Be Like Water: Practical Wisdom from the Martial Arts
By Joseph Cardillo
Mushin, or empty mind, is a calming technique practiced by most martial artists. The point is to free our mind of all assumptions and negative emotions such as anger, guilt, doubt, fear, and hatred. Whether on the mats or in everyday situations, a clear and still mind will react more fluidly and efficiently. We are less apt to chase decoys or get bogged down by actions extraneous to our goals.
Martial artists try to avoid assumptions and negative feelings because they are an all-around losing situation. This kind of mental poison slows you down and even telegraphs your reactions, making you less effective. Negativity makes you rigid, and when you lose flexibility, opponents can easily target techniques around you as simply as water can circle stone.
You want your body and mind to move as smoothly and naturally as possible. Imagine your consciousness as a cork afloat in a stream, reading spontaneously and harmoniously to any movement around it-alert and light and unfettered.
An old adage says, If you're looking for something, you will never find it. The rule in sparring is: Don't assume you know what's going to happen before it happens. For me, it seemed that whenever I presupposed that anything on the mats would inevitably lead to a certain end, things hardly ever worked out the way I imagined. I'd throw a kick intended to put an opponent in a blocking situation, for instance, and instead he or she would step back or to the side and return with a flurry of kicks and punches I wasn't ready to stop. I was already in a vulnerable position because of the kick I'd thrown. All I had done was make things worse.
It seemed that whenever I thought I knew what I was doing, even when I did things by the book, I'd wind up getting tagged. Of course, this would only frustrate me, as it would most inexperienced martial artists.
Once, after an aggressive sparring match with another student, my instructor took me aside. "I want you to see something", he said.
We began a light spar. His movements were soft and easy. His eyes were wide and deep like a cat's; they seemed like mirrors-focused entirely on me, alert and yet paradoxically unthinking. This is what many refer to as the martial arts stare. I had the sensation that my teacher knew what I was going to do before I even did it. I could literally feel his strength, and he was doing nothing.
"That's the kind of intensity you want," he said.
I knew what he was referring to. When I had been sparring earlier, the kind of intensity I'd shown was the same kind of grunting, growling aggression you'd use to chop wood. That kind of energy is complete intention.
In sparring, you learn that your job is to remain deeply attentive, in what could be perceived as a state of active (alert) nonaction. You make no assumptions, regarding your own actions or your opponent's. You have to empty your mind and take each movement as it comes. You open the perimeters of your vision, absorb as much as possible, and when the time is right, you shift-smoothly and fluidly-and deliver your shot.
Mushin keeps us agile-helps us fit in when we want and where we need. A sticky mind is not free to concentrate. A sticky mind is the result of assumptions and prejudgments. It creates confusion where we need clarity. Mushin, on the other hand, teaches us to accept thought without adhesion, like a lake allows images to float over its surface. As a result, we can move and think more freely.
In terms of life skills, mushin is a technique I practice daily. Why? Because it is too easy to start chasing bad thoughts, emotions, anticipations, and so forth, and begin clinging to them. What's more, it's dangerous and often destructive or counterproductive to make assumptions.
Some time ago, I wanted to refinance my mortgage. When I phoned the bank manager, she sounded as though she was stuck in the proverbial bad day. She had absolutely no qualms about dumping her frustrations into our conversation, and, though I didn't react, her attitude troubled me. Later, I reasoned that things like this happen every now and then, especially to people who work with the public all day. But I still couldn't let go of the uneasiness that had been building in me all day over the call, and specifically over the manager's tone.
When my father asked me about the mortgage, I told him the rates sounded good and that I was pursuing it, but that the manager was a rude person. When I heard myself saying that, I knew my frustration was slowly brewing itself into a conflict. I flashed forward for a moment and could sec myself returning her rough tone with an edge of my own. I could also see how that would lead nowhere.
When the bank manager and I eventually met, I calmed myself, emptying my mind of any emotional residue from our previous conversation. I chose to void any assumptions I'd made about her. I told myself that this should be an occasion for celebration-after all, the bank was about to save me thousands of dollars with the new mortgage. I met her with lightness and warmth, and she responded in kind. This time, I found her to be a delightfully pleasant woman with a deep smile and a good sense of humor. She was quite professional and attentive. There are times when a push can be a functional response to a shove, but this was not one of them.
I had learned many lessons that day-not only that I could apply mushin to life, but also that anger pitted against anger will only yield more antagonism. Furthermore, the assuming mind, allowed to run loose, will contaminate relationships and limit successes.
Eliminating negative emotions and assumptions is difficult for everyone, but there are great benefits to be achieved as soon as we begin trying. The trick is to flow with the situation, not control it. Give yourself permission to let go of negativity. Don't trust it. It works against you.
Practice mushin. Empty your mind of emotional residue and unyielding reactions. Anger is your enemy. Avoid assumptions about yourself or others. Don't assume you know what's going to happen before it does. Be alert and widen your vision. Practice active non-action. Generate positive energy. Trust yourself.