Mind Training in Zen and the Martial Arts


Mind training in Zen and the Martial Arts is largely a matter of training in flow. Mindfulness training or training in flow is the path that leads to spontaneous and intuitive action. “Subconscious practice is more important than conscious practice”, was a statement made by Miyamoto Musashi a famous swordsman from the feudal period in Japan. Subconscious practice is what is being referred to in this article. It is the practice of a concentrated, intuitive and fluid mind.

Fluid Mind - Intuitive Action

"The truly still mind with which you were born, is the mind that moves freely. Without ignoring anything, it reacts wholeheartedly to everything it encounters, to everything on which it reflects. And yet, for all that, it is the mind that is never seized by anything, but is always ready to react on the spot to whatever comes up. The mind that is still is the mind that never forfeits its freedom and is able to constantly keep rolling and rolling and rolling."

~From "Novice to Master" by Soko Morinaga

Both Zen and the Martial Arts traditionally placed a high value on a ‘flowing mind’, a mind that doesn’t stop or get ‘caught’ on anything. The state of flow lies at the very core of mind training in Zen and the Martial Arts.

Another way to explain the Zen mind, or the ‘flowing mind’ of Zen and the Martial Arts, is to describe it as a mind that has ‘no-gaps’ – a gap being a temporary blockage that happens when we fixate on any particular thought. If we stop to dwell on a problem - or if our mind wanders off into ruminations about this or that – we have lost our ‘flowing mind’. One could say we have lost our concentration. Our mind becomes full of ‘gaps’.

Martial artists know the importance of keeping this concentration and not letting thoughts get in the way. Spontaneous, fluid and intuitive action depends on freedom from thought. When caught by his thoughts, the martial artist can’t move freely; in moving freely the martial artist can’t be caught by his thoughts. Cutting loose from the grip of thoughts the person is finally free to experience flow.

A fluid mind doesn’t exist only within the domain of Zen and the Martial Arts of course. Its rightful place is within the human domain at large. There's something essential about a flowing mind, something that each and every one of us has the right to uncover for ourselves. The pursuit of this mind training is available to one and all.

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The Living Subconscious vs.Conditioned Subconscious

The principle of ‘flow’ or of having ‘no-gaps’ isn’t only for a warrior mind charged with doing battle or for Zen monks engaged in meditation. Mind-body disciplines are excellent vehicles for understanding the state of flow, yet they're by no means the only way. Mind training is available to one and all.

The flow state is available in the midst of everyday life. It is the essence of the subconscious mind that lives inside. It's the essence of the living subconscious, which is essentially different to be from the conditioned subconscious.

The conditioned subconscious is crusted and solidified. It has been shaped by life, by others, and by our own repetitive patterns of thought and action. The living subconscious, on the other hand, is fluid, shapeless and free. It is intelligent and completely beyond conditioning. The conditioned subconscious springs from the past. The living subconscious springs from the present (visit the three faces of self and mind for more).

The Flow Zone

The flow zone describes a function, primarily of the mind, where we're fully awake and present to the activity at hand. Being in the state of flow is to lose ourselves in experience ... instead of the way we usually lose ourselves in thought. Cultivating the ultimate self help skill of flow requires a relaxed alertness. It requires mind training - developing a concentration of body and mind.

In the flow state, we have essentially removed ourselves from the scene; which opens the door to spontaneous, effective and often rapturous experience. It is a state of mind (or 'no-mind') in which we are truly at our best. It is a zone in which the highest forms of self-motivation, personal growth and inspired life change are realized.

The Connection to Daily Life

If you are a person who is drawn to challenging activities that require high levels of skill, then you are most likely no stranger to the 'flow zone' (see flow psychology for more on this). You've likely experienced how flow can carry some of the most intrinsically satisfying and rewarding moments of our lives.

Yet, we don’t have to wait for high challenge/high skill activities in order to experience flow. We don’t need to be a martial artist or Zen practitioner to gain access to a flowing mind. Training the mind in flow is accessible to one and all.

Flow is the very essence of the living subconscious. With the living subconscious inside, anyone can connect with flow - anytime, anyplace, anywhere. The flow state exists within. The only thing that prevents us from experiencing flow is over-involvement with our own thinking. We need to be more mindful. These mindfulness exercises may prove helpful for a start.

Flow is an essential part of who we are. It is the very essence of the living subconscious that's inside us. To get to know this flow, is to get to know an important part of ourselves. This is one of the important aims of mind training in both Zen and the Martial Arts. Yet, you can do it too. We are all invited to discover the essential benefits of a flowing mind.

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