Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Martial Arts and No-Mind

This 12th-13th July, I co-hosted a 'Philosophy and the Martial Arts' conference at Melbourne University, with Professor Graham Priest.

One of the ongoing themes of the conference was mushin, translated as no-mind, or non-thinking, or immovable mind. I've written about this before, if you'd like a very short discussion.

After this conference, I want to stress how common mushin is.

Yes, the Japanese martial arts and Buddhist texts often discuss no-mind, and do it with subtlety and boldness. And it is something I've certainly experienced in Karate sparring and forms.

Nonetheless, I think the Japanese martial arts, or Asian martial arts in general, have no monopoly on this state-of-mind (or no mind). Instead, it's common to many areas of proficiency - from Western boxing to surfing and dance. They all have this movement away from deliberative, calculative reasoning, to a kind of embodied, intuitive, unreflective action.

According to Dreyfus and Dreyfus, many fields of expertise go through similar stages, from novice to expertise. It starts with step-by-step, calculative decisions, often awkwardly put together from rules. (Think not only of learning a form in martial arts, but also of learning to play an instrument, like the piano.) It ends with an intuitive, adaptive, spontaneous knowledge of what to do, when to do it, and how.

In between is practice, practice, practice, in many different situations. It might be sparring, but it could also be playing piano: scales over and over, then playing with different orchestras, for different audiences, over the years. What happens in the end is intentional, responsive and often very personal - but it's not achieved by following rules, step-by-step thinking or conscious decision making.

Occasionally, this leads to what the Dreyfuses call 'mastery', which forgoes self-consciousness in favour of seamless, 'thoughtless' adaptation and spontaneity. This sounds very much like mushin to me.

As does the experience of 'flow', introduced recently by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (A straightforward account is here.) Csikszentmihalyi's ideas fit perfectly with my experiences of sparring and forms in Karate, but he also finds flow in many other pursuits and professions. Flow experiences are common to chess, skiing, painting and mathematics, and have a universal structure: clear, challenging goals, the merging of activity and attention, and feelings of timelessness, ease and freedom.

Again: all very secular, occidental and non-mystical. This doesn't mean it's easy to experience mushin. (It's different to focus, intensity and commitment, for example.) When sparring, I'm a long way from competence, let alone mastery - I'm chiefly trying to keep my hands up, and stay standing.

But the point stands: the Asian crafts of fighting have no monopoly on 'flow'.

As I've argued elsewhere, I believe the martial arts do have some very specific virtues. But if I'm right, no-mindedness isn't one of them.


danielsmith said...

G'day Day,

To this list of different interpretations of what may be the same underlying feeling, I'd add the sporting analogue of being "in the zone". I've even experienced it to some degree when gaming, and it usually results in better performances.

Gordon said...

There was a good example of this on a science show about the batter in baseball who doesn't watch the pitched ball as it closes in(only the beginner does this), but simply intuits were it is going to end up.

But what I think would be more interesting then these 'high end'and top performance 'conditioned response' star examples, would be a good brain science type look at some vulgar and everyday masteries, such as our ability to (without thinking)pick up a cup, or to thoughtlessly negotiate the complex object world itself - Mushin is everywhere (at least for the human)!

Damon Young said...

D: Yes, I think it also applies to gaming - though without quite the same degree of immersed embodiment.

G: Yes, the science of banal finesse is fascinating. Although I wouldn't call handling a teacup 'flow', in Csikszcentmihalyi's sense. It's unconscious and fine, but doesn't have the same felt freedom, discovery, wholeness and so on. But I agree that it's an intriguing, and oft-forgotten kind of skill.

Peter Fyfe said...

What you describe as mushin sounds a lot like what I experience [sometimes] when I play the piano or sing (and even [occasionally] when I write or make art!). There is such a stark contrast to the experience of the "classical" training. The presence of some paradox always indicates to me that Truth is somewhere nearby! Thanks - lovely post!

Damon Young said...

Thanks, Peter. My colleague Graham Priest has co-written an interesting paper on paradoxes: distinguishing between the trivial and non-trivial ones. Some just look like paradoxes - they're actually mistakes, or confusions. But some paradoxes are real, i.e. they are self-contradictory truths. Fascinating stuff.

Peter Fyfe said...

Hi Damon - I'm intrigued as I'm currently "playing" a little with some of the quantum physics paradoxes [sic?]. Is there a particular paper you'd direct me to - I see Prof Priest has written quite a few?

Damon Young said...

Peter, the paper I read was: Yasuo Deguchi, Jay Garfield and Graham Priest, ‘The Way of the Dialethist: Some Ways in which Contradictions may be Understood in the Buddhist (including Zen) Traditions’, delivered at the BILAP conference, Saturday 18th November, 2005, Westminster College, Cambridge University.

Peter Fyfe said...

Bless you, Damon. I found the paper here and it's proving most interesting. Thanks so much! I've finally discovered the word for a phenomenon I've long enjoyed (dialethism). Off to play with this delightful toy now...