Mushin By Kim Taylor, NanaDan CKF Iaido, GoDan CKF Jodo

“No thought” is how it’s usually translated, but how does that help? No thought means just running on reaction, on instinct, whatever that means for humans, usually it means freezing with a big intake of breath.

No unnecessary rationalization, no excess deliberation, no conscious decision might be closer to it. Relaxed, immediate response is the goal of course, to be able to respond to any change in the situation with the correct action. No Thought should not mean Thoughtless.

That’s the trick of course, to be able to spontaneously react in the correct way as opposed to simply reacting. (That “simply reacting” is of course a trained response, very few reactions are actually reflexes like the knee-jerk, we respond as we were taught, in ways that have been successful in the past, unfortunately, these may not apply to the present situation and so are “bad reactions”… think freezing is a bad reaction? Consider the benefit of freezing in the face of a motion predator, consider the benefit of taking some time to think it through if you come up against a situation you haven’t encountered before and have no pre-analysis of a similar story.)

Paradoxically then, to be able to respond with mushin you need to anticipate as many possible situations as you can. You need to think of all the possible actions, reactions and chains of events that you can and decide ahead of time how you will respond. In the martial arts world that means waza, kata and keiko.

Waza is the alphabet, the repertoire of actions (reactions) we learn. A reverse punch, a horizontal cut, a hip throw. Kata are the stories we tell ourselves, if he steps in and does this, we respond with this. Keiko is the repetition we need in order to be able to do the waza smoothly. Note I didn’t say kata, I said waza. It’s good to do a reverse punch instinctively as we see an opening. It is not good to make a reflex action out of doing a reverse punch every time we see the opponent attempt an overhead block. Reflexes like that are too complex, too “long”. An opponent can use that upper block to draw a reverse punch out of us and when we do that he’s got a side kick into our ribs.

Kata need to be done with our eyes wide open and our brains responding as if they were seeing the movements for the very first time. Kata are not for memorization, they are for telling. They are stories filled with call and response and as such should be done fresh every time. If you are telling a story to an audience as if you are reading it from a book each time, you will have very few coins in your hat at the end of the day.

Of course you can’t make up a scenario for every possible future event, we must generalize from the story. The waza (the kihon) are drilled as reactions, the kata we hope will generalize to a new situation as needed. A few waza are drilled and then used in a wide array of kata so that we see several ways to use them. A reverse punch at an upper block, at a missed front kick, after a block of our own, or as we angle in suddenly. Then we see a front kick, a body slam or a sweep in response to that upper block. The waza become generalized reactions to many stimuli and it’s the open, “no-thought” mushin of the brain that triggers the correct (we hope) reaction.

Mushin goes beyond budo of course, you use it every day when you drive. Certain waza cause your car to do certain things, breaks, steering, blinkers… these are the waza that we use with our mushin. Want daily proof of mushin? How about the amazing fact that there aren’t vast numbers of accidents every morning as all the commuters head to work putting on their makeup, reading their papers or talking on their phones. Only mushin keeps as many of them alive as survive each day.

A better driver? One who looks several cars ahead and plans their moves by checking for empty space beside, breaking room in front and behind. One who pays attention and anticipates future events from present causes. One who has practiced skid control and violent steering and maximum breaking. Waza, kata and kihon.

My daughter is going to university. We worked for 18 years to accumulate the funds and make it possible for her to go without worry about finances. We even had a few fights and discussions about things like mortguage payments vs rent vs commuting. What happens? Well sometimes folks need to feel a bit of negative reinforcement, a poke in the nose to convince us that we should not step straight down the line into an attack. I’m afraid we’re heading for student debt, anxiety about getting a job and empty bank accounts because we need to find out for ourselves that it’s not a good idea to drive into the desert without a full tank of gas, no matter how many of our friends are in the car with us.

Well, it’s not as if I don’t have a crooked nose from a few lessons I had to learn myself, but mostly I did listen to the old farts and, amazingly, they were helpful. Come to think of it, I’m still listening to my teachers as they give me the kata and tell me to practice my waza.
Do you listen to your own teachers, learn their stories and turn your chattering monkey brains off while you turn your attention on.

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