door.  I can tell from my experience that practicing Kime helps me retain information and train with enthusiasm.  The same thing can be applied to life in general by staying in the moment of whatever task you are doing from the most mundane to spending time with the family.   
Practicing Zen methods and tools to adjust your attitude and find yourself in any of the Zen states of mind mentioned above can attribute to a healthier quality of life.   It is my desire that these principles that I have reflected on in regards to Zen will make their way into my daily martial arts way of life.   

Linda and SiFu David.

Linda and SiFu David.


Works Cited

Hyams, Joe.  Zen in the Martial Arts.  New York:  Bantam, 1979.  Print.

“The Zen Way of Life, Buddhism.” ZenBegin. 2014. Web. Feb 2017

Sach, Jacky and Jessica Faust. The Everything Zen Book. Massachusetts: F&W Publications Company, 2004. Print

Wik, Adam. “The Four States of Mind.” Roadtoepic. 22 May 2012. Web. Feb 2017

Burk, Domyo Sater. Zen Living. New York: Penguin Group, 2014. Print