Western New York Karate Center Shihan Bill December 2, 2016
A decision, you must make
Have you ever watched a martial artist in a movie or experienced one in your training, and thought, “WOW! That martial artist is AMAZING!”? If you have ever been inspired in your study of the martial arts, it is very likely for that reason. It is only natural that one would then consider, “how do I get that good?” The simplest answer is to develop one’s ability to enter the state of mushin no shin, the mind without mind, often referred to simply as mushin. This is a state where the martial artist is not occupied with their thoughts or emotions, not thinking or reacting to a threat, but joining with it instantaneously. As a martial artist, one should be perfecting one’s ability to enter a state of mushin, but how does one do that?
Here is where an important choice gets made by all students: mushin will be pursued by attempting to remove one’s mind from the equation through the perfection of one’s physical martial arts proficiency OR mushin will be pursued by also developing a spiritual, even mystical, connection with all things. The vast majority of students will focus solely on training the body so as to attain mushin.
Training the body is comparatively simple. Exercises for the body are readily tangible and perceptible. And, the training of the body is one that will feel familiar simply from experience in a gymnasium or from training to perform in any sport. Certainly, as with those other experiences, repetition of identified movement patterns will, over time, improve both the competency to perform the movement pattern as well as the speed with which it can be effectively executed. The ultimate outcome desired is that these movement patterns can be executed subcortically; decision making will be removed from the process and thus enable the pattern to be executed as quickly as is physically possible. One hopes to use muscle memory alone to execute the movement pattern.
Here is how this strategy fails in application: muscles need something to direct their action. Typically that is the mind. If sufficient muscle memory is attained, the mind no longer needs be the director of actions but this does not mean that the muscles can now act with no direction at all. One may strive to not use one’s mind as part of one’s performance of martial arts, but if one has not developed an alternative source of direction, the body will by default engage one’s mind to provide direction.
This is not noticeable when one is the first person to take action. When one is the attacker, the time before the attack, used to decide the exact attack strategy, will not slow down the engagement itself. Defaulting to direction from the mind is quite noticeable when one is defending.
As a proof, stand within striking range of a training partner who is of similar skill/training, and in turn, execute unannounced simple attacks on each other. The vast majority of the time, the initiator of the attack will land their strike. A defender will usually fail to effectively defend against any attack. This is because, more often than not, anticipating the attack, the defender is still using their mind. Despite all the muscle memory that person has developed for a variety of defensive response movement patterns, most people will still rely on their mind to interpret the incoming threat and then select the most appropriate response. That cognitive process will often slow response time sufficiently to enable the attack to be completed before an effective defense can be deployed.
The only alternative form of direction for our body is the spirit. Through developing one’s connection with qi, one can then “connect” with the attacker. The attacker’s physical intent, how they are directing their body, can become part of one’s experience. Thus, one will “know” the attack when it is decided upon and can choose one’s response before the attack is actually performed. The defense will then occur in perfect timing and harmony with the attack and be maximally effective.
How one develops one’s connection with qi goes beyond the scope of a small article such as this; books have been dedicated to this subject. But, the first and most important step is to realize that one must develop one’s spiritual self if one hopes to actually attain mushin. It starts by working on one’s kiai, but it should eventually extend into every aspect of one’s training. Speak with your primary instructor to learn more about how to engage in the spiritual component of your training.