Yagyu Munenori, the Seventeenth Century Samurai teacher, thought that teaching mental training was essential for teaching swordsmanship. He knew that if the mind wasn’t trained to deal with stressful situations, then students wouldn’t be able to apply their swordsmanship skills. Munenori used what he learned from Buddhism and from Zen master Takuan Soho to teach mental training. His goal was helping students develop what Takuan called “a free mind.” Many phrases Munenori used had the quality of contradiction that Zen is famous for. One of my favorites that Takuan taught him is: “Put nowhere, the mind will be everywhere.” 

Mental training has much to do with the mind, but digging deeper into it, we realize “the mind” is too vague of a concept. We need to understand what the mind is supposed to do, so we can develop practices that help us train it. The main task of the mind is to focus attention. Our ability to have a mind that can focus our attention effectively develops a free mind that Munenori sought to teach. It’s my understanding that what Takuan and Munenori meant by “mind” is attention. Knowing how to direct our attention to the task, and keep it focused there, is what is needed to have a free mind. There are several steps for doing this. 

First, we become aware of where our attention dwells. Without awareness, attention tends to dwell in the mind, focused on all its limiting tendencies. We see a difficult climb and the mind thinks about how stressful it will be and how we’ll struggle. Attention flows from the rock climb via our eyes, into the mind where it mixes with all our past memories of difficult climbs and dwells there. 

Second, we intentionally direct the flow of our attention. Knowing that our attention will tend to flow into the mind, and dwell there allows us to reverse that flow. We direct the flow of our attention from the mind to the climb. We make sure we maintain this direction of flow by engaging our senses of sight and touch. By focusing our attention on looking for subtleties of the climb and feeling the holds, we keep the flow of our attention going from the mind to the climb. 

Third, we seek to focus our attention on the whole situation (us and the climb) as Munenori suggested: focusing it nowhere, so it will be everywhere. How can we focus our attention “nowhere” and have it focused “everywhere?” This seems like a contradiction, but it’s not. Attention is focused nowhere because it’s not focused on any specific part of a situation. This allows attention to be expanded everywhere within the whole situation.

Effective performance requires a merging of parts into the whole. For example, Munenori told his students that if they put the mind in the opponent’s sword, they’ll be cut down; if they put the mind in their sword, they’ll be cut down. Focusing their attention on a part (opponent’s sword; their sword) keeps their attention from being focused on the whole and causes them to fail. 

The same advice is relevant for climbing. If we put our attention in the hand, we’ll fail. If we put our attention in the foot, we’ll fail. We need to be aware of how much to press with the foot, while shifting our body as needed, and grabbing a small crimp. We need awareness of all parts so the whole can perform as a unified body/mind. So how do we do that? 

Takuan taught Munenori that if we don’t put the mind [attention] anywhere, it will go to all parts of the body and extend throughout its entirety. We spread out our attention to the whole so it’s not on any particular part within the whole. Our attention needs to be spread out to include the body and the climb, dwelling nowhere. This heightens our awareness of body proprioception, our body positioning in space, and how the body integrates with the rock climb. Of course, this is a general concept. There are many instances where we’ll need a little more awareness of a delicate foot placement, for example. But, if we focus too much on that delicate foot—one part—we’ll make errors elsewhere—the whole. 

To fight well requires engaging in fighting as a unified body/mind, not separate parts. The arm, leg, and mind aren’t doing their own thing; they’re unified into one fighting experience, each part doing what it’s responsible for to support the whole. Our attention is spread throughout the whole, getting a sense of how all the parts are integrating. We’re focused nowhere so we can be focused everywhere.


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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. En realidad… lo que Takuan Soho quiere decir es otra cosa. En el Zen, “enfocarse” es usar solo una parte de la mente, por el contrario, al no enfocarla en algo particular, todos los sentidos entran en acción y se tiene conciencia (sin tenerla) de todo el entorno. Por eso se habla de meditación activa: Un punto donde la mente no está centrada y a la vez está consciente de todo. Es ahí donde todas las habilidades practicadas, todos los movimientos, fluyen. Enfocar la mente es anular todos los sentidos. De ahí la frase: “Meditación activa”. Sin enfocar la atención somos un todo con la actividad de la forma más plena.

  2. Hola Jeremias. I translated via google so I understand your comments: Actually … what Takuan Soho means is something else. In Zen, “focusing” is to use only one part of the mind, on the contrary, by not focusing on something particular, all the senses come into action and one has consciousness (without having it) of the whole environment. That’s why we talk about active meditation: A point where the mind is not focused and at the same time is aware of everything. It is there where all the skills practiced, all the movements, flow. To focus the mind is to annul all the senses. Hence the phrase “Active meditation”. Without focusing attention we are a whole with the activity of the fullest form.

    Perhaps you’re correct. I’m wondering how it would apply to climbing or swordsmanship, which requires engaging the body very actively. I don’t think we can do those activities without focusing attention. That may work in active meditation, but not in high risk activities. The main point of the article is the importance of expanding attention so it’s everywhere in the body (not isolated in the thinking mind). Extreme physical performance requires attention to be expanded throughout the body so all individual parts of the body can come together into one unified performance. That requires heightened sensory awareness, which means attention is focused in the senses of the body. Your thoughts?

  3. Pongamos como ejemplo una persona manejando. En algún momento esta persona ha aprendido cuando presionar el freno, cuando el embrague o el acelerador. Ha aprendido las marchas y también como activar los giros y luces. Esta persona ha adquirido todas estas habilidades en un proceso de aprendizaje. Ha tenido que usar la mente y enfocarla en este aprendizaje de nuevas técnicas que le permitirán manejar ese vehículo en un entorno desconocido.
    Sin embargo, después de un tiempo, deja de ser consciente de lo que hace y solo fluye “siendo” y no “haciendo. Esta es la base del zen.
    Maneja por una calle con destino a su casa y no piensa en como pone las marchas o como acelera. No piensa ni pone atención en frenar o arrancar, ni en doblar. Solo tiene un objetivo y su cuerpo fluye hacia él. Las habilidades ya las ha adquirido y ha tenido que enfocarse para que esto suceda, pero una vez aprendidas, no necesita enfocarse más. El cuerpo mismo fluye sin enfocarse.
    En la escalada es lo mismo. Un aprende técnicas y entrena el cuerpo para responder a diferentes tomas, diferentes estilos de escalada y cuando llega a la roca solo da un vistazo a la vía, planea en su cabeza los movimientos y se lanza a la vía. Si en el momento de la escalada enfocara su atención en algo en particular, dejaría su cuerpo y su mente de ser consciente de todo su entorno y se centraría solo en eso. Su todo(cuerpo, alma, espíritu) dejaría de estar 100% consciente del entorno para enfocarse en solo algo particular como una toma, o la caída, o el asegurador. Enfocarse elimina todos los sentidos para centrarse solo en uno; enfocarse solo hace que usemos un solo sentido y no todos al mismo tiempo. “Put nowhere, the mind will be everywhere.”

  4. Perhaps. But, driving a car isn’t just like climbing, unless you drive really fast so as to be stressed. “Enfocarse elimina todos los sentidos para centrarse solo en uno” (Focusing only makes us use one sense and not all at the same time). I don’t understand this last sentence in your reply. I think you’re saying all senses (seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, tasting) blend into using only one “sense” (sentidos)? If so, what is that “sense”? It seems like that needs to be clarified, perhaps using a different word than “sense.”

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