4 Japanese Concepts to Transform Your State of Mind

Jan 12, 2020
 Created by the author, original by Sebastian Kurpiel on Unsplash


Japan has a famed rich culture and philosophy, but I confess I did not appreciate this enough until my first trip. At 21, I was a Karate black belt and thought far too much of my own ability.

The training involved lots of head nodding at Japanese words being used without really being explained. You knew you were doing something wrong but didn’t quite know why.

That all changed in the beautiful islands of Okinawa.

Traveling to the birthplace of Karate transformed my understanding. The instructors there have dedicated their lives to the art form and inspired me to dive into the philosophical elements, not just looking cool.

The lessons Japanese philosophy teaches can be applied to all aspects of our lives.

We can often allow our minds to float and be forced to react to the challenges that life throws at us. We can, however, practice and discipline our minds to do so much more.


Mushin no shin — Mind without Mind

Mind without mind sounds wishy-washy, yet for those who have experienced it, there is no better feeling.

This mindset is where your inner voice is silent. You act purely based on instinct and feel. For many of us who are continually worrying, mental silence is incredibly freeing.

In sports, it is often called being in “The Zone,” where everything just seems to flow for a player.

Meditation is a tried and tested way to attain “Mushin no shin,” yet meditation is not something that appeals to everyone.

Have you ever aimlessly gone for a walk, and your legs just have taken you around without any conscious decisions about where you are going? Total empty mindedness, but your subconscious guides you.

People experience “Mushin no shin” in a vast array of fields. People report it in physical activities such as dance, running, karate, and others find it in mental or creative areas such as painting or doing sudoku.

I believe everyone should have an activity that gives them this feeling. We all struggle when we first start an activity because we must think so hard about what we are doing. Getting through this difficulty eventually leads to cognitive ease.

The key to “Mushin no shin” is consistency in whichever activity you choose. This activity then becomes an oasis during your day or week.

While I would caution against trying to force this mindset to be used productively rather than purely for mental health, it is possible to achieve in a working environment too.

Have you ever had a day where it’s just flown by, and you have no idea where the time went? It happens when you have all the necessary skills for your tasks, and your brain simply plows through.

It can be great for the first attempt or draft of a piece of work. Instead of your inner voice assessing every word or action you make, you let it run wild and afterward in a more focused state can edit and revise.

You may already have activities that put your brain into this state. If you do, make sure you make time for this and see how it lifts your overall mood. If you do not, what are you waiting for!


Fudoshin — Immovable Mind

Conjure the image of a samurai in your mind. What many will think of is a majestic warrior with an extreme discipline that exudes calm.

On January 1st, many of us were in this state of mind. We would complete our New Year’s Resolution, no matter what.

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to fall out of this state of mind. True “Fudoshin” is an irresistible will to reach our target that will bulldoze through any distraction, whether internal or external.

Often “Fudoshin” can work against us. If you have a sweet tooth, you know no matter what reasoning or logic you use, you will eat that cake.

We can train ourselves to harness this state for good. Whenever trying to give up something, whether it’s smoking, snacks, or meat, a refusal to entertain the possibility that you will fail will work. It is saying ‘No’ instantly and firmly.

A straightforward way to practice this mindset and gain confidence for more difficult tasks is delaying gratification. Studies have shown that this is a reliable indicator of success.

If you’re addicted to your phone. Try to decide that you will not look at it for the next X minutes. Do this regularly until there’s no doubt in your mind at all that you’ll get through your time.

Then try a slightly more laborious task and roll on to tackle more and more challenging situations.

The greatest mistake people make when trying to harness “Fudoshin” is setting their aims to high too quickly. Instead of deciding to go to the gym every single day, start with going to the gym at least once a week with no excuses.

This easier task develops the desire to harness the excellent control you have inside.

Right now, I am using “Fudoshin” that I will complete this article and publish it regardless of the other distractions of my life.

“Fudoshin” can be applied in all areas of life. If you make a promise to a friend, then you will not break it, there are no ifs or buts. Even more importantly, if you make a promise to yourself, then you will not let yourself down and won’t even consider that possibility.


Zanshin — Remaining Mind

Finals are littered with stories of glory moments where a team comes from behind to steal the trophy at the last moment.

This is what happens when “Fudoshin” meets a lack of “Zanshin.”

“Zanshin” is where even when a task is going well, and everything seems alright, you do not allow the mind to relax. It’s a laser focus that only ends when the mission is complete.

Many of us will be guilty of starting to win and getting ahead of ourselves and becoming complacent. Whether it is in work or play, it’s always disappointing to be snatched from the loving embrace of victory at the last moment.

We must appreciate what got us to our advantageous position and not let our guard down.

It doesn’t matter if you were winning for 99% of the contest if you lose it at the very end. In politics, the belief that Brexit or Trump could never win may have led to weaker opposition campaigns and then shock defeats.

Multitasking is ineffective whenever both tasks are cognitively difficult. Yet we still try to do so.

If you are working while also thinking about something from your personal life, then you will not be as effective.

Following a “Zanshin” mindset means resolute focus until the task is complete because allowing the mind to wander can and probably will backfire.

To train “Zanshin,” be ruthless with your attention. If you are out with dinner with friends, then you are out with dinner with friends until the last moment. Do not start thinking about tomorrow while you are with them, as they will remember you zoning out at the end!


Shoshin — Beginner’s mind

If more people maintained “Shoshin,” the world would be a better place.

How often have you gone into a conversation wanting to prove the other person wrong?

Our brains are capable of incredible learning and growth, but this is only possible if our minds are open to new information.

Our existing views and prejudices get in the way of our potential.

Being good is the enemy of being great.

Many people obtain black belts and then give up because they think they know everything. However, with hindsight, I learned more in the first year post-black belt then the entire time preceding.

It is unnervingly common for people to follow a view of an influencer on Twitter and believe that they are now experts on the topic. We see this, especially with politically charged issues.

An essential aspect of Shoshin is the acceptance that you can be wrong, and you can grow and adapt. If you can never believe you are wrong, how will you ever grow?

“Shoshin” can also be applied to personal relationships. We can sometimes convince ourselves that a person has acted with specific intentions despite having no evidence! “Shoshin” means listening and trying to understand others and being open to apologizing.

One of the most challenging aspects of maintaining “Shoshin” is maintaining conviction at the same time. Being open does not mean being riddled with self-doubt.

Paradoxically, people living with forms of anxiety can believe they are wrong often, and here the idea that needs to be grown and adapted is that they are not always wrong. Absolutes in the world are rare.

Believe in yourself and critically your ability to grow. None of us are perfect, nor will we ever be, and that’s ok. Letting go of this idea gives us space to develop without guilt.

As a practice exercise, think about the last argument you had. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and think about what their arguments were and whether any of them could be valid.

Read articles by people with different opinions with you and try to understand their perspective. This does not mean that you must change your mind, but at the very least, you will have learned something about how others think.

Sometimes you will come across someone malicious, yet this should not be our base position for everyone we disagree with.


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