Mushin, translated as “no-mind” or “empty mind”, is a state where the mind is not preoccupied by any thought or emotion. It is empty in the sense that it is unbiased, free and adaptable. Mushin is the essence of Zen; and a core principle of Japanese martial arts.
In Japan, there is an expression that goes: “mizu no kokoro” or “mind like water”. Mushin is like that, it is like the moon reflected on still water without any ripples and on it’s surface a perfect replica of the moon is reflected, like in a mirror. However, when there are other factors like wind that creates ripples, the image of the moon becomes distorted too. In other words, Mushin is the state when what you observe and what you are become one. The watcher and the watched become the same. When you have thoughts in your mind and your heart, everything is distorted. So you can understand everything and sense everything the way it really is, you have to be completely empty.
Mushin cannot be grasped with the intellect; it must be experienced. In Aikido, the state of Mushin is crucial during a martial situation. The practitioner must “become one” with the attacker for the technique to be effective, efficient, and harmonious.
When an opponent attacks, the Aikidoka should have a mental state that reacts to the situation instantaneously and not through a pre-determined course of action. One should not say, “I’ll do this waza”. Instead, the Aikidoka must respond spontaneously where techniques occur without thought, masterfully manipulating the energy of the attacker, and eventually neutralizing the threat. This state can only occur through constant training. Through training of the body and the mind, you will eventually no longer be concerned with thoughts like “I should do a tenkan here” or “this hand should be on the elbow”, etc.
To achieve this state of Mushin, the mind must be free from any conscious thought; free from anger, hesitation, doubt, fear and pride. Quoting a famous Zen Master Takoan Shoho:
“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.”
Mushin is vital to the martial artist. It is a concept that liberates the mind from the restrictions of the present situation.
I will leave you with an excerpt from the zen fable Neko no Myojutsu or “The Marvelous Techniques of the Old Cat” (see full story), the old cat explains:
“As soon as there is the slightest conscious thought, however, contrivance and willfulness appear, and that separates you from the natural Way. You see yourself and others as separate entities, as opponents. If you ask me what technique I employ, the answer is mushin (no-mind). Mushin is to act in accordance with nature, nothing else.”