Mushin and the Science of Flow: Phase Transformation II

Phase Transformation in Kata, Part II

Moonlight sent long blue shadows across the snow. No streetlights. Just stars. There were about thirty of us there. Whatever hesitation or second thoughts there may have been, as people left their families, their homes, their warm cars, to meet at this spot at this hour, was gone. 

We better get moving. It’s too cold to stand still. Anyway, there’s nothing more to say. We all knew what to do. We began.

That outdoor training lasted about 10 hours. As we finished our workout the sun was setting behind the trees. The shadows of the treetops already at our feet. 

We came inside, all thirty of us, to stretch in the warmth of the dojo. We knelt on the hard wood floor. Kneeling on the polished wood felt luxurious – so comfortable after hours of training in the cold, on the sloping ground, on uneven ice and snow, in the wind. Deep silence descends as we sit. Steam rises from our bodies, from the top of our heads, from our sweat-soaked uniforms. Everyone feels deep peace. Purified in the heat and pressure of training. There was nothing left to be done.

We were there because it was where we wanted to be. We were not just taking on a challenge. We were rewarded with a deep experience we all knew well. 

Phase Transformation through Karate Practice

In the previous article in this series: Damatte Keiko: Phase Transformation in Kata, Part I, I described the conditions we need to produce phase transformation in martial arts practitioners. I described it as a process analogous to the thermodynamic phase transformations of H2O from ice to water to vapor. I emphasized the fact that phase thresholds are approached gradually, but crossed instantly. 

In this article I will describe the first of two phase-transitions which we may cross in the course of martial arts practice. This first phase transition is sometimes described as entering the “flow” state or “the zone.” The Japanese budo terms zanshin, mushin, immoveable mind, unstoppable mind, unfettered mind and others are used to name aspects of the same experience. 

Central to Human Life for a Million Years

For most of human history optimizing the performance of the body and mind, often in a group setting, was a fundamental necessity for human life. It was the key to our survival in a capricious and hostile world. Self-mastery was an object of passionate interest, and a central focus of research and development, east and west. 

That changed. 

In the last few centuries, as the crisis of the wars of religion spawned the philosophical enlightenment, and the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, the information age, have now given way to the age of automata, the collective human enterprise, east and west, has sought refuge in the world of material, demoting inner exploration to the periphery.

It’s back. 

Inner exploration is returning to the center of human concern again, this time through scientific research. Insights drawn from new research in psychology and neuroscience are governing innovation in communication, politics, athletics, music, gaming, business, the military, law enforcement, education, the arts, engineering and technology. 

What scientists have found, measured and named, as they investigated the characteristics of human high-performance, matches the discoveries made in Japanese budo by great masters from centuries ago, some of whose works we know well. 

The discoveries in the field of human high-performance have been news to science. The ideas are not news to practitioners of traditional arts, but the science is useful to us because the language is accessible, the analysis is careful, and the research recommends specific steps we can take to more efficiently master our martial arts.

For example, research shows that there is a set of qualities shared by high-performers in all fields. These include: Intense concentration. Focus on action in the present moment.  Continuous vitality and fluidity. Confidence in your own ability. Certainty that your actions will get results. 

When we acquire those qualities, through training, we pass a “phase boundary.” This is not only the result of a quantitative increase in skill from practice.  There is a qualitative change too: new “emergent properties” arise in our body and mind, as a result of our training.

We can feel it. Our subjective experience tells us when we have passed the phase boundary, and entered a “flow” state.  These subjective impressions are familiar to long-term practitioners of combatives: We experience time differently – long periods seem to pass in an instant, and rapid-fire encounters seem to unfold in slow motion; we are freed from a preoccupation with ourselves and mundane concerns or anything outside the realm of the immediate field of action. As we cross the boundary to the flow phase, we feel that what we are doing is worth doing in itself; that we do not seek or need any outer reward.  

This is why we gathered there on that cold winter morning, in the ice and snow, for that long outdoor workout in the moonlight. That is why I scheduled it. That is what we got from doing it.

In his famous letter to his client, the sword master Yagyu Munenori, Takuan Soho wrote: 

“No-mind is the same as right mind. It neither hardens nor remains static. It is called no-mind when the mind has neither discrimination nor a single thought, but moves unimpeded through the whole body and extends through the entire self. 

“The no-mind is placed nowhere. Yet it is not like wood or stone. 

“When this no-mind has been well-developed the mind does not come to rest on one thing nor does it miss anything….”

“No mind” has been sometimes misinterpreted as an instruction to “blank out your mind.”  That is not what Takuan taught. His advice was practical. It was a corrective to mental rigidity and the tactical formulae that obstruct high performance.

He is describing a flow state.

Musashi Miyamoto, in the final “Emptiness” chapter of his Book of Five Rings, highlights the importance of “Mushin,” No-Mind – a flow state, in which an experienced martial practitioner has sufficient skill to respond spontaneously to the changing dynamics of a combative encounter, and turn them to advantage, without consciously thinking about them. Musashi also uses the word Munen, No-thought, to describe this same flow state of spontaneous skillful action.

In his 18th century allegory of the art of the sword “Neko no Myojutsu” or “The Cat’s Subtle Art”, Issai Chozan describes the limitations of technique, of spirit, of cunning and of intention, and he charts a developmental path to mastery – ascent through flow states which arise through martial training. 

He advises, as a means to overcome the limitations of the conventional training techniques of martial prowess, the cultivation of Mushin – which he presents as “no thought, no mind and no conscious effort of will.” 

He is describing the entry into a state of flow.

Mushin, “No-mind”, Issai says, allows the fighter to pierce the veil of self-centered dualism, which he identifies as the key impediment to freedom of action. This clarity leads to victory. 

(There is more on the work of Takuan, Musashi, Issai, Bodhidharma, and the use of Cittamatra philosophy in the Japanese Zen budo traditions, in my essay “Is “Nothing” Sacred.”)

Some readers may understand this cultivation of “no-mind” as recommending that we simply adopt a particular mind-state. It does not, because that does not work. What this material does advocate is relentless practice, which yields deep transformation: harmonizing and uniting body and mind, dropping off conscious effort of will, thought, or planning. With the practitioner become pliant and spontaneous in action. 

This is what it means to pass the phase transition boundary. 

Knowing the words of these masters helps us. It gives us the tools to recognize the mind-state we are entering as our training is underway, so that we can cultivate it efficiently.

One more familiar term used in Japanese budo which describes a characteristic of the flow state is “Zanshin.”  This describes “continuing awareness”, present without being stuck, open without being vague, aware of what is present without embellishment, able to sense the emerging possibilities in each changing moment. 

This is an urgent, practical matter for a fighter to use this. It is not esoteric, intellectual, or remote. High-performers use it, whether they label it or not. It is accessible. It is experienced in the flow phase of human performance. 

In kumite, if your mind is distracted or spaced out, even for a split second, when you are facing an alert opponent, you will get immediate and unpleasant feedback. You learn from it – that feedback is an essential component of entering flow. If your opponent looks down, or darts his eyes over your shoulder, you will detect it instantly and exploit the suki if you can. He will not want to let it happen again.  Improvement comes for both fighters. Both take a step toward deeper flow from the cycle of error, immediate feedback, and re-engagement in ongoing practice with no deflection of mental focus.

When we learn to sustain attention, without interruption or fluctuation, that is zanshin.

Flow and Group Flow

Starting in the 1970s psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi wrote about his research into high-performance states of mind, which he called “Flow.”  

Relevant to traditional karate dojo practice, researchers have identified a phenomenon they call “group flow.” We know it well. When members of a team, band, military unit, business or dojo cooperate, agree on goals, skills and patterns of action, then “social flow,” or group cohesion, emerges. 

Team challenges stimulate the group to cohere more completely and enter a flow state as a group. Through group training the group progresses toward maximum performance. 

Also relevant to dojo practice: group flow positively correlates with higher commitment to the group and higher motivation to personal mastery. This is good for the group and for every member in it.

Observing Flow in Others

You can observe “flow” in other people and you can hear it too: in a great band that’s “tight,” a military unit that’s “high-speed, low-drag,” a great athlete who is “in the zone.” In a great team where everyone “just knows” what they need to do, and anticipates what everyone else will do.

Experience and Measurement of Flow

Individuals in a flow state all report they were totally absorbed in what they were doing; they felt elevated; they knew what they needed to do and they knew they had the skills to do it. They expressed a sense of timelessness – focused on the present while time passed quickly. And they found that in flow the experience itself was its own reward. 

Physiological measurements confirm what practitioners experience. As a performer enters a flow state, their heart rate and blood pressure decrease and the major facial muscles relax. Flow is known in the old literature, in the new research, and in the hearts and minds of practitioners everywhere, as a state of effortless attention. It will not surprise accomplished climbers, rowers, runners, pilots, medics, team athletes, musicians, or martial artists, that the effortless attention and overall relaxation of the body and mind does not impede performance; it enhances it.  

Mimetic Praxis: Flow is Hijacked by Entertainment and Remote Managers 

Although performers enter a flow state when they perform, the people watching them – observers, managers, coaches, audiences and fans – do not.  Entertainment hijacks “flow.” Watching images and sounds does not engage the same suite of mental functions as self-directed, purposeful attention which engages your will, analytical and planning functions in goal-oriented action – the conditions which produce a flow state. 

This hijacking of the perceptual and emotional apparatus of flow, without developing it through skills and challenges, is why entertainment can become intoxicating and in the long run, debilitating. 

The distinction between flow and entertainment is obvious: audience members are not engaged in action – they do not have personal control, agency, or a feedback loop – all essential for mastery and flow. 

From the perspective of neuroscience – audience members lack what participants get from training: the harmony of brain wave patterns, the training of the will, cognition and affect, and the union of psychological and somatic action. These happen in a flow state. They do not happen when you watch someone else perform.

Kata, Kumite and Flow

In kumite we concentrate intensely and we get immediate feedback on the quality of our performance. In matches where the skill level of the opponents is close, and the rules and objectives are clear, we can train in flow states. By using kata to deepen our skills, and increasing the level of challenge incrementally over time, with consistent feedback from instructors, we can produce high skills and readily make the phase transition to a flow state. 

Training the Hara 

The modern science of flow confirms another central premise of traditional training: Karate practice has been described as “training the hara.”  

In one sense the hara refers to the center of the body, the center of gravity, the center of energy. But in pre-modern Japanese and Okinawan cultures the hara referred to the seat of the will. Training the hara in karate meant making your will powerful. How important is that to high-performance in combatives and other demanding high-skill activities? It is not just a tool in the toolkit. It is central. 

Getting the moves “right” will not win a fight. Filling the form of the techniques with “spirit” by taking the initiative, dominating the opponent and leading the dynamics of the engagement, are essential. That is a function of a strong will – used with good judgment, accessible by choice, where and when it may be needed. 

Research shows that goal-directed behavior – willed action – reduces our susceptibility to distractions – which consume our limited attentional resources. It does this by chemically suppressing the stimulus-response systems of the brain.

This is supported by the subjective experience reported by high-performers. Bill Lewinski, director of the Force Science Institute: 

…It is characteristic of great athletic performance where athletes—operating in complex and dynamic situations under high levels of physiological and emotional arousal—utilize focus, experience, and training for great decision making and performance.  It’s not surprising that many of the law enforcement and military personnel I have interviewed have credited their survival and ability to save others on their decision to focus on what needed to be done in the moment, despite the life-threatening and chaotic circumstances they were operating in.”

In other words, intention overcomes distraction. That is both an attitude and a mental function which we train in the flow phase in karate.

Implications for Dojo Classes

Researcher Steven Kotler writing in the Harvard Business Review, listed four conditions that produce a flow state – intense concentration, goal clarity, feedback as to how well you are doing, and a properly matched challenge to skills ratio. We use these continually in martial arts training.  

If the challenge level is set lower than the skill level of the practitioner, they will not enter a flow state, will not improve, will not enjoy class and will get bored. Some instructors try to remedy boredom in their students by adding more curriculum – more katas, more weapons, more talk about “the old way”, more ranks, patches and other extrinsic rewards. That does not work. 

What does work, according to the science of flow and practical dojo experience, is making sure that the level of challenge in the class matches the level of skill of the students.  That will keep classes exciting. This is why ‘repetition’ of kata is not useful, but doing kata many times while focusing on investigating different aspects of them, with varied intensity, and the presentation of body mechanics, energy flows, interpretation and applications, does. 

If the challenge level is set much higher than the practitioner’s skill level then the practitioner will feel anxiety and eventually failure. They will not cross the phase boundary and will not enter a flow state. 

Modulating the challenge-to-skill ratio during the course of a class produces a phase of high-challenge within tolerable and helpful levels of stress, followed by a phase of moderate-challenge, which promotes confidence-building and recovery. 

Using multiple, well-calibrated cycles of this kind in each class is an effective way to maximize technical competence and conditioning and producing phase transition to flow. This is true in all disciplines. We can use these insights in the dojo.

Department of Defense Flow Research

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, one of the world’s most famous top-secret military research institutions, investigated the effects of flow on human performance. They found that inducing flow states in military snipers during training cut their training time to proficiency in half. Following training the induced flow state multiplied the shooter’s performance measures by a factor of five. 

That impressive result confirms what martial arts theorists and practitioners have been advocating for at least 500 years. 


Habituating to operating in a flow state requires: clear goals, high challenge, performance feedback, completely engagement in purposeful action, being in control, feeling that your efforts matter.  As you pass the phase boundary to flow, you experience a merging of action and awareness. Your action becomes spontaneous and effective. 

These conditions are associated with high performance and, researchers have observed, are strongly correlated to happiness.  People who are accustomed to flow appear happy, self-confident and relaxed. 

It is also why flow-inducing activity is appealing: it makes you feel good. 

Variations in Flow

You do not have to be a professional performer or competitor to enter a flow state. You do not have to be a karate or kendo master to enter mushin. There are as many variations of flow as there are people. 

Using the analogy of phase changes of H20 – as ice passes the phase boundary, melts, and becomes water – no one thinks that water has only way of being water – it can be cool, warm or hot; it can be moving or still, turbulent or smooth, cloudy or clear, and on and on in infinite variations. Despite the variations it remains water in the liquid phase.  

It is the same way with practitioners. Flow is not one thing. Within the category of flow or mushin are variations, with some characteristics that define the state. 

It is possible for us to make our flow state deep, clear, strong and reliable as we train. So if you can get a few dozen people who have been training together for years to meet out under the stars for a long day of training it could be spectacular.

In the previous article in this series “Damatte Keiko: Phase Transformation in Kata, Part I,” I described how to train to reach the phase boundary.

In this article I described characteristics of the flow phase of training and performance. 

In the next and last of the three articles in this series I will describe the claims for ultimacy in the practice of martial arts – including the experiences called samadhi, kensho, satori, insight, liberation and enlightenment.  These claims are a staple of Japanese budo and have been applied to Okinawan karate. They posit a second phase-boundary transition, beyond flow, to a completely new phase of human life, of perfect freedom. 

Post and photo by Jeff Brooks, Copyright © 2019 Jeffrey M. Brooks and Mountain Karate Dojo, L.L.C.


1. Sports Psychology Today

2. Nature Neuroscience Yoshida, K., Drew, M.R., Mimura, M. et al. Serotonin-mediated inhibition of ventral hippocampus is required for sustained goal-directed behavior. Nat Neurosci 22, 770–777 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41593-019-0376-5 []

3. Force Science Institute

4. Harvard Business Review

5. Positive Psychology

6. Podium Sports Journal   

7. The Knockout Game, Is “Nothing” Sacred, Zanshin – essays on

8. The Good Fight – The Virtues and Value of the Martial Arts by Jeffrey M. Brooks

9. The Rhinoceros Tale – Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom by Jeffrey M. Brooks

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