"If one reaches the deepest point, arms, legs and body remember what to do; But the mind does not enter into this at all"
Zen master - Takuan Soho
What is the highest level of skill in martial arts movement? It is not in the complexity of forms or the speed at which the adept can move, nor in the amount of medals won or the lineage of the style, it is the ability to move in accordance with the methods principles without having to consciously adhere to them. In essence it is the ability to move ‘correctly’, correctly for the moment the fighter finds themselves in, correctly in that it adheres to the bio-mechanical ideals of their particular martial art and correctly in that it requires no fore thought or force of will to achieve.
Indeed, when the highly trained martial artist does anything, from walking to the local store, to lifting a box, to sparring with their peers, the body will move in accordance with the principles and methods that have been embedded.
Central to this ‘correct’ movement is the idea of action without thought. This concept, known in the Japanese systems as ‘Mushin’ which translates as ‘No Mind’, is one of the more difficult concepts for the beginner or new student to understand. For the beginner, every motion they learn in the martial arts is challenging or requires varying degrees of mental focus to achieve. The question is often asked, ‘How can you do something if you don’t think about it?’
Another difficulty with the idea of ‘No mind’ is that it is often framed within the context of spiritual practice and this can muddy the waters for the new practitioner. It is certainly true that, for many of the greatest martial artists, the methods and disciplines found in the spiritual traditions held deep interest. These were the practices that held the keys to understanding the nature of the mind and how our perceptions can be skewed or dimmed if the mind does not freely flow. This understanding can be something of a requirement for the martial artist who strives to prevail in the chaotic arena of combat.
The 4 stages of Competence.
Remembering the focus of this article is to understand the concept of no-mind within the framework of 'movement', in all its forms and variety, the first thing for us to realize are the stages which we pass through as we learn. It must be pointed out that when we talk of moving with unconscious competence (A term I have coined from the 4 stages of competence model found in psychology), we are not simply talking about any old type of movement. We are specifically talking about movements that have had to be trained in order to create ‘competence’ of some type, sometimes this is known as ‘second nature’.
For instance, a beginner can throw a punch without competence and without mind, but this would not make their movement correct or their ‘no-mind’ useful. They simply don’t know that they are incorrect, inefficient or clumsy in their movement. Whereas, the adept will throw a punch in accordance with all of the correct principles and requirements that have been ingrained in their body, even if the mind does not enter into the equation.
This is the stage we are in before we learn. We simply do not know that we are either doing something poorly or incorrectly.
Here is where we have the information to achieve our goal but are not yet able to perform it. This is where most people in the martial arts are in their steepest learning curve. A Very exciting time for the practitioner because everything is difficult and new and seemingly out of reach!
In this stage the practitioner has the requisite skill sets when they set their mind to it, but when not concentrating the skills can elude them. It is perhaps the most common for the Martial Artist to reside in this stage and very rarely do they proceed to the final level.
The stage of correct method without the need to think. Here is where the true adepts reside. The body acts in accordance with the methods trained natural, the adept is unconsciously competent in the system or method.
So through training we move through the various stages of Competence, the last of which is the level of trained intuition, of correct training movement, of a type of 'Naturalness' filled with skill.
The Martial Body.
Before the ability to move and act with no-mind is achieved we must first have a body capable of performing appropriately. I have outlined in many of my other articles some of the practices that aim towards this goal, but suffice to say, the majority of martial arts have the re-training of the body’s natural capabilities as their initial fundamental goal. This training is often to ingrain and ‘hardwire’ the specific attributes or qualities of the style so that, when called upon, not matter what the movement, the exponent moves in accordance with the styles core principles. I like to use the very well-known term ‘Second nature’ to describe this process. Through training, the correct motion becomes ‘Second nature’ to the exponent. The first nature being their untrained state, the second nature being their trained state.
The actual training methods undertaken are myriad; however, we can say that it is "the process of creating neural pathways and tissue qualities so that they work in complete harmony" that is at the ‘martial body’s’ core. With the degree of freedom found in the development of the martial body, a situation arises where by flow or unconscious competence can begin to occur. This is why Body Method training must always come first in the martial arts, if the methods and skills of combat found later are to be useful.
Flow state is a state in which someone is entirely absorbed in the moment. Within the framework of motion or movement it is the state in which the person is not in a pre/post planning mindset but is present in the now; and their movement is reflective of this. In essence it enables the practitioner’s movement to be ‘correct’ based on the conditions which are presented. Some arts like I Liq Chuan have a deep foundation in this idea, with ‘Awareness’ the core tenant of the art.
Far from being a modern term or concept, the idea of ‘flow state’ has been present in the martial arts for many hundreds of years. In the classic text The Unfettered Mind, Takuan Soho describes how, if a thought arises in the mind of a swordsman, if he were to think of doing this or that, then he would fail. The thought would interrupt the correct course of thing’s; it would block the flow of the encounter. My Daito Ryu JuJutsu Teacher would call this dwelling in the correct point of the interaction, ‘The Absolute moment in time’.
When we look at the 6 commonly accepted characteristics of flow we can see how advantageous this state may be to the martial artist.
- Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
- Merging of action and awareness
- A loss of reflective self-consciousness
- A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
- A distortion of temporal experience, one's subjective experience of time is altered
- Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience
For the purpose of this article the attributes that link most directly to the unconscious competence in Movement are points 1, 2 & 3
The practitioner zooms in on the present moment, with a heightened state of awareness of the exact situation as it is with no fore or post planning. There is a seamless union between thought and movement and the two attributes are no longer separated by decision making. The ‘self’ fades to a tiny point as the body/mind is in complete harmony with the now and the situation presented before them.
Unconscious competence is a state of capability that can be trained, but it cannot be forced. There are specific steps that the practitioner must got through in order to achieve it and so many get stuck in the conscious competence phase, unable to push through this limit to the ‘Mushin’ point. The adept must have a broad set of tools, from the correct hard wiring of the body through 'MartialBody' training to the correct training of the mind to dwell in the present.
Those that do attain this level, from any discipline, be it MMA, BJJ, Taiji, Aikido or Wing Chun are often immortalized as masters of their art where ‘technique’ seems to be transcended by a complete freedom and a constant ‘correct action’.
But remember, at this level, to end as we began … “; the mind does not enter into this at all.”