Lessons in Mindfulness 2.4

If you face an

opponent, you

cannot be in


There are no

opponents where

there are no






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-defense. 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 colored 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.

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 colored belts, advancing from point A to point B is less

important, once we realize that martial arts is more than



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.

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, skillfully. 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


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.


Thinking is

good except

when you are

supposed to be


and feeling.

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



Let “IT” Happen!

Some of the greatest martial artists in the world — Ueshiba,

Funakoshi, Chojun Miyagi — they were in their absolute

prime in their 70’s and 80’s. That’s unheard of for an athlete.

A gymnast is in their prime in their teens. Most athletes think

about retiring in their mid-30’s, by 45 they’re coaching, by 60

they’re consulting, and in their 70’s they’re remembering and

watching it on TV. How in the world can martial artists be in

their prime at 70 and 80 years old? They can’t do more push

ups. They’re not stronger than they were at 25. They aren’t

more flexible. They aren’t faster. The only way these people

can remain in the prime of their practice with a body well

past its peak is because, at the highest levels, martial arts is a

mental discipline.

A young, strong, fast martial artist fires a front punch at you

and you, as a young, strong, fast martial artist yourself, are

able to sidestep or get out of the way of the punch. And

an old 80 year old master has the same punch thrown at

him and is also able to get out of the way of the punch. To

the naked eye, it appears to be the exact same occurrence,

but it’s really not. At some point before impact, the young

practitioner recognizes the punch being thrown and, with

quick reflexes, is able to move out of the way, or block

or counter with a technique of their own. But the old

master isn’t that nimble, isn’t that quick. Yes, he is able to

recognize the punch so much more quickly than the young

man that it compensates somewhat for slower movement

or less flexibility. But there’s more going on. As the punch

is coming in, the old master’s mind is truly in that moment,

and so the punch is not moving at 80 mph, 90 mph. In his

mind, the punch is moving is slow motion. Not because he’s

concentrating intently — quite the opposite. His mind is

clear, like a still pond. When the water is like glass, when

everything is completely still, then the tiniest movement

produces a ripple that we sense instantly and clearly. But if

the water is choppy and splashing and moving about, then

that same tiny movement is lost — you don’t feel it at all.

Your mind is that pond. When you clear your mind

completely, then you will recognize every tiny ripple very

clearly and much earlier, and be able to spontaneously and

creatively respond. Bruce Lee said “It’s when IT happens.”

Ueshiba Sensei said “It’s when Spirit flows through you.”

That’s the state of mushin — no-mind — that we are striving


I’ll give you an example. You’re driving down the road

50, 60 mph and you hit a piece of ice and the car starts to

spin and you know you’re going to hit the telephone pole.

What happens? Everything slows down, doesn’t it. Why?

It’s because your fear has put you right in the moment.


It is often

desires that

keep us from

living in the

moment, for

they can only be

fulfilled in the



Creativity is when

you get out of the

way and the Divine

shines through.


You aren’t thinking about the argument with your wife.

You’re not thinking about getting your child off to school.

You’re not thinking about the meeting at 11:00. You’re

not thinking at all. This is mushin. You are right there,

completely in that moment, to the exclusion of everything

else. Your consciousness changes and your perception of

time-flow changes with it. Now imagine being able to

control when you go into that state.

24 / 7 – 365

Understand that this state is not exclusive to martial

artists. I’ve said for years that Michael Jordan does not love

basketball. Baryshnikov does not love ballet. Mohammed Ali

does not love boxing. They loved the state of consciousness

they were able to achieve when performing these activities.

Michael Jordan was asked in an interview, “What is the

number one thing that you miss about playing since you’ve

retired?” And he said, “I miss the quiet, the peacefulness.

When I was on the court, playing, it was the quietest place in

the world.” The reporter seemed confused and said, “But Mr.

Jordan, thousands of people were watching you, sometimes

screaming and jumping up and down. You had announcers

and music and loudspeakers and hundreds of thousands

watching on T.V. How was that the quietest place?”

“I can’t explain it,” said Jordan. “It just was.”

In his mind, he was so completely focused right there, in

that moment, that everything else was gone. In mushin,

there is no past and there is no future. There is only now. We

have created this concept of linear time, of 365 days a year,

24 hours a day, 7 days in a week. We all agree on the rules

and we use it, we need it, to interact with one another and

create societies. But it’s an artificial structure that bears no

resemblance to the way our minds really work. Linear time

has no bearing on consciousness.

In mushin, there’s only this moment. And in this moment,

duality ceases. There is no up or down, no left or right, no

good or bad, no right or wrong. There just is. And then, from

that state of centered calm, you react spontaneously and

creatively. It happens and, when you’re able to let it happen,

you cannot take credit for it. A great master said, “You don’t

throw the punch. You don’t do the block. It happens to you.

You are a conduit at best.”

Of course, if you’re performing technique incorrectly, then

it could be that you need more physical practice. But at a

certain point, your body can do it. What goes awry is that

you’re thinking too much about it. You’re considering too

many cases of either-or. You’re trying too hard.


Most teachers’

advice is think,

think, and think.

The zen masters

advice is stop



Prepare, then Let Go

Sometimes, we really prepare for a situation that’s coming.

A speech, a test, an event, a spotlight moment. We prepare

intently. We make sure we have all our ducks in a row. We

really understand our topic and we know what we’re going

to do. And we still choke. Why? It’s because our minds

become cluttered with all the thoughts, all the possibilities

of things that could go right or wrong. We’re trying too

hard. The water is too choppy. We have to just let go and

let it happen. I’m not saying that you should not prepare.

Preparation is very, very important. But once you’ve prepared

and you’re ready and the moment comes to perform, then

you have to let go. The struggle culminates in surrender. In

mushin, we’re surrendering to the consciousness of no-mind.

The chatter ceases and only the moment matters. We are no

longer there, except as a part of the universe. And so the

universe is moving through us, with us.


It is your

thoughts that

decide where

you go as well

as hinder you

from knowing

who you really



In martial arts, whenever you attack, you’re thinking. You

cannot enter the state of mushin if you’re striving to attack.

You must be defensive, but not calculating, not anticipating

the other person’s movement or motion. You have to truly

just be. You have to wait and be. The essence of mushin lies

in the breath. The breath and the mind are inseparable. The

condition of one directly reflects the condition of the other.

As your breathing slows, your mind slows. As your mind

slows, the waters grow calm, turn to glass, and you’re able to

touch that state of no-mind, the state that is going to help

you not only in your practice, but every day throughout your


One day a student was walking with his

teacher in the marketplace when, suddenly,

a large, looming figure blocked the path.

With no concern, not even interrupting in

his stride, the teacher guided the student

around the angry man. This enraged the man who now

shouted, “Your money or your life!” The student clearly

startled by the request, jumped back several feet and entered

a fighting stance. The old master simply responded, “We

don’t have money and we don’t wish trouble.”

The assailant reached out to grab the old man, who shifted

his weight ever so slightly and avoided the grab. After

regaining his balance, the big man attempted a vicious blow

at the old man, furious as he hit nothing but air. Taking a

deep breath, the attacker now dove at the old man, hoping

to knock him to the ground. The master calmly sidestepped

and the attacker ended up in a heap in the road. Livid with

anger, he leaped up and pulled a knife from under his shirt.

Looking directly at the old man he said, “Now you will die.”

As he began to wildly stab and slash, the master remained

relaxed and calm, moving, ducking, and pivoting as he

avoided each blow. After several minutes the attacker,

completely exhausted and bewildered, threw down his

weapon and ran away. The master then rejoined his student

and continued on their way without a word.

The student was stunned. Later that evening he asked his

master, “Sir, I am very confused. How did you do that today?

Why didn’t you defend yourself?”

The master said, “You don’t believe that I defended myself?”

The flustered student replied, “Well yes, but I mean, why

didn’t you strike back?”

The master said, “I did not need to strike. Let me give you

an analogy. You are a young, strong man in your mid 20’s

and have practiced for many years. If a four-year-old child

attacked you, even violently, would you feel the need to hurt

them? Remember that there are many levels of self-defense.

At the lowest, most basic level, if someone attacks, you must

get away without any concern for his or her well-being or

safety. You do whatever you have to do. At the highest level

of self-defense, you take the attacker and the situation under

control without hurting them or getting hurt. At your skill

level, you could easily take control of a four-year-old without

hurting them. To me, this attacker today was no different.

The student continued to protest, “But sir, there is a

difference. This man was two or three times your size, much

younger and he had a weapon.”


In battle one

should not be


or confident.


It is the ego

that hinders

and inhibits the

state of mushin.

The master said quietly, “You believe that martial arts is

based on size, age and weapons? You may or may not

understand this, but fighting is not as much a physical activity

as it is a mental state.”

The student appeared confused. The master went on, “You

think that time is a constant, that there are 24 hours in a day,

7 days in a week, 365 days in a year. One minute is 60 seconds

and all calendars and watches will agree with you. But, if you

are able to live in the moment and keep your mind relaxed

— free from fear, anger and turmoil — you may enter a state

called mushin, or no-mind. In this state of consciousness,

things can appear as if they are moving in slow motion.

When an attack comes, it is much easier to avoid or respond

to them. At my age, do you really believe that I can do more

push ups than you? Do you think that my old body is more

flexible than yours? Do you think my reflexes are like fine

wine and grow better and faster with age? It is only because

of mushin that I am still in my prime in my 70’s. Always

remember that martial arts is a mental as well as a physical


The student asked, “Sir, does this level of mastery come with


The master said, “To reach this state does indeed take time,

but just repping physical technique is not enough. To reach

this state, you must meditate and always practice mindfully.”

Two students were watching a flag blow in the wind

as they were arguing. One student said that the flag

was moving, and the other said that the wind was

moving. Overhearing this, the master responded,

“Your mind is moving.”




Bite by Bite

It is impossible to summon mushin as you might summon a

waiter in a restaurant. There is no specific ritual or action

to perform. When the experience happens, the only part

that we play in it, is to get out of the way. Getting out of

the way means to be in the moment and to experience the

moment fully, without other interrupting thoughts. This

includes all past memory, all future plans, imagination,

desire, expectation, etc. It’s not that we must deny or repress

the senses, but we must be able to completely control them.

Unplugging the senses in meditation, as well as being able to

tap into them, actually heightens them when they are in use.

This month’s activity is to sit alone, quietly, and enjoy a big

bowl of popcorn, one kernel at a time. Most people eat

popcorn by the handful. Your task is to become completely

consumed in each kernel before moving on to the next.

Smell the aroma, feel your fingers select each kernel, note

the color. Keep your attention completely on the popcorn.

Do not let your mind wander, fully experience how the

popcorn feels, let your mouth salivate in anticipation of the

buttery or salty taste. Notice the rough but smooth texture

of each kernel. Be aware of the crunching and how it slowly

dissolves. Experience swallowing and the feeling of emptiness

as your tongue searches for any remaining particles.

Completely and consciously eat all of the popcorn. If your

mind wanders to anything other than this, keep a piece of

paper and a pencil nearby, and mark every time your mind

wandered. Write a paragraph to a page on your experience

and turn in to your instructor. Feel free to substitute a bowl

of raisins if popcorn is a problem.


To sleep when

tired, to eat

when hungry, to

work when you

work is the best

way to be in the



The road to

truth is lined

with many


parking spaces.





It is important to understand that you cannot force the state

of mushin or no-mind. The harder you strive to clear the

mind of thought, the more thoughts originate. However, it

seems that a principle component of the state of no-mind is

concentration. I understand that this seem contradictory and

confusing. How can concentration lead to no thoughts?

We must realize that thinking is much more than

concentration. Thinking involves judgments, anticipation

and deliberation, as well as randomly attached memories of

the subject, sometimes incorporating additional thoughts

and memories that are completely irrelevant to the original

point of focus. Concentration, on the other hand, is the

ability to absorb oneself mentally, physically, and emotionally

in a specific moment. In that moment there may be an

experience, feeling or thought that takes place.

To be open and ready to accept the experience of mushin,

you must be able to concentrate deeply enough to be and

remain completely in the moment. Please do not confuse

mushin or the state of no-mind with daydreaming or spacing

out. On the contrary, this effortless state seems to demand a

prepared and disciplined mind.

If you are skeptical as to whether this “Shangri-La” state of

consciousness exists or not; you must taste the proverbial

orange to understand how juicy and sweet it is. We can point

to examples where various people were able to get out of

the way long enough to experience it. Examples include the

monastic, aesthetic or sage that has practiced meditation for

years, or the artist who is able to concentrate so deeply that

they get lost in their chosen medium. A professional athlete

that focuses so intensely that they actually forget about

winning or losing, and live only in the moment. A musician

that gets swept away in the music, not making any claim that

it is their own. In the West, athletes have coined terms like,

“being in the zone, or flowing,” to describe this state.

The common thread that connects these very different

people living very different lives is that all experience mushin

as deep, one-pointed concentration. It may have been

preceded by many years of training or induced suddenly

through fear. In either case, once in this state, the person’s

perception of time changes and they seem to experience life

in a kind of slow motion. Some people are so surprised by

this slow motion experience that they freeze up and don’t

respond to the situation. Others are able to continue and

even alter their responses, allowing them to respond even

more quickly.

To continue to increase your level of concentration, revisit

the ancient technique of wall gazing. It was taught in Lesson

Nine, Module One, as a focus point. Through regular practice

of this technique, your concentration will sharpen and help

prepare your mind for mushin.

It is ironic that concentration and mindfulness is the path to


To be happy, you

first must be.


Knowing is not enough; we must apply.

Willing is not enough; we must do.

Doing is not enough; we must do willingly.



Recommended Reading

Toward the Unknown,

Tri Thong Dang

The Warrior is Silent,

Scott Shaw, PhD.