The Four Zen States of Mind

Zen Circle 1 by Triratna Photos

The circle is a common representation of the idea of mushin.

As much as Caroline picks on me for being a Zen master and never getting stressed or concerned about anything, the fact is I am not one. Even so, that hasn’t stopped me from finding ways to apply Zen principles to my everyday life.

I’ve always had a love for the martial arts and a side passion for philosophy, Eastern, Western and everywhere in-between. I’ve found that the parts of philosophy I really love are the parts that you can directly apply to life. Maybe that’s just a reflection of me following Bruce Lee’s philosophies, who knows. Either way I think the real meat of philosophy is in practicalities, not pontificating or postulations. As a result I’ve collected four states of mind from Zen teachings and the martial arts world that you can work toward to make you a happier more effective person.

Shoshin

Shoshin (初心) is the first state of mind we’re going to talk about. Shoshin means “Beginner’s Mind” and is characterized by an attitude of eagerness and openness when beginning an endeavor. When you are in a state of shoshin you should be feeling enthusiastic, creative and above all optimistic. Think about a time when you were getting ready to start something new that you had always wanted to do. You were fired up and ready to go, you knew it would be great and you were open and ready to do or learn whatever it was you were about to start. That’s shoshin.

When can you use shoshin?

The most obvious use for assuming a state of shoshin would be whenever you’re about to start something new. Working to approach every new endeavor, even ones you may be nervous about or dreading, with an attitude of open eagerness helps to make most situations that you once thought were unpleasant much more enjoyable. One of the key aspects of shoshin is an absence of preconceptions and a general sense of optimism. When you are in a state of shoshin you shouldn’t be thinking too much about what you think is going to happen, you should just be eager to accept whatever comes and assured it will all be for the best.

This release of preconceptions and attitude of viewing everything with fresh eyes is one of shoshin’s most valuable qualities. You can work on placing yourself in a state of shoshin even when doing something you’ve done before to keep each experience fresh and to ensure that you aren’t making poor decisions based on preconceived biases. It also helps train you to keep a positive and eager outlook about everything that might come your way.

Fudoushin

Fudoushin (不動心 also Romanized as fudoshin) means “Immovable Mind”. This state of mind is characterized by a steadfast determination and absolute control over oneself. It should be noted that this doesn’t mean one in a state of fudoushin is being stubborn, or angry. Rather a person in fudoushin is calmly resolute and cannot be swayed, tempted or concerned. A man sitting peacefully in the eye of a tornado would be a good mental image to exemplify the idea of fudoushin.

When can I use fudoushin?

Fudoushin once cultivated can best be used in situations where you are under stress. These might be genuinely dangerous situations like a house fire or they may be fairly benevolent ones like car trouble or problems at work. The idea of achieving fudoushin in stressful situations is, I think, one of the quintessential stereotypes of the Zen master here. Most people picture the old monk reacting serenely in the face of extreme or mortal danger and that is essentially what you’re looking to emulate.

Now, I certainly hope you never find yourself in a situation where your life depends on you keeping a calm, collected head. Even so normal day to day life can be seriously stressful. A pursuit of fudoushin can go a long way to keeping you sane. You may never need to react calmly in a disaster, but being well versed in the art of taking a deep breath and letting the stress go could keep you from hurling your computer through the window when it crashes without saving your work.

Mushin

Mushin (無心) means “Without Mind” and it is very similar in practice to the Chinese Taoist principle of wei wuwei (爲無爲). Of all of the states of mind, I think not only is working toward mastery of mushin most important, it’s also the one most people have felt at some point in time. In sports circles, mushin is often referred to as “being in the zone”.

Mushin is characterized by a mind that is completely empty of all thoughts and is existing purely in the current moment. A mind in mushin is free from worry, anger, ego, fear or any other emotions. It does not plan, it merely acts. If you’ve ever been playing a sport and you got so into it you stopped thinking about what you were doing and just played, you’ve experienced mushin.

When can I use mushin?

Always. Honestly, I have yet to find any task where my performance was not improved by getting my head out of the way and just doing. Our thoughts wander, they bounce around through our heads and distract us, cause us to worry, cause us to over think things or become overconfident. When you quiet your mind and exist in the moment as an entity that has no concerns about the past or the future but is fully present and acts intuitively you can perform without distraction.

Beyond all of that worries, doubts, regrets and fears serve no purpose other than to cloud your judgement and make your life worse. By learning to live only in the current moment and let everything else go you can lead a much happier more peaceful life.

Zanshin

Zanshin (残心) literally translates to “Remaining Mind” and really has two parts. The first aspect of zanshin is a general and constant state of relaxed awareness or perceptiveness. This state means that although you’re not actively watching out for things you are constantly aware of your surroundings and situation. The second aspect of zanshin is a concept of follow through. In martial arts proper expression of zanshin is your actions and mental state after you have performed a technique or defeated your opponent.

When can I use zanshin?

The awareness aspect of zanshin is useful always, and can easily be cultivated along with mushin. In fact, learning to develop a state of mushin also helps cultivate zanshin as zanshin is best achieved by always being present in the moment and not letting your mind wander with distractions.

The awareness aspect of zanshin doesn’t have to just relate to your physical surroundings though. True zanshin means constant situational awareness. That means being present enough to notice when someone might be upset with you, or recognizing when your financial or career situation may need some improvement as well as being perceptive enough to identify the opportunities that arise to make positive improvements.

The follow through aspect of zanshin will also make all of your endeavors more successful. Proper follow through ensures that even if you fail at something you attempt, you can see the results of what you did and learn from those mistakes leading you to a success on your next attempt.

There are other states of consciousness, as well as various techniques to help train one to achieve them, in Zen Buddhism and in martial arts, but I think these four are the most powerful for improving people’s day to day lives. Do you have any others you would add or good ways to practice these? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Triratna Photos

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com

  • Ohwell

    Thanks for posting this….insightful

    • Thanks! Have you had the chance to apply any? I’m always curious about other people’s experiences with stuff like this.

      • Arkadiusz Zylka

        Na sicher…die vier Aspekte des Sein-Zustandes sind beim Erlernen eines Handwerks erfahrbar. Sei dies wortwörtlich, ein Handwerk das man über Jahre lernt, oder Mathematik…Sprachen.

        Mushin ist ein Zustand, den man oft z.B. beim Musik komponieren erfährt, oder bei Teamsportarten wie Basketball…

  • YA18

    Very interesting states you chose. I particularly like Shoshin as it makes day-to-day activities very interesting, I also found it useful when doing stuff i haven’t done for a while. I am wondering, from where did you learn about this four states?

    • I’ve been interested in Zen Buddhism for a long time, spurred on primarily by my twin interests in philosophy and martial arts. Unfortunately since it’s a long standing interest of mine I don’t really have any single source I can pin down that I learned of each of these states from first.

      This post is more an amalgamation of my studies with my own personal experience with each of these states.

  • Jeremy B.

    I really enjoy this. I experience mushin often during jiu jitsu rolling and was seeking further info on this state. I have found such further info here. It is nice to know someone is seeking the same knowledge. I’ll be following further posts.

    • Thanks! I think there’s something about martial arts, parkour and other physical disciplines that tends to lead people to this sort of thing. My best guess is that they’re just good activities for expressing flow / mushin and that once people feel it they get kind of addicted.

      The world’s a very full place, and I think as a result it’s pleasant to be empty every now and again.

  • Mladén Milosavljevic

    Great article, enjoyed reading, really helped me understand myself better.
    And I’ve been wondering: meditation is then nothing but entering Mushin state of mind deliberately. Right?