Now bare with me here, we're going to get a bit philosophical. As much as understanding the science behind certain psychological states is crucial, there are certain states of mind that are very hard to measure, comprehend, and even more so to achieve. Nonetheless we can play around with the idea because although these states of mind are difficult to understand through a scientific lens they are meant to be experienced rather than dissected. In my view we should not confuse the knowledge of something, for the experience of it.
What I am talking about here is something that has fascinated me for a long time and is the reason for my intellectual pursuit of studying the mind and its role in performance. Years ago I came across the term mushin no shin (無心の心), a Zen expression meaning the mind without mind. It is also referred to as the state of “no-mindness“, or shortened into mushin, or “no mind”. It is a mind not fixed or occupied by thought or emotion and thus open to everything. Essentially it is what modern athletes call “the flow state” which I have mentioned many times before on this blog.
Ancient samurai were said to have rigorously trained the mind in order to reach a state of “no mind.” In some ways they were the first to have a formal mental training program. Having a state of no mind was essential to survival. Having doubt or fear in the heat of battle would mean certain death. Mushin is achieved when a person's mind is free from thought. Free of the internal chatter of the mind, of anger, fear, or ego during combat or everyday life. There is an absence of wandering thought and judgment, so the person is totally free to act and respond towards an opponent without hesitation and without disturbance from such thoughts. The individual reaches a point where they do not rely on what they think the next move should be, but rather trust in their natural instinct to take over. It is an effortless effort.
The legendary Zen master Takuan Sōhō describes it in this way:
“The mind must always be in the state of 'flowing,' for when it stops anywhere that means the flow is interrupted and it is this interruption that is injurious to the well-being of the mind. In the case of the swordsman, it means death.
When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy's sword movements. He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man's subconscious that strikes.”
Now this may seem like an outlandish idea for the modern athlete or performer but we can see many parallels to the “battlefield” of today. How often have you found yourself lost in thought during a performance? It happens quite often that our mind drifts either to the past, such as a previous mistake, or towards the future, worried about something that could go wrong. This state of mind wandering and preoccupation with thoughts is not conducive to peak performance. What the performer should be training is complete and utter presence. A mind that is totally aware and in tune with its surroundings and what needs to be done now rather than on what was, or has to be done. Take a look at the graphic below.
Both negative mind and positive mind are essentially distractions. Negative mind could be a preoccupation with a mistake or negative comment. This pulls us away from the present. Similarly, a positive mind can take us away from the task at hand. Being overly excited about a goal you just scored can take you away from the fact that there is still another half to be played for example. This is why a lot of teams are most vulnerable to getting scored on when they themselves have just scored.
Where we should be instead is that place in the middle. Where we are not pulled in one direction or the other but rather respond to the moment by moment demands of competition. It is only when we are fully “here and now” that we are most receptive to moving fluidly with mind and body in sync.
HOW DO I TRAIN “NO MIND”?
As I have stated before; let us not confuse the knowledge of something for the experience of it. We can talk theory all day but it is you who ultimately must tap into this state of mind. One time tested way of training this is through mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practise of non-judgemental present moment awareness, where we observe the mind curiously and without putting too much weight on this thought or that. Instead we notice the natural busyness of the mind and see it’s wandering as distractions rather than absolute reality. Once we notice ourselves drifting in positive or negative mind we gently guide it back to the present moment. The easiest anchor to focus on is the breath. Try it out for yourself now. Sit down and close your eyes. Follow the breath for 10 counts. See how often your mind drifts.
With time you become better at noticing when your attention has been pulled away by something and are better able to quickly guide it back. Once you become good at sitting meditation, you can transition into more advanced methods such as walking meditation, or mindful listening/communication, and eventually see how you can transfer over what you’ve learned into your actual performance. Achieving a state of no mind is no easy task, and requires constant revision, patience, and a beginners mind. A mind left untrained is susceptible to being controlled by the ebb and flow of thoughts and emotions, but being aware of its patterns is the first step to untapped potential.
As always; feel the force, and don’t force the feel.