Mushin Part 1

Why do people practice martial arts? What do they want to achieve? What’s their goal? When they walk into a dojo, many of them are looking for a system of self-defence. Or maybe they want to get into better shape. Or they want to be able to master an art. Or they want to be able to do something with their bodies that is so powerful and so beautiful that it seems almost magical.

The student enters the dojo environment with all these expectations and more. They hope to master many things, and they expect to be able to monitor their own progress as time goes on. How? The martial arts ranking system. A student moves up in rank as their skill improves; everyone knows that. You get a series of coloured belts that are meant to signify improvement. Every white belt wants to be a yellow belt, every yellow belt wants to be a green belt, every green belt wants to be a brown belt and, of course, everybody wants to be a black belt.

If you face an opponent, you cannot be in Mushin. There are no opponents where there are no thoughts.

Over the past 30 years, the industry has helped promote the idea that every student’s goal is black belt. And with that expectation, it becomes the master’s job is to take raw students and produce black belt students. To some extent, a martial arts program is defined by how many people they train to the level of black belt. This plays very well to the Western mind-set. We love setting goals and keeping track of what we’re doing and where we’re going, how well we’re doing it and what we’re going to achieve next. We do it in our careers. We do it in our hobbies. We do it in our relationships. And so we do it in martial arts.

The problem is, ‘martial arts’ is not Western. Martial arts is ultimately about learning to change your state of consciousness, to develop new and more effective ways of seeing and thinking and acting. There is nothing linear about this type of education. You may be able to track your physical practice through a ranking system, but you cannot measure how practice changes you mentally or emotionally. There is no tool to measure consciousness. Focusing on a progression of coloured belts, advancing from point A to point B is less important, once we realize that martial arts is more than physical.

Going from Thought to No-Mind

The direct translation of Mushin is “no-mind.” This is a difficult concept. It’s especially difficult to think about or discuss. How do you discuss entering a state in which the mind isn’t active, when it’s the mind that is trying to process the information?

But that’s how we start. At the beginning, there’s thought, and lots of discussion. When you walk into a dojo, like walking down a path, you can’t skip ahead. You can’t start at the beginning and magically appear at the middle or the end. You have to take each step one at a time to proceed. So we start with thought and move toward a state of no-mind.

Most thoughts have an “I” connected to them, supporting the ego and individuality. Mushin being the state where thoughts cease, help connect us with the oneness.

The very first thing you must do in your practice is to learn to perform the techniques correctly. The kicks, the blocks, the punches, the forms — you must try to get your body to move accurately, correctly, skilfully. And the effort of trying demands that you think about it, intensely. So, in the beginning of your practice, a great deal of thought takes place. You consider each movement, analyze what’s correct and incorrect. You take notes, you ask questions, you practice your way through clumsiness and frustration until you begin to move fluidly, cleanly. And, at some point, if you’re patient, and you persevere and work hard and meditate, you begin to think fluidly and cleanly as well, and you start to be able to let the body just happen. I’m not saying it happens quickly, but I am suggesting that getting beyond the merely physical aspects of practice is the whole point of practice.

To the great masters, the goal of martial arts was not a black belt. The masters did not practice for trophies or rank. They practiced in order to achieve a state of consciousness. It doesn’t matter the style — karate, kung fu, tae kwon do, aikido. You don’t change what you’re practicing, you change how you’re practicing. More punches and more kicks are not going to lead you to a shift in consciousness. You cannot just train harder to get there. That will help your physical technique, but we’re talking about Mushin now, a state of mind.

Thinking is good except when you are supposed to be experiencing and feeling.

Read next Thursday’s post for part 2.


Sensei Matt, Shudokan Black Belt Academy – Aikido Nottingham