Keep Calm and Mushin On

In Zen, there is a concept known as mushin no shin, or the mind without mind. In The Last Samurai (a.k.a. Tom Cruise’s Last Good Movie), Nobutada tells Algren that he needs “no mind” and his swordsmanship suffers because of “too many mind”.

How often is it that we are taking on too much? Not only that, but how much of that much persist as worry, anxiety, or fear? How much of it pervades our being and destroys our energy. What about our thinking taxes our emotional reservoir so?

When teaching a new move, especially to a new student, it’s important to break it down. Explain it. Demonstrate it. And then have the student step through it.

There is a process and a system – the science.

“Ok, do this. Now this. Now that. Remember this. Don’t forget that…”

But then, after working the move in pieces, step-by-step, the student being cognizant of each part,

“Stop. Now forget everything we just did and everything I told you…

…now, just do it!”

The suddenness of ability as the parts come together in a way that somehow seems effortless – that’s the art part.

Sometimes you can sit and rack your brain for hours to find the perfect words, the right solution, the appropriate diagram, the exact model, the next great concept. And it never comes. Piles of papers on the floor. Deleted Word docs and Visio diagrams in your computer’s unnecessarily-cool-looking recycle bin.

Get up. Walk away from it. Sleep on it. Do something else. And suddenly…the moment you step outside, wake up, or you’re in the shower – boom, there it is! The very thing you were looking for. It appears seemingly spontaneously.

Jedi masters always seem to say, “Be mindful of your thoughts/feelings .” But then they seemingly contradict themselves and say things like, “Clear your mind”. How confusing!

But it’s not. Even Bruce Lee said, “Focus without focus”.

It seems contradictory but it’s elegantly simple: be selectively enthusiastic and put your mind and energy toward what matters and reroute your actions, words, thoughts, and energy away from those that suck it up without recompense.

Letting go us difficult, but it is a choice. Persisting path less thoughts over and over can be futile. The trick is to embrace letting go. That’s right, embrace letting go .

Our world is always saying…no, screaming at us: “try harder!”

It’s precisely then that mushin is most needed. Fight without fighting.

No mind.


Thrash, then when you’re done with that, sink or swim…

Get thrown in a pool for the first time and thrash, then sink or swim.

Mama bird kicks baby bird out of the nest for the first time. Fly or die, baby.

Drive a stick for the first time and grind some gears, burn up the clutch and spin the tires without going anywhere, or drive.

Fight for the first time and get pummeled or overcome your opponent.

Start a new project and thrash, then succeed or crash thoroughly.

The beginning of anything often seems so chaotic, and it is. Seth Godin says to “thrash early” and “not thrash late”. There’s merit to this in that in order to get into the swing of things, you just have to start moving.

Imagine a new dancer. She doesn’t know any movements yet. There is no grace, no style, no coordination, no beauty. In essence, no dance despite the stage and the music. Flailing, failing, tripping and falling she gets up and begins to bring life and art to her dance.

So is it so with a new martial artist. Every punch is in a different spot. Hands and feet feel clunky. He can’t get his mind out of the way to move. He can’t get his body to do what his mind wants it to do. Forms are choppy. Sparring is clumsy and ineffective. Blocks fail to block. But then, the mind sees movement and the body moves without thought. Forms become art and fighting becomes effortless. The martial artist brings balance to his force and swiftness to his motion.

No one is born a pro. Talent is acquired not inherent. Skill is developed not spontaneously available. Natural ability kicks in and takes direction from the will. The will is you. You choose which way to go.

Swim, fly, drive, win, succeed…
Drown, fall, ride, lose, fail…

Your power to decide. Your will, your call.

But first,
there is thrashing.

There is always thrashing at the start.

Dreamers live in reality…

The problem with dreams is that you can’t tell you’re dreaming. Once you’re awake, you either can’t shake it as if it were a real memory or you can’t remember it at all.

The problem with reality is that you can’t tell you’re living the real world. Once you’re in a dream state, you either can’t even perceive what your reality was or it’s so close to reality you think you’re awake.

The thing about either makes it seem like you have to choose one over the other where, in fact, it’s quite the opposite: you don’t even know while you’re doing it. Dreamers live in reality as much as realists dare to dream.

The dichotomy, opposition and imbalance isn’t as such. Two parts, one with a bit in the other. Yes – here comes the yin-yang reference. Both can exist. Both do exist.

All while we are growing up, people tell us to “dream big” and to “shoot for the stars”, or that our “potential is limitless” and that yes indeed, “you can be anything you want to be when you grow up”.

Then suddenly we are older (but maybe not grown up) and people tell us to “face reality”, to “get with the picture” and to “live in the real world”, and that “you gotta do it this way”.

How the message changes over time. But when did we let go of our acceptance of thinking big? When did our dreams die? When, so suddenly, did we stop allowing ourselves the beauty of imagination in exchange for some cold, hard reality we unwittingly and unknowingly bought into one day?

There is a reality, but we do have the power to shape it – we just have to let ourselves into our dreams to make it so. No one ever woke up from a good dream and said, “Well, I’m glad I’m back to reality now!”

There are good dreams and bad dreams, as there are good realities and bad realities.

It, perhaps, is not so much that we should spend our time trying to widen the space between our dreams and our realities, but that our energy should be made to make our dreams our reality and make our reality of our dreams so that dreaming and waking should be just as familiar – and real – as the other.

You can be real, but don’t forget to dream.

Since when did we agree to being grown up?

Dream real big.

Face your dreams.

Because I still want to shoot for the stars.

Don’t you?

Beyond pixels, parts, and punches…

It’s interesting how quickly people can forget the big picture – providing they haven’t missed it altogether!

In business and projects, if you are one of those who happen to be able to see the big picture, don’t hide it – you might be the only one who sees it!

Here’s the thing: a good portion of individuals’ work is in the details (or – if you must have one of your corporate buzzwords – “in the weeds”).  That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with people working in the details.  For sure they must.  As a matter of fact, they are absolutely critical, otherwise nothing would ever get done with any semblance of quality.

However, if you can see the big picture, you are needed most of all.  When dealing with business activities, project parts, work tasks, and so forth, it’s easy to stay embedded in the details.  In every situation where there is wheel-spinning involved, there is an opportunity to not only be the grounding for traction, but the impetus for forward motion and even the catalyst for acceleration.

The big picture must be kept in front and if you just so happen to be the seer and keeper of that big picture, you mustn’t stay quiet.  Moreover, you can’t be afraid to be wrong.  If you even think you understand the big picture, you need to step forward and connect the dots and state it firmly!

Remember old TVs?  If you sat close enough, you could see the dots! (I remember the distinct moment I knew I needed glasses at age 9.  Thanks Nintendo’s Tetris and Dr. Mario…“Mom, I can’t see the blocks or pills very clear anymore!”).

Recall the classical art style of Impressionism.  Annoying, wasn’t it – to have to step back in order to see the lady holding the umbrella and the people in the park?

Another example is in martial arts.  Remember the scene where Mr. Miagi insists that Daniel-san washes Mr. Miagi’s cars, sand the deck, and paint the fences?  The immediate application wasn’t so easily seen, but Mr. Miagi held the big picture.

Ok, so that last example is a bit ’80s-martial-arts-movie hokey, but in real martial arts it’s still as true.  When learning forms (hyung), it’s best to teach or learn in pieces.   A block here, a kick there or a turn or two appear as nothing but hard movement.  However, the moment it all comes together – where the pieces are lost in the whole – is when the sheer beauty of a form shines.

How can you always check to make sure you see the big picture?

Performing in the details of the big picture is equity.

Perceiving the big picture is vision.

Owning the big picture is leadership.

Creating, sharing and helping others to understand the big picture is art.