Monday, July 17, 2006

The Problem of Mushin

Mushin is the state of "no mind"where the body does the appropriate thing quickly, completely and without conscious thought.

For beginners, they see the fist coming at them and they think, "I'd better block" and they do, usually too slow. In mushin, you never consciously see the fist or choose the block. The same thing happens in many, many areas of our lives. Most people remember how complicated and difficult driving was the first time and rarely appreciate how automatic it has become. The same with music, but we see a higher level here that applies to martial arts- some can sight read music and play without thinking about it, many can play a favorite song "by heart" without thinking about it, but very, very few can 'jam'- can meld seamlessly with a group of players making beauty out of chaos. That, my friends, is a lot like fighting.

So I usually see two camps, constantly arguing with each other:

Position 1: Train hard and mushin will be there when you need it.
Position 2: How dare you tell someone to rely on a mystical state that you can't even prove exists when their life is at stake!

The biggest danger to students doesn't come from either side, it comes from the arguments themselves.

All of life is incredibly complicated and we do an incredible amount on automatic pilot. Real combat can be one of the most surreal and complicated things- your body may be pushed to it's limits of strength, speed, endurance and durability; your brain will be soaked in a cascade of neurochemicals and you have two or more human animals in that state with different perceptions, plans and inclinations. Then there's the Twilight Zone stuff that sometimes happens.

Your conscious brain can't process it. Both camps know this. But your subconscious, especially if it has been trained well and hard, can deal with it. It doesn't have to deal with it 'right'. I will tell you and any self-defense instructor will tell you that high kicks are generally a bad idea, but in one case a friend flinched and kicked the bad guy in the chin. Game over. On paper an iffy technique, but the subconscious dealt with it.

The traditional camp says Mushin will be there when you need it, and they are often right. People who train hard and give themselves permission to do what they train can accomplish amazing things. A metaphor: Training is a vehicle. An assault is suddenly seeing a piano fall off a truck in front of you when you are doing 90 mph. If you are driving a sports car, you cut the wheel hard, cut back and accelerate. If you are driving a jeep or a pick up, you veer and keep the wheels straight if you go off the road. If you're driving a dump truck, you accelerate and smash through the damn thing. If you are in one of these vehicles and you try to drive it like the others, you die. Cut the wheel on the dumptruck and you flip. Smash through with the sports car and you're smashed. Go off road at speed with either and you're in bad shape.

Trying to decide what to do instead of letting your training do it's job, is like driving the sports car like a dump truck- or worse, not being able to decide how to drive and getting killed with a deer-in-the-headlights look like an idiot.

The other camp, when they aren't just complaining and are actively training, tend towards scenarios. It's easy to go into pure fantasy with scenarios but the idea with good scenarios is to expose the students to situations as realistic as possible and let them work it out. Unlike real life, you can learn from your own death. But the core idea, the real meat, is that if you do scenarios enough and well enough when the real fight happens it won't be unfamiliar territory. If it looks and feels enough like training, you'll have the home court advantage, you'll be able to think instead of simply react.

The flaw, of course, is that often thinking is too slow and you must react. Scenario training still gets there, it's just that the point at which the person is cooly thinking of options while the Sim bullets whiz around his head is NOT the goal, it's actually one of the most dangerous mental way-points. Things happen at such speed that you must get to the conclusion without going through the mental process to get there. Thinking, no matter how cooly, is falling in love with the dead time.

The other camp, 'work hard and you'll get there', is right sometimes... as long as the brain doesn't obsess on the fact that this moment if nothing like training. That's a deadly freeze.

In both cases (though the scenario camp is reluctant to do or admit this) you must give your body and subconscious mind permission to handle it. Without the conscious 'You' interfering. That's a huge leap of faith.

I've done this a lot. Honestly, I usually plan the first second or second-and-a-half of a fight. Everything beyond that is stroking myself. Then I let go. I trust my will to survive, my moral base and my skill even (especially) without conscious control.

I feel the argument between the two camps is dangerous because the first time you let go, it is an act of faith. People telling you that what you have to trust doesn't exist can put a hole in your faith. On the other hand, after the tenth or twentieth time, the people telling you it doesn't exist range from amusing to annoying.

One more note- when dealing with chaos not all people react in the same way. For some, Mushin is automatic under stress, for others it doesn't happen at all... and the only way you can find out is to go into the storm and take the leap of faith.

1 comment:

Mac said...

True mushin can only be achieved by training it, via no mind, and then acting. All our tactical training, scenario-izing, visualizing, experiences, self-evaluations lend specific purpose (example: goals) to mushin. It is like the hub of a wheel (to borrow from the Tao Te Ching) - useless without the spokes and rim, and the spokes/rim are purposeless without the rim.