In Aikido and Seishindo we practice embodying various “states” or ways of perceiving and being. We practice entering into various ways of experiencing Life.
The one state we practice entering into most, is known in Japanese as “mushin.” In Seishindo we often refer to mushin as a state of “embodied presence.”
We can consider the term Mushin to be similar to the terms “flow state” or “peak performance state” as used by people in the West. Yet if we look at the two kanji (written characters) that make up mushin, we discover a fascinating concept, that extends well past the usual sense of “peak performance”.
Mushin– Mu (無) Shin (心)
Possible meanings for Mu (無) include,
“Nothing”, “Zero”, or “Emptiness”.
The term signifies a lack of something, but without anything lacking.
Indeed, I would say that what is “lacking” is whatever is not essential.
In Japanese thinking the more “emptiness” there is, the larger the range of possibilities that exist.
If a space is truly empty, then “everything” has the possibility of being manifested. “Emptiness” is very rich in resources.
“Mu” can thus be considered similar to the concept of “less will get you more”.
The thirty spokes of a wheel unite in the center.
It’s this empty center space for the axle, upon which the use of the wheel depends.
Clay is fashioned into vessels.
It’s the emptiness of the vessel that makes it useful.
A door and windows are cut out from the walls, to form a room.
It’s the emptiness that the walls, floor, and ceiling encompass, that allows for the space to live in.
Thus what we gain is Something, yet it’s from the virtue of Nothing that this Something derives.
Dao de Jing; Chapter 11
If you’ve ever seen pictures of traditional Japanese rooms, and particularly temples where zen is studied, you’ll see the rooms are filled with the same emptiness as described in the above quote. A room is left empty, with very little in the way of furniture or anything else to detract from the infinite potential the room encompasses. This is an important part of the Japanese design aesthetic, and in zen temples, it’s also a non-verbal invitation to empty one’s thinking mind as well.
It’s also interesting to look at how “Mu” is combined with other kanji, to form other words.
mu-ryo (無料) no charge/”free”
mu-gon (無言) no words/silent
mu-ku (無垢) no dirt/pure
mu-jitsu (無実) no guilt/innocence
mu-ga (無我) no self(selflessness)/no ego/no “watashi (me)”
The second kanji in Mushin, is Shin (心) or Kokoro
Although this kanji is one and the same as the kanji for one’s “physical heart”, in this context it means “heart” in the sense of one’s “spirit”.
In English we say, “She has a lot of heart.” Which means, “She has a lot of spirit/kokoro.”
So as a Westerner, at first pass Mushin might look like “empty spirit” or “zero spirit” and the connotation would seem to be that of someone who has given up on life. But after studying the above, we can understand just the opposite is the case. A truly “empty” spirit is enlivened, free, and fills a person with great potential.
It is your breath that fills the house of your body, with the greatest space, the greatest potential. It’s your breath that opens the doors and windows of your house, and helps to create, clean, and empty your space. It’s your breath passing through the doors and windows of your house, that unites “you” and your house with the outside world.
This exploration thus yields the following possible meanings for mushin:
“No thinking mind”
“A pure state of mind, like when a young baby plays with a new toy”
In Seishindo we describe mushin as: “The state in which your thoughts, feelings, and actions occur simultaneously and spontaneously. Nothing comes between you and another person. Nothing comes between your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Nothing is lacking and nothing is left over. When part of you moves, all of you moves. When ‘you’ are calm, your whole self is calm. Thinking, doing, and being all become one and the same.”
When you embody a mushin state you greatly improve your ability to learn and live with grace and ease. At such times, the structure of your body is open and balanced, and your thinking mind is filled with emptiness. All traces of extraneous thoughts or actions dissolve, and you have a pleasing sense of fullness and great potential.
Mushin is not a state you’ll be able to maintain throughout the course of your everyday life. Mushin is an ephemeral state that’s to be experienced and released. An experience that is lost and found again, many times over the course of even a single day.
When you enter into mushin for even brief periods of time you’re left with “a residue experience.” By this I mean- Even when you enter back into your “everyday mind”, the body memory and emotional traces of your mushin experience linger. You come back into the everyday world with a different sense of reality, a different perspective, a different outlook on life. Having experienced the wonderful fullness this emptiness affords you, you realize there’s more to life than worry, action, and accumulation.
If you’re at all like most of the people I meet every day, and the one I meet in the mirror every morning- During much of your life your thoughts, actions, and feelings occur somewhat independently of each other, and you lack a certain sense of spontaneity and wholeness. To some extent this is part of the human condition, and yet you can definitely also achieve from time to time, a much fuller way of learning and living. How to get “there” from “here” is an experience that cannot be cogently described with words alone. When you’re “fully present in the moment” you feel relaxed, vital, and fully alive. Your internal dialogue dissolves and your attention and awareness are freed up to notice what usually passes by unnoticed. At such times, “there” and “here” dissolve into “Now”!
Mushin = Embodied presence
Embodied presence = Fully present in the moment
Fully present in the moment = Michael Jordan during an NBA final; Tiger Woods at the Masters; My daughter watching her Saturday morning TV programs.
To learn, one accumulates day by day,
To study Tao, one reduces day by day.
Through reduction and further reduction
One reaches non-action,
And everything is acted upon.
(Dao De-Jing, #48)