If you face an
cannot be in
There are no
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
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
have an “I”
connected to them,
supporting the ego
the state where
help connect us
with the oneness.
when you are
supposed to be
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
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
keep us from
living in the
they can only be
fulﬁlled in the
Creativity is when
you get out of the
way and the Divine
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.
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
you go as well
as hinder you
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
It is the ego
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
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
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.
Toward the Unknown,
Tri Thong Dang
The Warrior is Silent,
Scott Shaw, PhD.