I wrote this essay almost eight years ago. I’m just republishing it in a web format.

In many eastern religions, and indeed their occidental counterparts, great emphasis is placed in reaching states of personal enlightenment or self-improvement. In Zen, this is often approached from several angles (See D.T. Suzuki [2]), but perhaps the most well known is that of zazen meditation. In this practice the mind is encouraged to have no attachments, it may move freely, neither forced to consider thoughts, not forced to leave them.

This state of mind could be described by the word mushin meaning literally “no mind”. In this state the mind is truly focused on the present moment, not anticipating the future and not pondering on the past. The martial arts of Japan have long been looked upon as an alternative, or perhaps at least parallel, means of progressing to this goal. In Budo this can be thought of as a form of meditation in motion, always acting in the present.

This prevents fearful anticipation of the future and also misinterpreting such future events. Although the idea of a budo is that of a way without destination, this goal of mushin should be constantly striven for. Perhaps an intermediary goal is that of fudoshin. This means “immovable mind” although this translation fails to carry the positive implications in this word. For me this means that the mind is immovable by outside influence, or to put it another way the mind can only be “moved” when one desires it.

As the beginner knows nothing about either his body posture
or the positioning of his sword, neither does his mind stop any-
where within him. If a man strikes at him with the sword, he
simply meets the attack without anything in mind.
As he studies various things and is taught the diverse ways of
how to take a stance, the manner of grasping his sword and how where to put his mind, his mind stops in many places. Now if he wants to strike at an opponent, he is extraordinarily discomforted.
Later, as days pass and time piles up, in accordance with his
practice, neither the postures of his body nor the ways of grasping the sword are weighed in his mind. His mind simply becomes as it was in the beginning when he knew nothing and had yet to be taught anything at all.

extract from the Unfettered Mind, Takuan Soho

So here in “The Mysterious Record of Immovable Wisdom”, a letter written by the famous monk Takuan Soho to the equally famous swordsman Yagyu Munenori, Soho advises that a person with no martial experience may be better off than those who embark upon such a path. The person with no such training at least behaves naturally, even if possibly foolishly.

Their mind may be affected by many outside influences, but at least they themselves do not cause it to “freeze”.

When one begins training in a martial way, one often begins by learning basic skills and body movements and then, of course, waza. When attempting to refine performance of a kata or waza, one’s mind may focus on the future – in the hope of attaining the perfect form – or it may focus on the past, in the recollections of past successes or failures.

Unfortunately these moments of locked focus, the states of “fushin” or frozen mind, however brief cause the body which is forever locked in the present to be deprived of command. In severe cases then, fushin is manifested by the locking in position of the whole body.

How then can we move towards this state of fudoshin, and thus ultimately to mushin? At this stage in my journey it seems that the following are true, whether during the execution of a kata, waza or a more free action.

  • One most resist the urge to anticipate the future except by observing the present. It follows that ultimately waza should not be “selected” but eventually will arise without conscious thought (mushin).
  • One must avoid lingering in the past. Recollections of past encounters and their success or failure are false as the past moment will never truly match the present.
  • One should not let your eyes and mind become locked on the opponents eyes, their weapon, fist or any other point. Gaze should take it the whole person as well and the mind should observe all things.


    Some teachers say that you should always stare at the
    enemy’s weapons, or at his eyes, or at his feet. This is not
    a good idea because it fixes your spirit in place and is easily
    read by an experienced fighter.

    – extract from the Book of
    Five Rings – Minamoto Musashi

  • Forced aggression may cause the mind to focus too greatly on the future desire for victory and thus ironically deprive the body of the mind in the present to help obtain it. One should not delay the cut, or throw, but neither should one rush it in too great a desire to bring the future more quickly. Indeed it seems from the books “Zen and the art of archery” (see [1]) and the “Unfettered mind” (see [4]) that we wish to obtain a state in which the cut happens because it is natural or the throw happens because nothing else can happen.
  • Such considerations occur outside the dojo when considering our progress along the Way or in other matters. Of course we must always strive to improve and progress, but if we are too desperate we risk placing our mind in the future and not the here and now. Similarly we must have the patience and some tolerance about our state of current imperfection. Focusing too much on the failures of the past denies us the chance to observe ourselves in the present to make us better in the future.

These comments are of course, immensely subjective. However these thoughts map my current way of thinking a short way into a long journey and at this time it seems the best way for me to continue to refine myself.


[1] Herrigel, Eugen: Zen in the Art of Archery, Arkana 1988.
[2] Suzuki, D.T.: Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki, Double-day 1996.
[3] Musashi, Minamoto: The Martial Artist’s Book of Five Rings, (trans. Stephen F. Kaufman), Tuttle 1994.
[4] Soho, Takuan: The Unfettered Mind, (trans. William Scott Wilson) Kodansha 1995.

Cthulhu and Cosmic Terror

For many years now, I’ve been aware of the Cthulhu Mythos, since it infuses lots of popular culture. Indeed, Dread Cthulhu was recently blamed for the horizon oil spill, a theory that I rather enjoyed.

Despite this, I hadn’t actually read any of H.P. Lovecraft’s books directly. Last week and this, I decided to try out an ebook reader on my phone, specifically the rather excellent Aldiko for android. It’s a nice application. I downloaded two of Lovecraft’s books; “The Call of Cthulhu” and the “At the Mountains of Madness”.

Lovecraft has been, mostly after his death, immensely influential, with references to his work appearing in many modern authors’ work (e.g. Stephen King, Neil Gaiman). He is famous for the idea of “Cosmic Horror”. The idea that the world is not truly rational, and understandable, but nightmarish, chaotic and hostile or at best indifferent to human nature.

I found “The Call of Cthulhu” rather unpleasant to read in parts, not because of the supposed horror, but because of the unpleasant racism implicit and explicit within the book. It does need to be remembered that everyone is a product of their times however, and I find the implicit racism difficult to accept in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien too. But the book was interesting.

The second book, “At the Mountains of Madness” was more mature and less objectionable.

But I couldn’t entirely share the horror of the protagonists. Some of their discoveries were genuinely horrifying (usually acts committed by human beings) but much of the rest would be wondrous. They are horrified by the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry in architecture. Non Euclidean geometry does not frighten me, and indeed Lovecraft understood it wasn’t the true nature of the universe. But seeing clearly non Euclidean architecture in a “normal” setting is wondrous, terrifying perhaps briefly, but not horrific. Much of the horror just comes from the primitive frame of reference, either scientific, or religious or both, of the protagonists.

And this is the bit I really can’t understand, since Lovecraft was a failed astronomer, so he would have known that the universe is, to the best of our knowledge, indifferent to our existence, and that the laws of physics themselves could see our annihilation in so many ways. Indeed, apart from a (probably literal) Deus Ex Machina solution, every scientist knows that the ultimate future of humanity is doomed… Is that “Cosmic Horror”?

By the way, since the world is Sherlock Holmes mad at the moment, I recommend A Study In Emerald (PDF), a Hugo Award winning short story that is an interesting cross over of the Sherlock Holmes and Cthulhu mythos written by Neil Gaiman.