There’s a lot of confusion about what mushin actually is, and even more confusion about how to go about attaining it. It’s usually thought of as some distant state of consciousness that’s only obtainable by enlightened zen masters.
That couldn’t be further from the truth, because getting into the state of mushin is not difficult.
Staying in it, however, is a different story. That’s up to whether you keep the practice up long enough to make it a habit. At the very least though, you’ll be able to use it on demand whenever you like.
So, let’s clear all the confusion up and get right down to it. By the end of this guide, you’ll know exactly what mushin is, and by knowing what it is, you’ll know how it works, and how to enter it.
The Real Meaning of “Mushin”
What you’ll commonly hear is that “mu-shin” means “no-mind,” and it’s short for the zen expression “mushin no shin,” which means “mind without mind.”
But that’s only half right.
You see, the “-shin” part doesn’t really mean “mind.”
Shin actually means “heart,” but not in the way we usually think of it. It’s actually referring to what could be better described as “the source of intentional will” in you, or your “spirit of action,” or you could even say, the very sensation of you “consciously doing things.”
The closest approximate to the idea of “shin,” is when we say something like, “Do you have the heart to do what it takes to achieve your goals?”
It’s that same idea of willpower, spirit – or “gumption” even.
Mushin is about the absence of all that. It’s about not doing things willfully, or, to put it more precisely, not trying to direct your own body’s actions.
Right there lies the key to what it is. It’s not so much a state that you get into, it’s more of an absence of interference with the function of your own central nervous system. But don’t let that confuse you, because that’s only a technical explanation.
In reality it’s much simpler than that – just like how moving your own arms and legs doesn’t require any technical knowledge. It can be understood with nothing more than a simple explanation, and if you’re looking for the simplest explanation out there, I’ve never heard anyone explain it in a better way than Zhuangzi did.
Reading his explanation of “fasting of the heart” is what finally made it *click* for me all those years ago. And, as you might have guessed:
“fasting” = “mu”
“heart” = “shin”
“Fasting of the Heart” = “Mushin.”
Again, it’s another translation of the same idea, but I do like the phrase “fasting of the heart” a whole lot more than “no-mind.” It sounds a lot less esoteric, and more like something you can actually start doing by choice – which is how it really is.
So, let’s next take a look at Zhuangzi’s explanation of “fasting of the heart,” which he presents through a fictional conversation between the famous philosopher Confucius and one of his disciples, simply as a joke.
The joke is, of course, that everyone back then highly respected pretty much anything that Confucius was supposed to have said, so Zhuangzi decided to put his own words of advice into Confucius’ mouth.
In case you didn’t know, this sense of humor is actually really common among Zen master and Daoist masters. After all, doesn’t your sense of humor improve when you’re in a good mood? Mushin is the best mood to be in, you could say.
Anyway, let’s now take a look at Zhuangzi’s explanation of “fasting of the heart,” or “mushin.”
Fasting of the Heart
“Tell me,” said Yen Hui, “what is fasting of the heart?”
Confucius replied: “The goal of fasting is inner unity. This means hearing, but not with the ear; hearing, but not with the understanding; hearing with the spirit, with your whole being.
“The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of the understanding is another. But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear, or to the mind.
“Hence it demands the emptiness of all the faculties. And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens. There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind.
“Fasting of the heart empties the faculties, frees you from limitation and from preoccupation. Fasting of the heart begets unity and freedom.”
“I see,” said Yen Hui. “What was standing in my way was my own self-awareness. If I can begin this fasting of the heart, self-awareness will vanish. Then I will be free from limitation and preoccupation! Is that what you mean?”
“Yes,” said Confucius, “that’s it! If you can do this, you will be able to go among men in their world without upsetting them. You will not enter into conflict with their ideal image of themselves.
“If they will listen, sing them a song. If not, keep silent. Don’t try to break down their door. Don’t try out new medicines on them. Just be there among them, because there is nothing else for you to be but one of them. Then you may have success!
“Look at this window: it is nothing but a hole in the wall, but because of it the whole room is full of light. So when the faculties are empty, the heart is full of light. Being full of light it becomes an influence by which others are secretly transformed.”
That last example of a window really helps you visualize what this is all about. It’s the principle of not occupying the faculties of your body and mind, as though they were windows between yourself and the world around you.
What mushin really means is that you stop all forms of preoccupation, because preoccupation only serves to block the function of your own faculties. Or, to put it more simply: you’re only able to perform at your full potential, or, “with your whole being,” when you’re not getting in your own way.
That is, when you’re not getting in your own way by using your conscious will to try to do things through your faculties, instead of letting your faculties work function automatically by themselves.
And this isn’t just a concept exclusive to Zen culture. It’s called “automatization,” which is backed by our current understanding of neuroscience. As neuroscientist David Eagleman explains in his book Incognito,
Automatization permits fast decision making. Only when the slow system of consciousness is pushed to the back of the queue can rapid programs do their work. Should I swing forehand or backhand at the approaching tennis ball? With a ninety-mile-per-hour projectile on its way, one does not want to cognitively slog through the different options.
This state of flow, where “automatized” action takes over when you stop doing things “from your heart,” like we talked about earlier, is nothing other than the state of mushin that we’re seeking after. He continues,
When athletes “get into the zone,” their well-trained unconscious machinery runs the show, rapidly and efficiently.
And, of course, we’re all familiar with what happens when we do what we usually do, which is the exact opposite of that. It’s called the centipede effect, named after the old rhyme that sums it up perfectly:
The centipede was happy, quite,
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?;
This worked his mind to such a pitch,
He lay distracted in a ditch,
Considering how to run.
When we occupy our faculties and act with preoccupation, the flow of automatized action falls away, and we’re no longer in the state of mushin. That’s all there is to it.
Living in the State of Mushin
In the end, all it takes to achieve the state of mushin is that practice of “fasting of the heart,” or, not preoccupying your own faculties.
That simply means not directing your own action. Not “taking control of the wheel,” you could say.
That’s why there’s a lot of talk in Zen about being aimless or intentionless. It’s not so much about being literally aimless, or somehow going about life while doing everything accidentally; it’s about not directing your own faculties of action yourself, consciously, with your own force of will.
- Not aiming at your goal. This is hugely counter-intuitive, but was taught by the Zen archer Awa Kenzo, who was known for being able to hit the bullseye “100 times out of 100.”
- Not controlling your actions. As David Eagleman said,
“Should I swing forehand or backhand at the approaching tennis ball? With a ninety-mile-per-hour projectile on its way, one does not want to cognitively slog through the different options.”
- Not stopping the mind. As Zen master Takuan Soho said about swordfighting,
“When you first notice the sword that is moving to strike you, if you think of meeting that sword just as it is, your mind will stop at the sword in just that position, your own movements will be undone, and you will be cut down by your opponent. This is what stopping means.”