Mushin – The Empty Mind

Mushin is a state of mind. It is where the mind, the conscious mind is absent and the unconscious mind is at one with the cosmos. 

Bruce Lee, martial artist and actor said it perfectly when he described the process of achieving mushin as the way water flows:

“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or crash.” 

When a person achieves mushin, their mind flows freely and unconsciously like water taking the shape of a vessel. They don’t have to think about their next move or action, they just do as their instinct suggests.

Being able to achieve mushin is one of the keys to success in martial arts but it is also a key step in achieving enlightenment and self-realization.

How do you achieve mushin?

Mushin is often translated as ‘no mind’ but achieving mushin doesn’t mean switching off your mind. It is all about allowing your mind to function differently. 

To achieve mushin you need to let go of any anger, fear, or ego so that your body and mind can flow smoothly according to your training and instincts. 

You need to remember that mushin is not a state where you think about your next move, where you analyze and act based on your thoughts or planning. Instead, mushin is where you are able to act and react instinctively because your training and practice is a part of you and has led you to this point.

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You cannot achieve mushin if you do not have a solid foundation of trust and understanding in yourself or your skills. 

For martial arts practitioners looking to achieve mushin, you need to have a high level of technical skill. You won’t be able to let go of conscious thought if you are thinking about where your leg needs to be placed or how you should move your arms. 

When practicing your moves or katas you should first nail the technique. Know exactly what you need to do, where you need to position yourself, how you need to move. 

Once you can do your katas without thinking, you are ready to start practicing mushin. Perform your moves, your katas but turn your focus to your mind. Make a conscious effort to release any fear or anxiety, let any anger or frustration leave your body and mind. 

Then you are ready to let go of the ego, of the self. 

To do this, you need to stop thinking about yourself as an entity separate from the world and the cosmos around you. To achieve mushin is to feel the cosmos acting through you, to realize that you and your body are a conduit through which energy and instinct flows. 

To achieve mushin, you should not approach a spar or bout with thoughts such as: ‘How can I win?’ ‘What will I do first?’ or ‘Will I be hurt?’ 

You’ll notice the letter ‘I’ in the middle of those thoughts. Those kinds of questions and thoughts show that a person is putting themselves in the center of their thoughts. They are letting ego into their mind. 

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Instead, you need to approach each fight without discursive thought. Discursive thoughts are ones that form sentences, ones that ask something of you. Put them aside and let your mind feel free. 

Think about it this way, a ship doesn’t sink because of the water that is around it. It sinks when water gets in.  If you let thoughts and doubts into your mind they will make it sink. Mushin is allowing yourself and your mind to float on top and separate to thoughts. 

Mushin in Everyday Life

Mushin is not just for martial arts. The ability to remove fear, anger, and ego from the mind and make decisions based on trust and instinct is helpful in our day to day life. 

Consider the amount of anxiety and doubt that fills you when you make a change in your life. You spend hours wondering whether you have made the right decision, whether this will work out for you. 

Sometimes, these fears and anxieties prevent us from making changes that could benefit us. They prevent us from exploring and taking risks. Ultimately, this happens because we do not trust ourselves. 

To achieve mushin in our personal lives we need to start by trusting our instincts. The body is a wonderful, intuitive thing that keeps us safe. Think about times where you’ve instinctively reacted to danger, perhaps by grabbing a railing as you’re about to fall or stepping out of the way of a sharp object. 

In those instances, you probably didn’t think ‘oh dear, that’s dangerous I should move.’ Your body did what it needed to do to prevent you from harm. This is mushin at a very basic level, the cosmic energy working through you.

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To be able to experience mushin in all aspects of your life you need to trust in your body to act without instruction from your mind. In conversation, quiet the noise in your mind that plans your next words and just let your ears hear and your mouth respond. You will notice that you can talk more freely and that you react more acutely to the tone and manner of those around you. 

To live a life in a state of mushin is to live without fear and judgment. By letting go of your ego, you let go of the crippling concern of what others think of you and you are free to just be. 

Before You Go

Make a promise to yourself to trust your instincts. Set a time, an hour or two, in your day where you will give your body and subconscious mind the freedom to act without fear or judgment. 

During that hour make every effort to drop your worries and fear and doubt. Instead, let yourself move, act, and speak like water, flowing freely. Give your body and mind a space to learn to trust each other.

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