There is a single point at which the fields of psychology, neuroscience, Eastern spirituality, and martial arts converge. In neuroscience, it is called “conditioned reflex.” In psychology, it is “unconscious competence.” In meditative traditions (especially Zen Buddhism), it is called “no-mindedness.” In martial arts, the exact same concept is often referred to as “mind like water.” Each approach describes a different aspect of the same phenomenon: acting without conscious thought. While scientists are primarily concerned with the mechanics of how such a process works, practitioners focus more on the mental and physical training that facilitates it.
Neuroscience research has demonstrated that the portion of our brain that controls movement (the motor cortex) begins to activate up to seven seconds before we consciously decide to move. While this opens the door to some intriguing questions about free will, the clear takeaway is that thinking slows us down. If you’ve ever shot a firearm, you know that you don’t consciously decide to blink when the gun goes off; in fact, the challenge is not blinking! Anyone who has ever done full-speed sparring has also experienced this lag time: if you think about what you’re going to do in response to an attack, your defense will always be too late. This is why in every fighting system — as well as in most sports — one of the goals of training is to be able to act from reflex, rather than cognition.
The problem, of course, is that unless you are very highly trained, your reflexes are usually wrong. This is why a novice fighter — regardless of how little conscious thought he might be using — will almost never be able to overcome a more skilled opponent. It’s also why, when we speak or respond “thoughtlessly,” we are prone to say things that are incorrect, hurtful, or just plain dumb. So, the question becomes, how do we develop the skill necessary — in both martial arts and life — to respond correctly, without conscious thought? The answer, according to psychology, is quality practice.
In the 1970s, a psychologist named Noel Burch developed a wonderfully elegant theory that has come to be called called “The Four Stages Of Competence” (also known as “training the elephant”). According to this model, the learning process progresses from Unconscious Ignorance (not even realizing that a technique exists) to Conscious Ignorance (realizing that you don’t know how to do a technique) to Conscious Competence (knowing how to do the technique while thinking about it) to Unconscious Competence (doing the technique correctly, without needing to think about it).
At the Unconscious Incompetence stage, the learner’s “Intuition” (reflexive action) is incorrect. Picture somebody who has never even seen a football trying to throw one; it would be ugly. At the Conscious Incompetence level, the aspiring quarterback would watch good players throw the ball, and try to mimic them. With some decent coaching, he would reach the level of Conscious Competence, at which point he would be able to throw a decent spiral, but would need to think about how to stand, where to grip the ball, and how to move his arm. With Unconscious Competence comes “Right Intuition,” meaning that the skill has become a reflex. At this level, our QB would be able to throw the ball properly, without even thinking about it. The same progression applies to every other skill, from language learning to boxing. This is why, even when caught off guard, a skilled fighter will respond to an attack with a crisp, precise movement, while a beginner will flinch and usually make an unhelpful, spastic gesture.
With a physical skill like throwing a football, quality practice involves performing numerous repetitions with attentive focus. As neuroscientists say, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Doing something over and over forges the connections in the brain that make a skill more and more natural and intuitive. This is why studies have found that there’s really no substitute for practice: just understanding something is not enough to be able to do it well. (Interestingly, research into “Observational Motor Learning” has suggested that, around the level of Conscious Competence, you actually CAN get somewhat better at something by watching other people do it).
Of course, you need to be sure that you are doing the technique correctly, otherwise you will “learn it wrong.” A fairly well-known koan (Zen anecdote) tells us of a master who, during a conversation with a student, picks up a brick and starts vigorously polishing it. When his student asks what he is doing, the master replies, “I am making a mirror.” The point of the story is that no amount of effort in the wrong direction will yield satisfactory results. This is why, for example, trying to learn self-defense moves from YouTube videos can be a bad idea: without an instructor to correct mistakes you don’t know you’re making, you are unlikely to learn the technique properly.
Assuming that you are practicing properly, climbing the Competence ladder will eventually bring you to the level of acting reflexively and correctly, without conscious thought. At this level, you could theoretically be thinking about your grocery list while throwing a football perfectly. However, to understand why this would be inadvisable, we can turn again to the intersection of science and spirituality. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist who has pioneered the study of “Flow,” the human nervous system is capable of processing about 110 bits of information per second. Estimates by other researchers have contradicted that number, but the point is that our “bandwidth” is not only finite, but quite limited. This is why, as Csikszentmihalyi points out, we can’t pay attention to more than, at the very most, two conversations at one time. It’s also why elite athletes are highly skilled at “changing the breadth of visual attention” — meaning that they don’t think about their grocery lists while competing, but focus very acutely on what’s important, completely blocking out everything else.
While “visual attention,” by definition refers to the external environment, the same process occurs internally. While interviewing people who function at the highest levels of art, science and athletics, Csikszentmihalyi found that they all described, “Lack of awareness of physical needs … A loss of feelings of self-consciousness.” Essentially, their brains dedicated 100% of their bandwidth to the task at hand, not only disregarding external stimuli, but also shutting down all internal thought processes not devoted to the object of their attention.
This brings us right back to the Zen concept of “Mushin No Shin” (“mind without mind” or “no-mindedness”), which is exactly what legendary martial artist Bruce Lee was describing when he spoke of “mind like water.” The goal of Wu-Shin (Chinese) or Mushin (Japanese) is for your conscious mind to remain clear, while your unconscious mind responds without hesitation or confusion to whatever you are experiencing. This, to Bruce Lee, felt like water flowing immediately into the form of its environment. More recently, productivity expert David Allen — a karate black belt himself — described “mind like water” as, “A relaxed state of control … Not an empty mind, though. It’s rather one that is operating at a more productive and creative level.”
All of these diverse thinkers explain, each in their own way, that acting without conscious thought does not mean functioning in a way that is thoughtless, it means functioning in a way that is frictionless. The mind should not be blank, it should be free. In other words, by releasing your mind of the burden of tracking things that aren’t helpful to what you’re doing, you make bandwidth available to fully process what you’re experiencing. In response to that, your brain can trigger the skills you have mastered through quality practice, allowing you to respond much more quickly and effectively than if you were actually thinking about what you were doing.
So, how do you cultivate Mushin? The short answer is: meditation, particularly “mindfulness” meditation. In mindfulness meditation, you practice paying attention to the experience of existence: what you’re seeing, hearing, touching and feeling at any given moment. By becoming aware of your own mind, and observing what it’s doing, you cultivate a sense of separation between your “self” and your thoughts, essentially becoming an observer in your own brain. From that observer’s standpoint, it is easier to shift your focus to whatever you want to pay attention to, rather than to be lost in the endless stream of thoughts that your brain naturally generates. You don’t try to force those thoughts away, or shut them off, you simply don’t pay attention to them. Like the air-conditioner noise that you stop noticing after it’s been on for a few seconds, the thoughts will simply fade out of your consciousness, leaving your brain free to function at maximum efficiency.
Therefore, paradoxically — and perhaps to give the Zen masters the last laugh — the only way to master your mind is to let it go.