Who am I…the search for Mushin no shin

Jisei (自省) is a Japanese terms that means “to examine oneself; to reflect on one’s shortcomings; introspection, self awareness, self criticism, self examination; reflection.” If you, like me, have been training in the martial arts for many years this becomes a definite byproduct of our training at its core. Part of the study of Budo, martial ways or methods, involves the development of the spirit. Our inner core, so to speak, is defined through the training in the dojo. It is strengthened, developed, nurtured and often becomes introspective during our studies to the extent that a modification of who we are begins to occur.

In the martial arts we are constantly seeking the way to Mushin no shin, or Mushin for short. Mushin is a state of awareness, or mental state, into which we seek to enter when in combat but it extends beyond mere physical confrontations into a state where it effects our everyday activities. The term Mushin no shin (無心の心) means “mind without mind” and is often refered to a state of no mindness…this means the mind is not fixed or occupied by thought or emotion thus is open to everything we encounter in life.

In our studies we cannot understand the true journey of martial methods without beginning to enter this phase; however, it is one of the often most misunderstood, as well as hard to attain, levels in our training. In my dojo I often refer to seeking Mushin as the path into which we truly become who we are in our inner most spirit. Most people go through life always asking the question “Who am I” and never truly understand who they are. We, as martial artists, seek this same answer but we also realize that, over time, who we are will change due to circumstances in life.

In my 39 years of training I have often entered phases where I am just not sure who I am anymore. I begin to question my path I am on, who I feel I am and also begin to wonder if what I am doing in life is what I meant to be doing. These are questions all of us seek answers to quite often but through the traditional Karate training it has become easier to understand how to “feel” the answers. Yes, I stated “feel”…there is no definition to what life is so we have to learn how to feel answers.

There are many ways to allow this to happen and build it so that we might gain a small grasp of what Mushin has in store for us. During our training we throw thousands of strikes, kicks and blocks to they become automatic responses to threats. We also perform Kata hours on end, often performing thousands of repetitions, to seek a mental state where it flows through us instead being forced from us. During Kumite (sparring) we seek to allow, or trust as I call it, our training to become reactive with no thought to any external stimuli that we encounter. The end result when we attain these levels is referred to as Mushin, or of no-mind. This same practice extends beyond the mere physical training virtues of martial arts and into how we perceive life, thus changing how we perceive our own selves.

In the dojo you will learn your strengths and weaknesses. Over time these will both change as well. The warrior must learn to strengthen their weaknesses while also fortifying their strengths. This is why constant and continual study is required to be a true martial artist. Many people today place emphasis on belts or fighting prowess as an indication of how great someone is at their martial art. In truth, those two things, while being important to one’s study, are but a mere touch of what lies deep inside the study of this thing we call Karate.

During our training we must always try to be better this day than we were yesterday. This builds the development of a true indomitable spirit which is important in life. The indomitable spirit is the fuel that helps us overcome any and all challenges that life may bring our way however, if we do not understand our self, then we will always fail. Through the training we begin to realize who we are by facing the challenges in the dojo and overcoming them. When we fail we understand it is just a step that will strengthen our resolve and assist us in eventually defeating the issue at hand. When we succeed it is those same failures that help us to remain humble enough to know that, at any given time, we could easily fail again. During this struggle it is both internal and external.

The external struggle is the easy part. We condition our bodies for the training through rigorous study of the physical parts of our art. Our muscles grow stronger and more able to adjust to the needs of self defense. We increase our stamina thus making exerting tasks more easy to handle in life. We work through challenges of being injured, pulling muscles, hurt joints and many other things without allowing them to hold us down but rather we adjust to the injury to push forward, never looking back again. This external training is done daily in the dojo and builds us into healthy, strong and capable individuals in life.

The internal struggle is much more daunting to say the least. During the physical training we often have the urge to quit, to give up. Our bodies tell us that we are done, that we can accept no more and then our mind begins to believe it is time to give up. Training our minds to overcome our bodies is never an easy task. The truth is that we have no idea what we are capable of in our minds because we often fail to push beyond the limitations that we perceive in life. This internal struggle is real for all of us, even your Sensei and black belts face this daily. In my 39 years of training I have wanted to quit many times, to give up and to hang up my gi and belt. I have even had a few times where doctors have told me I would never be able to do Karate, or certain aspects of the training, again. It wasn’t just my love for my art that enabled me to prove them wrong but it was the understanding that once I gave up, once I quit, then quitting in life gets easier…and that is not a trait of true warrior.

Through seeking the balance of the external and internal struggles inside of the dojo I began to understand who I was as a person. I realized what my weaknesses were and understood what my strengths are. These all help to define who I am…and who I will become in my time on Earth. Even today, at 47 years old and 39 years of training, I struggle with who I am at times. Life will throw something at me, a change, an injury, a shortcoming or any other of a myriad of things but through training I will gain wisdom and understanding of what is both occurring in my life as well as how it will change and improve who I am as a person. As we age, both in the arts and in life, our bodies will change and we often find ourselves not being able to do what we could just 10 years ago. This can lead to frustration, depression or what often is described as a “mid-life” crisis. This is when I feel that training is the most important in our lives. Get to the dojo, leave the world outside and just train. The answers will appear because you will gain the ability to feel what is right and what is needed. On this pathway you must trust in yourself, trust in your art and trust in your Sensei…the rest will always come in time.

What I see as the biggest challenge to attaining this state of no-mind is patience. We often want answers right now which leads us to often take the easiest route. Only later on do we learn it wasn’t a good route and then we regret it. Sure some things will come easy but quite often that is not the true path we are seeking but rather the simplest one. Simple can be correct at times but rushing into it without being patient often leads to discourse, frustration and failure. One must be patient to overcome what life throws at you. Allow your mind to relax, just train and then allow the answers to come to you. When you push for answer to life you will never get the correct one either.

Seeking of the self, or Jisei, and the path heading towards no-mind, or Mushin, is never an easy one. It was never meant to be. In time though, all of us who have been down this road, truly learn to appreciate everything we have gained from it. The art of Karate extends beyond the belts, beyond the trophies, beyond the training and beyond what goes on inside of the dojo. The goal is to live a better life, to be better each day and to become a true Karateka…to train for the mere sake of training and improving. Good luck on your journey…

Steven M Franz, Rokudan – Shihan
Shorin Ryu Shorinkan Karate


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