"無心 No Mind."
Nathan Algren fails once again in his swordsman training. It seems that there is too much for him to keep up with.
Nobutada interrupts to say, “Too many mind.”
“Too many mind?” Nathan asks.
“Yes. Mind sword, mind people watching, mind enemy,” Nobutada says. “Too many mind.”
In "The Last Samurai", Nobutada was pointing to the concept of Mushin or Mushin no shin (無心 or 無心の心) which roughly translates to "no mind" or "the mind of no-mind."
The samurai swordsman seeks a state of clarity, focus, and complete presence, where considerations of his technique, the observers, his adversary, and even existential thoughts of life and death vanish. He operates in the moment at hand.
The Importance of Being Clear
When we've done our utmost in preparation, dwelling on too many concerns can burden our mental and physical well-being. And if we are not able to get over the different minds pulling us in different directions, we poison the future. Our actions are not our actions but instead are the offspring of the many minds we've unknowingly invited in.
Being able to clear our minds and remain wholly focused on the task at hand is crucial. I want to remove my conscious mind from getting in the way of understanding, appreciation and response. And I know if I don't win this battle with myself, I risk losing every other battle...especially the ones most important to me.
"Are we going to let this get in the way?"
Appealing to the Ego to Get Clear
Early on in combat medic school, two of my squad members were killed in an training exercise because of me. They didn't actually die but the simulation was jarring enough to send my instructor's point home. I was not clear. I was pulled in other directions by other concerns and my inability to manage that could mean someone actually dead.
The strategy that worked for me was a simple, grounding question I'd ask myself, "Are we going to let this get in the way of doing what we need to do?" This was the dense fog of doubt and distraction, the ceaseless cacophony of worries and what-ifs that threatened to tether me in place. This reminder became a ritual each time I was thrust into an emergency, helping me to focus and maintain composure amidst the chaos. In the back of an ambulance or the hectic halls of Baltimore’s trauma units, there was simply no margin for error.
Over time, it evolved into a switch I could flip, honing my focus on what was crucial in the moment—a cue that sharpened my attention.
I believe on some level my ego helped me. The question was not just a simple question. It was a challenge to my identity, my pride, and my fear of actually letting anyone down.
It's obvious that we all have circumstances in our lives that having a clear mind would be helpful. It's not a hard concept to grasp. The hard part is in getting there– to our own unique brand of clarity that we can use. The hard part is cueing ourselves to cut away the strings of the mind pulling us back to the past and into the future. The hard part is in the how. That is the art and the struggle – finding and flipping our own focus switch.
"Tight back, shoulders over the bar."
Appealing to the Logical to Get Clear
There are obviously levels to this. Sometimes the stakes are minimal and sometimes they are grand. I think back to my weightlifting days. A failed lift was nothing in comparison to a lost life. But the cue is essentially solving for the same thing and my coach was always keen on cues.
Get rid of what is holding you back.
My coach worked with me to focus on correcting the major things that were holding me back. She helped me develop my cues to keep a "tight back" and "shoulders over the bar" for my snatches and clean & jerks because technically those were the things I always messed up positioning wise. And before I knew it I found myself completing highly technical and athletic lifts to success– a major accomplishment for someone that was neither technical nor athletic. I even began competing and training to reach the national level.
I don't train to compete anymore but I do go to a barbell every once and a while and commit to my cues of "tight back, shoulders over the bar" as a reminder that if I focus on a few small cues everything else takes care of itself. I think anyone that has done some sort of sport or played some sort of instrument before also knows what I'm talking about. But this applies to just about everything. Sometimes it's simply about focusing on one or two little things and allowing everything else to fall in line.
Whilst my cue to question myself as medic was an appeal to my ego, my cues for olympic lifting were wholly technical. This approach enabled me to set aside the emotional barriers, specifically fear, that were impeding my progress.
Finding a Way as a Practice
I don't assume that what I do to clear my mind will work for everyone. I also don't pretend that it works all of the time. Finding clarity is more of a practice. And as we practice these things we get better. We evolve. And we also find out that what might have worked in one situation won't work in another and what might have worked in the past won't work in the future.
"I hear. I see you."
Appealing to the Heart to Get Clear
During those years I spent working in trauma medicine, my friends and family seemed deeply concerned as to how strangely (and easily) detached I could be in certain situations. Looking back, I was training myself to do that my entire life and it saved me on quite a few occasions. If you happen to know any first responders, nurses, doctors, or any other medical professionals that work or have worked in trauma then you must know already that we're all...well...a bit warped.
While learning to detach myself from emotional aspects and focusing on logical details definitely helped me as a medic, an athlete, and in countless other areas of life, the same can't be said for relationships. What's clarity in one context is not clarity in another. There is no empathy for others if I haven't made space for it. And I can only do that if I get clear.
Sometimes I do have to flip that switch the other way. Actually thinking of it as a switch, although the easiest for me to internalize when I was younger, was probably not the best thing to do. For the longest time, I felt like I had to be one way or the other. Either grossly logical and technical or hopelessly romantic. A false assumption. An unquestioned truth. The reality is it's more of a dance, fading in and out as the opportunity and events call for different kinds of clarity and focus. Everything doesn't have to be a 1 or 0 like some sort of binary code.
Often times the clarity I sook was not about striking down my enemy with a sword or stopping a bleeding wound. Sometimes that clarity is listening keenly to a friend without distraction of what I have to do next or what I want to say next. Sometimes it's about really listening at that moment and being present.
Hearing them. Really. Seeing them. Really.
It's very easy to see the implications of all of this in a battle for life and death, in a sport or task for work. But what about just being a person with another person? Being clear not just in the tasks at hand but with the people in our lives.
We're all seeking it
I do believe that everyone is seeking these states of clarity. But not everyone will reach the state they need to by the same way or with the same ease. Some people seem to be able to do this naturally much easier than others whilst some people burn up all their energy fighting to stay clear. The questions I feel we should really be asking is, "Given my situation, how can I get clear in my life?"