A Free Mind
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 on the hand, we’ll fail. If we put our attention on 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.
Practice Tip: Double-Arrowed Awareness
Climbing efficiently and effectively requires a blending of climber and rock. Don’t fight the rock; find a way to blend with it. Project attention to the whole, inwardly to your body and outwardly to the rock, to make sure you’re blending well.
You’re blending your effort to climb upward with gravity’s downward pull. Maintain double-arrowed awareness; simultaneous awareness of the internal situation of the body as it blends with the external situation of the rock. Do this by being aware of the BERP elements: (See Espresso Lessons book for details of this exercise)
B: Breathe by making your breath continuous. This processes stress.
E: Eyes should be focused with a soft focus to create peripheral vision. This expands your focus to include all of the rock you’re engaging.
R: Relax to align with gravity’s pull and save energy.
P: Posture should be maintained properly (shoulders slightly rolled back/down) so you’re using your body efficiently.